Torres Stakes Claim In California


May 12, 1991|By Michael Dresser

Torres is one of the great names in Spanish wine. From its lowest-price everyday wine to its top-of-the-line Gran Coronas Black Label, consumers have come to associate the name with good value and high quality.

Now the family of Don Miguel Torres wants to be one of the great names in California wine. And if their first release from their California vineyard is any indication, they have a good shot at it.

The wine, a barrel-fermented chardonnay from the difficult 1989 vintage, bears the name of Marimar Torres, who has represented the family business in the United States for more than 15 years.

In that time, the small dark-haired woman with the broad smile has become one of the most visible and effective wine promoters this country has ever seen. In the macho, male-dominated Spanish wine trade, Don Miguel's daughter is a notably successful businesswoman.

Now, besides managing Torres' highly successful marketing effort from her home in Sausalito, Calif., she is overseeing the fortunes of the family's massive vineyard investment in the cool Green Valley of Sonoma County.

It is a project that has been in the works since 1981, but the Torres family's deliberate approach has delayed the release of the first wine until now.

Normally, the release of a new California chardonnay would be little cause for excitement. The state is awash in the stuff, and most of it is pretty boring.

But there's always room for another wine if it's good enough, and the 1989 Marimar Torres Chardonnay from the Don Miguel Vineyard is excellent.

Acid deficiency is the most common disease of California chardonnay, but the Torres gets a clean bill of health on that score. The wine is crisp and clean, but there is an underlying concentration and structure. There's plenty of oak, but it's well-integrated and doesn't dominate the yeasty flavors or mineral nuances of the wine.

In addition, in a vintage in which autumn rains brought rampant rot (especially botrytis, which does nothing positive for chardonnay) to California's wine harvest, there were no traces of mustiness or mold. Neither was there any of the telltale blandness of a wine that has been filtered half to death.

"The botrytis was a hanging sword over our heads," said Ms. Torres during a recent visit to Maryland.

Ms. Torres said the family's California venture will eventually produce chardonnay and pinot noir. The winemaker will be Christopher Howell, who studied together with Marimar Torres' brother, Miguel Jr., in France. Miguel Jr., a world-renowned winemaker, flies in from Spain once a year to consult.

In many ways, the vineyard operation reflects the ideas of her notoriously finicky brother, Marimar Torres said. The vines are planted in the European style -- close together and cropped low -- to minimize the yield per plant and increase the concentration of the wine. Eventually, the family plans to move toward an all-organic approach to farming, she said.

Unfortunately, the production from the first vintage is so tiny that only 900 cases are available for the entire United States (another 400 will be exported). Of these Maryland's share is a paltry 15 cases.

Because there is so little of the wine, it will not be offered through retail stores. Instead the wine will be sold through a limited number of restaurants, five of them in Maryland, including Tio Pepe -- one of Torres' biggest restaurant accounts in the country.

Eventually, Ms. Torres expects production to increase to the point where her wines can be shipped to stores. There will be 3,000 cases of the 1990 chardonnay and an estimated 4,500 of the 1991. The price will be around $20 -- not inexpensive but competitive with other chardonnays of its quality.

Ms. Torres says the decision to name the wine after her came only after intense discussions within the family. Torres Sonoma, Torres Family and just Marimar were all considered, but finally the family decided the wine should carry her full name.

She noted with some pride that Marimar Torres will become one of the few women's names on a California wine bottle. Many California estates carry the full names of their owners -- Robert Mondavi, Joseph Phelps and William Hill are three well-known examples -- but almost all of them are men. (The tiny Kathryn Kennedy Winery in Santa Clara County is the only other example I could find.)

"Wine is something you really should personalize," she said. "It's just so much more engaging."


When Americans think chardonnay, they tend to think California, and for the most part they're right to do so.

Still, one of the finest producers of chardonnay in the entire United States is located almost 3,000 miles away from the Napa Valley in the small town of Lodi, N.Y., on the shore of Lake Seneca.

Now Wagner Vineyards is a quirky place. Half winery and half tourist trap, it makes some syrupy-sweet, traditional Eastern wines that would make a California connoisseur cringe.

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