Drinking the Past as California Burns


Light night, even as flames roared through the chaparral of Southern California, I attended a wine tasting event to benefit fire relief in Northern California. The mood was quite somber as many of us reflected on how far from complete are the relief efforts in our own back yard, let alone what will be needed when the maelstrom settles in Southern California.

It is, however, not so easy to remain somber while tasting pieces of California history, especially when they are in spectacular shape, as some of the gems below were. Even up until about five years ago, many of these wines (the Diamond Creek wines excepted) could be bought for a song. Or more specifically $25 to $45 on web sites such as WineBid.Com.

But thanks to growing interest and publicity, not the least of which was the spectacular wine program that Kelli White and her husband Scott Brenner put together at Press Restaurant in Napa, these wines have become both more sought-after, and consequently, more expensive.

Tasting such wines is a privilege and a treat, especially when some of them are older than yourself. The alchemy of time can work wonderful magic on well made wines, and transform them into flavors and aromas that are amazing.

And of course, time is also an enemy of these delicate bottles. Not all the wines were in perfect shape. Some far from it. But as many say, after 20 years there are no good wines, only good bottles. Each bottle, even in an unopened case of wine, will age differently, and those differences become magnified with time. And that's before sunlight, oxygen, cork taint, brettanomyces, rot, heat and other dangers set in.

But when you get a bottle that has not only survived such vicissitudes, but grown profound, the experience can be quite moving. Tasting wine older than oneself can lean towards profundity, when it is not merely delicious.

Here are a few old gems from California, cracked open to celebrate the state, and to collect some badly needed funds for fire relief, to which I was happy to contribute.

Drinking the Past as California Burns1982 Diamond Creek "Red Rock Terrace" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Dark ruby with brown edges, this wine smells of wet felt and herbs. In the mouth, tight tannins clench around herbs, a touch of smoked meets and dirt. Angular and narrow in its expression, there's still some beauty in the austerity. Rain and heavy crops meant tougher harvest this year. Tasted out of magnum. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $195. click to buy.

Drinking the Past as California Burns1982 Diamond Creek "Gravelly Meadow" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Medium to dark ruby tinged with coffee, this wine smells of herbs and dried fruit and graphite. In the mouth, pencil lead and dried fruit are balanced by dried herbs and wrapped tightly in a skein of muscular tannins. Good acidity and a long finish help this austere wine, but it remains tightly wound and narrow in its expression. A tricky vintage dodging the rain. Tasted out of magnum. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $300. click to buy.

Drinking the Past as California Burns1982 Diamond Creek "Volcanic Hill" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Brownish brick red in color, this wine smells of graphite and leather and earth. In the mouth, tight muscular tannins wrap around a core of earth and green herbs and fried fruit. Angular and somewhat unforgiving. Were this wine 20 years younger I'd say give it more time, but sadly I fear it will not improve. Not an easy vintage. Tasted out of magnum. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $120. click to buy.

Drinking the Past as California Burns1989 Joseph Phelps "Insignia" Red Blend, Napa Valley
A strong medium ruby in the glass, showing the time dilation effects of such a large format bottle, this wine smells of dried herbs and leather. In the mouth, the wine is tight and angular, with a SweetTart sourness of cherry and leather and herbs. Not the best of vintages thanks to rain during harvest, and, well, it shows. Tasted out of a 5-liter bottle. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $175. click to buy.

Drinking the Past as California Burns1985 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Medium ruby in the glass with only a bit of orange hue at the rim, this wine smells of smoked meats and graphite and leather. In the mouth, herbs, graphite and leather wrap around the fading core of dried red fruit. Fine grained tannins hang at the edges of perception. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $85. click to buy.

Drinking the Past as California Burns1975 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
A light coffee mocha color in the glass with lots of sediment, this wine smells of dirt and dried fruits. In the mouth, the wine simply tastes muddy, dried out and tired. This bottle is dead. A shame, because I've had some fantastic bottles of this wine. Score: around 6. Cost: $282. click to buy.

Drinking the Past as California Burns1965 Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
A light ruby with orange highlights in the glass, this wine has a stunning aroma of bacon fat, fresh herbs, and red fruit. In the mouth, gorgeously silky flavors of dried flowers, dried berries, leather and herbs have a slightly saline character that, along with fantastic acidity, makes the mouth water. Stunningly bright and delicious, this wine is in spectacular shape. This particular bottle was quite unusual, as it is actually a magnum champagne bottle, that for some reason Joe Heitz and Narsai David filled with their Cabernet in 1965. Remarkable, and about as rare a bottle of California wine as you can find these days. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $260. click to buy.

