With national identity front and center in the minds of many Americans, the timing of a tasting last weekend was appropriate. The event, held in Napa, benefited a most American cause -- the Statue of Liberty—Ellis Island Foundation.
The Saturday afternoon tasting, as well as the Friday and Saturday dinners, were hosted by Warren Winiarski, owner and winemaker at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. The events were part of a Napa Valley Wine Auction lot purchased last summer for $130,000 by Gary and Yucca Wong Rieschel, private wine collectors from Los Gatos, Calif.
The money from the Rieschel bid went to a variety of Napa Valley charities supported by the Napa Valley Vintners Association, organizers of the auction. In addition, as part of the package, Winiarski and his wife, Barbara, donated $100,000 to help support the American Family Immigration History Center on Ellis Island, which makes the immigrant arrival records available to the public.
Nearly 12 million immigrants came through Ellis Island, most of them between 1892 and 1924. Winiarski's grandparents, who arrived in the 1890s, were among them. "Ellis Island symbolizes the immigrant aspirations of America," he said. "I think about all the dangers they faced leaving home and striking out into a new land. And Ellis Island captures that."
Saturday's tasting featured five flights of classic California Cabernets provided by Winiarski and private collectors. The first flight was a horizontal from 1978, and included outstanding bottles of the Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace, Heitz Bella Oaks and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23.
The 1974 Cabernets in the next flight were generally softer, with lush fruit and supple structure. The standouts were a stunning Cask 23 and a powerful Ridge Montebello, which had the firmest tannins of the group. Winiarski, who made about 450 cases of the 1974 Cask 23, showed that winemakers are often their own worst critics. "To my mind, the '74s are a little bit overdone and overwrought," he said.
Next came six vintages of the BV Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, with the 1968 and 1970 showing best.
Two final flights gave the 20 attendees the rare privilege of trying great vintages of Inglenook, the once-renowned Rutherford estate. During its heyday, from 1933 until it was sold in 1964, Inglenook made a collection of Cabernets ranked by many with the finest reds ever produced. Three different bottlings from 1958 varied significantly, with the Cask F-30 shining brightest. Unfortunately, a bottle of 1959 was fading.
The afternoon concluded with two bottles of the 1941 Inglenook, a wine of practically mythical reputation that seemed especially relevant since it was made just weeks before the United States entered World War II. Although very good, one bottle was a bit oxidized, demonstrating that it takes a great cork, ideal storage and a bit of luck to preserve even great wine for decades. But the other bottle was simply stunning, with all the anticipated intensity and polish.
Since its founding in 1982, the Statue of Liberty—Ellis Island Foundation has raised more than $450 million. Although refurbishment of the statue concluded in 1986, Ellis Island is an ongoing project, with 23 of 27 buildings yet to be restored.