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New World, Old Wines

  • Kelli White

For the longest time, most serious wine drinkers adhered to the notion that California wines did not improve with age. These offerings were often exciting and much anticipated, but while everyone was tucking their first-growth Bordeaux into the farthest nooks of their cellars to peacefully wait out the decades, the best wines of California were relegated to the shelves designated for immediate consumption. Collectors might impress their guests by pouring a Harlan Estate today, but they cannily reserved the Château Latour for some far-off occasion.

This myth about the age-worthiness (or unworthiness, as it were) of wines from the Golden State persists, because the modern reputation of California was forged in the heady 1990s, when the triumph of the Cult Cabs inspired a kind of trickle-down hedonism that influenced the style of wines at all price points. The wines from this decadent decade were rich, luscious, and instantly gratifying, making the concept of an ideal drinking window for a mature bottle of wine seem antiquated. After all, why put off until tomorrow what can be drunk today?

Consumers, the American wine media, and even the vintners themselves are in part responsible for this attitude: All were so focused on chasing scores that they forgot entirely the classic standards on which the industry was largely founded. This mind-set, however, is now shifting. A recent string of chilly, difficult vintages in Northern California thwarted ripeness, imbuing the wines with more of an old-school character that prompted many of the producers to look to the past for guidance. At the same time, a new generation of winemakers, sommeliers, and consumers—many of whom were not even of legal drinking age in the 1990s—began to find inspiration in the wines of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. These enthusiasts were drawn not only to the more restrained style of these wines but also to their prices: Vintage California wines can be enjoyed at peak maturity for a fraction of the cost of a comparably aged Bordeaux, Burgundy, or Barolo—or, for that matter, even a new Californian release.

Although treasures of the past abound throughout the many appellations of California—where, in decades past, greatness was sometimes achieved by accident rather than plan—the Napa Valley, with its well-structured Cabernet Sauvignons, offers the most reliable source of collectible, age-worthy wines. Anyone seeking to survey classic California viticulture need look no further than the following list to experience the very best of Napa’s last five decades.

Chappellet 1969 Cabernet Sauvignon
Quite possibly no other Napa wine from the 1960s has received more attention than Chappellet’s 1969 Cabernet. This red offers the top California tasting experience for many of the world’s most renowned critics, and rightly so: Those fortunate few who have sampled a properly stored bottle can intimately appreciate the aesthetic heights to which Cabernet can rise in the right soil and with the right vintner. Surely only a few scattered handfuls of bottles remain, making the wine a kind of legend, a ghost. This scarcity is reflected in the price: Unlike so many other wines from that decade, the 1969 Chappellet has surged in value, thanks to its renown. Collectors should anticipate paying at least a four-digit sum for a single bottle.

If practice does indeed make perfect, then the 1969 Chappellet is an exception to that rule. This vintage was only Chappellet’s second; the fruit was culled from vines that were only 6 years old or younger, and construction on the winery was barely completed in time for that year’s harvest. The only established variable was the winemaker, Philip Togni, whose steady hands performed the alchemy that translated great land into great wine. Togni, who now runs his own namesake winery high up on Spring Mountain, was hand-selected by Donn Chappellet for his ability to craft intense, profound, and age-worthy wines. Under his care, the reputation of Chappellet as a quality producer got off to a fine and early start, and his first six vintages remain among the estate’s most lauded.

Before becoming a vintner, Donn Chappellet was a businessman in Los Angeles with a taste for fine wine. Seeking an escape from city life, in the 1960s he moved his sizable family to the remote outpost that was Pritchard Hill and applied his acumen to the budding wine industry. At that time, there were only a handful of functioning wineries in the Napa Valley. Most of these operations—producers such as Martini, Beaulieu Vineyards, and Charles Krug—were operating on a very large scale. Chappellet, by contrast, was quite small, emphasizing craft over quantity. This virtue is a point of frustration for collectors. Chappellet’s entire output in 1969, for example, was around 2,000 cases, only 400 of which were the esteemed Cabernet.

The Chappellet brand is still run by the family; several of Donn and Molly’s six children are involved in the winery operations. Their son Cyril, who is now effectively the president of the winery, was 12 during the 1969 growing season and remembers a summer of punishing vineyard work in exchange for a blue Briggs & Stratton minibike. He currently resides on the estate, as do many of his relatives. Decisions are made as a family, and many meals are still family affairs, often featuring highlights from Chappellet’s 45-year history. The family recently opened a 5-liter bottle of the 1969 for the matriarch Molly’s 80th birthday. Although always incredible, the wine from this large-format bottle was especially gorgeous, showing almost no loss of color, a powerful frame, a bottomless well of fine red fruit, and a richness that belies its 12-percent alcohol level. Though Cyril has long since outgrown the minibike, he continues to enjoy the fruits of that harvest and expects the wine to live long enough to delight future generations of Chappellets and their admirers. Chappellet, www.chappellet.com

Robert Mondavi 1974 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
For many lovers of old California wine, the 1970s were the glory decade. And no single wine better embodies that period than the Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. These wines are important not just aesthetically but also historically; without Robert Mondavi, very few, if any, of the more recent wines on this list would have come to be. While pioneers like John Daniel Jr. of Inglenook and Andre Tcheli­s­tcheff of Beaulieu Vineyards certainly deserve credit for elevating California wine to a level of quality that had long been standard in regions such as Bordeaux, Robert Mondavi drew the attention of the world to this hard-won excellence, lobbying tirelessly throughout his entire life on California’s behalf. His passion and perseverance ignited a fire in Napa that drew many new vintners to its light. They were inspired by his excitement and, more importantly, by the sheer beauty of his wines.

