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Timeless Zinfandel

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Apr 25, 2006 1:26pm ET

Mayacamas Vineyards released its 1970 Napa Valley Zinfandel this month for $100 a bottle, and no, that’s not a typo on the vintage date.

“Even more amazing,” says owner Bob Travers, “this is not a re-release, for we have never sold this wine before.” It’s been stored in the winery's Mount Veeder cellar since bottling.

Why the wait?

The 1970 Zinfandel never went through malolactic fermentation, Travers says in his newsletter, “so the acidity has always been very high and the wine was therefore very tart and puckery when young.” In other words, largely undrinkable.

Thirty-five years of aging has allowed the acidity to mellow a bit, says Travers. That high acidity has also kept this Zinfandel “alive, fresh and fruity,” he adds, wryly. “I only wish I was holding up that well.”

He goes on to suggest, “Be sure to drink this wine sometime in the next two hundred years,” before adding, “Well, actually, the corks are getting a little old so I would drink it in the next five years.”

The wine shows some ullage issues and throws considerable sediment. “Incredibly youthful, it is probably the youngest oldest Zinfandel you will ever encounter,” he says.

It’s extremely rare, of course, for red wines such as Cabernet or Zinfandel not to undergo malolactic fermentation. That process softens the tarter malic acid (found in green apples) and turns it into a creamier lactic acid (found in milk).

Without ML, the wines take forever to develop and, if the cork holds, can last almost forever.

I'm hoping to get a bottle and wonder if any of you have ever encountered a red wine that didn't undergo ML.

Anthony Clapcich
April 26, 2006 8:56am ET
Doesn't it seem kind of ridiculous to pay $100 for a complete question mark of a bottle just because it carries the label of "Mayacamas"? Most Zins do not improve with age and are drunk young for a reason. Travers is trying to sell the Brooklyn Bridge to consumers. James, we need your help telling these wine emperors that they have no clothes. Please taste this bottle, and, if it tastes like paint thinner, please help us consumers avoid such brazen marketing schemes.
Jack Hallam
Phoenix AZ —  April 26, 2006 11:59am ET
I would agree with the comment previously submitted by Anthony Clapcich as this seems like pure over the top WS selling out to a wine producer without doing your due diligence. I would expect you to taste first, tell second, not the other way around. At times I really wonder of the truth behind "tastings" and this causes me to wonder more as you have heightened interest without even doing your job of tasting, then speaking. You have lost some credibility to me as I have tasted about 5-6 wines that did not go through ML and all tasted like vinegar. So why "hype" a potential $100 bottle of vinegar without doing your job first?
Anthony Clapcich
April 26, 2006 1:38pm ET
To be fair to Mr. Laube, he did not formally taste/review/score the wine in question for a published article in the actual WS magazine, rather he simply entered a blog for public discussion and commentary (which I think is a great concept!). What I would very much like to see, however, is the editors of WS take on some of these winery madmen in a cold, clinical, and objective way. I think the front page headline of a future WS issue should read: "Why Should I Refinance My Home to Buy a Bottle of California Wine?" or "Can California Vintners Produce a Great Bottle for Less Than $30?" For the last two decades, California has been able to provide consumers with an excellent, reasonably priced product. So what changed? What went wrong? Even Mondavi, who I've admired and respected for years, is now pricing Reserve Cabs in the $75-100 range. My patience (and faith) in California wine is running out.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  April 26, 2006 7:37pm ET
Just tried the 1970 Mayacamas Zin and it's pretty much the way Travers described it. Tart, with vivid black berry, anise and wild berry flavors. Intense and vibrant, yet softening around the edges, with a long, clean berry aftertaste. Lots of sediment. I rated it 87 points and was told the winery is now sold out.
Alwyn Sessions
April 26, 2006 10:09pm ET
Perhaps I am missing something, but aren't wine spectators critics suppose to rate wines so that WS subscribers will have a lead in buying them? It seems to me that if James Laube would simply rate some of the thousands of recently released wines from his sector instead of talking about cars and enquirer like Zin stories, there would be more interest in his blog.
Dana Nigro
New York, NY —  April 26, 2006 11:47pm ET
Dear Alwyn,

James Laube and Wine Spectator's other editors continue to blind taste thousands of wines each year and provide those scores and tasting notes in the magazine, in our Insider and Advance newsletters and in our Web site's regular Tasting Highlights and other online features.

