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Down California’s Memory Lane

Reminiscing on "the wines that were" after tasting some older California reds

Posted: Jan 6, 2010 12:00am ET

Does anyone else miss the old style of California reds? I was with some friends in Los Angeles the other day having dinner at the Bazaar (which, by the way, is one of the best food experiences in the United States at the moment à la Fat Duck or El Bulli) and they brought a couple mature bottles of California reds.

One of the wines was not really that old. It was a 1999 Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains, and the other was a 1975 Freemark Abbey Pinot Noir Napa Valley. Both wines had very little to do with so many of the high-octane jam juice being made in my home state.

The Ridge was so balanced and beautiful. It reminded me of a 1995 Latour in structure and in character, with lots of currant, mint and fresh herbs on the palate. It was full-bodied, with soft, velvety tannins and a long, refreshing aftertaste. I scored it 94 points, non-blind.

The 1975 Freemark was outstanding as well. I was surprised how good it was. It showed tar and rubber at first, but then it opened to smoke and hints of ripe fruit. It was full and chewy, with fresh fruit and tannins. It was a little funky, but I really appreciated its old-style California character.

The two wines reminded me of my early days at Wine Spectator in our San Francisco office, tasting and visiting wineries from California. They also reminded me of the many Cali Cabs I used to share with my dad from his wine collection, including the classic BVs and Mayacamas Mountain Cabs from the 1960s and 1970s.

I miss the freshness and the slightly austere character of those California wines. I miss the lower alcohols. I miss the minerally undertones and the fresh herb aromas, too.

Some might say that I am being nostalgic. And I admit that I love the fruit-forward, big, juicy characters of some of the best reds from California, but I would love to see a little more austerity and reserve in some of them.

Scott Oneil
Denver, CO —  January 6, 2010 1:21pm ET
For those of us who never had the 'old style' CA reds, this is interesting but difficult to relate to. Thanks for pointing out the more current wines that are still made in that style; I, for one, try to acquire them for the sake of variety - and enlightenment - in my collection. I recall buying the '97 San Leonardo Vallagarina because your review likened it to 'old style' Bordeaux. Being able to appreciate (and advocate) wines made in different styles is something I value in a critic - thank you for your 'balance.'
Evandro Pereira
Sao Paulo —  January 6, 2010 5:03pm ET
A big frustration for me is that up to this date Ridge still does not have an importer in Brazil...
Michael Hakeem
Stockton,Ca. —  January 6, 2010 8:03pm ET
Thank you for a candid and refreshing comment on the comparison of older cabs vs. the $100.00+ rocket fuel now in vogue. Although I grew up on grape juice and very much like the forward fruit...I also enjoy an older bottle now and then,
Steve Dow
Beavercreek, OH —  January 6, 2010 10:06pm ET
Not a big fan of the higher alcohol wines that younger palates seem to like. I prefer balance and I don't mind waiting for a wine to be ready to drink. I did have a Mayacamas cabernet from the early 70's earlier this year - maybe 1972?? - can't remember for sure. The wine was old and a bit tired but still interesting and had some of that austerity and herbal funk you refer to. The only other cab from California I have had prior to the 90's vintages and on was a 1987 Chateau Montelena and at 18 years old was truly great!
Jamie Sherman
Sacramento —  January 6, 2010 11:26pm ET
It is obvious that today's Cali Cabs are big and fruit forward. I think this hit a peak a couple years back and winemakers are pulling back a bit in an effort to improve balance. Some of the best today are remarkably balanced, layered, and complex aka Schrader or Scarecrow. That being said, I have had two fantastic older wines this year. One was a mid 90's (I forget exactly) Ridge Monte Bello that could hang with the best of Bordeaux -- beautifully aged, structured, and balanced. The other was a 1974 Heitz Martha's Vineyard. This was a bit past it's prime but still very interesting and alluring. A pleasure to drink. In my cellar there is always room for different wine styles. Keeps me on my toes!
Josh Moser
Sunnyvale, CA —  January 6, 2010 11:35pm ET
I had a 1975 Silver Oak Alexander Valley magnum a few years ago and it was incredible. I also had a 1988 and 1993 BV GDL recently and the 88 took awhile to open up and was peppery while the 93 was smooth and had great flavor. I thought the 93 was better than the 88.

I believe you hit the nail on the head with your comment about lower alcohol levels. 12.5% to 13% is the sweet spot in my opinion.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  January 7, 2010 9:23am ET
There is plenty of balance in a good bottle of the riper style, too. I don't discount the market for the leaner style, but why does it necessarily have to come from California? Aren't there loads of wines from Washington, France, South America, et al that embrace this style?
Nelson Brooks
Phoenix, AZ —  January 7, 2010 11:32am ET
I also just had an opportunity to taste an older Cal vintage Cabernet. It was the Cafaro 1999 Napa Reserva. The alcohol content was only 13.5% and it was a stunner. It left me missing the great Cabs of the late 70's and 80's. If you have not had their wines it's worth a go. Joe Cafaro makes them as close to "old school" as you can get and at good prices.
James Suckling
 —  January 7, 2010 11:40am ET
Don. I love some of the full throttle California wines such as SQN and all the cults and many others, particularly Syrahs. And, as you say, this high octane style is emulated all over the world. I was just "talking out loud" that I miss the old style of California reds as well. Nothing more.
David Jankow
Redondo Beach, CA —  January 7, 2010 12:04pm ET
I agree and am not considering your commentary nostalgic in the least bit. I've been drinking quite a few different bottlings of Freemark Cab from the early 80's that have shown very well! I just popped a 93 Sycamore Vineyard the other night that was still very fruitful and seemed to have a lot more life in the bottle. I love the older California vintages and can only hope that the California wines of today will be just as pleasing tomorrow!
Thomas Hughes
Texas —  January 7, 2010 12:13pm ET
To celebrate the end of 2009, I opened a 1999 Ch Leoville Las Cases and a 1999 Joseph Phelps Insignia. I purchased both for about the same amount ($90) and both had a 94 WS rating when I bought them (it looks like a retrospective now has the Phelps at 91). The taste difference was amazing. The Bordeaux was elegant, balanced, and silky; The Cali Blend was powerful and full bodied. I loved both wines, but the Las Cases was in a different league as far as I was concerned. You could definitely taste the higher alcohol content in the Phelps, which I think took away from the fruit. In any event, it was a great way to taste into the New Year.
Kevin Smith
Sunshine State —  January 7, 2010 11:19pm ET
Old style California reds to me is like Anthony Wilson's guitar style. Modern Jazz guitar players add lots of fills and riffs to the tune. Kinda like a modern jammy red.