Though the entire decade of the 1970s was a banner one for Mondavi, 1974 seems to be the vintage to beat. Values can still be found on the auction market, but prices are starting to creep up as this wine gains recognition for its aesthetic caliber. This was Robert’s son Timothy’s first full-time year at the winery, and the vintage is deeply ingrained in his mind. While Zelma Long was the winemaker, Tim describes the vintage as a collaborative effort between himself, Long, and his father. With these three giants of the industry combining their talents, it is no wonder that the wine remains such a marvel today.

Tim remembers that the growing season was ideal—a winter of heavy rains filled the underground water sources, while a long, cool spring and summer made for slow, even ripening, and a warm autumn allowed for extended hang time. Brief rains in September set some vintners scrambling to harvest, but the Mondavis encouraged their growers to wait out the weather, eking out a bit more ripeness from the grapes. The result was an especially rich wine endowed with a then-record-setting alcohol level of 13.6 percent.

The Robert Mondavi Reserve is certainly one of the most iconic wines of California, and Tim is quick to comment on how much has changed since its inception. “These days, site specificity is everything in wine,” he says, “but back then, it was more important to create a house style. For my father and me, that meant a wine of quality and balance, with a good backbone, complexity, and depth.” 

Today this wine is pure pleasure to drink. At nearly 40 years old, it is still a rich wine, with a beautifully perfumed nose and striking acidity. The wine produced from what Tim Mondavi refers to as “an exciting time and a great vintage” continues to astound and, with each passing year, seems to gain subtlety, character, and the ability to delight. Robert Mondavi Winery, www.robertmondaviwinery.com

Dunn Vineyards 1985 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain
Randy Dunn may be a man of few words, but his wines speak volumes. These are some of the most individualistic wines in the industry. Notoriously tight when young, Dunn’s Cabernets take years to relax. Lucky for today’s drinkers, some of Dunn’s earliest efforts are just hitting that sweet spot wherein all the elements come together in harmony. His early-1980s wines have their individual charms, but the 1985 Howell Mountain stands out as the most complex, deep, and accessible of the decade.

This Cabernet bears all the Dunn hallmarks: smoke and spice; dry, dusty tannins; an earthy tobacco edge; and a marked acidity that adds a roundness to the fruit. These elements fill out the wine’s outstanding frame, making it more friendly and approachable than is typical at this stage. Randy Dunn has recently revisited the vintage and claims that, though he has always liked the wine, it has picked up an appreciably stronger bouquet and greater nuance over the last 10 years. That said, the wine has far to go, and a wise collector should invest in several bottles—one to drink now, and others to open at regular intervals in the future. Dunn Vineyards, www.dunnvineyards.com

Colgin 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon Herb Lamb Vineyard
In the mid-1990s, Colgin was on top of the world. A string of successful vintages placed the budding cult label in the oenological spotlight, and all eyes were on the vintner Ann Colgin and her legendary winemaker Helen Turley. These two women were delighting collectors and critics with their intensely sumptuous Cabernets, and many considered their Herb Lamb bottling to be their crowning achievement.

The Herb Lamb Vineyard, planted in 1988, was just hitting its stride with the 1995 vintage. The tiny parcel is remote and surrounded by a thick forest. In order to avoid any shade cast by the trees, Turley worked only with the fruit from the very heart of the property, thereby ensuring maximum sun exposure. This was essential in a cool year such as 1995, whose protracted growing season resulted in the latest harvest of the vineyard’s history. This wine was assuredly massive upon release, but now it is settling into a balance that is almost feline in its delicate precision. Earthy elements such as cedar, spent tobacco, and clove are just beginning to sidle around the edges of the wine, whose core remains pure red fruits and flowers.

Colgin regards the wine as a personal favorite and, during a recent tasting, found it remarkably youthful. She believes that it is a good omen for wines that, in the past, were criticized as perhaps “too delicious to age,” and she calls the wine a “tribute to the greatness of Helen Turley and what she popularized: small lots of truly great, handcrafted wines.” Colgin Cellars, www.colgincellars.com

Shafer Vineyards 2001 Hillside Select
While many modern treasures of Napa were intended for early consumption, this tremendous wine possesses enough structure and stuffing to carry it gracefully forward. At 12 years old, the wine is gorgeous, exhibiting graphite and cedar on the nose and offering a rich mouthful of fresh blueberries and blackberry compote on the palate. A fair amount of baby fat, as it were, still adds to this wine’s charm, but further aging is possible—though additional cellar time is by no means a requirement for optimal enjoyment. In short, this Hillside Select is perfect now.

This particular bottling from Shafer Vineyards is one of Napa’s most highly regarded wines. In each vintage, the wine is blended from a shifting selection of the best-performing blocks in the hillsides that surround the winery. While the composition varies from year to year, one block always makes the cut: Sunspot. Because the 2001 vintage was released in 2004, Shafer’s 25th year of production, the family decided to bottle half of the superlative Sunspot block on its own in commemorative magnums. These magnums were released only to the winery’s mailing list, but a few occasionally pop up on the secondary market.

The company president, Doug Shafer—son of the founder John Shafer and formerly a cowinemaker with Elias Fernandez—remembers the 2001 growing season fondly. It was a genial year, climatically uneventful, with a longer-than-average growing season and a long, cool harvest. He describes the wine as “physiologically quite ripe but balanced.” That was also the year before the Sunspot block was replanted. Whether from the vine age or the weather, both 2001s are nothing short of stunning and should be scooped up at any cost. Shafer Vineyards, www.shafervineyards.com

For reviews of 25 more superb older wines from the Napa Valley, download the interactive iPad edition of the November issue of Robb Report at the iTunes App Store or through Zinio.

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