What would Nora Desmond drink?

By Celia Strong

Now, I know I’ve heard that name somewhere. Way back, some time. But, as usual, we have things to do and things to learn and things to taste, all before we talk a bit more about Nora. So, let’s move it on. Busy us. As usual.

We’re doing California this week. Napa Valley. A Pinot Grigio. I’m thinking, so that we can learn more about our grape and our winery, and who the heck Nora Desmond is, we should just say Napa and move on. OK? (Yeh, sure. Anything to get to the wine tasting quicker.) As we should remember, Pinot Grigio is the same grape as Pinot Gris. In the United States, which name is used on the label is more a marketing choice than anything else. Most Oregon wineries call theirs “Pinot Gris” because their soil and climate make wines that are more similar to French Pinot Gris from the Alsace region. So they use the French name. From California, Pinot Grigio sells better so, there we are. Ours is a Pinot Grigio.

Pinot Gris has been known in the Burgundy region of France since the middle Ages. It is probably a clone of Pinot Noir, the great red variety that has made Burgundy wines since the Romans and before. Pinot Noir was also one of the few varieties grown in Champagne, where they originally tried to duplicate the better wines from Burgundy. (Of course, that was before the winemakers of that region accepted their bubbles and moved on.)  Until the AC for Burgundy was passed, in the 1930’s, Pinot Gris was allowed as a blending variety in even their most expensive red wines. It seems the more modern style, meaning back then, was for darker colored wines with deeper flavors.

Pinot Gris was first introduced into the United States in 1965 by David Lett, at his Oregon winery, Eyrie. Pinot Gris/Grigio came to California in the 1980’s. Now, there are more than sixteen hundred acres of it planted, with more coming as the variety increases in popularity.

The flavors and textures of Pinot Gris/Grigio wines vary with where the grapes are grown and the winemakers’ style. The basics are this – Pinot Grigio often yields soft, low acidity wines. They can be slightly aromatic. They have stone fruit and citrus flavors. Less ripe grapes lean toward lime and green apple flavors. More ripe and we get Meyer lemons and white nectarines and peaches. Beyond the fruit flavors, there are possible almond, honeysuckle, clove, ginger and saline flavors. In California, because that’s where ours is from, the wines are more light bodied with crisp, refreshing flavors. And a sharp, nervy finish. All of which makes these wines very food friendly. Seafood, sushi, Asian meals, goat cheeses, dishes with green herb seasonings, vegetables and much more.

Our winery for this week is Swanson Vineyards. Carl A. Swanson was a Swedish immigrant who settled in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1896. He opened a grocery store that eventually grew into an agricultural empire with poultry farms and creameries. His sons, Gilbert C. and W. Clarke became part of the family business and moved the company into prepared foods. The Swanson family became known for their frozen dinner brand, launched in 1953. A totally ground breaking idea in its day. Carl’s grandson, Clarke, Jr., had a career in business (newspapers, television and banking), but in 1985 decided to return to his agricultural roots. Napa Valley grape growing. In the mid-1980’s, they were one of the first producers of a Napa Valley Merlot. At a time before the valley was established as one of the great wine regions in the world. Since then, more family members have joined the team, and the winery has been able to hire top quality people. And, Swanson was the first vineyard to plant Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio in Napa. (A quick story. My first ever purchase of a California wine for myself, years ago, was Swanson Sangiovese. I had grown up with French wines, so that was a big deal!)

Swanson Pinot Grigio, our wine for this week, is a treat. The grapes come partly from the Swanson estate vineyards in Oakville and partly from a cooler vineyard located in Napa’s Oak Knoll district and, sometimes, a bit from a Santa Barbara super premium vineyard. Whole clusters of the grapes are crushed and, then, cold fermented to total dryness in stainless steel tanks. The lees are stirred every week, adding flavors and complexities. No oak is used. The aromas of the finished wine include pears, lychee nuts, Meyer lemons with peach and melon flavors. And a touch of guava. It has some minerality, and some weight and body. More like an Alsatian Pinot Gris than an Italian Pinot Grigio. With food, this wine does really well with light pasta dishes, seafood, and – well you’ve seen the list. But the winemaker that the Swanson’s hired was Chris Phelps, after he studied oenology at the University of Bordeaux, and made wines with the Moueix family (from Chateau Pétrus) and then made wine at Caymus in Napa. I know that’s a bit of name-dropping, but the resume here has to be noted. And what does he eat with his Swanson Pinot Grigio. Oysters. For $18.99.

Well, almost done. Phew. All we still have to cover this week is Nora Desmond. So, Nora Desmond was a character played by Gloria Swanson in the 1950 film “Sunset Boulevard.” Gloria Swanson, had a Swedish father, like our vineyard, but sadly not related. The actress, though, was one of the first to believe in the benefits of organically grown foods. In “Sunset Boulevard,” she drank Champagne. But she would have drunk our Swanson Pinot Grigio. Why? Because its grapes are sustainably grown. The circle is complete. Enjoy.

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