Wine Ink column: Winemakers who leave a legacy even after they’re gone
September 19, 2018
The thing about wine is that it can outlive us. A wine made from the current vintage, this year's harvest for example, may age and mature and be ready to enjoy long after we are gone. For those who have been involved in the harvesting and crafting of that wine, it leaves a legacy of their passion and skills on this Earth for others to experience.
I raise this point because in the recent weeks during this harvest season, we have lost three winemakers whose large legacies will long impact wine lovers. In the Old World, Piedmont, Italy, iconic Barolo producer Giuseppe Rinaldi passed on Sept. 2. Then, three days later, one of the grand champions of California zinfandel, Kent Rosenblum, died Sept. 5. And just last week, word came that beloved grower, consultant and winemaker Ulises Valdez died in Sonoma at the age of 49. Death, as we all know, is a part of life, but all three of these men will be missed by wine lovers everywhere. Fortunately, they all leave behind wines of substance for us to remember them by.
The wines of Rinaldi are legendary among those who are captivated by Barolo. Austere, traditional and created as if each bottle was a piece of art, Rinaldi made wines that reflected not just his time and experiences in the vineyards, but those of his father and his grandfather before that. Since the 1880s, the Rinaldi family grew grapes and lived in the Piedmont region. "Beppe," as Giuseppe was known, relied on the techniques and traditions that were part of the past to make wines for the future.
Originally trained as a veterinarian, Beppe started working in the winery in the late 1960s and took the reins in 1992, when his father Battista died. Sourcing from the top sites, including Cannubi, Brunate, Le Coste and Ravera, the Rinaldi wines reflected the concept of blending the best juice from different locations to make wines that were in the old-school style. Organic practices were a mainstay and his wines benefited from the use of large oak vats for their fermentation.
While his, and his forefathers, traditions will now be in the hands of his daughters — Marta, who will continue to run the winery and winemaking operations and Carlotta, who is charge of the treasured vineyards — rest assured that the spirit of Rinaldi will be live in the Langhe hills forever.
Kent Rosenblum's path in wine was decidedly New World, but there are similarities between Beppe and Rosenblum. For starters, Rosenblum also was a veterinarian before his career in wine began. In the early 1970s, the Minnesota native began making wine in his San Francisco Bay-area basement. A bug bit and he was off and running, eventually turning a hobby into a zinfandel empire, which was eventually sold to Diageo for over $100 million in January 2008. His timing could not have been better, as it was just a few months before the Great Recession that put a damper on the industry.
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Unlike Beppe, Kent made wines that were super-ripe, fruit-forward and ready to drink. He made many single-vineyard wines and, before the sale a decade ago, he had grown the winery to over 200,000 cases in sales, with as many as 30 different wines in any given year.
An avid skier (he loved Aspen, I am told by his old ski buddy Leon Fell), Rosenblum was known for his infectious love of life. Oh, and like the Rinaldis, Rosenblum's passion for wine continues with his daughter, Shauna, who is the winemaker at the Rock Wall Wine Co. in Alameda, California. On the Rockwall website there is a saying from Kent, "Never underestimate the value of a little fun." That was evident in his life and his wines.
Finally, in Sonoma, another infectious personality has been lost as Valdez, the Mexican migrant who tended the vines in the most revered vineyards of Sonoma County and eventually founded his own winery, had a heart attack and died Sept. 12 at just 49 years of age.
Valdez's story is as inspiring as his wines and those made by others who swore by his viticulture expertise. These included Rosenblum, Paul Hobbs and Mark Aubert. Born in Michoacán, Mexico, Valdez came to the Dry Creek Valley in his teens and worked harvests. In the early 2000s he worked with Florence Vineyard Management before buying out the company and, in 2004, began making wines under the Valdez Family Winery label. Valdez's legacy was that he lived the American Dream, and the dream continues in the vineyards he helped make great.
A toast to all.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at email@example.com.