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2013 Vintners Hall of Fame Inductees

The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone recently released the names of the 2013 Vintners Hall of Fame inductees. It’s a good list and one that doesn’t shy away from controversy. Each of the new members is very deserving, but has also been outspoken in support of their views. A couple have been especially polarizing, though not simply for controversy’s sake.

The new inductees are farm-workers’ advocate Cesar Chavez, winemaker Merry Edwards, wine critic Robert Parker and Frank Schoonmaker, a wine writer and importer. The induction ceremony will take place on February 18, 2013 at the CIA in St. Helena. The evening will include a food and wine reception, induction and acceptance speeches, and a walk-around dinner featuring celebrity chefs. The event is open to the public. Tickets are $175 ($100 is tax-deductible).

Cesar Chavez [March 21, 1927 - April 23, 1993]

cesar_chavezChavez was born in Arizona, but grew up in California. He and his family worked in the fields picking a variety of crops, including grapes. He left school after the 8th grade and, except for a two-year stint in the U.S. Navy, was a full-time migrant worker from then until 1952 when started his career as an activist.

For the next ten years, he served the Community Service Organization as an organizer and eventually it’s national director. That group focused on Latino civil rights. He left CSO to co-found the National Farm Workers Association with Dolores Huerta. That group later became the United Farm Workers.

Under Chavez’ leadership, the NFWA/UFW used non-violent means (fasts, protests, strikes and boycotts) to promote farm workers’ rights and safety. They also worked against the use of undocumented and/or illegal immigrant labor. He coined the slogan “Si, se puede” (“Yes, it can be done”), which still holds great meaning in the Latino community and was also used by Barack Obama (“Yes, we can”) during his first presidential campaign. Cesar Chavez’ birthday is an official state holiday in California, Colorado and Texas. In 2003, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor.

Cesar Chavez’ induction into the Vintners Hall of Fame is a salute not only to him and his role in highlighting and improving the importance of vineyard workers, but also to the workers themselves. Without their hard work, California could not make high-quality wines from carefully tended vines and hand-picked grapes in anywhere close to current production volumes. As nominating committee chairman W. Blake Gray said, “Chavez... transformed farmworkers into a crucial part of the winemaking team.”

Meredith “Merry” Edwards

merry-edwards-01Today, Merry Edwards is best-known as a producer of fine, single-vineyard Pinot Noir and one of California’s best Sauvignon Blanc varietals. However, her contributions go far beyond that and have literally changed aspects of global wine production for the better. She is also a five-time nominee for the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional.

I talked with Merry about her upcoming induction and her impact on the wine business. Outspoken on issues of importance to her, but understated when speaking of herself, Edwards told me, “I've always supported the CIA. It’s nice to be recognized by them. I think I've made a good contribution [to the wine industry.]” She also told me that one of the things of which she's most proud is the large number of winemakers that's she has mentored over the years.

Her contributions began with her Masters Thesis. The research, in which she was supported by Wine Institute, reported on the negative effects of lead-capsule closures on wine bottles. As a direct result of her work, the industry eventually abandoned lead capsules entirely, citing them as a health risk.

Edwards was also the first woman to earn an MS in Food Science/Enology from U.C. Davis and then become a winemaker. Her initial winemaking job came at Mount Eden Vineyards in February, 1974. Field cuttings she made from that vineyard to U.C. Davis in 1975 later became UCD Pinot Noir clone 37, “the Merry Edwards clone.”

In 1977, Edwards was hired to assist in creating Matanzas Creek Winery. They wanted to plant Chardonnay and sent her to France for research. But first, she visited Dr. Harold Olmo at U.C. Davis. He had published on clonal variations in wine grapes, something that virtually nobody in the U.S. knew or cared about. “Dr. Olmo was excited,” Edwards told me. “He couldn’t get his research funded.” He connected her with researchers at the University of Beaune who were investigating clones of Pinot Noir.

Once there, she studied their work and then brought her findings back to California. After additional, extensive research and collaboration with Dr. Olmo, the two of them presented a day-long seminar on clones in 1985. “30 years ago, people thought I was nuts,” Edwards recalls. Today, the use of different clones in U.S. vineyards is considered essential to provide complexity and optimize for terroir. It has improved the quality, consistency, diversity and/or yield of almost all wines.

In 1997, Edwards began making wines under the Merry Edwards label. In 2006, she and her husband, Ken Coopersmith, completed their own winery near Sebastopol. She uses fruit from a variety of sources, including their five Russian River Valley estate vineyards. Passionate about that AVA and a former president of the Russian River Valley Winegrowers, she was among the most vocal opponents of recent changes made to its boundaries.

