big, round, smiling man surrounded by 3 black labs greeted us at the
door to his winery with a hand-engulfing shake. He was Dick Steltzner.
He reminded me a lot of my late grandfather, who had closely cropped
hair, weathered skin and thick hands. And like my grandfather he had
many stories to tell - beginning with wine, of course, and running
the gamut from peach pit oil to "nostril dominance".
What brought us to Steltzner was his Pinotage. Derek
and I were cruising the valley last month in search of new and exciting
wines and decided to sample Steltzner's wines - we were plenty surprised
and intrigued with the Pinotage. What a unique grape. We wanted to
know the story behind the grape and the man who chose to grow it.
Dick Steltzner has an interesting history. Unlike the doctors, engineers
and lawyers who made their fortunes elsewhere and then romantically
gave it all up to use their large fortunes to make small ones in the
wine business, Dick never meant to make wine. He also had no money.
He was renting a 5,000 square foot place in St. Helena --the low
rent district in the 60's -- for $80 a month. Here he was pursuing
glass and pottery, but didnt feel like he "fit in"
enough to dedicate himself to the San Francisco art scene. So, he
chose another path. Agriculture. But what to grow. He decided prunes
were boring, walnuts werent worth enough, and kiwis were on
the down swing. He chose to grow grapes. He bought some land in the
now very famous, Stags Leap District and watched--almost in
amazement -- as Napa became the premiere wine growing region in the
US -- exclusive, famous, and expensive. Dick was sitting on a fortune.
After working as a vineyard manager for many wineries, he made his
first few barrels at Markham in 1977 and never stopped. It wasnt
until the mid-80's that he tore down the old prune drying barn on
his Stags Leap property to build a tasting room. He moved his
tasting room into his caves after they were built in the 90's.
The beautiful "VIP" area of his extensive cave is where
we did our tasting of his Pinotage, Sangiovese and Claret. He began
the tasting by saying, "I'm terrible about people tasting my
wine. You are going to find out why." As we took our first sniff
of the Pinotage, Dick quickly pushed himself back on his stool and
said "That's NOT how you sniff!" And that was the beginning
of a two and a half hour course that could be entitled "Everything
You Didn't Know You Didn't Know About Wine". Dick soon informed
us that we were supposed to place the edge of the glass right under
the dominant nostril, sealing it off completely, and then inhale.
Derek and I discovered that we are both "right nostril dominant".
While tasting the Pinotage with some fine cheeses, Dick explained
why he makes this varietal in California, "No one is as crazy
as I am." I asked him to probe a bit further. "I love food
and love experimenting with all kinds of food. It's the same with
wine." Dick tasted several from its famed origin, South Africa,
and thought that it would grow well and make a great offering in California.
I wholeheartedly agree with him. I think it is a wonderful wine with
a mixed past as interesting as Dick's.
Pinotage is a wine that was custom made for South Africa in a way.
The South Africans were looking for a wine varietal that could put
them on the map, like Cabernet in Bordeaux or Pinot Noir in Burgundy.
They called in a French scientist to help them. He suggested crossing
the seeds of Pinot Noir with Cinsault. This was not just a random
choice. It was a well hidden secret that some Burgundian wineries
often took little trips to the Rhone Valley when their Pinots were
in need of a lift in color, body and flavor. For this, they looked
to the well known blending varietal, Cinsault. The final product gets
its name from Pinot Noir and the tage from the Rhones
famous lHermitage. You put them together and you get Pinotage.
By the end of the night -- nearly three hours later, Derek and I were
beyond ourselves at how much we really enjoyed this wine and Dicks
stories. All the staff had left, the cave echoed our laughter and
Dick was kind enough to take the time to sit for the afternoon with
us over two bottles of wine. We might have gone on all night but the
three labs, Finder, Magnus and Ling, had had enough of being ignored.
And they let their master know that it was time for a walk - now.
We went home with a new style of tasting, a new sense of history,
and a purple smile.