It was January 2006, in the wine and food department at The San Francisco Chronicle. I picked up my ringing phone and it was a representative of now-famous Napa Valley grapegrower Andy Beckstoffer. And boy, was she mad.
“How could you do this?” she fumed. “This” was a story published in that morning’s wine section, written by W. Blake Gray, on consolidation trends in the California wine industry. Gray retold, briefly, a story of Beckstoffer advising Beaulieu Vineyard winemaster Richard G. Peterson to use cheap Thompson seedless table grapes in BV sparkling wines, rather than the more serious Chenin Blanc Peterson preferred. He and Beckstoffer were employed by Heublein Corp. at the time, 1969.
Peterson told the Thompson seedless story to James Conaway, who published it in his book, “Napa: The Story of an American Eden,” in 2002. So it was out there long before the Chronicle retold it in 2006. The recount added context to Gray’s story.
“Is the story inaccurate?” I asked the rep. “Are you calling Dick Peterson a liar? If so, we’ll investigate and print a retraction if necessary.”
Not a peep was heard thereafter.
So why bring up a decade-old anecdote and perhaps upset Beckstoffer once again? Because Peterson did, in his 2015 book, “The Winemaker” (Meadowlark Publishing, $29.95). I’m late in reading it, but no matter, it’s a fascinating look at the evolution of the modern California wine industry, warts and all. A lot of things were done wrong before they were done right, and Peterson was at the center of many innovations that helped make California the great wine producer it is today.
Beckstoffer comes out on top, as well.
Anyone intrigued by the nuances of growing grapes and converting them to fine wine, and understanding how the business operates, will be enlightened by “The Winemaker.” Peterson’s groundbreaking achievements at E. & J. Gallo, Beaulieu Vineyard, The Monterey Vineyard, Atlas Peak Vineyards and eventually, his own Wrotham Vineyard Pinot Noir in Napa Valley, are all outlined here, with anecdotes that add depth and authenticity.
While Dr. Dick has a Ph.D. in Agricultural Chemistry, and science plays a major role in the book, his explanations are easy to understand, even by chemistry and math dummies like me. Thank goodness eye kan spel.
Better known by some as the father of former Screaming Eagle winemaker Heidi Peterson Barrett (now with her own La Sirena brand), Dick – who worked on this book with his second wife, Sandra Archer — makes few references to his family. It’s a story all his own, about his winemaking experience.
He recounts his 10 years at Gallo in Modesto, where innovation was encouraged and Peterson earned a deep respect from brothers Ernest and Julio Gallo for his scientific work and wine quality improvements.
Peterson describes his years as winemaster at Beaulieu Vineyard in Rutherford, working alongside the legendary Andre Tchelistcheff. Their shared frustrations with Madame Helene des Pins, daughter of BV founder Georges de Latour (she took over after Georges’ death in 1940), are both fascinating and depressing. She saw no need to replant aging and diseased vines, nor to replace antiquated equipment, not even for the hallowed BV Private Reserve. To her, as Peterson tells it, a penny saved was a penny spent on her lifestyle.
Madame sold BV to Heublein in 1969, and its liquor-sales mentality took over. Run out? Just make more. The Gamay grape produces a drinkable red wine, so why use the more expensive Cabernet Sauvignon? Thompson seedless? Well, you get the picture.
It was Beckstoffer’s job at the time to source low-cost grapes to ensure the highest Heublein profit. Peterson and Tchelistcheff sought quality. Eventually, all parted ways, with Beckstoffer acquiring prized BV vineyard blocks.
To demonstrate how tangled the wine biz can be, Heublein was later acquired by RJR Nabisco, which sold to Grand Metropolitan, which became Diageo through a merger with Guinness. Diageo sold Beaulieu Vineyard to Treasury Wine Estates in 2016. Whew.
Beckstoffer now owns some of the best vineyard blocks in Napa Valley, including a portion of the To Kalon Vineyard in Oakville. His grapes command the highest prices for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, so he has not suffered from any tangible backlash from his Heublein days.
And neither has Dick Peterson. He moved on to The Monterey Vineyard in Salinas, a start-up with business partners who had little understanding of the wine business. He cautioned them that the only things that happen fast with winegrowing and winemaking are mistakes. Many were made, despite Peterson’s counsel, and Seagram eventually took control
Peterson also became involved with Coca-Cola, at Taylor California Cellars, and with UK brewer Whitbread at Atlas Peak Vineyards in Napa Valley. Every turn in his tale is fascinating, unless one believes the wine business is romantic.
The happy finish is that Peterson, the designer of the steel barrel pallet that allows wine barrels to be handled mechanically instead of by hand, and innovator of many other winemaking techniques, has his own gig. In “retirement,” he’s the winemaker for his own Richard G. Peterson wines, with a Napa Valley brut rosé sparkler and a still Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir, made from cuttings Peterson acquired from wild Wrotham vines grown near Kent, England.
This relatively humble man has not received the accolades he so richly deserves. Read this book and find out why.