How Sweet It Is

A handful of California vintners think American dessert wines should stand up and be counted.

Dessert wines contradict everything Americans are taught about appreciating wine. This occurred to me in France not long ago while sipping a glass of Château Suduiraut, one of the great Sauternes. I watched the timeless landscape of the Aquitane as it melted into the soft darkness of a summer evening and knew that I would be drinking something else at home. Bourbon, maybe.

In America, we are taught that wine is a beverage made for consumption with food, not for slurping down like a frozen margarita. We have come to covet single-vineyard releases, made from single grape varieties in noninterventionist fashion, because they're a product of nature, not the machinery of man.

Dessert wines don't fit. They can be as sweet as apricot jam, but far from being cheap starter wines, elegant Hungarian Tokays and Trockenbeerenausleses (TBAs) from Austria and Germany are treasures that cost at least $50 for a half-size bottle. Famous Sauternes like Château d'Yquem from France are more than double that. The grape varieties they're made from become immaterial once they leave the vineyard; almost nobody without a Master of Wine certificate can distinguish Sauvignon Blanc touched with the fickle rot of Botrytis cinerea—the mysterious growth responsible for an entire category of dessert wines, including Sauternes and TBAs—from Sémillon or Riesling in the same condition. The botrytis, not the grape, is the sublime taste.

The best of these wines should be drunk after a meal, not as an accompaniment to food, unless it is a sautéed slab of foie gras. And as for nonintervention, these wines could not exist without the firm hand of an oenological expert.

Small wonder that Americans studiously resist them. "The culture isn't inculcated in dessert wines," winemaker Manfred Krankl, Austrian-raised and California-based, told me. "They are still learning about wine, let alone dessert wine."

Yet Krankl, an oenologist, restaurateur, and entrepreneur who produces a few hundred of America's best cases of Syrah each year at his Sine Qua Non winery, near Ventura, has chosen sweet wines as his next project. To find out why, I went to visit him, in a setting about as far from the soft vistas of Sauternes as I could imagine.

The Idealist

Sine Qua Non is a warehouse set behind a junkyard at the end of a rutted driveway, just off the Ventura freeway. It's an unlikely incubator for exalted wine, but Krankl is a pragmatist who has never cared about formalities. "If I knew that adding tomato sauce would make my wine better," he said, "I'd do it in a minute. I've no problem doing whatever it is that needs to be done, whether that means filtering my wines or throwing them off the roof."

As a joint venture with Austrian winemaker Alois Kracher, Krankl is working on tiny amounts of three distinct types of dessert wine. He plans to sell them under the Mr. K label, so as not to annoy Sine Qua Non customers when they learn there isn't enough to go around. The barrel samples are promising; the pear and honey notes of the 1999 Viognier TBA framed the beginnings of an elegance I've rarely tasted in an American wine. I asked if it might have the staying power of a Sauternes, and he grinned. "To approximate aging, I put it in a glass with a paper on top and left it out for a week." He raised his eyebrows. "It's damn good," he said.

His nonbotrytis icewine, from cryogenically frozen Gewürztraminer grapes dialed to a perfect temperature and sugar level, tasted like a delicious apricot granita. He maintains he can do a better job than nature of freezing the grapes at the optimal temperature. "I really don't think the fruit cares if it was frozen by me or God," Krankl said. He also makes a Jura-style vin de paille from dried grapes laid out on straw mats. It isn't a type of wine that I much enjoy—nor does Krankl, as it happens—but he does it to prove that it can be done.

And that is pretty much the point of all of these wines. Krankl will labor intensively to get small amounts of sweet liquids from a volume of fruit that would have produced far more table wine. Then he'll bottle them (beginning with wine from the 1998 vintage, to be released later this year), sell the wines for what most consumers consider to be an outrageous price (just to get his investment back), and watch as the vast majority of consumers ignore them. It sounded to me like more trouble than it could possibly be worth. "It is," he admitted. "But it is simply not possible that, on a continent now fairly well-known for wine, you can't make something that will stand with dessert wines from the rest of the world."

Americans make dessert wine without conviction, Krankl believes, and they market it as an afterthought. "They treat it like a stepchild, and because it is treated like a stepchild it doesn't behave well, so they say, 'It's not that good.' Well, you can't make great dessert wines like that. They need more attention than other wines, not less. I want to prove what can be done."

The Committed

One winery is exempted from Krankl's diatribe. Dolce, a botrytis wine in the Sauternes style, is made as a discrete enterprise at Far Niente, a Napa Valley producer of lush Chardonnays and sturdy Cabernet Sauvignons. Krankl describes Dolce as "too lame" for his taste, but he admits that building a brand—indeed, an entire winery—around a high-end dessert wine, as Far Niente's founder and proprietor Gil Nickel did, was an act of genius. "It captured an entire market without a struggle," he said.

