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California’s True Golden Age: Super Hits of the 70’s

2011 June 24
by Mike

The path to wine geekdom usually goes something like this: You develop an interest in wine, which quickly morphs into an obsession, which then spawns subsidiary obsessions within that larger fixation. Burgundy is my main fetish, but I will also travel many miles to taste old Barolos, old Riojas, and old California wines. A few weeks ago, I journeyed a modest distance to attend a tasting of some legendary Napa cabernets from the 1970s, including the 1974 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, possibly the most celebrated wine ever produced in California. There were also a couple of bottles from the 50s, 60s, and 80s. When people like me claim that California used to do better, these are the wines we have in mind.

The tasting was part of the Wine Workshop series offered by Acker Merrall & Condit, the New York-based retailer and auction house. The program is run by my friend David Hamburger, who organizes around 50 tastings a year; where he finds the energy, I have no idea. I have attended a handful of these events, and each one has been great. David puts together outstanding selections of wines, the pours are always generous, and his genial, low-key personality sets the perfect tone. These are convivial get-togethers in which you spend two hours completely geeking out in the company of 16 or 17 fellow grape nuts (the tastings are kept small). That’s my kind of evening.

While Dave usually leads the tastings, the hosting duties for the Napa event fell to Bob Cunningham, a lawyer and fixture on the New York wine scene. Bob, too, is a huge fan of old-school Napa cabs, and he did a superb job guiding us through the wines. The marquee attraction was the 1974 Martha’s Vineyard. I’d never tried it before, so that alone was worth the trip, but there was also some other heavyweights on the card—the 1968, 1974, and 1978 Mayacamas Vineyards cabernets, and a trio of 1978 Diamond Creek cabs. Bacchus was kind to us on this night: although a couple of the bottles were DOA, the headliners all showed brilliantly. These were sun-splashed but elegant wines, and they tasted like real cabernet—that is to say, they had that felicitous green note that has been driven out of existence in Napa because Robert Parker and James Laube regard greenness as Kryptonite.

Not surprisingly,  much of the discussion during the tasting focused on how contemporary California wines compare to these redwoods of yesteryear (consensus: not favorably) and whether the stars of today—the Harlans, the Shafers etc.—will mature as well as the top wines of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. It’s too early to say, of course, but like many people, I suspect they will not age nearly as gracefully—that the oak and alcohol will conspire to stunt their development. There was an interesting thread recently on erobertparker.com about this very question. Parker had apparently just done a retrospective tasting of the 2001 Napa vintage and assured the eBob audience (what’s left of it, anyway) that the wines were evolving gloriously. That may be true, but it is also true that Parker’s legacy hinges in no small part on how these modernist wines hold up, so he’s not an impartial observer here.

For wine Kremlinologists, the eBob thread had an element of intrigue: Mark Squires, who runs the site, deviated from the party line by suggesting that these New Wave wines are unlikely to show much longevity. Some of you will get a chuckle out of me favorably citing Squires, but his remarks made sense and are worth quoting. “Too many wineries,” he wrote, “have surrendered to modern winemaking styles–ultra soft tannins, sweet, ultra ripe fruit, low acidity. They may taste good young. I have considerable doubt as to whether the majority will age very well or will develop complexity and reward cellaring. This is not a trend confined to California, of course. Increasingly, I think it is NOT possible to have it all. You can choose to emphasize one thing or another.” I give him the last word.

Anyway, my tasting notes:

1974 Heitz Wine Cellars Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon: The mythic one, and it fully lived up to its reputation—this was a fantastic bottle. The Martha’s Vineyard is known for its strong eucalyptus aroma, and the 74 served up a bracing whiff of it (this must surely be the only wine in the world that can freshen your breath while also getting you gently buzzed). A rich, voluptuous wine, but with abundant structure and an extraordinary sense of harmony about it. And the finish? It didn’t finish—the flavors just went on and on. This had that added dash of complexity and brio that sets the giants apart. Epic stuff. A+.

