I visited with Barney Rhodes at his home in Rutherford on Friday. Barney will turn 87 this year and is in fair to good health. He’s an old friend and one of the great wine men of Napa Valley and beyond, a true connoisseur with an incredible cellar (actually two) who knows fine wine about as well as anyone.
He and his late wife, Belle, planted the original Martha’s Vineyard (before it was called that) in Napa Valley and Bella Oaks, which is still owned by Barney, who sells the grapes to Heitz Cellar.
The Rhodes' collection covered all the bases, from great French and German wines to Vintage Port. Naturally, their cellar was stockpiled with an amazing assortment of California wines. Over the years they were extremely generous with me in sharing any wine they had in their cellar that I wanted to try. It was like having a wine library at my disposal, where you could taste just about anything.
Barney’s prime wine-drinking days are behind him and he sold off much of his cellar after he had a stroke. Still, he had some old California gems that he wondered if I’d like to try and invited me to taste some of them.
When it comes to old wines, I’m more of an admirer than fan. I certainly appreciate how wines age and have had the fortune to try thousands of grand old wines from just about every wine region on earth. It never fails to amaze me how wines from just about anywhere, made from just about any grape, can and do benefit from aging. A great old wine is like a taste snapshot of the day the grape was picked. And for a long time people questioned whether California wines would age as well as their European counterparts and thanks to many blind tastings with people like Barney, I don’t have any doubts that they do.
But when it comes to drinking wine, it’s another matter. I like younger, fruitier ones rather than delicate, or complex oldies.
We uncorked more than a dozen of Barney’s wines; most were well past their prime, yet it was fun to have one more sip. The 1962 Heitz Pinot Noir is an example of how eclectic Barney’s cellar was. The wine was actually the 1962 Hanzell that Barney and Joe Heitz bought in bottle and then labeled it Heitz when Hanzell temporarily went out of business. Heitz’ first Chardonnays were also original Hanzell wines. It had a loamy dried cherry flavor that I’m sure that fans of aged red Burgundy would swoon over.
Both the 1968 Souverain Napa Valley Cabernet and the 1974 Chalone Pinot Noir were also in decline. But the 1972 Sterling Merlot, a wine made by Ric Forman, was in decent shape considering ’72 was a horrible year. Next came more expired bottles, the 1966 Charles Krug Napa Cabernet, the 1970 Robert Mondavi Napa Unfiltered Cabernet (which later became part of the reserve line of wines) and the 1970 Freemark Abbey Bosche Cabernet. I’ve had the Bosche recently and it was terrific.
We found a 1981 “French Syrah,” which was still dark and chewy. It was a homemade wine from Milt and Barbara Eisele, founders of Eisele Vineyard, now owned by the Araujos.
The two best wines hardly offered a clue about who made them. I call these wines UBWs, or Unidentified Bottled Wines. Trying to guess where they were made, or who made them, or what vintage is like playing a game of wine detective, which, come to think of it, might be a fun game. (Someone selects a group of wines, marks them, removes the label and cork, bags them and then you try to guess what the wine is. After the game the identities are revealed.)
The first, a wine simply labeled Mendocino Pinot Noir, showed it was bottled in Ukiah; my guess was Parducci, and probably from inland, as opposed to Anderson Valley, where most of the best Pinot is grown. The only hint of the vintage was a code on the bottom of the bottle. I think I made out ’70. It was elegant, complex, fresh for its age and quite remarkable, with subtle dried cherry fruit flavors.
Then there was the 1968 EVOE, a blend of Petite Sirah, Zinfandel and Thompson Seedless (according to the back label), with some grapes from Cucamonga (same back label source). It too was firm, vibrant, concentrated and holding up quite well, whoever made it.
Finally, we pulled the pin on a terrific bottle of 1953 Ficklin California "Tinta" Port, which smelled and tasted complex, with an Irish coffee-like essence. It showed some heat, but none more than the next bottle we uncorked, a 1955 Taylor’s Vintage Port, which offered a tapestry of plum, rose petal and chocolate. As we sipped the wines the two were so close in quality no one could discern a difference.