Sun 27 May 2007
No one would deny that Ed Sbragia is one of California’s great winemakers. As if creating the justly well-regarded Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and the Beringer Bancroft Ranch Howell Mountain Merlot were not enough, Sbragia has overseen the production of myriad consistently well-made wines for Beringer under many designations and at various price levels.
Most people would deny that Ed Wood (1924-1978) was a great film director; in fact, because of movies like Plan B from Outer Space, Glen or Glenda and Bride of the Monsters, the title typically given to Ed Wood is, “the world’s worst film director.”
So what’s the connection between the talented winemaker and the pathetic auteur? They share a tendency for flamboyance, even outrageousness. Ed Wood’s films are noted for their hot-house over-the-top qualities. Taste one of Sbragia’s Private Reserve Chardonnays — “Chardonnay is one of those varietals that allows me to push the envelope,” he says — and you might agree that as far as oak is concerned, Ed Sbragia can be the Ed Wood of wood.
Sbragia came to Beringer in 1976, serving under the legendary Myron Nightingale. When Nightingale retired in 1984, Sbragia was named Beringer’s chief winemaker. Laurie Hook arrived at Beringer in 1984 as enologist and became Sbragia’s assistant in 1997. She and Sbragia have worked closely together, and when Sbragia was named winemaster in 2000, Hook became chief winemaker. They continue to work together on almost all of the Beringer wines.
I will say frankly that I have quarreled in print over the years with Sbragia’s philosophy of chardonnay grapes and oak treatment, my feeling being that Sbragia, whose use of oak with red wines tends to be quite deft, pushes the oak and barrel treatment too hard in his chardonnays, especially the Private Reserve Chardonnay and the Sbragia “Limited Release” Chardonnay. I have often thought that those two wines epitomized exactly what I don’t like about California chardonnay, that is, full-throttle ripeness and spiciness and tropical character and the panoply of “dessert” effects like creme brulee, brown sugar, caramelized pineapple, coconut cream pie and so on. Yuck and shiver.
So I was intrigued to receive samples of four of the Beringer chardonnays from 2005: the “regular” Napa Valley bottling; the Stanly Ranch Vineyard bottling, the Private Reserve and the Sbragia “Limited Release.” In this quartet, I would be able to trace Sbragia’s ideas about chardonnay and his continuing influence at Beringer. The surprise, as it turned out, was that however brash and flamboyant the Private Reserve and Sbragia “Limited Release” chardonnays were — and lovers of discreet, minerally Chablis would find them odd — they never seemed out of balance or overdone. One would not mistake them for originating anywhere but California, but they certainly embody the Golden State’s sense of youthful vigor, experimentation and “can-do” spirit.
First, the Beringer Chardonnay 2005, Napa Valley, is a wine you could sell the hell out of in restaurants at $8 a glass. This is very pretty, fresh and clean, bursting with spiced grapefruit and pineapple scents and flavors with a touch of mango. The oak is there, and it’s a bit creamy, but the wine is crisp and lively, with fine acid and a tide of minerals to keep the structure essential and pointed. My rating is Very Good+, and at $16 a bottle, the wine represents Good Value.
For four more dollars, you can get the Beringer Stanly Ranch Vineyard Chardonnay 2005, Napa Valley, a wine of lovely breadth and depth, balance and integration. Its shining purity and intensity are supported and supplemented by spicy oak, scintillating acid and a pervasive mineral element that treat the chardonnay grape with respect, so that ripe and moderately lush grapefruit-pineapple flavors (with a touch of orange rind on the finish) are neither too creamy nor tropical in nature. The wine does turn a bit “blond” with oak and a touch austere in its final moments, though this aspect doesn’t detract a whit. It’s a well-made example of the combination of power and elegance in chardonnay and My Favorite of this quartet. About $20. Excellent.
Not surprisingly, with the Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay 2005, Sbragia and Hook begin to pull out the stops. The juice ferments in French oak barrels, 75 percent new, goes through malolactic fermentation and ages 11 months in barrel, with the lees — the residue of spent yeast cells — stirred once a week. Lees-stirring, called batonnage in French, may contribute to the density of a wine’s texture, making it feel heavier in the mouth, and indeed, this Private Reserve Chardonnay 2005 is thick, dense and chewy, almost powdery in feeling, close to viscous. Flavors of roasted pineapple and grapefruit are permeated by buttered toast and caramel, tangerine and baking spice. The wine is not just rich; it’s super-ripe, extravagantly rich, and you feel the oak in every molecule, yet it’s blessed (just barely) with the acid and mineral qualities to keep it balanced. Almost reluctantly, I’ll give this an Excellent rating. About $35.
As I expected, the Beringer Sbragia Limited-Released Chardonnay 2005 was the most extravagant, the most flamboyant of these chardonnays, the one that took the most risks of winemaker manipulation away from the purity and intensity of the grapes, yet like many a thrill — filching a packet of Post-It notes from the company storeroom, watching Nicole Kidman in a really bad movie — there’s something titillatingly illicit and decadent about it. This is, if it were possible, even richer, more viscous, spicier, more tinged with toast and caramel and the blondness of oak that the Private Reserve Chardonnay ’05, the pineapple-grapefruit flavors — pineapple upside-down cake, roasted grapefruit — close to exotic. And yet, and it’s a big “and yet,” the wine is not tropical, it doesn’t taste like coconut meringue pie, it manages to stay balanced through the essential infusion of crisp acid and mineral qualities. Whew, it’s exhausting to taste and would be difficult to match with food, but, once again, a reluctant Excellent. Why reluctant? Because I think the sort of manipulation that Sbragia exercises in the winery, to which he cheerfully admits, runs counter to what the vineyard and the grape would dictate.
Coincidentally, I had a bottle of the Sbragia Family Vineyards Home Ranch Chardonnay 2005, from Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County. This is Sbragia’s own venture, a real family concern, separate from Beringer; his winemaking partner here is his son Adam.
Sbragia asserts that the wines from Sbragia Family Vineyards “are intensely personal, an expression not only of terroir but of my family’s winemaking heritage.” Be that as it may, I found this chardonnay dauntlessly over-the-top in every sense and an expression not of terroir — all that seems to have been wrung out of it — but, first, of alcohol. The alcohol level for this wine is 15.6 percent, according to the information sheet, or 15.9 percent, according to the label. In either case, that much alcohol in a white table wine is ludicrous, resulting in a chardonnay that’s hot, harsh and strident. The wine is certainly flamboyantly ripe with pineapple-grapefruit flavors touched with macerated tangerine, pears and apricots, but its second expression is of oak; the wine is aggressively spicy, so toasty and caramelly that it tastes like toffee left too long in the pan. It is, in effect, a monster created in the laboratory, a fantasy power-trip of a chardonnay that Ed Wood would understand. The Wine Spectator rated this wine 92, but then those panelists, with their incurable California palates, love chardonnays that taste like the dessert trolley at a Continental restaurant.
Image of Ed Sbragia from beringer.com. Image of Ed Wood from imgsearch.com.