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California's Great Reds

In Search of the Perfect California Cabernet
James Laube
Posted: June 1, 1993

Wine and surfing. Those two pastimes captured my fancy in the summer of '74. Not much came of my surfing career. By the time I'd more or less mastered the sport of long-boarding, these wide-body behemoths were dinosaurs, replaced with shorter, lighter, niftier boards that zipped across the waves. Little did I know that a new passion had been taking shape between riding the waves. I had been sampling my way through the shelves of a little wine store near the beach at Cardiff-by-the-Sea in San Diego, where I lived. I had no idea that I was sipping my way through the modern renaissance of California wine and laying the groundwork for a life of writing about and drinking California wine.

My friends and I found the wine world a fascinating arena of new names, places, tastes and styles. Each year there were new vintages and new wines to explore. The owner of our favorite little wine store provided endless streams of buying advice. But apart from the new arrivals and vintages each year, it usually didn't take long to work through the latest recommendations.

A new world opened that year. One die-hard member of our surf- and-wine club left San Diego State University to study history in Sonoma County. There he talked of a brave new and exciting world of wine in Napa-Sonoma. If you said it quickly, NapaSonoma, it sounded like one word, a word that summed up the elite of California wine in those days. During semester breaks, I drove north, and we would tour the wine country, chugging around the narrow back roads of Sonoma and Napa in his weathered VW Bug.

At that time there were only 60 to 70 wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties of any note, and maybe a dozen were worth a visit every trip. But each sojourn brought us to a winery that hadn't been there before. Our never-ending search took us regularly on the winding, forested road that crossed Spring Mountain connecting Santa Rosa, in Sonoma, with St. Helena, the heart of Napa Valley. We visited Beringer, Charles Krug, Christian Brothers, Louis M. Martini, Heitz and Sutter Home, all within a five-mile radius.

Wineries poured all their wines for visitors. Typically you started with off-dry or slightly sweet wines like Riesling or Gewürztraminer. Then you moved on to an occasional Pinot Noir or sturdier reds, such as Barbera, Zinfandel or Petite Sirah. The tastings usually ended with the king of reds, Cabernet Sauvignon. Each new Cabernet provided another footnote in my wine education.

Even if your tastes ran contrary to dry, complex red wines like Cabernet, the wineries held these richly flavored wines in highest regard. One look at the price would reaffirm its position at the top rung of the quality ladder. Cabernets usually were the most expensive wines. These potent red wines signaled that the quiet revolution had taken place in Napa Valley in the 1960s. More winemakers turned their attention away from sweet wines to the classic red grape of Bordeaux--Cabernet Sauvignon. Many parts of Napa Valley were ideally suited for this grape variety, and many wonderful Cabernets grow in its fertile soils and on its hillsides.

Some of our favorites at the time were Louis M. Martini's. We bought and drank many Martini Cabernets. Always fairly priced (remember, I was a college student, waiting tables at night), the wines were complex and easy to drink, and you also could find older vintages at the winery. Paying $5 for a 1968 Martini Cabernet was a drag on a student's budget, but we realized this was a special wine.

Next door to Martini stood the Heitz Wine Cellar tasting room. A man named George tended the counter, and he used to pour the best wines for us, sprinkling the conversation with anecdotes about the vineyards, vintages or even winery owner, Joe Heitz. Heitz had a reputation as an ornery sort, and George did nothing to dissuade us of that. He got to know us well enough that he'd pour Heitz's star wine, the Martha's Vineyard Cabernet, while we stood off to the side in the area behind the counter. "Just don't tell Mr. Heitz," George winked, a signal to keep it a secret. One day Heitz did pull into the driveway while we were tasting. Sure enough George had the Martha's Vineyard 1968 opened, and we winced when Heitz entered the tasting room.

Funny thing. Nothing happened. We stood there with the wine in our glass, drank it, bought a few bottles and were on our way. Turned out the Heitz Martha's Vineyard 1968, at $8.50 a bottle, was a damned fine bottle of wine.

Though Louis P. Martini, George and Joe Heitz himself talked about how Cabernet would improve with age, we never thought much about it. We drank the 1968 Martini and Martha's as often as we could, never thinking once that laying a few bottles aside for aging might lend an even greater wine drinking experience in a few years. Only a few years later did I begin to notice that the seemingly endless supply of Heitz Martha's '68 disappeared, replaced by the '69 vintage (about $9) and then the 1970. It took longer for Martini to run out of the 1968. By then we'd discovered that Robert Mondavi's 1968 and 1969 Cabernets were good, too. So were Inglenook and Beaulieu's. And there was a new winery called Joseph Phelps, hidden behind a knoll off the Silverado Trail.

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