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Nostalgia Has Its Limits with Older Wines

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jan 31, 2008 1:42pm ET

Wine Spectator's senior editors blind tasted a series of old California reds this week, and the tasting, about which James Suckling has also written, demonstrated how well most of these wines aged.

Our editors agreed on a few stars. The 1974 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, Mayacamas 1974 and 1978, and for me the 1966 Beaulieu Vineyard Private Reserve and 1968 Souverain, were all still drinking well. But when it came to other wines, and when it came to scores, we had about as much consensus as we did predicting the Sunday’s Super Bowl winner, which by the way will be the Giants, 27-24, in a huge upset.

With wines, one reason people diverge in their opinions is that we have different perspectives. I’ve tasted most of these many times and have many different points of reference. For some of our editors, with a wine such as the ’68 Souverain, it’s perhaps a once in a lifetime experience.

This cache of wines offered plenty of insights. A few of the wines, such as the Ridge Fiddletown from Amador County, at 14.5 percent alcohol, reminded us that higher alcohol levels are nothing new. The Jordan 1978, the winery’s first estate-grown Alexander Valley Cabernet, showed that elegantly balanced wines age well.

A few of the oldies were goners, victims of age, storage, or mushy or crumbly corks, including the otherwise legendary 1974 Hanzell Pinot Noir, the Louis M. Martini California Mountain Cabernet (from its Monte Rosso Vineyard in Sonoma Valley) and the 1966 Inglenook F-29 from Napa Valley. (The latter two wines never saw the inside of a small oak barrel.)

But other bottles proved that the wines were extremely well made and balanced. When a wine ages well for 30 or 40 years, that’s irrefutable proof of its balance.

One obvious thread: the role of André Tchelistcheff. Tchelistcheff joined BV in the late 1930s and shaped the thinking at most of the California producers whose wines we tried—Martini, Krug (under Robert and Peter Mondavi), Inglenook, Heitz (Joe worked with André at BV), Jordan, Souverain (under Lee Stewart) and Mayacamas, even though Bob Travers has stuck to his guns with his gutsy mountain-grown Cabernets.

For me, nostalgia for old wines has its limits. I like the taste down memory lane, and reconstructing what happened. I noted the dillish scent of American oak in the BV and guessed the winery and decade, as did Harvey Steiman. And I guessed the ’68 Souverain, while wavering as to whether it might be a Mayacamas.

But when it comes to drinking wines with tonight’s dinner, I’ll always opt for something younger.

Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  January 31, 2008 4:10pm ET
James, 1968 is my birthyear and a couple years back I had the good fortune of procuring a bottle of the 68 Souverain. The cork was a bear to get out, but the wine was intact. Though it seemed quite past its peak, it was enjoyable and we drank the whole bottle!
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 31, 2008 6:14pm ET
Troy, you did the right thing...so did we...ours was in excellent condition, though, a touch more tannic than I remembered.
Bryan Bucari
Baton Rouge, LA —  January 31, 2008 7:28pm ET
James, I have heard so many great things about the older Souverains from both you guys and Parker, but unfortunately I haven't had anything before '90. Who was the winemaker back then, and what kind of role did he/she play in the wine world (obviously I know a pretty big one for us to be still talking about the wines)? Also what are some other older vintages I should check out from them that you think might still be around somewhere?
Michael Oleary
Boston MA —  January 31, 2008 7:41pm ET
As a fan of Jordan it is great to read the review of the 78, as a side note your knowledge of football isn't quite as good as California Cab's...Pats roll 42-17.
Mike Karson
January 31, 2008 9:58pm ET
James, I am perplexed by the steep and radical decline of your evaluation of the 1996 Cinq Cepages. Isn't this depreciation something that could have been anticipated given your experience?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  February 1, 2008 6:36am ET
Lee Stewart founded Souverain in Napa on Howell Mountain in the 1940s and was best known for his wines of the 1960s. For a great read on Stewart and the early days of Napa after Prohibition, read George Taber's Judgment of Paris book. Stewart sold the winery (it has since been home to Burgess), and it briefly remained a Napa label until moving to Sonoma, where it was renamed Chateau Souverain. The Chateau Souverain facility in Alexander Valley is now home to Francis Ford Coppola's Rosso & Bianco Winery. More on this another time.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  February 1, 2008 6:43am ET
Mike, I'm not sure if you mean the radical decline of my evaluation of the 1996 Cinq or the wine's decline. Having enjoyed many, many bottles of this wines from its release until now (I still have few bottles in my cellar), I find that its fruit complexity is less exciting for me. But still, I think it's an excellent wine, just not as compelling as it was earlier on. It's at the outer range of my recommended drink window, but that said, wines go through phases. I can only review what I taste.
Jason T Pett
Baltimore, —  February 1, 2008 11:15am ET
James, I think you are right on with some of your earlier comments. When you indicated that at tonight's dinner, you will opt for something younger, it prompted me to ask you a question about your 70 point rating of the 2004 Clos du Val Cabernet. Do you really think it is that bad? I think it was your lowest score for Napa's 2004 Vintage. What are your thoughts on Clos du Val in general? To me, their style is much more old world, albeit a cheaper version. While I do not believe this to be an outstanding wine, I found it to be decent. I would love to hear more of your thoughts. Thanks.
Jim Gallagher
Jim Gallagher —  February 1, 2008 3:52pm ET
I loved those 1968 Cabs and Souverain produced one of the best. I'm not sure of his dates at Souverain, but Phil Baxter was the assistant winemaker under Lee Stewart reign. Also, after Tom Burgess bought the Stewart property, Souverain under its new corporate management built the facility on Rutherford Hill and Stewart was the President for a period. At that time there were two Souverain wineries: Souverain and Chateau Souverain both owned by the same Corporation, Philsbury I believe.
Alex Bernardo
Millbrae, CA —  February 2, 2008 3:18pm ET
Thank you for this illuminating blog. Good to know better the man behind the scores. I never regard aging wines for nostalgia or for a walk down memory lane. I've always thought that great wines transform over time realizing their full potential.
Jeff Perry
San Francisco —  February 2, 2008 3:38pm ET
James, I can relate another CA cab that's doing well, and right on track with your prediction (at the time). The 1994 St Clement Napa Valley is drinking very well, some 14 years down the line. As you put it, "... Should age well into 2000, with ease." Pity their modern wines probably will not match the 94's performance.
Ken Koonce
Dallas, Texas —  February 3, 2008 6:09pm ET
I did not get the '96 Cinq Cepage, but I had the '97 and '99, both also highly rated on release. I drank them both in '04. The '97 (at 7 years old) was not that great - kind of flat, and certainly did not justify it's price. But the '99 (at 5 years old) was very, very good. Do you think this was a case of a wine being very good when young, but not aging well? If so, what might account for that? Or is it just bottle variation?
Claudio Boyks
chicago, IL —  February 4, 2008 2:00pm ET
James -Slightly off topic, but do you know if there is going to be another Pinot Dedicated issue coming out soon?Will you be updating your thoughts on the direction of California Pinot?I was referring to something along the lines of your December 15th, 2006 article on California Pinot.Thanks!Claudio
Dr Gregory M Beals
Omaha —  February 4, 2008 4:29pm ET
The winner and the margin of victory is correct!
James Laube
Napa, CA —  February 4, 2008 4:44pm ET
Claudio, our regular Pinot report is in the September issue. But we routinely taste new releases and report on those wines as soon as we can in tasting highlights, blogs and the Insider.
Jason Thompson
Foster City, CA —  February 4, 2008 10:09pm ET
Jim, congrats on your prediction...you could have made some serious money to pay for some of those younger wines.