1974 Mayacamas Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon: The other Watergate wine, and a brilliant one, too. Black currant, tar, cocoa powder and mint on the nose. Full-bodied, with cool, elegant dark fruit, a terrific cedar note, and big, ripe tannins. Amazing freshness and vigor. It finished just a touch dry, but that was the only demerit in a cabernet that has otherwise aged beautifully. A/A+.

1978 Mayacamas Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon: Displayed a strikingly deep color and a brooding nose evocative of black currant, tar, earth, and bell pepper. Fleshy, with sweet fruit, a hint of chocolate, and a huge tannic backbone. I had the sense this was in a state of arrested development—that it probably tasted the same way 15 years ago. That wasn’t a problem, just an impression. Frozen in time or not, it was a delicious wine.  A.

1968 Mayacamas Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon: The first wine that Bob Travers produced, and although it showed its age, it was another gem. A perfume marked by eucalyptus, bell pepper, and earth gave way to medium-bodied cabernet with vestiges of ripe red fruits and floral notes. Although it limped across the finish line, this was clearly once an outstanding wine and was still a pleasure to drink.  A-.

1978 Diamond Creek Vineyards Gravelly Meadow Cabernet Sauvignon: A lot going on with the nose here—black currant, mint, fudge, and flowers, along with pronounced minerality. A full-bodied but sinewy wine, with wonderful freshness, concentration, and length. My only gripe was the tannins, which were a little overbearing. Otherwise, though, sensational. A.

1978 Diamond Creek Vineyards Red Rock Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon: Opened with a seductive aroma of black currant, leather, dried flowers, and mocha. Great elegance and depth to this one, although the flavors had faded just enough to suggest that this would have been better three or four years earlier. Even so, a superb wine from what was clearly a banner year for Diamond Creek. A.

1978 Diamond Creek Vineyards Volcanic Hill Cabernet Sauvignon: A very pretty nose, with aromas of leather, earth, flowers, and mint. Cool and lush, with an almost chalky texture and a nice cedar note playing off the ripe, dark fruit. Great freshness, density, and balance. For my taste, the best of the three Diamond Creeks, and a remarkable effort from the late Al Brounstein. A.

1955 Louis M. Martini Winery Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon: From the Stone Age of California viticulture, and amazingly, the wine still drank well. Sure, it was past its peak, but it showed pleasant dried cherry flavors along with hints of cured meats and mint, and the finish was impressively long. I’ve had a number of old Louis Martini wines, and when they are on, they are fabulous. A-.

26 Responses leave one →
  1. Jeffrey Roy permalink
    August 17, 2011

    I’ve been using letter grades for a while and like it.

  2. José permalink
    July 1, 2011

    Mike:

    Not sure which Shafer Hillside Select you are referring to but this past weekend I had a mini vertical (1994-1997) with four friends of mine and all four of them were drinking extremely well with no indication of excessive wood or alcohol and no signs of fading. The four bottles were opened two hours before being consumed and we enjoyed them with some grilled veal chops in a three hour+ window. Although there were some folks concerned that these wines would overpower the grilled veal chops, they were pleasantly surprised of the elegance and balance of these full bodied wines. The five of us tend to think that the wines have at least five years before hitting its peak.

    The last 1999 SHS I had about a year ago was decanted for two or three hours and although it was a huge wine it was very balanced too and still some years before hitting its peak. The same I could say for the 2001 Shafer Hillside 25th Anniversary bottling in magnum that I had this past August.

    I would say that with very few exceptions that the Shafer Hillside Selects up to the 2005 vintage are great and balanced Napa Cabs that will age gracefully.

    SALUDos,
    José

  3. Bill Klapp permalink
    June 28, 2011

    Mike, from my perspective, what you attended was a wake of sorts, albeit a rewarding one.

    I have been through the traditional vs. modern, high extraction vs. average, new-oak vs. no-oak drill with Barolo, and the parallels are striking, with one critical difference: the greats like Giacosa and G. Conterno are making wines in the same way (more or less) 50 years later (and quite possibly their greatest wines ever, thanks to global warming), and the equivalent of the “Schrader Old Sparky” of Barolo is rarely seen.

