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Randall Murray: 40 years of wine: Looking back at the memories
Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. Have a question about wine? He can be contacted at murrwine@aol.com. His column publishes monthly.

I was reminiscing the other day about my nearly four decades writing and teaching about wine. Semi-retired geezers do a lot of that.

Many changes have taken place on my watch. I’ve seen California wines morph from what the French called vin du pipi in the 1970s to world class juice in the 21st century. 

WINE OF THE MONTH

DOMAINE BOUSQUET SPARKLING ROSE BRUT

The wine: Dry, rose sparkling Domaine Bousquet Sparkling Rose Brut

The source: Mendoza Region of Argentina.

The verdict: Like the bubble and tang of a Champagne-style wine but minus the oversized price tag. Park it right here, my friend. This is a lovely, crisp sparkler with an unbelievable price tag. The grapes that went into the Domaine Bousquet are from high-altitude vineyards, about 4,000 feet, in Argentina’s best-known wine-producing region. This wine offers great eye appeal, with its mid-range pink radiance. Your taste buds also will applaud. Light fruit flavors combine with the traditional acidity found in sparkling wines to create a floor show on your palate. The reasonable price results from the fact that the second fermentation, which creates the bubbles, is done in stainless steel tanks, not in the bottle. No problem. This is a great ice-breaker for a dinner party. It also mates well with seafood, lighter chicken and veal dishes and vegetarian fare. 

The price: Wait for it — about $15.


Back in the mid-1980s, a decade after Napa Valley wowed the world in the tradition-shattering Judgment of Paris, Bordeaux and Burgundy still wore the crown. But it was beginning to tarnish.

In this country, we became more sophisticated with our wine choices. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, folks would ask for “a glass of Chablis or Sauterne.” Those mass-produced white wines bore no resemblance to their French namesakes. 

Genuine Chablis from Burgundy was and is a wonderful dry white wine made from the Chardonnay grape. The domestic stuff in the day was a blend of different grapes with non-specific flavors and aromas. 

The stuff they called Sauterne (the real wine from the southern end of Bordeaux is spelled “Sauternes”) was not very good; medium sweet and — well, not very good. 

But it was a start.

I think back to California’s ill-timed experiment in the 1980s with what was termed “light wines,” wines with reduced levels of alcohol. Some producers chose to centrifuge the alcohol out of the finished wines. Others tried producing drinkable wine using less ripe grapes — less sugar in the grapes, less alcohol in the wines.

I recall tasting a half dozen of these light wines and writing, “The best of these is worse than the worst cheap plonk I’ve sampled. I would not use these wines to clean my car’s engine block for fear of harming the engine.”

Lunch at The Four Seasons in New York with members of the Robert Mondavi family convinced me that “jug wines” really could be good stuff. It was the unveiling of a pair of blended wines informally referred to as Bob White and Bob Red, and sold in 1.5 liter bottles — jugs. 

I went to the luncheon expecting to be disappointed. I was pleasantly surprised. When Robert Mondavi was alive, his name never went on a wine that was not above average, at the very least. 

One other memory of that day springs up. New York City in the rain is a miserable place. And it poured all day. On my trek to The Four Seasons, sadly now only a memory, I was crossing a street with my head down when I walked straight into another pedestrian. I fumbled with a sincere apology, looking down at the man I thumped. Dustin Hoffman just smiled at me and said, “It’s OK,” and walked on.

Wine Spectator magazine made its debut in the mid-70s. Then it was a tabloid newspaper/magazine. Today it’s a high-class glossy mag dealing not only with what’s happening in the wine world, but also with articles about celebrity wine cellars, cheeses, whisky and more. I got a tad sideways with Wine Spectator in the ’90s because I questioned the integrity of its tasting process. Today, however, I’m a happy reader.

A copy of its first issue, dated April 1976, was included in its 40th anniversary edition in November. The first thing I noticed was how the wines themselves had changed over the decades. One article described an award given to America’s oldest European-trained wine maker. The winning wine was something called Colombard Rose. At the time, the French Colombard grape was California’s most-planted varietal. I cannot recall the last time I saw a bottle of French Colombard.

Also included in that old publication were mentions of Muscat Blanc, “California Zinfandel” and Chenin Blanc. 

An editorial railed at “Bureaucratic Balderdash,” an attempt by the federal government to require the listing of ingredients in wine. 

One small article seemed to foretell the future, however. In a blind tasting of a collection of red wines made primarily or exclusively from Cabernet Sauvignon, one stood out. No, it was not the Chateau Margaux or Haut-Brion from the stellar 1970 vintage. It was a non-vintage cab from California’s Sebastiani Winery —priced at $4-$5.


Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. Have a question about wine? He can be contacted at murrwine@aol.com. His column publishes monthly.

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