Anthony's style is old school. Add that note or fill at just the right time. Old vintage California Reds exhibit the same style e.g. smooth, laid back.

Combining them both together is what its all about.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  January 8, 2010 8:17pm ET
I hope someday I have the pleasure of tasting those older wines, they must have been remarkable. Perhaps crafting that elegant style in California is just a riskier proposition than going with what seems to be more "natural" to the state (i.e. the riper style) and the winemakers don't feel they can take any gamble on the success of their product? Or has the market spoken, and vintners adjusted to it? I certainly don't know!
Paul A Stein
New Canaan Connecticut —  January 9, 2010 4:39pm ET
If you ever get a chance, taste Mount Eden Vinyard Pinot Noirs and Cabs from about 1974 - 1979. Sorry I have forgotten which are the best vintages but I can tell you this: One of those Pinot's tasted more like a great old Burgundy than any other American Wine I have ever tasted.
Jonathan Auerbach
Tuscany —  January 10, 2010 4:51am ET
Thanks James for the reminder and the post. I remember fondly a bottle of the 1981 BV Georges de Latour that I had on my first wedding annivesary. Beautiful, silky, yet austere as you point out. Reminded me very much of a bordeaux. I'd like to see wines like that again, but wouldn't for a second trade it, not that we have to, for the full bodied blockbusters of SQN and its ilk.
Ronec Enterprises Ltd
Springfield, IL —  January 12, 2010 7:53pm ET
James, I have a few questions.
1.) What California wineries are still producing this style of wine?
2.) What score did your counterpart at WS give said wines if they were reviewed recently?
3.) What style/age of wines does this reviewer admittedly prefer?

I have found that a "traditional" Brunello or Barolo might be awarded similiar praise/score as a "modern" or "international" styled wine from the same area. That is not the case in California. Instead words like "dry/austere/trim/short on body" appear in descriptions/reviews of California wines that don't explode with fruit.
James Suckling
 —  January 12, 2010 10:36pm ET
Ronec Enterprises. You tell me which California wineries still make such wines. I guess Ridge would be a good example? But I am hard pressed to think of others at this precise moment.

For Italian wines, I don't care if a wine is modern or international in style, or anything else. It just has to be high quality. I like diversity of styles.
Steve Kirchner
huntington beach, ca —  January 13, 2010 6:15pm ET
Ronec -
this article ("In Napa, Some Wineries Choose the Old Route" by Eric Asimov) has a list...
Anthony Dixon
Atlanta, GA —  January 14, 2010 7:30pm ET
1.) What California wineries are still producing this style of wine?
To Ronec:
James nailed two of my favorites of the old school, Freemark Abbey and Ridge. I will add to these Burgess, Diamond Creek, and Chappellet into the category. Although these three are all different in price points, they share similar styles. As an aside, at a recent blind lineup of top-shelf Stag's Leap Cabs (I was not in attendance), I have associates that panned the 2004 Clos du Val SLD comparitively. I was brought the bottle from the tasting the next day to evaluate and I found it to be wonderful. What they noted the night before as "vegetal", I found on day two to be complex notes of sage and mint. In classic Clos du Val style, I found this wine a little stern/stubborn at first but it was wonderful drinking albeit very young. I suspect it was not the flashiest wine of the bunch but on its own it showed extremely well IMHO.
Chad Bowman
Manhattan, KS —  January 14, 2010 11:16pm ET
Not to call anyone out, but I don't think wines made in a restrained or balanced style out of California are being scored by the right individuals...take Cali Pinot for example. Siduri, Loring, etc. are very similar in style to the big Napa Cabs getting big ratings (super ripe, syrupy, over oaked). Now, look at Peay or Failla - they make wine in a very Burgundian style and are some of the best bang for the buck coming out of the state but are still receiving low ratings...why? They are made to age for a while and not open the minute they are bought. If they were tasted by someone who rates Burgundy and is used to the restrained, terrior driven style I think they would merit better scores. Thoughts??
Ronec Enterprises Ltd
Springfield, IL —  January 15, 2010 5:45pm ET
Glad to hear some people agree with me. Clos du Val for sure. Freemark Abbey and Ridge. I would throw Dunn (hasn't scored a 90+ for almost a decade from WS), Dominus (ditto) and Heitz (Bella Oaks and Martha's) in there too. All great Cabernets. Maybe Silverado Solo. And scores of others. I tried to include those that I completely disagreed with the WS scoring and fit that "old school" style.
Anthony Dixon
Atlanta, GA —  January 19, 2010 9:03am ET
Considering that James Laube gave a thumbs down to the 2004 Clos du Val Napa and an yawning review of the 2004 Reserve (88 pts), I suppose he would put the 2004 SLD somewhere in the middle, right? Who knows?

Considering the great press that the 2005 SLD received from two "other" wine publications, I am looking forward to trying the 2005 SLD. Sounds like a classic.

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