    Sadly, the common thread is this: in the 1940s through the 1970s, both the Piemonte and California had relatively fewer producers making relatively less wine. Both have more than their fair share of provenance disasters and shot bottles. And, of course, most of what was left has already been consumed. (One wonders how many bottles of 1974 Heitz Martha’s have been created by soaking eucalyptus leaves in new Cab, eh?) Unlike 50-year-old Bordeaux, which exists in good quantities because of the higher production numbers and the European tradition of cellaring, old Cali Cab, old Nebbiolo and old Burgundy are crapshoots at best.

    The educational and nostalgia value of tastings such as yours is significant, but the number of people who will ever get to experience such wines dwindles by the day. The real question is what pressure, if any, can be brought to bear to cause California producers to return to a semblance of the older styles.

    You attended a wake. But was it for the wines present at the tasting, or the modern-day, Helen Turley-inspired wines?

  4. Jack Bulkin permalink
    June 28, 2011

    I have to respond to Mac. My contrarian friend, I am old enough that I had the pleasure of drinking many of the wines chronicled here by Mike in their youth. Although they have lasted 40 years, most tasted great while young and many still do because they were well made and not stylistically made as many are today. I have also enjoyed Randy Dunn’s wines over the years starting with his late 70’s Caymus. Randy’s low pH and controlled alcohol, (yes he admits to R.O.) were wines that were built to last and many stopped buying them because of the need to cellar at least 15 or more years. Those wines are more consistent with your thought than Heitz. Diamnond Creek to a lesser extent were made by Abe to cellar but most other CA. were not.

  5. June 28, 2011

    Mike,

    Bob Travers from Mayacamas is interviewed in the same book that I mentioned earlier. He described his own Cabernets as “big, slow aging wines.” Not sure how the description matches with your perception and how they currently fair.

    FWIW, on his winemaking techniques, he describes them: Bladder press, 160 gallons per ton (that would mean using the press wine), 60-100ppm of sulfur in tank after pressing, concrete block fermenting tanks, always adding a cultured yeast (usually Montrachet), cool ferments (70 degrees for Cab), press at dryness or close to it, pumpovers primarily, often adjusts acid levels, rack out of fermenting tank, rack again a week later, rack again a month later, rack annually after that. Two years in large American oak tanks and then a year in small barrels (half Nevers, half Saone) filtering before bottling.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  6. June 28, 2011

    I have to wonder, just to be contrary, how realistic or reasonable it is to complain that today’s wines — sold and consumed in many times greater quantity than the California wines of 40 years ago — would be better if made to last in the cellar.

    Seriously, what percentage of even the fine wines of today do you think are put into the cellar and held for 20 years, let along 40? The overwhelming majority of wines sold today are consumed within a few years – most, indeed, the same year they are released.

    So you can make you wine to be drunk in 2050, and sell small lots to the cellar-minded few. Or you can make your wine so that it takes good today, and next year; it won’t last decades, but there won’t be any in decades–even though you will be selling much, much more of it — because the wine market has expanded enormously in the US in recent years. As you broaden the market (good!), you change the nature of the market and its buyers — many today have a wine fridge, few have a wine cellar that holds enough to put away a reasonable number of bottles for decades – perhaps not many more than back in the glory years, really.

    When you complain that they don’t make ’em to last decades, you’re really complaining that they don’t make wine drinkers who will wait decades. And I’m not sure that’s a complaint that makes sense.

  7. June 28, 2011

    Keith, you make some fair points. For every 74 Heitz MV or 74 Mayacamas, there were surely dozens of wines that would have made us cringe. And, yes, a few producers, including Macayamas, have resisted the pressure to Parkerize; the “old-school” style has not been rendered completely extinct. But it is obviously threatened, and these 70s-era wines have clearly become objects of veneration not just because they are so good, but because they represent a style that has nearly disappeared from California.

