15 Apr 2013

Wine: Beringer’s Winemaker, Laurie Hook

Douglas Blyde meets Beringer’s Winemaker, Laurie Hook (for Harper's)

LAURIE Hook, Beringer’s seventh winemaker since the winery was founded in 1896, hosted dinner at Wolfgang Puck’s first European restaurant, CUT, Park Lane. This occurred in the five-star’s former cinema, recently reclaimed as a private dining room, and lined with prints of neon versions of the statue of Liberty, a cowgirl, and pool-player by Brendan Neiland (the hotel’s collection also includes works by Damien Hirst, Sir Peter Blake and Bill Wyman). Wishing to continue reclamation in the name of gastronomy, CUT’s Head Sommelier, Vanessa Cinti, who hopes to visit Sicily this year, mentioned that the small gym adjoining the new dining room “might make a fine cellar...”

Hook, wearing a stylish pendant depicting what she confirmed could be the early stages of the Big Bang, explained that although it is the USA’s best-known wine region, the Napa Valley only produces 4% of California’s wine. It is, in fact, “one-eighth the size of Bordeaux.” However, despite its’ diminutive scale, the terrain of what she calls “uplifted, volcanic soils, with marked temperature variations” provides a wide palate from which to blend around 30 cuvées annually. “Every vintage is a puzzle,” she says.
Despite there being iPad applications such as “Sunseeker”, which can accurately predict the angle at which the sun will be shining its’ rays onto her 480 hectares of vineyards “in three months time,” Hook prefers an old-school approach to working parcels, implementing her personal knowledge of vineyards gleaned over some 26 harvests (14 as winemaker). She is also keen when blending, on following “intuition”. “At some point you need to turn off your analytical left brain actually. You can't make wine through science alone.” To this end, one of Hook’s formative experiences occurred in 2002 when visiting a perfumery in Provence and blending her own fragrance.
Born in Jersey (US) but raised in Sacramento, Hook says she “never dreamt” of becoming a winemaker: “I didn't even know the job existed.” She admits her interest was “piqued” on discovering that her ancestors had owned 14th century Pessac-Léognan château, Olivier prior to the French revolution. “Although I went through a somewhat aborted hippy phase, my connection to the earth remained,” she says. Hook also recalls making a pilgrimage to Olivier in 1984. “I remember visiting the owner as a fresh University of California at Davis graduate – but he couldn’t have been less impressed!” That year, she also travelled to Australia to work at a small winery near Melbourne before joining Beringer as enologist in 1986.
Over dinner cooked by Executive Chef, David McIntyre, Cinti’s team poured no fewer than 11 wines. These included Rubenesque, beautifully butterscotch-like, Private Reserve Chardonnay ‘11 from Oakville matched with similarly buttery, hand-rolled garganelli pasta with wild ceps. Finely-textured Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ‘89, crafted largely from fruit from cooler Howell mountain sites worked with CUT’s speciality (the name is the clue) – steak. Considering its’ somewhat exotic connotations for an American, Hook selected a substantial fillet of English Angus over USDA prime sirloin. Side orders included Desiree potato purée, composition of which a waiter joked was "95% butter.”
It is worth noting, that Beringer’s wines have been consistently critically-rated, from inaugural awards in 1887 by the Mechanics Institute Exposition in San Francisco, to their (19)86 Cabernet Sauvignon and ‘94 Chardonnay being voted Wines f the Year (Wine Spectator). More recently, Beringer took second place in the 2006 ‘Judgement of Sauternes’ blind tasting which “aimed” (but failed) “to right the wrongs of Steven Spurrier’s Re-Judgment of Paris.” In fact, California scooped four out of five of the top places.
With unavoidably delicious sticky coffee date cake and tangerine gelato, Hook chose Nightingale Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon ‘07, which is named after Beringer’s fifth winemaker, Myron Nightingale who developed the botrytis-enriched style. Clearly, experimentation and innovation, not to mention a little chutzpah has been in Beringer’s blood for decades, a fact reinforced by the popularity of its’ sparkling “Burgundy” in the 1930s, and creation of Maximus in 2004 - the world's largest bottle of wine, Guinness-certified, containing 173 standard bottles. It raised $47,500 at a charity auction.
On account of its’ continued production throughout prohibition ostensibly to supply “sacramental wines”, Beringer remains Napa’s oldest continuously-operating winery. It was founded by Rhine émigré brothers, Frederick and Jacob Beringer, the latter having initially worked as Cellar Foreman for Charles Krug winery, located beside the site that would become his own winery. It features cool tunnels for maturation, hand-chiselled by Chinese workers who had first helped construct the Trans-Continental Railroad, which no doubt itself helped transport countless of Beringer’s bins over time.
The dinner at CUT brought to mind Beringer’s annual Great Steak Challenge, a cook-off now in its fourth incarnation, where contestants compete for a $25,000 prize. Hook, who enjoys wine on her dinner table “every night”, is particularly interested in wine and food matching, and drew tonight’s guests’ attentions to the presence of detailed advice freely available on the Beringer website. Furthermore, the estate features a Culinary Arts Center in a property which Frederick Beringer implausibly but successfully rolled by horsepower over logs into vineyards to make way for his Rhine-style mansion.
The ornate, 17-room edifice which replaces it “sits on a knoll” and faces the winery, according to Hook, who had opened the dinner with the warning: “about 90% of what I say is true.” Here, grapes were originally delivered by horse and cart. Visitors of note in various epochs have included Clark Gable and, more recently, Michael Buble, who even blended his own wine.
Hook acknowledges winemaking is teamwork, and, without hesitation details her most satisfying hire: “my associate winemaker, Chris Louton – for his inquisitive mind...”