Berger on wine: Newsletter flies under the wine radar

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The 1980 cabernet smelled a little like shoe polish, but despite the odd aroma, I liked it. In a blind-tasting of 12 cabs, I rated it first place. Which led to a bit of razzing from the assembled tasters.

It was 1983. The “event” was one of the regular weekly blind-tastings conducted by Nick Ponomareff, who has published his newsletter, The California Grapevine, for more than 44 years.

The Grapevine started so long ago that it predates about 95% of the wineries that now operate in the U.S. Back then, only a few newspapers had wine columns. Wine was an esoteric topic whose only appeal was to snobs, collectors and restaurants with 2-pound wine lists.

There was essentially no wine gadget business: no specialty glassware, decanters, corkscrews. Restaurant patrons asked for “a glass of chablis”; chardonnay was almost unknown. Some house builders even placed wine “cellars” adjacent to fireplaces.

Napa’s best cabernets were $6 a bottle.

The Grapevine was founded in San Diego in 1974, two years before the late journalist Bob Morrisey founded The Wine Spectator literally a few miles away.

Ponomareff, a tall, bearded, soft-spoken rocket scientist, and his wife, Lettie, long had been fascinated with fine wine. In the early 1970s, Nick asked members of San Diego’s then-burgeoning fine wine community if they’d be interested in regular blind tastings of current releases to see which cabernets, zinfandels and other wines were best.

Many said yes. Tastings would be done in homogeneous groups: a dozen merlots against one another, etc. Results would be reported only in those groups. Ever scrupulous, Nick would buy all the wines at retail, making frequent trips from his La Jolla home to Northern California wine shops with the best brands.

Ponomareff rented space at a local strip mall for regular weekly blind tastings. He collected scores and tasting notes on the wines from all tasters, accumulating their most cogent notes, and offering the “average-score” results in discrete groupings by type in a newsletter. A computer program determined statistical relevance, a “true ranking.” Occasionally No. 1 was statistically identical to No. 8.

The newsletter was printed and mailed to subscribers, and soon group winners began to sell quickly. In some cases, wineries never knew why.

That’s because Ponomareff, a meticulous and careful man, was good at doing the tastings and keeping to a six issues-per-year schedule, but he wasn’t great at marketing.

“Nick is a quiet man,” said one of the original panel members, Bob Foster of Carlsbad. “He doesn’t do much public relations to advertise what the Grapevine is.”

Though Nick’s subscription base grew, it has always been modest; today it’s about 2,000. An online subscription is $32 per year.

Initially Grapevine tasters were local wine lovers, not professionals. But many became so skilled they were widely known as semi-pro wine judges.

They came from all walks and occupations — a veterinarian specializing in exotic birds, a school bus driver, several wine retailers, a concert pianist, two attorneys, a soon-to-be judge, a public relations executive and a retired college professor.

Some became judges at international wine competitions. Foster, a retired prosecutor with the California attorney general’s office, and now the book review columnist for the Grapevine, today conducts wine judgings around the country. (I occasionally write essays for the publication.)

The story of the “shoe polish-y” 1980 cabernet points to the jocularity that regular panel members have always displayed.

And to the fact that in nearly seven years as a weekly Grapevine panel member, I accumulated some odd wine-tasting terms that never show up on anyone’s list of “standard” wine terms.”

Such as “a fox’s den in a Memphis heat wave,” or “thawed frozen spinach” and a “coffee-maker hotplate that was left on over the weekend.”

By admitting that the 1980 cabernet smelled like shoe polish, I was met with guffaws. Some tasters thought it accurate. One person suggested that my first-place vote for it was equivalent to “a high dive.”

Which soon led to a rule: Anyone casting a first-place vote for a wine that everyone agrees is terrible must buy a bottle of it (an official High-Dive) and serve it at a subsequent Grapevine party.

Years later, I brought the “Shoe Polish Cab” to a July 4 picnic and served it blind. No one had any idea which wine it was. After it was identified, many said it was better than it had been.

One judge said, “It still has some of that shoe polish.”

As to the publication’s relatively small subscription base, Foster said it has always been under the radar.

“It’s America’s best kept wine secret.”

Discovery of the Week: 2018 Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare, Central Coast ($16) — No shoe polish here! Randall Grahm created Le Cigare Volant (with a hilarious story) as a red wine blend featuring grenache. Later this wine became its pink counterpart. Over time, Grahm and his winemaking team have improved the pink blend dramatically.

This newly released version is spectacular, with floral and spice notes from both grenache and grenache blanc. Quite dry. It is now better than most of the best rosés from the south of France. Occasionally discounted.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country on Wednesdays with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.

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