    I am going to disagree with you about the 04 Mayacamas. I have had it several times, and while it is a good wine, I doubt it is ever going to rival the 78; I just don’t think it has the stuffing. Obviously, I didn’t taste wines like the 78 Mayacamas or 74 Heitz MV on release, but I suspect those wines were pretty opulent when they first hit the market. What distinguished them from today’s bruisers is that they weren’t overripe, they had abundant structure, and they weren’t abusively oaked. The 04 Mayacamas is pretty lean and austere, and while I like the wine, I don’t think it is going to be eliciting comparisons to the 78 or the 74 two decades from now.

  8. June 27, 2011

    Adam, Thanks for the book recommendation; it sounds very interesting. If those were indeed Joe’s standard operating procedures…well, that’s interesting, too, and I suppose yet one more cautionary tale about wine and dogmatism.

  9. June 27, 2011

    Hi Evan, Thanks for the kind words, and glad to hear we have a shared affinity for these golden oldies. I think your menthol was indeed my mint and eucalyptus; the same ballpark, at any rate. Out of curiosity, I took a look at the Mayacamas notes that John Gilman published on Dr Vino last year, and he didn’t cite any mint, menthol, or eucalyptus in the 68 or 74, so go figure. Mayacamas is still making good wines, and I admire Travers for refusing to capitulate to fashion. Thanks for pointing me to that Berserkers thread. I just don’t see how these wines can soak up all that oak influence, and the fact that this guy found the oak on the 99 SHS, a wine nearing its 12th birthday, so problematic is telling, I think.

  10. June 27, 2011

    I’ll admit to having some mixed feelings about the Strange New Respect the ’70s-era Napa cabernets are getting now. The praise is usually in the context of they-don’t-make-’em-like-they-used-to from people like Mike (and me, too) who are ordinarily inclined towards Old World wines. But I’m not sure the era really was such a golden age compared to today. While there are a few examples of classic ’70s Napa cabernets that modernized into mediocrity (Mondavi Reserve is an obvious example since you can actually see the labeled alcohol creep from 12% to 14.5%), to a great extent the wines that tend to show the best in these retrospective tastings (Mayacamas, Ridge, and Mt. Eden are often named) are just as compelling today (Martha’s might have been, too, had it not been for the replanting).True, they are exceptions to the super-ripe style that is popular today, but they were exceptions in the ’70s, too. Even before the super-ripe style took over, most of the cabernets made in California were fairly graceless and sloppy compared to Bordeaux (which is why they had trouble winning respect in their own time). And tasting through the ’70s today still reveals a lot of graceless and sloppy frogs with a few princes like Heitz and Mayacamas among them. Meanwhile, I am fairly confident the 2004 Mayacamas will be just as compelling in 30 years as the 1978 is now. So I’m not sure the real dichotomy is between a lost golden age and some sort of postlapsarian modernity; rather, it might just be the same historical constant that’s always present, of a few wineries with the know-how, commitment, and terroir to rise above the rest.

  11. June 27, 2011

    Mike,

    It is interesting (to me at least), that I have recently been reading an interview with Joe Heitz from 1976 and came across this quote, “You know, a grower would like to have all his grapes in the barn by Labor Day, and I think they should hang on the vines until Christmas, so we’re always squabbling. But this is normal, nothing wrong with that.”

    In reading the interview, it seems to me that while ripeness and oak might have been different, many things were different in the making of Heitz Martha’s in the 1970s. No multiple passes thru the vineyard, all reds pressed (no free run juice), 100ppm sulfur at the crusher, always added yeast, frequent (Joe’s word) acid additions, fining on all the wines, and filtration on them as well, aging in American white oak uprights, and then Limousin barrels.

    I guess my point being, pointing only to oak and alchol as reasons why modern CA wines might not age seems to be ignoring an enormous number of factors that have changed.

    BTW, it is a great interview, in a great book…called “Great Wineamkers of California” by Robert Benson.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  12. June 27, 2011

    Wonderful notes from a jealousy-inspiring evening, Mike. Older California Cabernet is a sweet spot of mine, mainly for its lack of overt, well, sweetness and oak tones.

