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Many big name wines of the past are now minor players

By Staff
Feb. 21, 2001
Wine producers are like many American businesses. They come and they go, the ups become downs and the never-heard-of-befores become favorites of the day.
I was wandering through my own memory lane the other day, thinking of big name wines when I first discovered the pleasures of the grape and how many of them have passed from the scene or, at the very least, are now minor players in a much bigger game. Those of you on the shady side of 40 (or should I say 50) may share some of these memories.
My wine experience started about 35 years ago in Norfolk, Va., during my radio days. We discovered a local restaurant, whose name has long since been forgotten, but which featured two wines that were supposed to be compatible with everything on the menu. One was Lancers and the other Mateus.
Lancers doesn't even appear in some of my wine encyclopedias but I know it is still on the market. It came in a brown opaque earthen appearing bottle and, as I remember it was sweet and somewhat sparkling. In its day, and that was its day, Lancers was a major player in the wine trade.
As for Mateus, I still have a bottle of it in my cellar but it is for looking not for drinking. I hate to think of the taste, or for that matter the bouquet of what's inside that long over the hill bottle. Mateus is produced in Portugal. It came in a flat sided bottle, a flagon it was called, with a pretty scene of its native country on the label. Mateus was a rose' wine and it became one of the world's best sellers in the day when sweet wine was king and California was still trying to convince people that dry American wine was better than Portugal's answer to soda pop.
Anyway, I cut my drinking teeth on those two and drank them with any kind of food. Lord, when I think of Mateus or Lancers with fried fish I ask myself "how could I have done it?"
A major player in America was Christian Brothers of Napa Valley, Calif. The producer was known as "The Brothers of the Christian Schools" because they were members of a religious order founded in France during the 17th century. In the 60s and 70s, they were one of the most important producers in California. They planted over 1,500 acres in grapes which they used to produce everything from Chardonnay to brandies to dessert wines under their own name. At their peak, they sold more brandy than any other producer in the United States and were probably one of the most successful money machines in the wine business.
Whether it became too competitive for the Brothers to endure or whether it was the fabled "offer they simply could not refuse," the Christian Brothers, a number of years ago, sold their entire operation and, to the best of my knowledge, are still living happily ever after on the money. There is no longer a wine bearing their name.
Another of the greats of that period was the Paul Masson winery. At their peak, they hired television and movie star Orson Wells to proclaim in his basso profundo voice during the early days of television, "We sell no wines before their time." It is still one of television's most memorable commercials. As a result, the wine had a reputation for quality and was a major seller.
But then it appears they became greedy and substituted quantity for quality. Today, Paul Masson is considered a jug wine producer which emphasizes cheap varietals. It is still a player in the low-end market but is not competitive with the better wines available for today's consumers.
Another familiar label in its day was Cresta Blanca. They, too, produced wines of quality for that day and they joined Paul Masson as TV advertisers. Their commercial pounded away at two words "Cresta" which started with a low tone and went up to emphasizing the "ah" sound in Cresta, followed by short but perceptible pause followed by "Blanca" with the second word starting in a higher voice, dropping lower to the ending "ah."
I haven't seen their label for years and they may have sold off their operation. But when Paul Masson went the quantity route, Cresta Blanca joined them seeking the mass sales market and it appears they killed each other off.
The rise and fall of wineries, even wine producing areas, does not take place in California alone. France also has wines that were once considered great and are now classified as ordinary. A few years ago, South Africa tried to invade the American market and sent wines that were obviously inferior. They didn't sell and South African wines became a glut in the market. Now, they have learned their lesson. Their current products are much better but only time will tell if they are enough better to challenge the Australian and South American wines Americans have learned to love as well as the California and French wines that sell so well.
We have added an Australian sparkling wine to the list for tomorrow night's Australian wine tasting at Northwood Country Club. It is called Seaview and the Wine Spectator reviewed it this way: "This fresh tasting sparkling wine offers a richer texture and more spice than most, finishing round and generous with dried pear and and toasty flavors." That was good enough for me.
Call 482-093 for a reservation. The tasting starts at 6:30 and you do not have to be a member of Northwood to attend. The price per seat is $20.
Stan Torgerson, a long-time Meridian resident, has written a wine column for several years.