Food Trends: Custom Wine

March 2, 2008

When your dinner guest hands you a cute little bottle of something and says, "I made it myself," you probably expect grimace-inducing plonk, if not battery acid. But check the label: if the U-Vin operation in question happens to be California Cult Classics, you've hit the jackpot. In an anonymous-looking spot in a light-industrial area of North Vancouver, winemaker Frank Gigliotti helps a growing roster of enophiles and celebrity members turn out painstakingly made, premium wines.

The affable Gigliotti, 59, has had several careers; a professional musician in his youth, he was president of the BC Lions in the Murray Pezim era, then a business consultant, then a music producer. "My dad made wine when I was growing up near Queen Elizabeth Park, but I hated wine," he recalls. "Or so I thought. As it turned out, it was my dad's wine that I hated." He got turned on to the good stuff during his days as promotion and marketing director for Columbia Records in Canada. "Guys like Billy Joel, Julio Iglesias, and Neil Diamond got me tasting great wines when we'd go for dinner."

A few years ago, he dedicated himself to producing wine that, he says, "I wouldn't be embarrassed to put on any table, anywhere in the world."

He's well on the way. "Frank's coup was talking Andy Beckstoffer, a legendary grower in Napa, into selling him absolutely stellar, fought-over fruit," explains David Scholefield, a consultant and former LDB buyer. "You can't make great wine without great grapes, and Frank gets his hands on some of Napa's very best."

"He's got very good sources," agrees Anthony Gismondi, who writes for Wine Access and the Vancouver Sun. "He spares no expense. And they've done a great job of interpreting the U-Vin rules-they're probably the most legitimate U-Vin operation in the city."

How did he obtain such prime fruit? "There's a 38-acre plot, across from

Rutherford, where Andy grows Clone 6 cabernet grapes," Gigliotti says. "The yield is low and the grapes are expensive, but they're legendary. I literally got down on my knees and begged. He liked it that I've got a family operation-my wife does the administration, and my son is the assistant winemaker-and I was fortunate that he let me have 30 tonnes from a yield of 70 or 80."

The grapes are gently crushed, not punched down, the juice constantly pumped over the skins to extract maximum flavour with minimum harsh tannins. To comply with U-Vin rules, CCC members personally add a vial of yeast to the juice in the fermentation tanks. The wine's aged in brand-new, custom-toasted Seguin Moreau casks ($1,000 a pop).

A couple of years later, once the wine's taken on the complexities that barrel aging imparts, members like Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini, Joe Fortes owner Bud Kanke, and NHL players Brendan Morrison and Ed Jovanovski can be found feeding Bruni glass bottles (from Venice) through an $83,000 bottling machine, which uses nitrogen instead of sulphites to preserve the wine. The Ganau corks are from Sardinia. Ultra-discreet labels allow members to number individual bottles-which, as per U-Vin rules, must be carted off within 24 hours.

Et voilà. Two years after plunking down about $10,000, you walk out with 288 bottles (roughly $35 each) that, says Scholefield, if they're as good as Gigliotti's 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, "stand alongside a $150 reserve wine from Napa."

And you can tell your dinner companions you made it yourself.

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