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Wine pioneers from around the world share stories with Randall Murray
Winemaker Ernest Gallo, right, toasts winemaker Robert Mondavi at Mondavi’s 90th birthday celebration June 18,2003 in Oakville, Calif. - photo by ERIC RISBERG

Nik Weis Urban Riesling 2015

The wine: Lush, fruity medium-dry white table wine

The grapes: 100 percent Riesling

The source: Germany’s Mosel region

The verdict: German Riesling is not wildly popular in this country, but it remains one of the world’s great white wines. And if you need convincing, reach out to famed Mosel winemaker Nik Weis’s latest love child. Riesling grapes boast two primary characteristics: They are crazy fruity and acidic. Each balances the other.

Weis said, “Just as Champagne needs bubbles, Mosel wine needs some sweetness.”

Don’t let that put you off. It’s just a hint of sweetness, surrounded by rich fruit flavors. This is a wonderful sipping wine with sliced fruits — think apples and pears — and soft cheeses. It also is perfect for spicy dishes, such as Asian cuisine. And for a wine of this quality, the price is right.

The price: About $17.

The world of wine is crammed with stories. Stories of great creativity, strong personalities and the collision of consumer tastes and marketing — all those aspects and more.

I’ve been around the world of wine for nearly four decades. And in that time, I’ve met some of the pioneers of American wines. I’ve enjoyed and learned from those contacts.

The Wine Spectator, the eminent wine/lifestyle publication, celebrated its 40th anniversary with the October edition. One section was titled “The Leaders of Wine”. I was amazed at how many of those leaders with whom I had personal contact.

The first listing was Ernest and Julio Gallo, who had as great an impact on American wine consciousness as anyone. Too many folks today have lingering memories of not-so-great bulk wines produced by Gallo during the 1950s. And to them I say, get over it.

During the past 50 years, E&J Gallo has established itself as the largest wine producer in the world and producer of some of our finest wine at any price point.

One of my deep regrets was I never got to meet either of these influential brothers. I had a meeting scheduled in fall 1993, during which I was given a personal tour of the stunning Gallo project reshaping the landscape in Sonoma County. Tragically, Julio was killed in a car accident shortly before I arrived.

Another pioneer cited by The Wine Spectator was Robert Mondavi. His name still graces the labels of some excellent California wines, although he’s been gone for eight years. Talk about stories! They jumped off Robert like fleas off a dog.

For instance: His family purchased the venerable Charles Krug winery in Napa Valley in the 1940s. His brother, Peter, was named winemaker. Robert was put in charge of sales. That arrangement did not set well with the energetic Robert. Nor did it
last long.

Robert was an impatient agent of change in winemaking. Peter was a traditionalist. Inevitably the brothers came to blows, literally. After a bitter fistfight in 1965, Robert struck out on his own and founded the landmark Robert Mondavi Winery. And things began to change.

When his sauvignon blanc white wine failed to sell, Robert rechristened it with a traditional French name, Fume Blanc, or smoky white. Sales of that wine quadrupled in a matter of months.

Then there was the time I invited Robert and wife Margrit to speak at a dinner being staged by a ground-breaking restaurant in Allentown, Pa., where I was the wine consultant. The representative of the company that distributed Mondavi wines statewide pooh-poohed my efforts. He said although the Mondavis were scheduled to speak just down the road in Philadelphia the following day, they would never come to Allentown.

But I had a contact with the Mondavi PR rep. He agreed Robert and Margit would host a six-course dinner we were staging and use only Mondavi wines. I glowed in triumph!

Robert showed up with Margrit that night to a sold-out crowd and promptly said he had laryngitis and could not talk. The air went out of the room. Then, in typical Mondavi style, he proceeded to talk for two hours.

Dinner was a hit.

Another “leader” was chef Julia Child, the former CIA operative and culinary pioneer, who used her French cookbook and common-sense approach to food and wine to shape American cuisine for decades.

I was attending the Monterey Wine Festival in the early 1980s as an extremely green wine/food writer. I showed up late for the luncheon and could not find a seat. Suddenly I heard a distinctive voice behind me say, “Would you like to sit with us?”

It was Julia Child. I sat with her and husband Paul, and she was an absolute delight. I remember with gratitude her grace and style to this day.

My last story centers on one of the great wine “leaders” of the 20th century, Dr. Konstantin Frank. He was one of New York state’s most respected wine makers, although he suffered from flaws — one professional, one personal.

He made highly praised wines in New York’s Finger Lakes region, and I was excited to book a luncheon date with the great man. The professional problem was he despised French-American hybrid grapes, which were produced across New York and elsewhere, claiming loudly they would cause illness including cancer. The claim was ultimately and totally disproved.

Personally, Dr. Frank could be, well, prickly. As we sat in his home eating lunch, his little dog approached and I scratched his ears.

“You vill not be playing vis de dog,” the good doctor snapped. “You vill be paying attention to what I am telling you.”

OK, then.

Stories, I have a lot more.