Drinking the Past as California Burns1969 Sebastiani Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma
A pale coffee and ruby shade in the glass, this wine has a heady aroma of mint and wet earth. In the mouth, beautiful cedar and cherry and leather flavors linger for a long while on the palate. Excellent acidity. Score: around 9. Cost: $75 click to buy.

Drinking the Past as California Burns1985 Groth Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Medium brownish red in the glass with fine sediments, this wine smells of dried herbs, earth, and leather with a touch of mint. In the mouth, leathery flavors of dried fruits and dirt are quite savory and angular. There's something to enjoy here in this wine, but it's fleeting in its floral leatheriness and savory herbs. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $85. click to buy.

Drinking the Past as California Burns1986 Silver Oak "Bonny's" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa
Medium ruby in the glass but browning considerably with lots of fine sediment, this wine smells of camphor wood and peat. In the mouth, camphor wood and moth ball flavors mix with dried fruit and leather. This bottle has not aged well and is quite nasty. Score: between 6.5 and 7. Cost: $600 (magnum). click to buy.

Drinking the Past as California Burns1994 Seavey Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa
Medium ruby in the glass with a touch of brick, this wine smells of earth and graphite and forest floor. In the mouth, dark and rich flavors of raisins, chocolate and cherry have a wonderful brightness thanks to still-excellent acidity. Great length. Tasted out of Magnum from one of California's storied (very warm) vintages. Score: around 9. Cost: $125. click to buy.

Drinking the Past as California Burns1990 Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa
A strong medium ruby in the glass with only a bit of brick red at the rim, this wine appears yet quite youthful. It smells of graphite, mint, and dried herbs. In the mouth beautifully supple, powdery tannins support very pretty, aromatically sweet flavors of cherry, graphite, and dried herbs with a touch of mint and leather. Beautifully balanced with a long finish. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $115. click to buy.



Flavors of a World-Changing Wine Event: Celebrating the Judgment of Paris

On May 24th, the world will celebrate the 40th anniversary of perhaps the single most important event in the modern history of wine. I celebrated it just a wee bit early while attending the Naples Winter Wine Festival in January, an event that afforded about forty of us the opportunity to taste a bunch of older vintages of Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and Stag's Leap Vineyard SLV Cabernet Sauvignon while listening to Steven Spurrier and George Taber recount their memories of the day that changed wine forever.

For those unfamiliar with the event that has become known as the Judgment of Paris, here's a brief summary. A young English Steven Spurrier who had recently purchased a wine shop in Paris to sell French wines, also opened the first private wine school in France, and in the process hired a young American woman named Patricia Gallagher to help him out. Patricia seemed to attract every visiting American winemaker in Paris (a rare thing in the 1970s) and both Gallagher and Spurrier were impressed with the quality of wines they brought with them. In an attempt to bring some attention to that quality, they arranged a blind tasting on a sunny afternoon in May, and invited the cream of the crop of the wine cognoscenti at the time to serve as judges. They invited a few friends as spectators, and a number of journalists. American wines beat out the French wines to everyone's amazement and consternation. The only journalist that showed up, George Taber of Time Magazine, wrote an article about the tasting that took the world by storm. In 2005, Taber wrote an entire book about the event entitled Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine

Flavors of a World-Changing Wine Event: Celebrating the Judgment of Paris

Here's how Steven Spurrier recounted the decision that he and Gallagher made to hold the tasting.

"Patricia went to California in the summer of 1975 and thanks to Robert Finigan [a wine critic and writer based in San Francisco], was introduced to many small producers and returned highly impressed. We decided to hold a tasting, and needed a peg to hang it on. Patricia suggested the bicentennial of the American War of Independence. This is not an anniversary that we Brits like to celebrate, but I accepted anyway. We booked courtyard rooms at the Hotel Intercontinental, and a few weeks before the event, I went to California to make the final selection of wines. People have asked me why I didn't end up choosing Mondavi or Beaulieu Vineyards, but the plan was to select only newish, boutique producers to show off the cutting edge of California."

"Not all the wineries I visited thought the idea of showing their wines to top French palates in Paris of much interest since they couldn't even sell the wines in Chicago. Joe Heitz was very grumpy until I compared his Chardonnay positively to a Meursault; David Bannion at Ridge refused to see me, but I turned up anyway and we got on fine."

Flavors of a World-Changing Wine Event: Celebrating the Judgment of Paris

"We had intended originally to show these 12 wines quite openly, just to get their quality recognized and then talked about, but a week before the tasting, we realized that only one of the tasters, Aubert de Villaine, who had married a girl from San Francisco, would have ever tasted California wine before. The others, knowing that California was on the west coast somewhere north of Mexico would possibly be influenced by this southern aspect, which is why we decided to put in matching top white Burgundies and Clarets to show them comparatively in a blind tasting."

Journalist George Taber picked up the story of the fateful day.