    I certainly haven’t tasted the full lineup of Mayacamas (though that remains a mission), but the handful of well stored older Mayacamas I’ve drank included a distinct and enjoyable menthol note. I was surprised not to see it in the notes here, but one man’s menthol is another’s mint, etc etc. Matt Kramer and John Gilman remain bullish on recent Mayacamas vintages, even saying (with some hyperbole, based on my experience) that we’ll need decades more for those wines to peak. The bottom line is that Bob Travers, who told me last year that he was not interested in “changing to suit the trends on the valley floor”, is still making very pretty wines.

    And regarding Shafer, over on Berserkers, one of the most ardent defenders of modern California Cabernet just posted a note on the ’99 HS. His verdict was that it was an oak bomb. And again, that comes from a guy who consistently enjoys bigger, oakier Napa Cabs.

  13. June 26, 2011

    Claude, thanks for stopping by. I’ve never had the 70 MV, and am now eager to try it! 1970 was an excellent year for California. I had the 70 Monte Bello just over a year ago, and it was spectacular. I’ve got more experience with 74s and 78s, and both of those vintages obviously produced sensational wines, too. That ten-year period, from 68 to 78, was quite amazing for California. It’s too bad they lost the plot so badly, but I think things are starting to turn; let’s hope, anyway.

    Jack, I love the Parker-Greenspan analogy. I’ve always described Parker as a bull market phenomenon (the 82 Bordeaux vintage coincided with the start of a 20-year-old bull run on Wall Street, and Parker became the guru to the newly enriched), but I hadn’t thought of the Greenspan comparison, which is very apt. One was called Maestro, the other was called The Emperor, both were once regarded as basically infallible, and both have seen their reputations sink in recent years. My only quibble is this: yes, many wines today are made to offer lots of upfront pleasure at the expense of long-term prospects, but I don’t think Parker shoulders all of the blame for that; we live in an instant gratification culture, and not a lot of people have the patience to wait 20-30 years for wines to come around.

  14. Jack Bulkin permalink
    June 25, 2011

    Also, like Parker Greenspan is decidedly defensive and accusatory to anyone who has the audacity to disagree with his previously stated positions that have come into question.
    (See 1997 Harlan Pvie et al.)

  15. June 25, 2011

    The 1970 Heitz Martha’s is worth much effort to locate and try. It is by a large measure, IMO, the finest wine that Heitz ever produced. And in general, 1970 may be the greatest vintage California ever had.

    Mayacamas today keeps plugging along, turning out many very fine wines that still recall the way California wines tasted in the 1970s.

  16. Jack Bulkin permalink
    June 25, 2011

    The older I get nd the more “modern” wine I open, I see Robert Parker in the same mind’s eye as I do Alan Greenspan. In the Late 80’s into the early 2000’s the World revered Greenspan. Hushed Markets waited for any word from the old Master and reacted violently and predictably to his declarations. In reality he sucked as a leader of the Fed and also as an economist. His low interest rate policy after the dot com bubble crashed helped to cause the Real Estate bubble and crash that will control our flickering economy for another decade.
    Robert Parker’s skewed palate similarly control the wine markets especially for French and California Wines. The older wines Mike discussed in this blog were made with style, deft hand and finese. They were built to age and show well for decades. Today as a wine buyer one must not only be concerned about the quality of a wine upon release, but the ability of a wine to age due to higher alcohol, higher extraction and ripeness. I have concluded that wines must be consumed much earlier than twenty years ago. Many shut down initially but only give a brief window of greatness once they again become accessible . The days of California Cabs lasting 30 to 40 years is for the most part gone. Bordeuaxand CdP are also in doubt.

  17. June 25, 2011

    Martin, Thanks for the comment. These modern-style California wines do raise those question marks. Montelena is still made in classic fashion, as is the Ridge Monte Bello, which I think is California’s finest cabernet (and what a track record–Paul Draper has been making brilliant wines for over four decades). But the oak, alcohol, and extraction on some of these other wines is so over-the-top that I think one has legitimate reason to doubt their long-term prospects. And forget long-term: I find many of them exhausting to drink young. They are just too much in every regard except the one that matters most to me: finesse. On that count, they are woefully deficient.

