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Danish winemaker wants to expand his market

By By Stan Torgerson / wine columnist
June 4, 2003
Somehow you don't ordinarily think of immigrants from Denmark as skilled winemakers. Italy, yes. France, of course. Spaniards, certainly. But Denmark? Beer maybe, but not wine.
Nils Venge is the exception. His father, Knud, came to America in 1942 in the conventional way, through Ellis Island.
Jewelry was the family business, not wine. They migrated to California where Knud worked at Lockheed during World War II. Nils eventually met Gudren Ingwerson and married her. How Scandinavian can you get?
The only thing he knew about wine was how to open a bottle.
But after the war Knud started a wine, beer and spirits distributorship which specialized in Danish products and Nils was hooked.
He worked for his dad when in high school, went on to the University of California at Davis and earned a bachelor's degree in viniculture. After years of working for such winemakers as Charles Krug, Sterling Vineyards, Villa Mount Eden and Groth Vineyards &Winery, today he owns the famed Saddleback Cellars in the Napa Valley.
Mississippi visit
Venge came to Mississippi two weeks ago to visit his distributor, Norm Rush of Jackson. Rush arrange for us to meet. He says he has produced 31 vintages and has never had a failure.
Periodically, the wine industry likes to proclaim "The Year of the Century" for cabernets. This is the best ever, they like to say, and then they raise their prices. Has there ever truly been a year of the century?
The 2001 vintage is just now coming on the market. Venge said this is a classic vintage as well.
Judging cabernets
When they do have a classic year, Venge says the grapes not the winemaker should get the credit.
Cabernet is still the king of California wines. A ton of cabernet grapes now sells for $4,500-$7,000, depending on the quality. One ton of grapes yields about 62 cases of wine.
Venge has his own standard for judging cabernet wines.
He believes cabernets should not be drunk before their sixth birthday but admits 80 percent to 85 percent of wines purchased are consumed long before that time. Unlike many vintners, he will not bottle his 2001 vintage until December for release in 2004.
Saddleback Cellars
Saddleback owns 91⁄2 acres of land but only a 4,500-square-foot winery. That restricts Venge's production to about 2,200 cases of cabernet.
He also produces zinfandel, chardonnay, merlot and pinot grigio, but in small quantities using purchased grapes since land prices have skyrocketed.
In 1976, land in the Oakville area where his winery is located sold for $6,000 an acre. Today, his property is valued at $180,000 an acre.
Currently, only Saddleback chardonnay can be found in Mississippi package stores. It sells for a little under $25 a bottle. But one purpose of his trip was to make Saddleback Cellars cabernet available in our state as well. From critiques I've read and heard, it will be worth waiting for.