"So you might wonder why I was there. I was there basically because I had gotten the invitation, and like all the press in Paris, I had turned it down. 'Forget it,' I said, 'this will be a non-event.' Why waste an afternoon going to a non-event? The French wines were obviously going to win, and no one is going to write a story about the French beating California. It's a non-story. But Patricia and Steven had remembered that I took their course at the wine school and they called me and asked me to come. They said, 'It will be interesting.'"

"I said, 'OK, if I have nothing more important to do, I'll get there.' It was a slow day at the office, and shortly after lunch, I arrived at the Intercontinental where they had rented a courtyard room between lunch and when a wedding party was supposed to be held later that afternoon. When I checked in with Patricia and Steven, they gave me the most crucial thing of the day -- the list of the wines and the order they were going to be tasted in. I was the only one with the scorecard. I knew what everything was. It gave me an advantage."

Flavors of a World-Changing Wine Event: Celebrating the Judgment of Paris

"I had been working in France at this point for seven years. My French was quite good, and I could understand what they were saying. Halfway through the whites, Raymond Oliver -- a big name guy with a three star restaurant and a show in France -- tasted a wine, held it up, and said 'ah, back to France.' He had just tasted the Freemark Abbey Chardonnay. It was at that moment I thought, 'Hey, maybe I have a story here.'"

Originally, the plan had been to announce the results at the end, but things were moving slowly, in part due to some slow waitstaff, suggested Taber, and so Spurrier and Gallagher made a spur of the moment decision, and announced the results of the white tasting before beginning the red.

The 1973 Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena, made by Croatian immigrant winemaker Mike Grgich, had taken the first place slot.

"The results shocked the room," recalled Taber. "Chateau Montelena had run away with the prize. When they moved on to the reds, the mood of the room was totally different. People were seriously concentrating. They knew what had happened in the first part of the tasting, and they probably felt they did not want to make the same mistakes again. But they got through all the wines, and the Stag's Leap Cabernet had won."

"The story that appeared in Time Magazine was only 4 paragraphs long. It was buried in the back of the magazine in the Modern Living section. The lead story in that section was about a new theme park in Atlanta, Georgia."

"The story ends with a quote from Jim Barrett. Jim told me later that he was terrified when he got a phone call at lunchtime. He wasn't sure why anyone would call him at this lunch he was attending in Paris and assumed it had to be some horrible news. Those days in France phones were sometimes put in funny places. He told me later he was in a little closet, sitting on the floor. I told him, 'You just won this paris tasting, can I get a quote?' He told me later that the first thing that he was concerned with was not wanting to look like a braggart. We talked for five or ten minutes and I kept asking him for something good. He eventually just said, 'Not bad for some kids from the States,' and I knew I had my quote."

"So what was the impact of all this?" asked Taber to the crowd. "I talked to winemakers all over the world about this story, and what happened when it came out. They said that this was a turning point for them, whether they were in California or Chile or Argentina or South Africa. If California can do it, they said, maybe we can do it as well. The result of that tasting is that everyone upped their game, and now we're in a golden age of wine. Never in history has so much great wine been made as there is today, and it all started that day in Paris."

Bo Barrett, Jim Barrett's son, offered a few thoughts before we tasted the Chateau Montelena wines.

"Absent prohibition, there's no question in my mind which region would be the greatest wine growing region in the world. Prohibition killed California wine. It forced Americans to drink everything except good wine. This tasting was one of the nails in the coffin of the effects of Prohibition."

Flavors of a World-Changing Wine Event: Celebrating the Judgment of Paris

"Back at then we had the dream. We dreamed that we could make something good. Our Chardonnay was the antithesis of white Burgundy. It was a cash flow product for us. We had bought 100 acres and it needed to be replanted. We didn't have a single vine of Cabernet. We had a lot of Alicante Bouschet and Riesling. What you might not know is that we didn't even have any Chardonnay. There was three times more Riesling in Napa at that time than Chardonnay."

"So the winning wine was all purchased fruit. The fact of the matter was that it was 60% Russian River Valley and 40% Alexander Valley fruit. You don't understand how open it was at that time. If there was anything we could to do that would make the wine better, we were allowed to do it. The government never told us we couldn't."

While we weren't able to taste that 1973 Chardonnay, a bottle of which sits in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., we did get a chance to taste some older vintages.

1992 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, Napa Valley, California
Light to medium gold in the glass this wine smells of crushed hazelnuts, dried lemon peel and baked apples. In the mouth, the wine is bright and juicy with flavors of lemon curd, a hint of dried pineapple, wet stone, and dried citrus peel. There's a hint of bitterness in the long finish. Spent 11 months in French oak. Score: around 9.

