My wife, Gretta, died two days after Christmas.
I know this is a terrible way to begin a wine column, but please bear with me. For though Gretta wasn't a wine aficionado per se, she had her favorite wines and loved the wine country. And being in Napa Valley and spending time with two good wine friends occupied the last several days of her life.
Many of our special friends are affiliated with the wine business. Others are wine lovers who assemble several times a year under the moniker “DIMWITS” — Downtown Mankato Wine Tasting Society — a group that has been meeting for over 30 years.
Gretta has always maintained contact with her many friends over the years. One is her best friend from seventh grade in Houston, Sharon. A decade later, Sharon married a copier salesman in California. One would think "boring!" — but George was an entrepreneur, smart, witty and ultimately a wine lover.
We followed George and Sharon through their life stages, first in a tract home in Orange County drinking boring bottles, to upscale houses on Newport Bay with an ample collection of California Cabernet Sauvignons and eventually Pinot Noirs. All along, though we didn't see them frequently, Gretta and I were participants in their wine education.
One day some years ago, George was sitting in his office at his copier dealership when a man walked in and plunked a seven-figure check down on his desk. “I want to buy your business,” he said. George looked at the man, looked at the check and looked at the man again.
“OK,” he said, and that was that.
Eventually, George bought some grazing land just south of San Luis Obispo in the Edna Valley and prepared and planted the largest single planting of pinot noir vines in San Luis Obispo County. Gretta and I liked to think that we were partially responsible.
Back to Napa Valley. One of Gretta’s all-time favorite people was a winemaker and small winery owner named Bill Cadman. We were visiting Bill and his partner, Miki, at Bill's Tulocay Winery in the few days just before her death. Though we couldn’t stay at their house due to Gretta’s mobility challenges following a stroke she suffered Labor Day weekend, we could enjoy their hospitality, food and, of course, wine. And as we always did, we took a leisurely drive up and down the length of the valley, noting what had changed and what had remained the same over the 47 years I'd been visiting this lovely area.
One of Gretta’s favorite wines was the 1935 Simi Zinfandel. In 1972, while working at a winery in Napa, I used weekends to tour the northern California wine country and on one stumbled upon Simi Winery in Healdsburg.
The winery was founded in 1876 by two brothers, Giuseppe and Pietro Simi. But in 1904, they both died suddenly, leaving the winery and its operations to Giuseppe's daughter, 18-year-old Isabelle Simi. Isabelle continued making wine through Prohibition, even though she was legally unable to sell it.
In 1970, she sold the winery to Russell Green, a local vineyard owner. When he bought it, he found two large redwood tanks full of wine, one labeled 1935 Cabernet Sauvignon and the other 1935 Zinfandel. When he asked Isabelle about them, she said that 1935 was an extraordinary vintage and that the tank labels were accurate, though the tanks had been topped up periodically with newer wine as is allowed by law.
Green sampled the wines, found them to be still vibrant, and bottled them, selling them for $18 a bottle.
When I first visited the winery in 1972, the tasting room was empty save for 86-year-old Isabelle herself, presiding over hospitality, if no longer the winery.
Though $18 — $110 in today's dollars — was a lot for a lowly winery worker to spend on a bottle of wine, I purchased one of each. They eventually ended up in Boulder, Colorado, where Gretta and I sampled them a year later with some very good wine-loving friends.
While the Cabernet Sauvignon was just so-so, the Zinfandel was enthralling — not alcoholic and powerful, like so many Zins are today, but refined, sublime and complete. It became the benchmark against which Gretta measured all the subsequent red wines she ever tasted.
It's fitting that Gretta, a history professor, would be enamored with an old bottle of wine, and that it should hold a special place in her memory, along with Sharon, George, Bill, Miki, the DIMWITS and all the special friends she's had over the years, with or without a glass of wine.
I miss her.