PS, to all that have remarked on the Cinq Cepages blend. I have found similar issues with these wines. They just don't age. Had the 1996 and 1997, along with the 1999 about a year ago. The 99 was fabulous. 95+pts. The others two were just good to average...the 97 being about a 92-93pts and the 96 being a total disappointment for a #1 WOTY. Just get in the habit of drinking them early. They should get their winemaker back as well...haven't enjoyed this wine's latest vintages.
Powell Yang
Napa, —  February 5, 2008 6:23pm ET
Jim,Was the 1970 Freemark Abbey Bosche Cabernet Sauvignon included in this exercise?When you brought the 1970 Bosche and the 1974 Martha's to the dinner at n.v., I believe most of the crowd enjoyed the 70 Bosche better.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  February 5, 2008 6:27pm ET
No, Powell, the Bosche wasn't and it's been a while for me since the Martha's was stunning.
Ted A Hunt
Fort Lauderdale, Fl —  February 6, 2008 10:55am ET
JL - Do you have plans to formally re-evaluate the '97 and '99 Cinq Cepages? I have been holding bottles of both with anticipation, and after this discussion would appreciate your input .
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst Illinois —  February 8, 2008 9:24pm ET
James: How can you make predictions about the outcome of the Super Bowl--quite well I might add--and not be able to forsee the ability to age of a wine such as Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cepages? You can't have it both ways, buddy! I've always thought that a wine's ability to age, as evidenced by its underlying structure, can and should be a factor in its rating. This would prevent wines such as Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon 1997 from receiving the same rating (87 points) as wines such as the Columbia Crest Grand Estates which routinely receive 85 to 90 points.By the way, although I picked the Patriots by 17, it was clear to me that the 1996 and 1997 Cinq Cepages were not wines for the cellar! T.B.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  February 9, 2008 1:32pm ET
Vince, my drink window on '96 CC was 2000-2008; it's still an excellent wine, but more restrained and Bordeaux like than earlier on. My ratings are for the wine the day I taste it, not a prediction. The drink window is for when I suggest you drink it. For me it's usually on the earlier side. I will also get a bottle of the 1997 CC, Ted. The 1997 St. Jean Reserve was excellent.
Ted A Hunt
Fort Lauderdale, Fl —  February 11, 2008 2:48pm ET
Thanks, James. I'll continue holding the '97 Cinq Cepages and look for your updated rating and thoughts about it. You're the professional! I rely on your ratings for both acquisitons and drink windows.
Thomas D Nichols
Houston, TX —  March 7, 2008 8:23pm ET
Okay,so last night I finished a 750 of Inglenook Petite Sirah '83 (Unfortunately they only made their Petite Sirah in 750s.) Still very characteristic and drinkable. On the other hand my 750 '83 Inglenook Reunion are all dead, undrinkable. It once was a great wine. I have two imperials I will serve at a charity event in the fall. (Just hope, will have to have back up, as always with old bottles.) The '85 Inglenook Charbono in mags is doing very well. If you are going to hold onto these old wines they have a much better chance in big bottles.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  March 7, 2008 8:49pm ET
Thomas, sounds about right. Hard to predict how wines will age...Reunion was excellent early on...good luck with the imperials...Charbono another wild card and there were some great Inglenook Charbonos...that's the grape/wine that started Bob Foley on that wine.
Joseph W. Balesteri
Chicago/USA —  March 13, 2008 10:07pm ET
James, I would love your thoughts on whether storing a case of the 2005 Lewis Reserve Cabernet and 2005 Far Niente Cabernet for my son's wedding (he was born in 2005) has a good chance of resulting in a nice night of drinking for the rehearsal dinner in 20-30 years. Thanks James (or anyone else who has a view).
Thomas D Nichols
Houston, TX —  November 24, 2008 5:00pm ET
So the first Inglenook Reunion '83 in an imperial: decanted into two three liter decanters, lots of dregs, sound,a little dry, still hanging onto classic flavors. Tom Nichols in Houston
James Laube
Napa, CA —  November 24, 2008 5:04pm ET
Joseph, given ideal, or perfect storage, perhaps 20 years, yes. Thirty would be a stretch. I think you're better off finding out what your son likes to drink when he's of age and then building the rehersal dinner around that, rather than risk having two great cases of wine fail to live long lives.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  November 24, 2008 5:07pm ET
Thomas, thanx for the note on the Reunion. Reunion was a last-gasp attempt to resurrect the great Inglenook name, but alas despite some fine wines, it failed. Glad to hear the 1983 lasted so long. I had my doubts.

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