Our Friends In Sacramento (CA Pioneers - Part III)

If you live in Northern California and you're into local fooderies, then you've undoubtedly heard of the Corti Brothers; the Sacramento grocery outlet started by Frank and Gino Corti in 1947. Focusing on wine and other delicacies previously unavailable in the area, the two siblings set the bar for what a retailer of fine goods could bea purveyor of both quality and education for those interested in learning more about the things we consume. Frank's son Darrell would eventually take over the family business and today he's known in our industry as a man with impeccable taste. Even serious whisky geeks might recognize his single malt prowess from Serge's Whisky Fun blog, where a number of the Corti Brothers whiskies (bottled back in the 1980s) have been reviewed recently (to great acclaim). Darrell and our co-owner Clyde Beffa go back decades, and remain friends today; both having taken a stand for excellence in retailing long before such a thing was popular. There's no doubt a number of similarities between the infrastructure of both K&L and the Corti Brothers retail storestwo family run merchantiles that have long searched outside the box for the finer things in life; importing their own exclusive products from abroad, complete with a simple, plain white label (Kalinda would be the K&L wine version).

I bring the Corti Brothers up now because tomorrow we're getting the chance to finally do a little business together. Let me start by pasting in this text from the recent Fall 2014 Corti Brothers newsletter pertaining to an old California wine they're currently offering:

CHARLES MYERS began making MISSION DEL SOL wine at HARBOR WINERY in 1972. The last vintage he produced, the 1986, was bottled July, 2014. This 28 year old wine is the last vintage of this unique production. It is an exceptional bottling of an exceptional wine. It is also a relic of California wine, that when gone, will probably not be seen again.

Made from what is considered a worthless, yet historically famous grape variety, MISSION, it is the product of a fermentation technology, first described and written about by W.V. CRUESS, in 1916. This fermentation technology, syruped fermentation, for the production of high alcohol dessert wines, came about due to the lack of fortifying spirit in California in 1915. Professor Cruess writes about it in his book, The Principles and Practice of Winemaking [2nd edition, 1947.] Cruess’ book was the winemaking guide Charles Myers followed.

In 1972, it was difficult to make fortified wines, since to fortify necessitated the presence of the Federal officer responsible for alcohol. Charles thought this was onerous. In 1969, Stony Hill winery in St. Helena started to produce a sweet semillon wine for Corti Brothers called Semillon de Soleil. Charles thought he could produce a similar sweet wine with Mission grapes from Amador Co. As a home winemaker he had tried making such a wine in 1967. Thus, with a humble variety no one wanted, and old technology, which no one wanted either, nine vintages of Mission del Sol were produced. The grapes were always from Amador County vineyards and varied from Deaver to Eschen, to Story. This last vintage, the 1986, is from the century old vines at Story vineyard.

The production technology at Harbor winery has always been as “non interventionist” as possible. The wines didn’t make themselves, but were handled with as little manipulation as possible–what was just necessary. ANGELICA is probably the closest wine type that Mission del Sol corresponds to. It is different from classic Angelica in that not being fortified with spirit, it has a softer, less hard flavor, with great fruitiness that is not just simple.

The aged character of the 1986 comes through with a striking ruddy amber color, a marvelous “rancio” character and pungency, reminiscent of a fine Bual or Verdelho Madeira. A soft butterscotch flavor is due to the wine’s age. It is sweet, but with a dry end. With 22.7% alcohol and only 8 grams of sugar, it is not cloying or sticky. When fermentation finished and the first analysis of the wine made, it had 15.7% alcohol. In 2010, it had 19.5%. Its alcohol at bottling is simply concentration due to evaporation. Curiously, the sweetness is less than dry Sercial Madeira would have.

I got the chance to try one of these bottles a few weeks ago and it was quite an eye-opening experience. Not only is the Mission wine a relic of California's booze history (a subject I've been covering recently on the blog), but it got me immediately thinking: what would whisky taste like were it to be aged in a leftover Mission Del Sol barrel? The profile is very similar to a sweet sherry flavor and could probably do quite a number on the right spirit. Maybe that was something we could work on together.

But then, of course, that curiosity was soon satisfied. I got the answer I was looking for and it seemed that someone was far, far ahead of me in that line of thinking. Tomorrow, you'll see exactly what whiskey aged in Mission Del Sol looks like. It looks like Darrell Corti is back in the whiskey business. That's good news for all of us.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll