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California's Great Reds
In Search of the Perfect California Cabernet
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.
The universe of wine experiences had grown incrementally. The pattern of excellent Napa Valley Cabernet, farmed in two small townships, Oakville and Rutherford, kept repeating itself time and again. There were also hillside-grown Cabernets, from wineries like Diamond Creek and Mayacamas, that held their allure.
When I look back at those experiences I realize the 1960s and 1970s were the dawn of the rebirth of California's fine-wine industry. In those days you could count on two hands the top wineries. If you could rattle off the names of Heitz, Martini, Mondavi, BV and Krug, you could persuade most that you were a bonafide wine connoisseur. I also realize I missed an opportunity to build a fantastic wine collection. I'm grateful for my early exposure to and experience with those old California Cabernets because it led to a new life for me, as a wine journalist, for the last 13 years with The Wine Spectator.
I'm only half-sorry now that I didn't buy a few cases of those old wines and stick them in a cool, dark closet for drinking tonight. If I could turn back the hands of time and do it over, I would open the door of my closet and find a cache of Cabernet with names and vintages like the seven older wineries listed below.
1. BEAULIEU VINEYARD PRIVATE RESERVE, 1970. The frost-reduced crop of 1970 produced Cabernets that were intensely flavored and especially long lived. The top wines of that vintage remain in pristine drinking condition. The 1970 BV Private Reserve achieved legendary status. It marked the last great wine made by BV's masterful winemaker, André Tchelistcheff, and it capped the third excellent vintage in a row for BV. Both the 1968 and 1969 vintages before it were superb. For two decades, these three wines have been neck and neck in quality, though today the 1970 holds a slight edge over the other two. You can still find the 1970 around. But for wines of similar character and potential, the 1985 and 1987 vintages of Private Reserve closely resemble the earlier classics.
2. CAYMUS VINEYARDS, Special Selection, 1978, 1979. The Rutherford-grown Cabernets of founder Charlie Wagner and son, Chuck, embodied a unique, spicy, herbal and currant character that is unmistakable once you learn the taste. Two wines really stood out in my mind, the 1978 and 1979 vintages. The special selection is enormously rich and concentrated with a broad spectrum of flavors ranging from currant to black cherry to prune and spice. The 1978 showed off the ripeness and fullness of the vintage. The 1979 proved a sleeker version, but just as enticing and age-worthy. Caymus's streak continues today, making it one of California's most sought-after wines. Sensational wines from 1987 and 1988 are currently on the market for $60 a bottle.
3. RIDGE VINEYARDS MONTE BELLO, 1970. This is the only Cabernet I've chosen from outside Napa Valley. There are many fine Cabernets grown elsewhere, but in the 1960s and 1970s Napa Valley provided the most dramatic expressions of this wine. The exception is Monte Bello, Ridge's own vineyard that sits on the ridge of the Santa Cruz Mountains in one of the coolest Cabernet sites in California. Winemaker Paul Draper is another purist who does little to interfere with the intense, mountain-grown Monte Bello grapes. The 1970 has always struck me as the most complete and harmonious bottling, with remarkable depth, richness and concentration. Through two decades of vintages, Ridge Monte Bello has had many successes; in recent years the 1988 and 1989 reflect the unique character of this vineyard. Both are fine wines in vintages that are merely good in most of California. They sell for about $60.
4. JOSEPH PHELPS EISELE VINEYARD, 1975, 1978. Joseph Phelps, a building contractor from Colorado, built his winery in Napa Valley in 1973. Two years later he bought the Cabernet grapes grown by Milt and Barbara Eisele of Eisele Vineyard, a 40-acre vineyard near Calistoga, at the northern end of Napa Valley. Phelps captured the rich, explosive, penetrating currant and mineral flavors of this wonderful vineyard. The 1975 is the star of a fine but not great vintage in Napa, proving that great vineyards can often yield wines that far surpass the quality of the year. The 1978 is a great, ripe, opulent wine from a grand vintage. In 1987 the Eiseles sold their vineyard. Phelps's current Eisele is the 1987 and 1989 vintages. The last possible vintage is 1991. Bart and Daphne Araujo are the new owners, and they plan to make wine from their vineyard.
5. HEITZ MARTHA'S VINEYARD, 1968, 1970 and 1974. These three vintages are in great demand among collectors, as they are almost universally acclaimed as Heitz's greatest winemaking achievements. Martha's Vineyard is named after Martha May, who with her husband, Tom, owns this 34-acre vineyard in Oakville, which backs up against the western foothills of Napa Valley and is ringed by a row of shaggy eucalyptus trees. It is an ideally situated vineyard in a microclimate that yields wonderful, spicy, minty Cabernet Sauvignon year after year. Like the 1968 to 1970 vintages of BV Private Reserve, the three Heitz vintages each have their admirers. The last time I spoke with Heitz, he preferred the 1969. For sentimental reasons, 1968 remains one of my favorites. For the 1974 vintage, probably California's most famous and collectible wine, Heitz lay in bed with a sore back; his son David, now winemaker, harvested the grapes and vinified them. Heitz Martha's Vineyard Cabernet has its detractors, but the 1985 to 1987 vintages are distinctive wines. The wines currently sell for $60.
