Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Bella Lisa: A Wine Tragedy

Yesterday I couldn't write because of some mental deficiency or other, so I reorganized our wine cellar (it's not as fancy as that phrase implies -- it's just wooden shelves with wine boxes in a dirt cellar).

It was reassuring to know I could now find all of our wine, as some of it had been in plastic bins on the dirt floor and thus mixed in with bins of other random items. However, in doing so I came across a reminder of a wine tragedy: a partial case of Bella Lisa Zinfandel from Topolos / Russian River.

It is a tragedy on par with the tales of woe portrayed in Mondovino (if you enjoy wine, see that film).

Bella Lisa was an amazing Zinfandel, unlike any other I've ever had or probably will ever have again. What made it special was a combination of very high quality grapes (if I recall correctly, old vine cuttings from a nearby vineyard, of course grafted onto the usual California UCD nematode-resistant root stock) and eucalyptus. The vinyard was next to a eucalyptus grove, and the grapes had picked up enough eucalyptus flavor to give the wine a unique, delicious herb-tinged flavor. It isn't oily or bitter, and the eucalyptus note is subdued enough that it still mostly tastes like a good Zinfandel -- but that special extra note really make it something else.

Unfortunately, the Bella Lisa vineyard is in disrepair. It was abandoned, and while other vintners have looked at taking it over (the city it's in eventually realized they had something special and aborted plans to plow it under, and they're offering it up pretty cheaply), it's so small that nobody else seems to be able to convince themselves that the yield will pay for the restoration needed to rectify the neglect. Sadly, the vineyard producing one of the most uniquely delicious grapes in all the world may just completely rot in fallow, if it hasn't already.

Topolos was a winery and a fabulous Greek restaurant. No more. It was the victim of the two brothers that owned it (the vintner and the restauranteur) deciding to go their separate ways, and then dragging out the sale of the business so long that all their stock went bad and their customers abandoned them (we hung on for over a year before giving up). We watched in angst as one of the best wineries in California simply fell apart.

This small winery had been featured at a White House dinner during the Clinton years, and had produced some of the best California wines I've had (and at modest prices): Bella Lisa Zinfandel, Bat's Flight White (an unparalleled white blend), Alicante Bouchet (often used as a filler grape, they made it sing as a varietal), several other Zinfandels (Topolos and Rosenblum made my wife and I come to appreciate Zinfandel, which we hadn't previously), a Zinfandel Port, a Late Harvest Gewurtztraminer, and a wonderful sparkling wine (which fortunately was subcontracted production, and is still available at a place called Trentadue).

The loss of Topolos was truly a tragedy for California winemaking. After the buyout, it supposedly reopened as a Pinot Noir shop, without a delicious Greek restaurant above it, hoping to cash-in (a couple years too late) on the Sideways-inspired run on Pinot. Since William, Topolos' wonderful tasting room manager left shortly thereafter, we haven't been back to see what that entails.

As I sip from my glass of Bella Lisa, I hope and wish that someone will come along to revitalize that vineyard and make that wine once more. But, California winemaking is increasingly overrun with distant, profit-obsessed corporate overlords (Rosenblum just got bought by Diageo, supposedly one of the less odious wine consolidators, but not driven by creativity and passion like the Rosenblum team). With this trend, creative, adventurous winemaking is falling by the wayside. That's a shame, because that is really what made California taste-competitive with other regions -- not the homogenizing influence of the big firms.

Sadly, this is almost certainly one of the last glasses of Bella Lisa that will ever exist.