1998 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, Napa Valley, California
Medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of marzipan, dried lemon peel, and wet stones. In the mouth, lemon curd, citrus peel, and crushed nut. A lightly chalky texture emerges on the finish along with a nice salty character. Still bright lemony, juicy and long. Spent 6 to 8 months in oak. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

2001 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, Napa Valley, California
Light to medium greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of marijuana resin, a hint of oak, and lemon oil. In the mouth, flavors of lemon curd, oak, and pink grapefruit have a very bright quality thanks to excellent acidity. There's a nice finish, with a hint of bitterness and saltiness. The oak sticks out a little at this point in its evolution. Spent 6 to 8 months in oak. Score: around 9.

2004 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, Napa Valley, California
Light to medium greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of fresh cream, lemon zest, and grapefruit with a hint of pineyness. The wine has an exceedingly creamy quality, with a nice balance between lemon curd, wet stones, and white flowers. Very fresh and bright. Spent 8 to 10 months in oak. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

2008 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, Napa Valley, California
Light to medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of oak, citrus zest, lemon curd and apples. In the mouth, bright lemon curd and pink grapefruit flavors have a nice snap to them, with juicy bright pomelo pith and a hint of greengage plum. There's a long SweetTart finish. Spent 10 months in French oak, of which 11% was new. Score: around 9. Cost: $64 click to buy.

Flavors of a World-Changing Wine Event: Celebrating the Judgment of Paris

After tasting the whites, Ted Baseler, said a few words. Baseler is the President and CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the company that, along with the Antinori family, purchased Stag's Leap Wine Cellars from its founder and proprietor Warren Winiarski in 2007.

Flavors of a World-Changing Wine Event: Celebrating the Judgment of Paris

"I would say that the Judgment of Paris was the single biggest wine event in history," suggested Baseler. "We owe Stephen and George a great debt of thanks."

1983 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars "SLV Estate" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Medium ruby in the glass, fading to brick at the rim, this wine smells of cedar, pencil shavings, dried flowers, and dried cherries. In the mouth, slightly gamey cedar, dried cherries, leather, and a hint of cinnamon have a nice smoothness to them, with powdery, velvety tannins. Excellent acidity remains in the wine, and it is quite lithe on the palate. Delicious. The wine spent 11 months in a mix of new and old French oak. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

1993 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars "SLV Estate" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Medium to dark ruby in the glass, with a hint of orange at the rim, this wine smells of cedar and red miso, dried cherry, and brown sugar. In the mouth, juicy dried cherry, leather, cola, and brown sugar flavors have a nice lift thanks to still-excellent acidity. Very fine grained tannins offer a skein of musculature that dries out a bit on the palate. Spent 18 months in French oak, and contains 5% Petite Verdot. Score: around 9.

1998 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars "SLV Estate" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Medium to dark ruby in the glass, with just the barest hint of brick at the rim, this wine smells of graphite and mint with a hint of oak and cocoa powder layered over red fruit. In the mouth, powdery tannins dust the mouth while flavors of cherry, green herbs, tobacco, and oak turn faintly bitter in the finish. There's a nice freshness to this wine that speaks of the cooler year. Spent 21 months in French oak, and contains 2.6% Merlot. Score: around 9. Cost: $100. click to buy.

2008 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars "SLV Estate" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of sweet cherry and kirsch. In the mouth, sweet cherry, tobacco, and cola mix with a hint of cocoa powder. Grippy, muscular tannins wrap around the core of the fruit, and grip the tongue firmly as the wine finishes with a hint of bitter dried herbs. Excellent acidity. Spent 24 months in French oak. Score: around 9. Cost: $110. click to buy.

2012 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars "SLV Estate" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of sweet black cherry, cola, and chocolate covered raisins. In the mouth, sweet cherry, vanilla, and cocoa powder mix with powdery tannins and very nice acidity. Polished and smooth, very supple and bright, with excellent brightness and very well integrated wood. Spent 21 months in French oak. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $100. click to buy.


After we had tasted all the wines Spurrier offered some final thoughts.

"Forty years ago, blind tasting was very rare. These tasters were all at the top of their game and were competent in the wines of their regions. They were there, principally to taste a selection that Patricia and I had made from California just to see what the quality was. I thought they might miss what we wanted. It was an altruistic idea. We wanted recognition for California. I think if they just tasted the California wines, they would have said 'Jolly nice wines, very interesting, good luck to them' and left it at that. That's why I made it a blind tasting."

"The effect of the 1976 tasting was immediate for Montelena and Stag's Leap and no less for California's other wineries. What became plain was that this was the first crack in the global dominance of French wine."

"Or as I like to say," he smiled referencing Grgich and Winiarski, the two winemakers of the winning wines, "How a Croat and a Pole made American history thanks to an Englishman."