6. MAYACAMAS VINEYARDS, 1970, 1974. Mayacamas is legendary for its hard, rustic, tannic wines, but few in California are as enduring and complex once they're given more than a decade of bottle age. From vineyards 2,000 feet above the Napa Valley floor, Mayacamas Cabernets represent a very deliberate style. There is no effort by Bob Travers to soften or smooth the rough edges, so what you get is often a tight, backward, unyielding wine that is dark in color, firm in texture and deeply concentrated. The 1970 is just now beginning to approach maturity and should last well into the next decade. The 1974 proved another monumental vintage, with a wonderful array of spicy berry flavors. It still has years of life ahead of it, when many of its contemporaries are beginning to fade. The best of the recent Mayacamas Cabernets is from the great 1985 vintage. It sells for about $30.
7. DIAMOND CREEK VINEYARDS, Volcanic Hill, 1978, 1979. This is one of the unique vineyard settings in the world, and it yields very distinctive and age-worthy wines. Founded in 1968 by Al Brounstein, Diamond Creek is really four separate vineyards, reflecting four microclimates. Each vineyard's name reflects its unique features: Volcanic Hill, with dusty volcanic ash; Red Rock Terrace, with iron-rich terraces; Gravelly Meadow, with its rocky soil; and Lake Vineyard, planted near a man-made pond. Combined, the four vineyards total 20 acres, with Volcanic Hill the largest at eight. Even now these two classic vintages are deeply colored and packed with spicy, currant, herb and mineral flavors. Volcanic Hill is always the most tannic and backward of the wines, but as the great wines from these two vintages mature, Diamond Creek and Volcanic Hill, in particular, rise to the top. Diamond Creek is currently selling its excellent 1990 wines at $50 a bottle.
I don't have any of these older wines in my collection. Occasionally I get a chance to drink them, which usually brings back fond memories. If I were starting out today, looking to snag the best of the new California Cabernets, I'd use the list of wineries from above as a starting point. They're all still making fine wines. But I'd also zero in on the following short list of wineries in vintages like 1987 or 1990, which is coming to market this year. These are wineries which gained their reputations in the 1980s.
THE NEW STARS
1. KENWOOD ARTIST SERIES. We turn now to Sonoma Valley, where Kenwood bottles its best Cabernet under the Artist Series collection. Each year winemaker Mike Lee selects Kenwood's finest lots of Cabernet from its Sonoma Valley vineyards, and they are typically dark, hearty, robust wines aged in toasty oak barrels. When the wine is ready for release, his brother, Marty, an art collector, selects a painting to grace the label.
Connoisseurs of Cabernet and art find it an intriguing blend. The current vintage is the 1989 and features a Picasso painting. It sells in the $40 range.
2. BERINGER PRIVATE RESERVE. Beringer got serious about Cabernet with its 1977 vintage, and since then the progress has not only been steady, it has been spectacular. The grapes for this consistently bold and richly flavored wine come from a variety of superb vineyards in Napa, and they receive the royal treatment in buttery French oak by winemaker Ed Sbragia. He has become a master at combining deep, penetrating fruit with elegance and finesse. Of late, the 1985, 1986, 1987 and 1988 show the explosive character of ripe Cabernet.
3. SILVER OAK ALEXANDER VALLEY. Owner Justin Meyer uses Alexander Valley grapes to make a rich, supple and seductive Cabernet that year-in and year-out is distinctive for its smooth texture, wide range of flavors and sheer pleasure. Meyer ages his 100 percent Cabernet in spicy American oak barrels and holds it for five years after vintage. That extra barrel age makes it easy to drink the moment you buy it, yet it has the stuffing and depth to gain for a decade or more. The current release is the 1988, which sells for $30.
4. CHATEAU MONTELENA. Dense, chewy and complex are three words that quickly come to mind when drinking Montelena Cabernets. The winery in Calistoga has been routinely making wonderful, age-worthy Cabernets since 1973. Surely the 1974, 1977 and 1978 Napa Valley bottlings stand out from that decade, but it seems that the wines only got better in the 1980s, particularly the vintages of 1985 and 1987. Winemaker Beau Barrett is the son of one of the owners, and he uses the winery's estate vineyard to produce these deeply flavored wines.
