When Kelli A. White arrived in Napa Valley in 2010, fresh from a stint at Veritas restaurant in New York City, she had an admittedly East Coast perspective. “I came here with a lot of bad ideas,” she says. “All that I knew, which was largely misinformed, was that Napa was just big oak, monster alcoholic, big money wines.”
But Leslie Rudd, the owner of Press restaurant, had hired White and her fiancé, Scott Brenner, with the vision of creating a cellar that expressed the true character and history of Napa Valley. He gave them a blank check and a simple directive: Build the best Napa wine program in the world. And in just two years—aided by a bad economy that brought more old bottles to market, and by collectors who did not prize old Napa—they were able grow the cellar from 200 selections to 2,500, ranging from rare old bottles from the 1940s to the “alternative, kind of funky stuff” made by Napa’s cutting-edge winemakers today. Along the way—after countless hours of research, long talks with winemakers, and tasting thousands of wines—White was also in the unique position to write Napa Valley Then & Now, a 1,258-page tome that landed this fall. It is a definitive portrait of the Valley, presenting its history, in-depth reviews of key wines and wineries, and the nuances that make Napa the most sought-after wine region in the New World.
As White learned, many of the early bottlings have evolved into extraordinary wines. We asked her to recommend her five top pre-1990 bottles, the Napa wines that are lesser known and still underappreciated at auction, though today, her own appreciation is without bounds.
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1/Diamond Creek Cabernet Sauvignon, 1979, 1980, 1981 ($80 to $145)
The first California producer to emphasize specific vineyard blocks, Diamond Creek made small quantities of some of the best wine to come out of the state, and “you see them on the secondary market more often than you should,” White says. While the 1974 and 1975 have a rabid following, “lesser” vintages such as 1979, 1980, and 1981 are brilliant, ecstatic wines and can be tremendous buys. Dense, concentrated, rich in cassis, tar, and herbal flavors.
2/ Groth Cabernet Sauvignon, 1980s ($25 to $40)
The 1985 Reserve was famously the first California wine to receive 100 points from Robert M. Parker Jr., but the “regular” bottling of ’85 Cabernet is also a gem, “and pretty much every vintage from the ’80s is drinking very well today and can be found for relatively little money,” White says. “Don’t overlook them in the rush to find the Reserve.” Softer and more accessible than Diamond Creek, with generous red fruit and tea flavors.
3/ Dominus Estate Red Bordeaux Blend, 1984 and 1988 ($75 to $125)
With vineyards planted in 1838 by George Yount, this historic parcel of Napa terroir seduced the scion of the Château Pétrus family, Christian Moueix, in the 1980s. Like Pétrus, the early vintages of Dominus had a fair amount of Merlot, unusual for Napa at the time, and the early wines were criticized for being too lean. “But they’ve aged beautifully,” White says. “They are more delicate, but still very stately and very fine, with great red apple fruit and nice earth around the edges.”
4/Mayacamas Vineyards Chardonnay, 1970s and ’80s ($20 to $130)
“The Cabernet gets all the attention, but Mayacamas crafted some seriously age-worthy Chardonnays throughout the ’70s and ’80s,” White says. Grapes are grown high on Mount Veeder, in a unique blend of soil types. The wine does not undergo malolactic fermentation, so it has wonderful pop and life—mineral-rich, with golden apple notes and a touch of honey. “Some of them can even be a little bit smoky. They are thrilling wines. If you see magnums, do not hesitate.”
5/ Hanzell Vineyards Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s ($20 to $450)
White could not resist one selection from Sonoma: Hanzell. “Unbelievable, immortal wines,” she says. “The Pinots have a touch of earth, a touch of that savory, bloody quality, and are still packed with pert cherry flavors and beautiful dried leaf notes.” The winery was founded by James Zellerbach, a Crown Zellerbach heir, who was determined to make wines that rivaled those in France. The high end of the price scale is 1968 Pinot Noir, while the lower end is generally Chardonnay.