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A Teachable Moment in Aging Wine: 1970s Kongsgaard Cabernets

Two of John Kongsgaard's oldest wines proved nimble and fascinating—special wines that were nevertheless well past their prime
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Feb 5, 2014 1:20pm ET

There's a downside to aging wines too long. That might seem obvious, but few wine lovers take that into consideration when purchasing wines to lay down in the cellar for a while.

In a conversation and tasting with John Kongsgaard the other day, we talked about terroir, to what extent it exists (and can be identified), at what age it might be most readily identified in a wine and, ultimately, that with enough age, all wines lose their terroir. They become old wines inseparable from one another.

Illustrating this point, Kongsgaard poured two Cabernets that he made early on his career, as a 26-year-old home winemaker in the 1970s with his father, Thomas, in Napa. They used minimalist equipment, a crusher, press, likely a lab yeast, a hand-corking machine, and did little else to the wines before bottling.

Once bottled, the wines were stored in the family's cellar, resting there for nearly four decades.

The wines were special. Kongsgaard was a student at U.C. Davis at the time and had worked at various cellars in Napa. The grapes came from a then largely unheard-of property, Fay Vineyard, on the Silverado Trail at the southern entrance of what is now the Stags Leap District. Nate and Nellie Fay were growers, making homemade wine but selling most of their grapes to a handful of vintners, among them Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Clos Du Val and, briefly, Heitz.

Kongsgaard's two wines, a 1976 and a 1978, were instructive on a couple of counts. The '76 was from a drought year, which yielded very ripe and raisiny grapes that were quite concentrated and tannic. 1978 was a classic of the era, one of the top two or three vintages of the 1970s.

Both wines were alive and well, but more like nimble 80-year-olds than anything in their prime. Both smelled like what Stephan Henschke called an old lady's purse when I tasted with him and my colleague Harvey Steiman.

The '78 offered subtle rose petal, anise and a mahogany edge that held up. But would either of us have guessed the wine's identities or appellation were they tasted blind? No. Whatever distinctive traits the wines had of Fay Vineyard had faded with time.

As I said, the wines were special. They were Kongsgaard's first tries with Cabernet and winemaking and he made them with his father at the old family estate known as Stonecrest. Today that vineyard is the site of a Chardonnay that goes into Kongsgaard's The Judge bottling.

These oldies are historic wines that Kongsgaard can share with his winemaker son Alex and friends, more curiosities than something you'd aim for had you bought the wines young. Never having left the property worked to the wines' advantage as well, we agreed. Too often, though, people buy wines, lay them in their cellar and forget they have them before it's too late.

Larry Kantrowitz
Atlanta Georgia USA —  February 5, 2014 2:59pm ET
I would guess this falls into the most California wines do not age category and the sub category of what do you expect, it is home made? There are lots of mediocre wines made from exceptional vineyards, does that mean there is no terrior, no it means the winemaker didn't do a good job.
James Laube
Napa —  February 5, 2014 3:18pm ET
Larry, I've tried the wines on several occasions in their youth; that they got old has little to do with them at their peak. As I said, both wines were alive and well, but at the point where age blurs individuality. Happens to all wines eventually. Point of the tasting was to share a winemaker's first attempts, both of which were very successful.
Karl D Schubert Phd
Portland, OR, USA —  February 5, 2014 6:48pm ET
I have many wines that I have managed (I suspect) to *way* overage. It's pretty sad because I've kept them in correct climate control, stored on their side, etc. (They start from the late '70s.)

So, I'm stuck with opening 3 or 4 bottles to get one that's good. Very, sad, to be sure. But, I've learned my lesson and am now using CellarTracker to help me keep track of the newer acquisitions and also when to best drink them.

Great article and great reminder to all.
James Laube
Napa —  February 5, 2014 6:55pm ET
Kurt, worse than bad corks is the amount of great wine that dies in the cellar. The No. 1 admission of my wine friends is they let too many wines lapse (or forget them) for no good reason. I'm among them. Billions wasted...
Stewart Lancaster
beaver, pa —  February 6, 2014 10:23am ET
too many times I've kept wines beyond their life, waiting for the "right oppurtunity". Trying to rectify this. This weekend I will open a 1982 Grange Hermitage. should be interesting
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  February 6, 2014 5:24pm ET
Agreed. Guilty! "Cellar management" is no easy feat! A friend's motto is to the effect of "if you like the way it is now, drink the crap out of it!". He is a wise friend!