The editors' new blogs aim to provide additional facets to our comprehensive wine coverage--be it evaluations of how older wines are drinking, impressions of recent tastings, discussions of restaurant experiences, or interesting bits of news that don't have a home elsewhere. In addition, our editors will share their opinions on various subjects and provide personal insights into how they work.

In this way, we hope to encourage greater discussion directly with our readers--on the wide range of topics that interest our diverse audience. Our readers' interests and responses will certainly guide that discussion.

Dana Nigro
Managing Editor
Wine Spectator Online
Alwyn Sessions
April 27, 2006 1:25am ET
Dear Dana:Thank you for taking the time to respond to me. I subscribe to WS because as you say, "James Laube and Wine Spectator's other editors continue to blind taste thousands of wines each year..." I also value James Laube's ratings and descriptions above those of any other California wine critic. This is why I am saddened to see him speeding time on entertainment for a blog and not producing "timely" wine ratings. In today's fast information internet environment, California wines can be discussed, judged and almost sold out before Laube rates them. A case in point is 2004 pinot noirs and chards. While Laube rated a few important wines in this area recently, he still hasn't rated that many. While I want to look to Laube first and foremost, I am finding myself forced to look to forums, Cellar Tracker and even WE for timelier and thus more useful information. I am saddened that Laube is behind so much of the internet. Even 100,000 ratings by Laube won't help me much if they occur after so many others have already drank, rated and discussed all 100,000. PS, Thank also for Laube's recent rating of the 2003 Sebastiani Alexander Valley Appellation Selection Cab. This Cab has been available to me at significant discount for a long time now. Thus, given the recent rating, I bought some. I was also waiting for Laube's rating of the Ch Souverain 2002 Alexander Valley Winemaker's Reserve, but I tasted this one and bought it already without the rating. Like I say, ratings are of little value if they aren't timely.Thanks againAl
Dave Hall
April 27, 2006 2:09am ET
In 2002 I opened a 1973 Louis Martini Zinfandel, and it was surprisingly good, still showing fruit and some tannin. I thought it was about an 85 point bottle, and worth every penny of the $3.59 that I paid for it in 1980. But I would rather have sold it for $100...
Thomas Matthews
April 27, 2006 9:40am ET
We appreciate feedback from our readers about the content of these blogs, but in response to criticism about the number or timeliness of our reviews, I would point out that for Wine Spectator, wine ratings are only a part--albeit an important part--of our editorial mission.

While we continue to review more than 12,000 wines each year, in as timely a way as possible, we like to think of ourselves as offering much more than a narrowly-based ratings newsletter or Web site. We cover the entire world of wine, and do so as thoroughly and accurately as possible, in order to serve the interests of all of our readers, which now number more than 2 million. But as the saying goes, "You can't please all the people all the time."

Thomas Matthews
Executive editor
Wine Spectator
Timothy J Murray
Bergen County, NJ —  April 27, 2006 10:38am ET
I think it is a good thing for JL to be blogging..Alwyn, perhaps you should taste wines for yourself instead of holding the wine press responsible for your decisions? It seems counterproductive to wait for press.. get out and taste... while it is easy to sit around and wait for someone to tell you what to do, you will find it a much more rewarding pastime to lead your palate to wine instead of following the editorial prose of a few astute wine writers.
Joseph Tredici
Ramsey / NJ —  April 27, 2006 11:08am ET
I think you're being a little hard on James Laube and completely missing the point of the wine blog. Criticizing how someone does their job without understanding the process is just plain wrong and ignorant.

While I agree that sometimes wine ratings are written after availability, any long time WS subscriber knows that they overall offer more information about wine globally then most of their competitors combined. It can't be an easy task for anyone or staff to blind taste every single California wine produced, construct an honest independent opinion, write about it and most likely get second guessed by other palates (including the wineries themselves).

On top of that, if the poor guy talks about anything non-wine related, such as a used car, he gets ripped for not spending enough time on ratings.

