I paid a visit to the Vintners Hall of Fame in St. Helena recently, and was pleasantly surprised to find that they had opened a new wing. Now, in addition to plaques of all the elected members, the Hall is displaying important wine memorabilia. It’s a terrific idea. After all, one can travel to Cooperstown and see wondrous baseball mementoes—Eddie Goodell’s tiny protective cup made from a Budweiser beer cap, Denny McClain’s autographed prison jersey, you can even picnic with your family under Barry Bonds’ cap!
Now many of the most important historical items in the history of California wine are on display for wine aficionados to enjoy. If you go, I’d urge you to take the audio tour narrated by famed Hugh Johnson impersonator, Hugh Johnson. I took notes of the audio tour, sort of like Alderpated does, only I don’t claim mine are accurate. Here are some excerpts:
Welcome to the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, and the Vintners Hall of Fame, sponsored by Wine Spectator—America’s favorite wine publication. Remember, “Wine Spectator!--we put the “sewer” in Connoisseur.”
If you look at the display case to your immediate left, you’ll see the taxidermied alligator thought to have eaten Agoston Haraszthy, the “Father of California Viticulture.” It seems the gator was mighty Hungary. If you look carefully, you may see bits of Agoston lodged between the alligator’s ferocious teeth. Curators have removed most of those bits very carefully utilizing fine strands of wheat so as not to damage the valuable beast. So his floss is our grain! It’s said that the reptile washed Haraszthy down with a nice Zin.
The ashtray on your right, enclosed in the glass case, is filled with the cigarette butts of legendary California winemaker, Andre Tchelistcheff. Tchelistcheff was one of the most influential winemakers in the history of California, mentoring many of the great winemakers who followed. It is from Tchelistcheff, for example, that the talented Mike Grgich learned his own appreciation of butts. He certainly has a firm grasp on them. Andre once said, “I like my Cabernet like I like my cigarettes, unfiltered and bummed off somebody else.”
Just down the Marvin Shanken Hallway (What’s the Marvin Shanken Hallway, you ask? Oh, almost as much as Marvin himself.) on your left is one of the original spitbuckets used at the famous Paris Tasting of 1976. At that tasting, the French wine judges were unable to tell the great wines of France from the crap coming out of California at the time. The French wine judges were not just ordinary folks, all were wine experts and two even had Ph.D.s. These were the famous French Pair o’ Docs. The surprise victories of a Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and a Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon put California wine on the international map. The remnants of those wines are in this perfectly preserved spitbucket, which our curators tell us still smell like oak. It has begun to develop a light film of yeast on the top of the wine which has helped to preserve this historical treasure because even the French won’t spit on the flor.
Just beyond the Tim Fish Ladder, you’ll see the rough draft of Ann Noble’s original Aroma Wheel. As a professor at UC Davis, Noble first got the idea for an aroma wheel from an ancient Mayan calendar, which is also impossible to read and mostly inaccurate. In this original draft, drawn on a cocktail napkin from the Davis House of Pies, Noble, after a few gin rickeys, begins to outline the wheel with various aromas she detects in wines. Many are still listed on the Aroma Wheel as it stands today, but, if you read it closely, you’ll find a few that were later eliminated. Can you spot “Maynard Amerine’s dog breath,” “wet gerbil,” and “Robert Lawrence Balzer” on the napkin's chart? The phone number was apparently meant for the bartender.
If you walk a few feet past the James Laube Lobby (feel free to take a short break in the Laube Lobby, but please be aware that, in deference to Mr. Laube, all the cushions are greatly inflated), you’ll see a Nineteenth Century pickaxe used by one of the Chinese coolies who helped dig wine caves all around Napa Valley. Even today, Napa Valley wineries are counting on the Chinese to save their financial ax and pick expensive Napa Cabernets. Next to the pickaxe is a representation of the koi ponds that almost all of the Chinese laborers kept for contemplative purposes, though it’s thought that the koi may have been responsible for the cave diggers’ Carp-all Tunnel Syndrome.
Next to the Harvey Steiman Hot Tub (which is not an actual hot tub, but simply his nickname), you can see the original wine club. Made of local oak, the original wine club was used to beat people senseless to buy wines in tasting rooms. Unsuspecting visitors would drop by for a taste of wine only to find themselves hit over the head with the wine club, again and again, often four times a year. That wine club has morphed into the modern day wine club that almost every winery has, but which does exactly the same thing.
Continue on past the vending machines and the Matt Kramer Coin Changer (“Making Cents of Bills”), and you’ll see a grand diorama of hundreds of stuffed winery dogs. Every visitor to wine country falls in love with a winery dog. To the left is Corky, the famed greeter at Beaulieu Vineyards, whose rainy day aroma of TCA graced many a bottle in the ‘90s. Next to him is Caesar, formerly of Rubicon Estate—don’t cross him! And who’s that taking a whiz on a bust of Cesar Chavez? Why it’s the Gallos’ faithful companion, Short Dog. Isn’t this a wonderful tribute to those furry friends who make our winery visits so enjoyable? We think so, and, look, many are even more lifelike than tasting room staff.
We hope that you’ve enjoyed your visit to the Vintners Hall of Fame. And we hope that you’ll return soon for another visit. Mark your calendars for the 2014 grand opening of the Vintners Hall of Fame Wax Museum. Just like their finest bottles, the vintners are lovingly hand-dipped.
After 19 years as a Sommelier in Los Angeles, twice named Sommelier of the Year by the Southern California Restaurant Writers' Association, I moved to Sonoma County to explore the other aspects of the wine business. I've spent, OK wasted, 35 years learning about and teaching about and swallowing wine. I am also a judge at the Sonoma Harvest Fair, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition--so I can spit like a rabid llama. I know more about wine than David Sedaris and I'm funnier than James Laube. Stay tuned for an informed but jaded view of everything wine and everything else.
I'm living proof that alcohol kills brain cells.
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