5. ROBERT MONDAVI RESERVE. Robert Mondavi is synonymous with great Napa Valley Cabernet. The winery's Reserve can be a rich yet supple and elegant wine that is delicious to drink early, and it can gain through 15 years. The source of the grapes is largely the winery's own To Kalon Vineyard (pronounced TOW CALON), which is south of the winery in Oakville. Winemaker Tim Mondavi is a stickler for detail, and the wines are remarkably consistent from year to year. The current release is the 1989, which sells in the $35 range.
6. NIEBAUM-COPPOLA'S RUBICON. The Niebaum property is an old Napa Valley vineyard first planted in the late 1880s by Finnish fur trader Gustave Niebaum, founder of Inglenook. The property is famous for yielding dense, chewy, long-lived Cabernets under the Inglenook name. Today most of the old vineyard belongs to filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, who's been making his proprietary wine, Rubicon, since 1977. Mostly Cabernet, with Merlot and Cabernet Franc, Rubicon is a throwback to the older style Cabernets of the 1960s but is a real masterpiece worth tasting. The 1986 retails for $28.
7. SPOTTSWOODE. From a small vineyard in St. Helena, the Spottswoode Cabernet of the 1980s established itself as a bright new star in Napa Valley. The fruit from this vineyard yields dark, rich and focused currant flavors which are pure and silky. The winery has a fine first decade behind it, but all signs point to it getting better in the 1990s. The 1989 is the current release at $38.
8. CLOS Du VAL RESERVE. Cabernet Sauvignon by its nature is an intense and aggressive wine, but the style at Clos Du Val is to harness the grape, polish its texture and render a wine of depth and finesse. The grapes grow in the Stag's Leap District of Napa Valley, and the winemaking team of Bernard Portet and Krimo Souilah produces a Reserve only in years when there are special lots of wine that are clearly superior to others. In the 1970s, the 1977, 1978 and 1979 were all wonderful wines, rich and flavorful. If you look at the current offerings, search for the 1985 or 1987 vintages. If you can't find them, the regular Stag's Leap District bottling should do well.
9. OPUS ONE. This is a Franco-American joint venture that unites two of wine's greatest winemaking families-the Robert Mondavi family and the late Baron Philippe de Rothschild's family, owners of the great Bordeaux estate, Château Mouton-Rothschild. The most current vintages, 1987 to 1989, are all good examples of what this winery has to offer. The wines sell for about $20. A reserve bottling is about $27. They formed a partnership in 1979, aiming to produce one wine, and it's an expensive operation down to the last detail (even the winery's chai barrel aging cellar). Opus One relies on Cabernet for its personality, even if the label doesn't say so, but the style is harmony and grace, richness and depth. The current vintage is 1989; the 1990 should be out later this year and is a superior vintage. The grapes come from the Oakville Vineyards that surround the winery. Expect to pay around $60 a bottle.
10. THE HESS COLLECTION. Owned by Swiss businessman Donald Hess, the Hess Collection has quickly made its mark with complex, rich and polished Cabernets grown in estate vineyards on Mount Veeder. If you want a contrast in winemaking styles and philosophies, open the corks on a bottle of Hess alongside a bottle of Mayacamas. The Hess is styled to drink earlier and shows more toasty oak and finesse, but it has the depth and concentration to improve with cellaring.
11. DUNN HOWELL MOUNTAIN. Massive but elegant describes these enormously ripe, rich and concentrated Cabernets grown on windy Howell Mountain. This appellation rises above Napa Valley and yields intense yet rustic Cabernets that some find overpowering. Yet many more appreciate that strength of personality and find Randy Dunn's Cabernets appealing. Dunn apprenticed as a winemaker at Caymus and began his venture in 1979. That wine is still young and vibrant. Through the 1980s only Caymus has shown more consistency in winemaking quality and style. Dunn's Cabernets are 100 percent Cabernet. Dense and chewy but packed with ripe currant, mineral and spice flavors. Dunn bottles two Cabernets, and both are excellent. One reads Howell Mountain, the other says Napa Valley.
With a list of these wines in hand, you can't miss. Granted, some of the older vintages are only available at auctions or in the cellars of private collectors. But all the current vintages can be found in the market, and if you memorize this list, you can pick them up when a new vintage is released.
By the way, I don't miss long-boarding, and I'm just as happy things turned out this way. When I moved from San Diego, I gave my "log" to my next-door neighbor, a real hot-dog surfer. He had always marveled at its size and could never believe they ever made surfboards that big. But then, I taught him everything he knew about wine. My guess is that he's still searching for the perfect wave; but then, I'm still in quest of perfect Cabernets.
James Laube is a senior editor of The Wine Spectator and is the author of California's Great Cabernets.
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