The Professor Gets an Education

Forty years ago, Ralph Amey, then a new professor of chemistry at L.A.'s Occidental College, started to investigate California wine. They were heady days: the industry, having survived Prohibition and its aftermath, was just beginning its remarkable renaissance -- new energy and new ideas arising from the worlds of family wineries (such as the Mondavis at Charles Krug), wild-eyed experimenters (Martin Ray), and formal investigation (Maynard Amerine).

Amey got a bunch of friends to go along for the ride. "I said, 'Look, if I make up some notes and get some wines together, and if you'll join in sharing the cost, we can get together, taste the wines blind, talk about them, and maybe we can learn something.' Things like five or six Zinfandels -- that way, we could concentrate on what Zinfandel tasted like. And, of course, when you're teaching a class, by doing the homework, you learn more than the students."

Homework was a trickier business then. "I was rather naïve in my knowledge of the books that were around" -- understandable, since there were far fewer books to be aware of and far fewer wineries for them to be written about -- "and there certainly were not as many seminars in Los Angeles as there are today." So, he went to the source. "I was aware that various wineries put out newsletters" -- without an established wine press, producers had to rely more heavily on their own efforts -- "and so I subscribed to as many of those as I could. I drew a lot from those newsletters, and also from certain retailers: Red Carpet in Glendale and a couple of others."

The tasting group thrived, eventually expanding its roster to "maybe ten wines" in an evening, and for Amey the experience formed the "fundamentals of my knowledge and my enthusiasm." It also provided his entry into the Society of Wine Educators. "They interpreted the term in a very broad sense. It consisted of people who taught courses, people in the industry, retailers, and people like myself, who taught in a very loose sense and were interested in learning more." Amey joined and took advantage of winery tours given to the Society. And when it began to offer a certification, he jumped at that as well.

The Society continues to function -- there is always more wine to investigate. "Our next meeting will be on the dry red wines of the Douro region of Portugal. These wines are a relatively new concept; they're made from the grapes normally used to make Port. We'll have someone in who imports them, and we'll taste seven or eight, along with a relatively technical seminar. We usually follow that with a walkaround reception, and then we sit down to a three- or four-course dinner, where we have more wine. Usually, the food is matched to the particular wines of that evening."

And Amey continues to teach. "I've done vertical tastings of BV Private Reserve, Chardonnay around the world, the wines of western Australia. As a teacher, I don't want to repeat myself too much; it's more interesting for me -- and for the students, I think -- to vary it."

So imagine the teacher's delight upon discovering an industry in his own back yard, one just beginning its own attempt to rise above its reputation: Baja's Valle de Guadalupe wine country. "My wife and I had a house built in a community called Plaza Del Mar; we love to go down there. It's on a cliff overlooking the ocean; it was a great place to go and grade papers." As he writes in his 2001 book Wines of Baja California, "My only reluctance lay in a not-so-secret desire to live near a center of wine production...I knew that premium wine grapes don't thrive where ice plant and salty sea foam happily commingle." A friendly local came to his rescue and apprised him of the vineyards planted just a few miles inland, and the professor started doing his homework.

If there were few books on Napa back in the '60s, there were practically none on Baja in the '90s. "I think what sparked my interest in writing the book was that the area was so little known, let alone understood. Whenever you read about wine regions, they'll mention Canada, the U.S., and then they hop over Mexico and talk about Chile, Argentina, and occasionally, Peru. I thought I could contribute to narrowing the knowledge gap. I wanted to provide a book that could be distributed more effectively than a quick article, something that people could take with them. People like to come to Mexico, but when I was beginning my research, they didn't go to the wineries."

It might be that they didn't know the wineries existed. Or it might be that they did. Amey himself had tasted and dismissed some overheated wines from Bodega Santo Tomás back in the '70s. "I'll say right up front that not all of the wines are great. When I wrote the book, there were about 15 wineries in the valley, and 4 or 5 of those might have been mom-and-pop. Sometimes, when you have these mom-and-pop operations...I think the wines of Barolo are a great example," says Amey, taking a more famous example. There are some fantastic producers, like Gaja, but then there are also some old-fashioned people. They can be careless about cleanliness. I've walked into some wineries there that are filthy, and I think, 'My God, no wonder these aren't very good wines.'"

Old-fashioned people can have "old-fashioned methods of making the wine. They haven't had any formal training, except from their father and that father's father and so on." This sort of teaching is not always about the preservation of ancient wisdom; sometimes, it can mean perpetuating a bad idea. Fermenting in concrete, say, may not be the best thing for your wine. (That was Italy; early Baja wines were fermented in bowls made from animal hides.)

But by the time Amey started investigating, Baja had begun to see winemakers "who really knew what they were doing and who had an international view. They could bring to the wine technology, materials, and recommendations" from the more established wine regions of the world. Sometimes, the winemakers themselves hailed from elsewhere: LA Cetto's Camillo Magoni came over from Northern Italy, and Chateâu Camou famously sought the advice of French super-consultant Michel Rolland. "I personally am not keen about the internationalization of, say Cabernet or Chardonnay," notes Amey. "I think it's very beautiful to have wines that represent the region where they're made. But by the same token, if you're in an area where there hasn't been a lot of knowledge of what's going on elsewhere, certain techniques can be used to improve your wine without turning it into a clone of the rest of the world."

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