In 1985, as something of a lark, Nickel and winemaker Dirk Hampson started the project that would become Dolce. Hampson's first attempt at a sweet wine was surprisingly successful: one of those instances, he says now, in which he was lucky he didn't know how much he didn't know. Nobody else in California was taking a studied approach to sweet wine, so Hampson decided to.

Today, 17 acres are producing Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, with ten more just planted. Dolce pays for space and winemaking time at Far Niente's well-manicured Oakville estate, but plans are in the works for a château of its own. The wine is sold in bottles emblazoned with genuine 22-karat gold, and customers monitor the progression of botrytis on the Dolce Web site.

I'd enjoyed what little Dolce I had managed to find. (In some vintages, only a few hundred cases of six half-size bottles were produced. In years without rot, there is no Dolce.) So I left Ventura for the Napa Valley, where a tasting had been arranged by Nickel and his team at Joachim Splichal's Pinot Blanc restaurant. We sipped five vintages on their own and then with off-the-menu foie gras expertly sautéed and dressed in mango marmalade. The wines don't have the depth of the best Sauternes, but they are honeyed and rich and almost irresistible. "If you can get people to forget about what they know, and what they don't know, they absolutely love Dolce," Nickel said.

And in a sign of consistent winemaking and serious effort, one vintage of Dolce is recognizably similar to the next. "We're trying to build relationships with dessert winemakers elsewhere in the world because there aren't any like us in this country," Hampson said. "If someone is making dessert wine every three years, there is a different set of questions than we have making it every year, trying to polish a house style."

The Enthusiast

And yet there are outstanding California dessert wines made in scattershot fashion by other vintners. About halfway through my lunch with Hampson and Nickel, I pulled out a bottle of what I believe is the finest American dessert wine I've come across, and undoubtedly the most memorable. It is a wine with a name almost as long as its finish, which carried me from a tasting at Arrowood in Sonoma County, up over the Oakville Grade, and down into Napa before it faded from my mouth.

Arrowood's 1993 Special Select Late Harvest White Riesling, Russian River Valley, Oak Meadow Vineyard received a perfect score of 100 from at least one major reviewer. It has an intense—and intensely pleasurable—sweetness like nothing else I've tasted. "To me, a thimbleful of this is enough to satisfy the palate," Dick Arrowood had told me. Arrowood started making dessert wines 26 years ago at Chateau St. Jean, and he has come to consider the process more like triage than a creative act. "The grapes, if they're any good, will come in just at the point of decomposition," he said. "The winemaking consists of not allowing them to degrade even further."

Nevertheless, sweet wines are among his favorites, which is why he bothers with them. "When the fruit is right and you can process it the way you want to, you can create nuggets of gold," he said. "Few people get to experience them because the supply is so limited, but when they do, you've got a convert right there." But a convert who may have to wait years for the next one if nature doesn't cooperate.

Set against the Dolce wines, the '93 Oak Meadow Vineyard stood out as almost cartoonishly sweet. "I have the greatest respect for Dick Arrowood," Nickel said, his lips puckered against the sweetness, "but this is just a sweet liquid." He gestured toward the line of Dolces, set in an arc like sentries around the remains of the foie gras. "These are wines," he said. "They have good acid, they have oak, and they just happen to also have ten percent sugar content." Intellectually, I agreed. Still, I couldn't help but revel in the Arrowood's unctuousness. The Dolces tasted textbook-perfect with the foie gras, and they were at least serviceable with the rest of our lunches—while the food has not yet been invented that would enhance the gloriously sweet viscosity of that Arrowood. Eating anything at all with it would be like wearing clothes in a hot tub.

The Inexplicable

Most wineries make dessert wines only in special years, and they speak of them in the reverential tones usually reserved for Springsteen tours, pennant-winning seasons, and epic acts of nature. "We've made a Zinfandel essence in each of the past two years," bragged Bruce McGuire, the winemaker at Santa Barbara Winery, founded in 1962. "It's the first time we've done it in consecutive years. Before that, the last one was our 1993."

I was intrigued to hear about a dessert wine that's made from a red grape like Zinfandel, but when I tasted Santa Barbara's 1999 and 2000 essences, it was clear these were late-harvest wines in the strictest sense: wines made from grapes that gained in sugar content by hanging on the vine for weeks after ripening. They were tasty, but nothing more.

