Tom's blog

Fond memories of a wine pioneer


Chris Bilbro of Marietta Cellars died recently after battling cancer for several years. I remember visiting Chris several times at his Sonoma County property. Chris’ wine-making assembly line when I was there in the 1980s was shared by the family’s laundry room, so you could literally wash the clothes while bottling the wines. But it was in this old cow barn where Bilbro churned out his famous Old Vine Red.

Old Vine was a blend of zinfandel, petite sirah and other red grapes grown on vines once planted by Italian immigrants. While many winemakers passed on these grapes, Chris was more than happy to take them when he first started out. Unlike anyone else, he sometimes made two batches a year — they were all non--vintage — and labeled them as “lots.” My first Marietta Old Vine was Lot 11. Today, they are on Lot 62.

I loved these wines — often costing around $12 a bottle — and cellared them for years. But they were best when consumed within a year. Today, Bilbro’s sons are making the wine and a lot of it — 35,000 cases of the Marietta Old Vine a year.

It’s still a great wine and a forerunner to the sea of red blends on the market today. Chris never had to resort to cheap tricks — like leaving some residual sugar in the wine — because his blends didn’t need anything to cover up flaws. Try it alongside Apothic Red and see what I mean.

Chris also loved to hunt wild boar in California. He treated a few of us to a boar dinner one night when I was living in Maryland. He told the story about shooting the animal while it was drinking from a pond. When he went to retrieve it, the boar jumped up and grabbed the barrel of his rifle. Chris was hanging on for dear life when he pulled the trigger again to deliver the coup de grace. It turned out his first shot hit the animal in the forehead and it has a dense plate there. It’s a story I’ve retold many times and a story that was quintessential Bilbro. He reminded me of Ernest Hemingway, except instead of making prose Chris made wine.

I miss collecting these wines. Join me in retrying them and toasting a great man.