California dreaming

Updated: 2012-09-28 07:53

By Rebecca Lo (China Daily)

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California dreaming

Ed Sbragia, the Napa Valley winery's sixth winemaker, firmly believes in making wine that he likes to drink. Provided to China Daily

Winemaker emeritus basks in golden years and the fruit of his own winery

On the first day of the biannual Vinexpo wine fair in Hong Kong, there are a bewildering number of master classes hosted by esteemed names in the business. Having pre-registered, I make my way to Beringer's 2006 Private Reserve and Single Vineyards parallel tasting, hosted by Ed Sbragia, then the Napa Valley winery's sixth winemaker since its founding in 1876.

I am the last person to arrive, and squeeze into the only chair available while trying not to disturb any of the glasses on the narrow table in front of me.

A quick scan around the room reveals that it is filled with black suits - sommeliers, buyers and wine journalists with glasses filled, ready to soak up the master's wisdom.

Sbragia starts with an overview of Beringer's vineyards, and it becomes apparent that he is a man of the earth.

Academically top notch with a chemistry degree from the University of California at Davis and a master's in enology from California State University at Fresno, Sbragia comes from three generations of winemakers who trace their ancestry back to Lucca in the Tuscan countryside.

"Beringer has always owned its own vineyards," he says. "We have a total of seven in between two mountain ranges: Mount Veeder and Howell Mountain. We live and die by how good our grapes are."

These are the words of a farmer whose reverence for the soil that yields his livelihood is partly why his wines are so successful.

To date, Sbragia is the only winemaker to be awarded Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year Award for both a red and a white: his 1986 Private Reserve cabernet sauvignon and his 1994 Private Reserve chardonnay.

"Napa Valley as a tourist attraction is second in California only to Disneyland," Sbragia says. "We are very conscious of wine consumers - they are what allow us to exist."

Sbragia first joined Beringer in 1976 after working for Ernest and Julio Gallo (E&J Gallo). He was hired by Myron Nightingale, the man responsible for modernizing the entire Beringer production process and expanding the family's vineyards in the early 1970s.

In 1986, Sbragia began to mentor Laurie Hook, working side by side with her on successive harvests until she was appointed as chief winemaker in 2008.

"I've passed on the baton to Laurie," Sbragia says. "I'm now making fewer and fewer decisions."

However, that does not mean that he has stepped back from winemaking. On the contrary, as he began fading out from Beringer, he amped up wine production from select vineyards in Dry Creek, Napa and Sonoma Valleys under his own label Sbragia Family Vineyards.

He works with his son Adam on winemaking, while younger son Kevin can be found in the cellar during harvest. Sbragia's wife Jane and their daughter Gina help out in the tasting room on his property overlooking Dry Creek Valley and its rolling hills of ripening grapes on the vine.

"I have 45 acres (180,000 square meters) of my own property in Sonoma Valley," Sbragia says.

"We started our winery there in 2006. There are great restaurants around every corner, and it's natural for our wine to go together with good food. We like to offer experiences rather than tastings. For example, I conduct a talk where people try the same wine after tasting lemon, apple, salt and creamy cheese."

Sbragia waves aside arguments that - generally speaking - New World wines are designed to be drunk immediately and do not age as gracefully as Old World ones.

"I just had a 1977 California cabernet sauvignon that was very good, with lots of character," he says.

"In Napa, we are known for our chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons. Only recently have we started seeing semillons, pinots and sauvignon blancs. And for a while, it was just about the numbers - producing to meet domestic market demands. Now, we pay more attention to detail than ever before. We are more in tune with the whole process, from the soil to growing the wine. It's a continuum."

Sbragia firmly believes in making wine that he likes to drink - which means that he makes sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, merlot, zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon.

"I've been making cabernet sauvignons for 35 years," he says. "I love cab sauv. I love big chardonnays. I love sitting on my terrace with a glass in hand and looking at the view, with my wife and family by my side."

China Daily

(China Daily 09/28/2012 page20)