It has always been about the vineyards in Sonoma County. It's more like Burgundy in that way than Napa, where the winemaker is king. The list of star winemakers in Sonoma is fairly short and no one has a longer and more impressive record than Richard Arrowood.
Arrowood has been in the business for 50 years, cutting his winemaking teeth at places like Korbel, Italian Swiss Colony and Rodney Strong before becoming the first winemaker at Chateau St. Jean in 1974. He followed that in 1985 with Arrowood Winery, later selling it and launching Amapola Creek Winery in 2000.
Last week Arrowood and his wife, Alis, staged the first of a series of retrospective tastings, gathering wines from as far back as 1975. They also invited many of the people who helped them along the way, many of whom graciously shared wine from their cellars for the tasting. Among those on hand were fellow winemakers Margo and Don Van Staaveren, Erich Bradley and Mike Berthoud, veteran vineyard manager Phil Coturri and Barbara Banke of Jackson Family Wines, which owns Arrowood Winery.
We tasted 54 wines, non-blind, and I've included my scores with my tasting notes. Across the board, the wines were superb. Here are some of the high points.
Chateau St. Jean Zinfandel Wildwood Vineyards Sonoma Valley 1976: Surprisingly youthful, with only slight brickish sheen in the color. Delicate notes of cherry, spice and anise, with accents of tea and cedar. Still holding some tannins. "I wish I'd held together this well at age 39," Arrowood said of the wine. (92 points, non-blind)
Chateau St. Jean Cabernet Sauvignon Laurel Glen Vineyards Sonoma Valley 1975: Would never guess it was 40 years old. It's still loaded with fruit and the color is quite dark, with notes of black cherry, smoky sage and vanilla. (95 points, non-blind)
Chateau St. Jean Cabernet Sauvignon Glen Ellen Vineyards Sonoma Valley 1977: Wonderful aromas, showing sage, black cherry and tons of spice. Fairly brickish color but flavors are still racy and complex. Current St. Jean winemaker Margo Van Staaveren was surprised at how well the older St. Jean wines were showing. "I didn't expect them to be so generous." (94 points, non-blind)
Arrowood Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County 1991: Delicate, floral and supple. Still showing a fine color. Notes of black cherry, cedar and herb. (92 points, non-blind)
Arrowood Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County Reserve Speciale 1992: Drinking beautifully, with great structure and balance. Rich and plush. (95 points, non-blind)
Arrowood Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County Reserve Speciale 1997: Ideal combo of youth and age, it's lush and rich but still has backbone and muscle. (96 points, non-blind)
Arrowood Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma Valley Monte Rosso Vineyard 2007: Young and fresh, the flavors are plush with black cherry, spice and a hint of mint. Excellent structure and length. (95 points, non-blind)
Amapola Creek Zinfandel Sonoma Valley Monte Rosso Vineyard 2006: Still has lots of spunk, with notes of rose petal, red clay, spicy raspberry and cinnamon. (92 points, non-blind)
Amapola Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma Valley Estate 2005: Polished and powerful, with lush notes of black cherry, mocha and cinnamon. An excellent wine from a young vineyard. (94 points, non-blind)
Amapola Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma Valley Estate 2010: The current release has a hint of Zin-like briary fruit with fine focus and power, plus rich flavors of boysenberry and spice. (92 points, non-blind)
As a final treat, Arrowood shared some dessert wines from the cellar, including an ethereal Chateau St. Jean Johannesburg Belle Terre Vineyards Individual Bunch Special Select Late Harvest 1975: (91 points, non-blind)
The tasting was a rare opportunity indeed and a tribute to Arrowood's history and skills as a winemaker.