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American Crus - 1982

Stony Hill. Schramsberg. Heitz.

The world of food and wine has a desire – no, an urgent need – to classify quality, to search out a system that will identify which restaurants and which wineries are the best – Michelin stars; the Medoc & Graves classification of 1855; the classroom-like wine scores of Parker, the Spectator and Suckling; the restaurant rankings and ruminations of Pete Wells in the Wednesday New York Times.

In the late 1970s, California wineries suddenly burst on the scene, seemingly out of nowhere, to command public attention in much the same way the latest Silicon Valley IPO fascinates us today. Back then, the wine world was still focused on France, so the question kept coming up, “When will California establish a crus system of estate wineries and vineyards the way that Bordeaux and Burgundy does?” I was visiting California frequently in those days as wine columnist for the late Washington Star and then as a writer the first year of USA Today. On flights back east after visiting and tasting for several days, I’ll admit I toyed with my own lists of cru-dom.  Fortunately, I didn’t preserve these lists to show how foolish I might have been, and memory long ago also lost interest.

Food criticism during this period drew more public attention than did wine criticism, so food writers began doing wine commentary as well. None was better known, nor more royally yclept, than Roy Andries de Groot, Brit-born, but the son of a Dutch artist and a French noblewoman. In time, he took up residency in New York and was a member of 66 wine-tasting societies worldwide, author of beaucoup books (especially “A Feast for All Seasons”) and head of the International Gourmet Society. What made de Groot’s story even more fascinating was that he was blinded during the Battle of Britain, which, some foodies reasoned, might have made his retained senses of smell and taste even more acute.

For 20 years, de Groot wandered America with his guide dog, visiting wineries and tasting wines. As the only American wine regions which were taken seriously 40 years ago – with good reason – were California, states of the Pacific Northwest and New York, de Groot decided he would lump them together into a single American classification system, with California wineries being preponderant.

At the top of de Groot’s winery rankings would be “Great,” followed by, in declining order, wineries deemed to be “Superb,” “Noble” and “Fine.” The top ranking, de Groot decided, would have just a handful of wineries, while the three lower rankings might have a couple of dozen each. Even in laid-back Northern California, the sight of a blind man and his dog being driven from winery to winery caused a lot of attention and raised interest in the coming publication of his classification system. The book launch was finally scheduled in 1982. As one of the few people writing about wine at the time, I received an early copy of his “The Wines of California.”  I read it – and waited for the bloodbath.

Only three wineries – Heitz, Schramsberg and Stony Hill – were ranked at the top as being “Great.” There was little argument about the high quality of the wines being produced by those three, and, indeed, their fine reputation continues today.  But what about those left off this list of the best? The arguments erupted. Why not Ridge? Or Judgment of Paris winners Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap? Or Caymus or Grgich Hills or Beaulieu Vineyards with its Georges de Latour Private Reserve, for crissakes? All these were listed, in essence, as second growths.

And how did Robert Mondavi, Chappellet, Diamond Creek, Matanzsas Creek
and Trefethen slip to the third-growth “Nobile” category? And wineries such as Cakebread and Franciscan found no consolation in being ranked “Fine” or fourth growth, being considered less worthy than dozens of wineries who had made the three top categories.  Nine wines from Oregon and Washington were listed in the second category.  The highest-ranked New York estate was Plane’s Cayuga in the third bucket.

When I was preparing my article for USA Today, I heard lots of livid – and a few sarcastic – comments. One Tweet-worthy trolling came from a winery vice president who drove de Groot around for a day. “I think the dog actually tasted the wines,” he said. More bad jokes about “blind tastings” followed.

However, the controversy and the rankings were both short-lived. The following year, Robert Parker rose to fame in his mano-a-mano dispute with Robert Finigan over the quality of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage, with history quickly judging Parker as being correct.  Up until this point, most classifications recognized the quality of the estate (Bordeaux) or the vineyard (Burgundy), while Parker sensibly shifted the attention to the quality of the individual vintage. Don’t tell me this estate is a first growth, the logic went, tell me how many points its wines received for this vintage. So ranking wines became more important than ranking wineries.

Unfortunately, de Groot himself would have little time to defend and perpetuate his creation.  Depressed by failing health, he died at 73 on September 16, 1982, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

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