But even so, none of us can really know whether a wine is "at peak" in terms of our personal preference, or whether "a bit longer" will get us even closer to perfection. Where is the wine going in the next year? Better or worse than today? It's so tempting to gamble.

And let's face it, this aging game IS about personal preference: some prefer early, others mid-term (pretty sure I fall in here), others measuring in decades in a long-term game. So even the drinking windows posited by the very best reviewers don't necessarily guide any individual toward THEIR ideal drinking moment. It requires a careful mix of self-awareness and reviewer/winery advice, I believe.

But as games go, it's an exciting and fun game to play... but honestly, I'm learning that I could drink much of what I buy a little earlier too.
Douglas Johnson
Appleton, WI —  February 6, 2014 10:43pm ET
When I first began building a cellar of fine wines, I set up a spreadsheet to keep track of where they were stored (which rack and row) along with pertinent data including, when available, a reviewer's aging window. Each year, I review my inventory and put together a list of wines to consume over the coming year, and I pay particular attention to wines approaching the end of their recommended window. I find this to be very helpful to avoid the issue described in this blog.
Alan Gavalya
Hampton VA USA —  February 7, 2014 10:55am ET
This has been a worry of mine since my stocks grew to a modest 300+ bottles. My solution was to add a small 46 bottle dual zone cooler to stage the bottles that are ready to drink. Cellar Tracker helps me keep up with wines ready to drink and their locations. As wine is removed from the cooler to drink the space is filled from the main cellars. The cushion provided by this system combined with the data base information makes it much easier to decide which bottles to purchase based on drinking windows and varietals.
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  February 7, 2014 1:49pm ET

Not only do even the best wines not last forever, neither do we. Saving wines for a "special" occasion so special that it never seems to come has been the death of many great wines.

David Clark
for The Wine Connection
Gary Brain
Va —  February 8, 2014 4:02pm ET
I enter my best wines in Wine Spectator's Personal Wine list and when I drink I enter user notes that I share. I find that about 10% of user comments are useful and wish others would enter aging opinions.
Ron Lippitt
warwick' RI USA —  February 9, 2014 5:06pm ET
Alright, you've convinced me to bring my last bottle of 1997 Pahlmeyer to our friends for dinner tonight. Good friends and fine wine-you cant beat that. In my experience over the last 30 years that I have been collecting, only great rhones and ports seem to really stand up to the 20 year mark. About CA wines not being able to age, well I will tell you that my bottles 99 Von Strasser reserve and 04 Jaffurs upslope will probably out live me.

Robert Cooperstein
Brookline, MA —  February 20, 2014 2:48pm ET
Interesting to have sat down at the computer this afternoon and read this blog and comments, after having just pulling out a '94 Pahlmeyer to drink tonight with some simple grilled lamb chops. No special occasion except the first day above freezing in what seems like forever. There is no time like the present.
James Laube
Napa —  February 20, 2014 2:57pm ET

I was served this wine last week in Sonoma...was tremendous!
Robert Cooperstein
Brookline, MA —  February 21, 2014 11:40am ET

You're right, it was tremendous and actually seemed much younger than its 20 years. What a treat!
Salim Asrawi
Houston —  March 4, 2014 5:17pm ET
Much of the Terroir will always be lost if the wine ages enough and starts going downhill from its peak.
This happens whether drinking great growth or premier Bordeaux, Burgundy or Napa Valley. This absence of Terroir also happens when these wines are to young. Often the tannins and on occasion the strong fruit characteristics do not allow the wine to express itself fully.

To ideally find any wines peak will always vary with the wine. Sometimes it seems the only solution is to have a case or more and to drink and sample one every 6 months minimum to see how it develops thus to have an indicator of when it will peak and to guess at a decline point.
In the end its trial and error when tasting and speaking about a particular bottle of wine, The Terroir, Corks, cellars, temperatures, humidity, time, place, food and vintage all influence the particular persons palate from a particular bottle at a particular time and place.
And then isn't that what Terroir is really all about??
James Laube
Napa —  March 4, 2014 5:33pm ET
Well said, Salim.

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