Personally, I thought it was kind of cool that James Laube asked for a subscriber's opinion on something non-wine related. In fact, how many times has James Laube helped everyone reading this right now with wine purchases? How many times did he steer you in the right direction and helped get you more bang for your buck. For me it has been more often than not so I have no problem returning a favor by offering an opinion back on a non- wine related subject.

As far as the 1970 Zin, so what that he didn't taste it first. It was an unusual release and it sounds like he shared his available information real time. For those that want hear Mr. Laube be a wine-rating robot only, go have a beer and read the last 10 pages of the WS magazine instead of the blog.
Penny Timmons
May 1, 2006 8:45pm ET
I find the comments regarding the topical content of this blog outrageous. This is not a formal wine column. It is a BLOG-- a way to share your thoughts with anyone who cares to read them. James Laube should certainly be free to write about whatever happens to tickle his fancy at the time, even if it isn't wine related. You may choose to read--or not--based on your own interest in the posting. Blogs are a fantastic way to connect with readers and share information...one of the true luxuries of the internet age. Far from being annoyed that JL wrote about the 1970 Zin before tasting it, I was intrigued. Here was a curiosity even he had not previously encountered. How fantastic that this forum allows him to share such oddities with his readers and also ask for their feedback. I find my appreciation for and understanding of wine increased much more by these tidbits than by playing ratings Jeopardy--rushing out to be the first to buy the latest high-scorers. While scores and reviews are extremely valuable tools, I agree with Timothy J Murray's comments about tasting wines for yourself. Ratings can guide, but there is infinitely more pleasure in tasting and making your own discoveries.
Tim Webb
high point nc —  May 7, 2006 4:03pm ET
dear thomaswhatever you think your mission is, for most of us it is to function as a buying guide. we need tasting results and recomendations as quickly as the wines are available. frequently wines are sold out before your reviews are published. reviewing wines with production of less than a thousand cases is interesting but not helpful, as most of us will never have an opportunity to buy these wines. bottom line is we need to know the merit of wines that might actually be availble somewhere besides new york and san francisco, and before they sell out.
Bruce Corner
May 23, 2006 6:27pm ET
There is another point worth considering when reading about a tasting of a 1970 Zin. Last year I was entertaining some friends at Berns Steakhouse in Tampa. These people are not much into red wines. So, I picked a mid-70's Charles Krug Zin hoping that I would find an older version of a wine that has changed a lot over the last 10 or 20 years. It was reasonably priced and I thought it would be fun. It was, indeed, well passed its prime and quite thin. My friends were pleased though and I learned a lesson about cellaring Zins. Mr. Laube's comments about the Mayacamas were interesting. Had I read that before my event might have brought to mind a few questions for the Sommelier before ordering it.
Christian Binnig
Naperville, IL —  May 25, 2006 4:17pm ET
I find the range and diversity of comments on this blog interesting. I receive Bob Travers' Mayacamas mailings and, while I chose to forgo the opportunity to purchase this particular Zin, I was tempted to give it a try, as I have enjoyed many of the Mayacamas Cabernets and Merlots over the years.

What I have trouble understanding is the view of those who suggest that Bob is trying to fleece an unknowing public or that Jim or WS are somehow shirking their "duties" to the public by not tasting and rating the 1970 Zin before disclosing that Bob has made it available for sale.

In my view, that is false and dangerous logic. We all have the choice to buy or not to buy and, if we do not have the ability to actually taste in advance a particular wine that we may be interested in purchasing, we have a variety of data points available to help us beyond the subjective opinion of one reviewer. These data points include our experience with other wines by the winemaker, looking at the consensus view of several reviewers, being familiar with and/or listening to the winemaker describe his or her winemaking style and philosophy, knowing something about the quality of that particular vintage and the growing conditions of the particular grapes used to make the wine, understanding the particular winery's quality controls regarding its winemaking and storage operations, and understanding the inherent vagaries of any winemaking and storage process that can individually affect any bottle of wine.

I do not believe that Jim or WS have a duty to be, nor do they claim to be, the "arbiter of taste" in the wine world. The most important thing a wine consumer can do is to be as educated and informed as he or she can about a particular wine before he or she makes the "buy or no buy" decision, and while Jim's reviews and WS may provide helpful information and data points in that process, they should never be viewed as the be-all or end-all of that process.

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