September 21, 2006
Richard "Tim" Spencer

My last visit with Richard "Tim" Spencer must have been three years ago, maybe four. We'd stopped by his St. Amant Winery in Lodi to taste through his latest releases during one of those weekend festivals wine districts use as marketing tools.

I'd long admired his wines, and I'm sure I enjoyed those he poured that day, but what I remember most of that visit was when he briefly excused himself, darted into his lab, and returned with a tiny bottle of what looked to be ink. With just one or two drops of the stuff, he turned a glass of clear water into petite sirah, or at least a reasonable facsimile of California's most color saturated red wine.

The bottle contained what he said was a salesman's sample of "mega purple," a concentrated grape juice that vintners had started to use to add intensity to wines they felt were a bit shy of color. It's a perfectly legal product, if more than a little out of the mainstream of traditional winemaking.

Tim made it clear that he didn't think much of the practice. He brought it out because he was one of the more candid, forthcoming winemakers I've ever met, and just wanted to make sure he was doing his part to bring a wine writer up to speed on the kind of new-age high-tech tactics some winemakers were using to secure their niche in the marketplace.

I'm using the past tense because I learned late today that Tim died last week, following a two-year struggle with lymphoma. His funeral was Monday. I missed it, and I'll miss Tim, one of the true joys of the California wine trade whenever you ran into him.

I could go on with other anecdotes to illustrate Tim's integrity, his commitment to honest winemaking, which is to say that he believed the winemaker should interfere as little as possible between the grapes he plucks from the vine and the wine he pours his guests. One, however, stands out:

Six years ago, judges of the California State Fair in Sacramento named his St. Amant Winery 1999 Amador County Roussanne the best example of the varietal to come from the Sierra foothills.

Coincidental with the competition, Tim had learned that the grapes that went into the wine may have been viognier, not roussanne. In a move believed unprecedented in California wine history, he recalled the wine from restaurateurs and retailers, and even tried to reach authorities at the State Fair to have it pulled from the competition, to no avail.

Ordinarily the most jovial of guys, Tim was downright distressed about this turn of events. It wasn't so much that he feared that authorities would crack down on him for misrepresentation as it was that he just hated to mislead wine consumers, though he was innocent from the start of any sort of duplication.

The saga was drawn out and complicated, leading to charges, counter-charges and litigation about the sale of viognier vines thought to be roussanne, with Tim caught in the middle of it all. Eventually, authorities let him sell the wine, and because of the notoriety surrounding it it sold out maybe faster than any other wine he made, which is saying something, given the popularity of his tempranillos, zinfandels, barberas and ports.

During that incident, Tim probably could have sued any number of people, but he just wanted to get back to making wine with whatever grape he turned out to have. "At my age" - he was 62 at the time - "you've got to devote your energy to more positive things," he said.

Tim was a positive influence on the California wine trade, leaving a legacy well worth emulating.

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