Robert Parker

robert_parkerRobert Parker is the most influential important wine critic in history. The 100-points scoring system he fostered has been adopted almost universally. His writings have brought deserved attention to emerging regions and returned historic to commercial viability. He was also among the first wine writers to achieve broad success without being associated with either a mainstream publication or a wine sales company. His Wine Advocate newsletter and the associated eRobertParker.com are likely the most read sources of wine criticism not supported by advertising.

Debates continue over effects of his influence. How much has he driven particular styles of wine? To what extent is he responsible for the increased prices of some wines (at retail and auction), the emergence of speculative collectors and the tendency for consumers to dismiss wines with sub-90 point scores? On the other hand, many winemakers and proprietors have told me his is the most consistent palate they’ve ever encountered. It’s also easy to argue that, while his scoring system may be an enabler, it is human nature and the free market that have driven styles and prices, not he himself.

Robert Parker has had a major influence on the rise of California as an internationally respect wine region. But his coverage of California did not begin with unqualified praise. He was forthright with his opinions and called out many wineries for being derivative in style and/or sub-par in quality. He challenged wineries to get better and rewarded them with good scores when they did, regardless of their size or region. In essence, he provided carrot and stick motivation that has helped drive continuous improvement in the California wine business. The positive effects of this touch virtually every winery here, no matter what style of wine they make.

Frank Schoonmaker [August, 1905 - January, 1976]

frank_schoonmakerFrank Schoonmaker was a wine importer and wine writer who helped raise awareness for California wine. At the same time, he drove the California wine industry toward more honest, descriptive labeling which identified the wines by their actual region and variety, rather than using names from other countries, such as Chablis and Sauternes. My description of him here is longer than those of the other inductees as he is least familiar to most of you. [For even more on his interesting life, including his work as a U.S. spy in Europe during WWII, I encourage you to read Frank Schoonmaker: Visionary Wine Man, an article by Frank E. Johnson which was an important source for the following.]

Schoonmaker dropped out of Princeton University in 1925 “to see the world,” or at least Europe. He began writing travel guides, well-respected and said to have later influenced Arthur Frommer. Book sales didn’t cover his costs though. So, having spent considerable time during his travels learning about the wines and vineyards of Europe, and anticipating an end to Prohibition in the United States, Schoonmaker began to plan a business in wine.

In the late 1920’s he began traveling and working with Raymond Baudoin, the highly influential editor of La Revue du Vin de France. Baudoin helped him build ties with top growers in Burgundy from whom he would later buy hand-selected, estate-bottled wines — a concept which he and Baudoin were instrumental in establishing there. Negociant blends were then the norm. In 1935, he founded Frank Schoonmaker Selections, a US-based wine import and sales business.

To help drive sales in an American market that knew little about wine, he co-wrote The Complete Wine Book. Hedging his bets against the potential of the coming war in Europe to disrupt his supply of wine, Schoonmaker also began working with the top California wineries of the time, including Wente, Concannon, Inglenook, BV and Louis Martini. He urged them to begin to market their wines in a way which highlighted, rather than hid, their origin and composition. In the process either he or  Alexis Lichine, his then partner, coined the term “varietal” for wines made predominantly from one identified grape variety. Sales increased dramatically for some of the wineries that took his advice. Eventually, and while still running his import company, he took on the role of general sales manager for Almaden Vineyards where he introduced use of the word “mountain” as an important point of difference in California wine names.

In 1956 he wrote the authoritative Wines of Germany. Eight years later, he completed The Encyclopedia of Wine, a substantial update to The Complete Wine Book. In 1972, he sold his company to Pillsbury (the food company) which was building a wine business. He continued to lead his company for them and also had responsibility for the new Chateau Souverain wineries Pillsbury was building in Rutherford (now Rutherford Hill winery) and Geyserville (now Francis Ford Coppola Winery). Just three years later though, Pillsbury tired of the wine business and sold all of those assets, including Schoonmaker’s import company.

About the Vintners Hall of Fame

Proceeds from the Annual Vintners Hall of Fame Induction Celebration help support the Vintners Hall of Fame and contribute to the scholarship fund for students in the Professional Wine Studies program at CIA Greystone. 

The Vintners Hall of Fame at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone is open to the public daily from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (subject to change). For more information about the Vintners Hall of Fame, and to view the list of past inductees with their photos and biographies, please visit www.ciavintnershalloffame.com.

Related Articles:

2012 Vintners Hall of Fame Inductees Announced
2011 Vintners Hall of Fame Inductees Announced
Drink with Legends, Eat Like a President

 

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. Cesar Chavez photo © Alan Greth/ZUMA Press. All rights reserved.

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