The Godfather of Fine California Wine Is a Brother Named Timothy

updated 04/23/1979 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/23/1979 01:00AM

'If the good Lord didn't want alcoholic beverages made, he wouldn't have made the yeast cell'

A lot of people taste wine with their eyes. They look at the label and decide what they will find. It prejudices their taste." So saith the vice-president of Christian Brothers, the Napa Valley's largest winery, and he ought to know: Brother Timothy has been its cellar master and chief taster for 43 years.

How does a layman recognize a good wine without the label? "When you first taste it on the front part of your tongue you should think, 'Gee, this is pretty nice.' Then there is a good aftertaste, so you go back for more," sums up the 68-year-old brother. That, anyway, seems to be what happens with Christian Brothers. The vineyard annually sells three and a half million cases of wine and brandy—from a 90¢ split of rose to a sophisticated $5.75 Cabernet Sauvignon. (Sacramental wine accounts for less than 5 percent of the total gross.) The profits support the order's 13 schools on the West Coast.

The company's success is owed, in large part, to the skill of Brother Timothy. The American Society of Enologists' Man of the Year in 1977, he was teaching chemistry at St. Mary's High School in Berkeley when the winery recruited him in 1935. "I did everything the hard way," he recalls. "I learned from books, by tasting trial and error and by asking a lot of questions." Now the ruddy 6'2½" master vintner gives the final taste test to all 40 kinds of Christian Brothers blended wines (they are undated because grapes of different variety and vintage are used). He speaks poetically and partisanly about his products and their "balance. That is a real big word with us."

The large (12,000 strong) educational order got into the wine-making business by chance a century ago when it purchased some land in Martinez, Calif. that happened to include 12 acres of vineyards. So the grapes wouldn't die on the vine, the enterprising brothers made wine for their own use and then sold it locally. In 1930 they relocated to 450 acres of sunny hillside in the Napa Valley and now run the only winery there that has not changed hands since then. Of the 150 employees (150 migrants come in at harvest), only six are Christian Brothers.

Born Anthony George Diener in Elizabeth, N.J., Timothy and his six siblings had a strict Catholic upbringing, and it came as no surprise when he joined the order at 17. Less expected, however, was his ultimate calling. His father had an opportunity to buy a zinfandel vineyard but law-abidingly refused (it was during Prohibition) and became a haberdasher.

The cellar master's day starts at 6:10 in his simple room at the novitiate just up the road from the winery. After Mass and breakfast, Timothy dons his work clothes—casual pants and beige cardigan—and heads to the sampling lab. "Tasting wine is best done in the morning," he informs. "When you are physically tired, your palate—and your mind—get a little fuzzy." After lunch it's off to inspect the vineyards and test the soil. "We consider ourselves an active order," says Brother Tim. "I couldn't stand a contemplative life." In the evening he sits down to a dinner complemented by one of his own fine Cabernet Sauvignons or perhaps a Pinot Saint George. His favorite weekend recreation is adding to his international collection of 1,400 corkscrews.

In a religious order devoted to education, how does Brother Timothy justify his vocation? "Oh, gosh," he replies. "I can answer that a thousand different ways. Wine-making is an art form—it expresses something of yourself. And in the Scripture, the first miracle Christ performed was turning water into wine. If Christ made wine, I don't feel ashamed to be involved with it."

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