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Vintners Hall of Fame Finally Finds Its Voice
By W. Blake Gray
Apr 6, 2010
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Few things other than funerals can get me to wear a necktie. But I did in 2007 at the Vintners Hall of Fame's first induction ceremony. I was one of more than a dozen reporters in uncharacteristically nice suits who watched lengthy speeches about the inductees. It was dull but seemed important.

We've got four VHF ceremonies behind us now, and this March, the Culinary Institute of America finally hit upon a format that was both fun and dignified. There are more living Hall members each year, and many showed up to honor their peers. Celebrity chefs made great food, and the wines included some expensive gems.

It's open to the public, but sadly, I believe I was the only media representative, and even I wasn't there to cover it. Some newspapers ran stories from press releases, but didn't send anyone.

I want to see more reporters there next year, with or without neckties. I have an agenda in writing about this.

In 2007, after the CIA chose the Hall's inaugural induction class, I wrote an article for the San Francisco Chronicle complaining about the process. Several months later, the CIA leadership surprised me with a proposal: Would I like to take over?

To quote Sarah Palin, "you can't blink" (or a death panel will kill your grandma).  Since then I have been Chairman of the Electoral College. The CIA runs the Hall, housed in a barrel room at its historic Greystone campus, orders the plaques, hires the chefs, pays the bills, all that sort of thing.

But I have nearly complete latitude to run the selection process because the CIA agreed that an outsider should do so.

I have modeled the selection process in many ways on the National Baseball Hall of Fame, America's best respected hall. There, the vote is completely transparent and is publicly debated for months beforehand.

I created a nominating committee, which includes wine writers and Hall of Fame members Darrell Corti and Carole Meredith. We put about 25 names on a ballot that is sent to more than 80 writers nationwide, as well as all living Hall members.

We rotate names off the ballot when they don't get support, so voters get new choices each year. People who get significant support stay on. Andy Beckstoffer, arguably Napa's foremost grapegrower, missed by a single vote twice before getting inducted this year.

Robert Parker has also missed by a single vote twice, but had less support this year. When it comes time to vote again, I might make the argument for Parker.

But this column is about the people who did get in. In addition to Beckstoffer, we inducted writer Leon Adams, Diamond Creek Vineyards vintner Al Brounstein, winemaker Zelma Long, and Bonny Doon resident madman Randall Grahm.

In previous years, dignitaries made speeches over a sit-down dinner. Nobody could concentrate on anything: the inductees, the food (this is the Culinary Institute, not some industrial kitchen), or the wine.

This time, dinner was separated from the ceremony, making both more fun. The ceremony, just over an hour long, seemed for the first time to hit the right balance between merriment and reverence.

Karen MacNeil started by recognizing each previous Hall inductee. The Hall now has enough members to give this kind of moment resonance, and you could see the pride when, for example, Schramsberg's Hugh Davies unveiled the new plaque of his parents Jack and Jamie.

David Dozier, a relative of Leon Adams, led off the inductions by recalling the writer's love for punctuality and distaste for overly expensive wines. "Why should wine cost more than milk?" Adams frequently complained.

Introducing Grahm, John Locke apologized for withholding his best material because Grahm's mother and daughter were in the audience. He did tell of a time Grahm forgot to engage the emergency brake on his truck when it was parked on a hill above his winery. The truck rolled down the hill and crashed through the winery window.

Boots Brounstein remembered Al's later years, when he refused to let Parkinson's disease stop him from making public appearances.

"Al used to raise his hands to audiences, shaking, and say, 'I'm a concert pianist, but I can only play fast numbers. And I make a mean Cabernet milkshake.' "

Beckstoffer, the first person to be inducted mainly for grape growing, spoke for all growers when he said "we have evolved from farmers to stewards of the land."

After the ceremony, the party started, a walkaround in the CIA kitchen with celebrity chefs (and one congressman!) dishing out goodies.  Not to make you salivate for dishes you missed – nah, here goes. Martini House (St. Helena) chef Todd Humphries' signature mushroom soup, served by turning a spigot on a big coffee vat, is the best I've ever had, with great acidity and earthiness. CIA house chef Polly Lappetito produced a mildly spicy, addictive miniature Duck Confit Tostada with Ancho-Guajillo Sauce, Cilantro Cabbage Slaw, Lime Creme Fraiche and Poblano-Pepita Salsa. I would list more dishes, but that's just cruel.

As for the wine, it's hard not to keep filling your glass with Diamond Creek Cabernet or Ridge Monte Bello or Stag's Leap Cask 23 or Merry Edwards Pinot Noir or … I really could go on, there were more than 40 wines, most of them well known by the cognescenti. But in a roomful of $100 wines, one of my favorites was a $15 wine bottled for Hall member Darrell Corti.

The Corti Brothers Oregon Light Table Wine H.P.O. 2008 ($15) is made from Early Muscat, a grape variety bred by Hall member Harold Paul Olmo by crossing two table grapes, Muscat Hamburg and Muscat Queen of the Vineyard.

Instead of making raisins, as would be called for by its ancestry, Sylvan Ridge winery in Oregon vinifies the Early Muscat into a low alcohol (6%) wine with a delightful floral aroma and a refreshing, petillante mouthfeel.

This wine speaks of the Vintners Hall of Fame: a daring product of research made by a man of commerce who's more concerned with quality than mass appeal. Of course, you could say the same of the Diamond Creek Cab, and I had more than one glass of that as well.

You should have been there. But there's always next year.

Check out my blog at http://wblakegray.blogspot.com/

Follow me on Twitter at @wblakegray