Then McGuire mentioned that the 1993 Zinfandel Essence was a legitimate botrytis wine, and I became interested again. As it turns out, there's almost none of it left. A top Japanese reviewer had a liking for Santa Barbara's 1993 Zinfandel Essence, and when he was discovered buying a case of the next vintage (1999) for his personal enjoyment, the Essences achieved cult status. Japanese visitors leave the winery carrying cases of it. But someone found a bottle of the 1993 in a storeroom, McGuire pulled the cork, and immediately I could smell Sauternes on the nose. The taste was ethereal; the wine filled my mouth with a rich, melony, botrytis flavor, including a hint of macadamia nut. It was a far more profound wine than the 1999 or 2000, even if it did look like spoiled grape juice.

McGuire seemed to be unperturbed by the inconsistency in the product. "We call this wine an essence, which simply means concentrated flavor," he explained. "It can come from frozen grapes or it can come from botrytis; that flavor can be a result of just leaving it on the vine longer." I shook my head at the challenge of marketing a wine that changed so fundamentally from year to year, but I made sure to leave with a bottle of the '93 in my bag.

The Pragmatists

Before heading home I stopped at Joseph Phelps, which has been making dessert wines since 1975, along with only Freemark Abbey and one or two others. Early on, those wines were a commercial success. "At that time," says vice president Craig Williams, "people hadn't heard that drinking sweet wines had gone out of fashion in favor of dry wines."

Through the years, the push to make and sell dessert wines has come to seem quixotic at Phelps, and today they sit, all but forgotten, at the end of the portfolio. As a result of a directive by the management, only Eisrebe, an icewine, is in the winery's future plans.

That's a shame, because Phelps' Special Select Late Harvest Johannisberg Riesling has been, on occasion, one of the more notable American dessert wines. "When we have a European contingent come over, especially from Germany, they go nuts over these," said Williams, pouring tastes of Phelps' Special Selects from the '70s and '80s. The problem, of course, is getting enough consumers excited about them to justify the labor, then doing it all over again a few years later when the wine next appears. "We're cooking with garlic and olive oil," Williams added. "We're grilling, and we're drinking meridional wines, wines of the sun. So how do you legitimize sweet wines, as the Europeans do? The answer is, you have to go to the mat like Far Niente has done with Dolce. And we're not ready to do that."

I thought of his words the following weekend when I encountered Hampson, pouring dollops of '98 Dolce into the glass of anyone who wanted any, at the Taste of Vail epicurean event. I envisioned a day's hard labor, all to make enough liquid to pour for some curious consumers over a couple of hours. That, it seemed to me, was commitment. I'd already begun to think of Dolce as my dessert wine. It didn't thrill me like the Arrowood, but its balance and acidity made it enjoyable, sip after sip. It was, I decided, the quintessential American dessert wine, ideal for an evening in someone's backyard, with the charcoal still glowing and crickets chirping and stars in the sky, and that is not a bad position to have in the wine world. I brought my glass to an empty table and sat down, alone with a friend.

Finishing Touches

1999 Mr. K TBA Viognier Elegant in the Sauternes fashion, with pear and honey notes dominating, at least at this stage.

2000 Mr. K Gewurztraminer Eiswein The essence of pure fruit in a bottle. Like drinking apricot granita. Sine Qua Non: 805-640-0997.

1995 Dolce Finest Dolce made to date, evincing layers of sweetness framed by good acidity and tempered by oak. A wine to keep for four decades.

1997 Dolce More accessible than the '95, and not as profound, but similarly styled. Dolce: 707-944-8868.

1993 Arrowood Special Select Late Harvest White Riesling, Russian River Valley, Oak Meadow Vineyard Caramelized fruit, cardamom on the nose, exalted sweetness. A 100-point wine to some; disconcertingly sweet to others. Unforgettable either way. Arrowood: 707-938-5170 0r 800-938-5170.

1999 Santa Barbara Winery Zinfandel Essence No botrytis here, just raisined fruit and a hint of sherry on the palate.

1993 Santa Barbara Winery Zinfandel Essence A remarkable wine, if not visually appealing. Beneath the purple murk lies a blend of berry and botrytis flavors enveloped in soft sweetness. Santa Barbara Winery: 800-225-3633.

1985 Phelps Johannisberg Riesling Selected Late Harvest Manages to be sweet like a Trockenbeerenauslese, but with an edge of crispness balanced by exotic papaya flavors.

1998 Phelps Eisrebe Well-made, but a simple sweet wine with fruit and little else to offer. Joseph Phelps: 800-707-5789.

Bruce Schoenfeld wrote about Miami's new basketball arena in the May/June issue of Departures.