Wine Diarist

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

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 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-.

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