Success in the wine business can often prove the precursor of failure. Note the sad fate of Inglenook. The finest winery in Napa under the direction of legendary wine maker George Deuer, Inglenook produced some of the best cabernets to come out of California (or, arguably, anywhere else), until the mid-1960s, when owner and entrepreneur John Daniel Jr. sold the estate to United Vintners. Iglenook was soon sold again to a conglomerate that converted the production of this venerable Napa icon, established in 1879 by Daniel’s great-uncle, over to bulk wine of the sort one deems best suited to flavoring a spaghetti sauce.
In the modern world, the pursuit of quality is not always compatible with profitability. And so one can’t help but feel a pang of awe at the combination of longevity and creativity that distinguishes Beringer Vineyards in St. Helena, Calif., from the greater part of the domestic estates. The oldest continually operating winery in the Napa Valley at 125 years, Beringer proper encompasses 16 separate vineyards, and the company owns more than a dozen wineries around the world, including Château St. Jean, St. Clement, Stag’s Leap, and Chile’s Viña Tarapacá. Despite its immensity, Beringer has maintained touch with its boutique-style wine making roots, which reach back to brothers Jacob and Frederick Beringer, who traveled to San Francisco and then Napa Valley from Mainz, Germany, to forge new lives. The Beringers recognized in the region’s well-drained soil the potential to produce premium wines like those of their native Rhine Valley. And this potential continues to be realized under the guidance of the firm’s current wine master, Ed Sbragia, whose own grandfather immigrated to California from Tuscany at the turn of the century. Sbragia and his team have managed to master not just one or two varietals, but virtually every type and style of wine. From cabernet to meritage to merlot; from chardonnay to sauvignon blanc to viognier, Beringer’s single-vineyard and private reserve wines represent a prodigious portfolio that its competitors would be hard-pressed to match in terms of either range or quality.
Sbragia attributes Beringer’s phenomenal spectrum of great wines to the remarkably varied climate of Napa, as well as to Beringer’s specific vineyards. “There’s a gradient of climates that progresses from the southern end of the valley, which opens up to the bay. You have a great climate for brisk chardonnays down in Carneros. Around Yountville, you get fatter chardonnays. Near Spring Mountain, you get extraordinary cabernets.”
Sbragia waxes enthusiastic on recent examples of the latter. “We just put the ’99 cabs in the bottle,” he exults. “The 1990s have been a string of exceptional vintages, with ’98 being a forward fruity vintage. The 2001, which starts out the new decade, is just smoking.”
Suggestions include 1997 Private Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 1997 Howell Mountain Merlot, Bancroft Ranch, and 1999 Sbragia Chardonnay, Lim-ited Release.
Beringer, 707.963.7115, www.beringer.com