    Marshall, I’ve had that 68 Louis Martini and was similarly impressed. I attended a Louis Martini retrospective a few years ago, and I’ll post my tasting notes one of these days. But we tasted the 68, the 59, the 58, the 54, and the 47 cabernet, and were just blown away by these wines. The 47 was incredible, and would unquestionably acquit itself nicely in a blind tasting with top Bordeaux from that era. It’s amazing how well these wines, all of which were apparently aged in redwood, have held up. As I said in my piece, it’s too soon to say how these modern-style Napa cabs will age, but there is good reason to doubt their long-term prospects, for exactly the reasons that Mark Squires cited.

  18. June 25, 2011

    I totally concur, vinters such as Heitz developed wines that overtime matured gracefully and similar to peeling an onion overtime displaying hidden virtues of the wine and winemaker. Having done some recent vertical tastings of new age cabs, they lack the depth to develop overtime and remind green and tannic until they simply fall apart.

  19. Marshall Newman permalink
    June 24, 2011

    Hi Mike,
    Nice to see some notes on some of the wines from my 2os. Due to a pending move, I have been opening a few old bottles (if you drink them, you don’t have to move them). A bottle of 1984 Caymus Napa Cuvee Cabernet was fine, with decent fruit and a nice earthy note, but fell apart quickly. By contrast, a 1968 Louis M. Martini Lot 2 Special Selection Cabernet, despite some ullage and a soaked-through cork, was – though past its prime – still impressive, with generous, fruit, complexity and balance. I can’t say whether today’s Cabernets will show well after 42 years, but the wines I’ve tasted recently suggest the wines from the “old days” – though not crafted for power – age surprisingly well.
    Best,
    Marshall

  20. June 24, 2011

    Dan, Thanks for stopping by. I am going to gently disagree with you. All I smell on recent vintages of SHS is new oak, and the alcohol is not modest. Are they the worst offenders? No, but I doubt that the wines are going to be able to soak up all that wood and age gracefully with the high alcohol/low acidity profile. I could be wrong, of course, and it will be interesting to see how they hold up.

    Dan Posner, Sparks was an awesome place to drink wine back in the day, so long as you could dodge the bullets while walking in!

    Jack, that must have been an awesome experience; consider me jealous.

  21. June 24, 2011

    Very interesting, as 3- 4 weeks ago I was invited by the Wine Institute of California and the US-embassy in Berlin for a tasting of some well-known californian estates including Shafer, Ch. Montelena, Mer Soleil, Phelps, Stags Leap, Caymus etc.
    I was sitting there and was thinking myself……”how these wines will develop and present in 20+ years.” Some ??? were in my head. BTW, I was deeply impressed by 2007 Stag Leap´s S.L.V.

    Last week I had 1997 Ride “Monte Bello” and showed lovely with another 10 years for the next bottle. 92-93pts.

    Cheers,
    Martin
    http://www.berlinkitchen.com

  22. June 24, 2011

    Good morning Mike,
    Nice presentation. But while my affinities lean with yours towards the classics, I am not so sure that Shafer really deserves to be sitting at the defendents’ table alongside Harlan. I presume that you are referring to the Hillside Select, and it is true that when that wine was introduced in the late 70’s it was then regarded as a leader in the field of ripeness and has been hung with all the “tour de force” accolades etc. But I don’t think it has materially changed since, and as fully fruited as it is it is also remarkably structured. I don’t see it turning up in reports of premature demise, raging VA, failure to reward cellaring etc. Big as can be? Certainly. Frankenwine? Hardly. More of an American 1st Growth a la the Aussies’ Grange, the Spaniards’ Pingus, etc imo.
    Best / Dan

  23. Jack Bulkin permalink
    June 24, 2011

    I had the pleasure of drinking the 68 and 74 Martha’s with Joe Heitz and Justin Meyer in 1979 in Napa. Still a highlight for me in my days of wine exploration. The 68 was also awesome as was the 73 Christian Brothers Cab made by Justin.

  24. June 24, 2011

    Sparks used to have tons of the 1974 Heitz Martha’s for “cheap”

    Drank it twice there…1 btl was legendary, the other was just very good.

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