Midway through Saturday’s tasting of homemade wines, one of my friends summed up what had transpired: “What Mother Nature giveth, Father Time taketh away.”
We uncorked more than 20 wines in the span of three hours and there were some wonderful surprises, a few duds, a few corked bottles, yet overall enough evidence to suggest that even amateurs can make pretty good wine, as the homies stood up to some of the big guns.
The first wine, a 1981 Gamble Ranch Chardonnay, from the heart of Napa’s Yountville appellation, had a rich, honeyed character. But it was corked, so that ruined it.
The next wine, a 1994 Carneros Pinot Noir, from Sangiacomo Vineyard (84 points), was tired only because one of my friends had mistakenly opened the last bottle the night before, forgot it was the lone soldier, but recorked it and brought it anyway. “It had a little VA early on [when it was made] and a lot later on,” he laughed. Still, a pretty good wine.
The 1991 Zinfandel (80) came from the Werle Vineyard on Silverado Trail, one of my friends recalled, the oldest vineyards in Napa, with vines dating to the 1800s. A true field mix of Zin, Carignane, Mouvèdre and perhaps Folle Blanche and Palomino. It had a dry, earthy, funky character that I didn’t like as much as others did.
The 1985 Cabernet (87), grown in Rutherford, remained sleek and savory, with dried currant, sage and mineral. The 1986, from the same area, showed a touch more vibrancy, while a second 1986, from State Lane Vineyard in Yountville (now owned by Kapcsàndy) offered perfumed aromas and tart, vivid currant flavors. The 1987 (89), from the same site as 1985 and 1986, stood out as the class of the group. Still very dark and intense, with a youthful mix of loamy earth and currant flavors. It apparently won the best of show at the Napa Town & Country Fair, according my friends, who had entered it in the homemade wine competition.
Our 1987 outshone a ringer, a 1987 Spottswoode, which we later agreed was slightly corked, resulting in its muted fruit character.
The 1988 Rutherford (83), from a tough year, was simple, while another 1988 from Beringer’s Home Ranch in St. Helena (84) had a touch more depth.
The 1989 (82) tasted like a wine from the vintage from hell. Rain at harvest drenched the ‘89s and with only a few exceptions these were not ageworthy wines. Pretty dilute and earthy.
A 1990 State Lane Cabernet (87) was supple and balanced, while a 1990 Howell Mountain Cabernet (91), from Bancroft Vineyard, remained intense and complex, with dried currant, anise and savory earthy and minerally notes. The 1992 Merlot, as noted, turned to VA in the barrel and was never bottled, bringing our tenure as home winemakers to a sad, vinegary end.
The ringers only did so-so. A 1977 Phelps Backus was corked. It was very deep in color and it had just earned an 88-point rating in my 1977 retrospective of California Cabernets (while the Spottswoode 1987 had earned an 88 as well in the 1987 retro). A 1985 Forman Napa Cabernet (88) showed very nicely, well-structured and balanced. A 1987 Beringer Howell Mountain Merlot from Bancroft (91), the winery’s first single-vineyard Merlot from this property) was terrific, while a 1983 Pichon-Longueville-Lalande, a Pauillac second-growth, tasted off, as in corked. A 1989 Woodward Canyon Cabernet (86) was in good shape, but less so the 1985 Eberle Paso Robles Cabernet, which had a pickled edge and worse was the 1977 Hargrave Reserve Cabernet from Long Island, which was a hot-dog and VA soup special, as it had mustard, relish and ketchup flavors. Lastly, a 1985 Havens Reserve Merlot Carneros (86) was dry but structured.
On my scorecard, it was a three-way tie for first, with Beringer’s Merlot, the 1987 homemade Rutherford and 1990 Howell Mountain homemade, all of which prove that if you have good grapes and treat them right, even rank amateurs with desk jobs can make a wine that can compete with the pros. Scary thought. But that’s one reason so many people get into the wine business. They find they can make a decent barrel or two. It’s when those case numbers multiply that it turns from a hobby into a business.