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California's Great Reds

James Laube
From the Print Edition:
cigar case, Summer 93

(continued from page 1)

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.

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