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A Pinot Blast From the Past

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jan 29, 2007 1:16pm ET

On Saturday, I met one of my wine-collector friends for lunch. Lately, we've been focusing on Pinot Noir when we get together, and despite our fascination with Pinot from anywhere, he delights in tasting older wines.

His amazing cellar is stocked with plenty of handpicked trophy wines from Burgundy dating to the 1950s and California dating to the 1960s (think old Hanzell's). I, on the other hand, don't cellar any wines very long, and typically like mine on the younger side.

Anyway, I arrived late, but not too late to share a glass of an amazing 2002 Siduri Cargasacchi Vineyard Pinot Noir from Santa Rita Hills. This wine, which I introduced to my friend, is phenomenal (and he bought a case). It's dark, rich, deep and plush, with the signature blueberry, wild berry and fresh earth flavors that you often find in Pinots from this appellation. I rated it 94 on release, and on Saturday, it was pushing 97, unofficially.

Then my friend said, “Want to try the Kongsgaard Pinot?”

What? That caught me by surprise. I didn’t know Kongsgaard made a Pinot. I figured it might be one of those specialty bottlings you see a lot of in restaurants these days, at least in California, where a winery makes a small amount of wine, often just one barrel, that isn’t part of its main portfolio and sells it exclusively to an eatery or two.

He reached into his wine bag and pulled out the Kongsgaard. Only instead of a new Pinot from John Kongsgaard, who is known as the winemaker-proprietor of this label, this one was made by his dad, Thomas (though John often worked with his dad’s grapes and wines).

Some side notes:

Thomas Kongsgaard was a longtime Napa Superior Court judge whom I met in 1978 as a beat reporter for the Vallejo Times-Herald. My office on Coombs Street was just a block away from the courthouse, and the judge would often stop by on his way to lunch to pick up a free paper.

One day Judge K invited me to his home in Napa to see his winery in operation. It was a Saturday, bottling day, and I think he was putting the 1978 “Judge’s Zin” in bottle. I helped him and a few of his friends hand-cork and label the bottles and then box them up.

Judge K's wines were excellent, and the winery that he showed me back then still produces some of the Kongsgaard Chardonnay on the market today.

Another time, Judge K introduced me to the legendary Russia-born winemaker André Tchelistcheff, who lived down the street from him and his wife.

When Judge K retired, he was succeeded on the bench by none other than the Hon. W. Scott Snowden, who presided over the Napa court scene for 25 years. He too pursued wine, tapping his family’s vineyard in Rutherford, which dates to the 1950s, for Snowden Vineyards.

OK, back to lunch with my friend—and the wine. The Kongsgaard Vineyard Pinot Noir 1987 came from the family’s Stonecrest Vineyard, on a knoll east of the downtown Napa area. I doubted it would have any life left (remember, my friend likes old curiosities), and 1987 wasn’t a great year for Pinot.

The first whiff made us skeptical, but then to our delight and amazement, it opened up beautifully and showed like a grand cru Burgundy. Pale brick-red in color, it unfolded to offer ripe maraschino cherry, mushroom and earthen floor. It drank well for 90 minutes, revealing extra flavor nuances and keeping us fascinated by its character, vitality and depth.

We were totally blown away.

Tim Sylvester
Santa Monica, CA —  January 29, 2007 3:41pm ET
James--Great story, thanks! Did you finish the bottle in those 90 minutes? Did it keep changing over that time?Best, Tim
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 29, 2007 5:20pm ET
Tim, the wine held together beautifully and we poured it around to the sommeliers and staff.
David Allen
Lufkin, Texas —  January 29, 2007 7:01pm ET
Great story. Way to go Suduri !Course they produced Oregon Pinot Noir also. Very impressed the Koonsgard lasted 90 minutes without falling apart.
Trevor Witt
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada —  January 29, 2007 8:21pm ET
James...Just curious, you didn't decant a wine like this? I still have difficulty on the decanting issue...when to or when not to. Any suggestions?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 29, 2007 8:34pm ET
Great question, Trevor. Typially no, since once an older wine is exposed to air it can rapidly oxidize. If it's a wine that you're familiar with then perhaps yes, since you'll have a better idea of its condition. This Pinot had a little sediment. If I had this wine again, I would consider decanting it. If you do decant a wine, don't wait too long to drink it, as some wines expire rather quickly.
Dale Johnson
Steamboat Springs —  January 29, 2007 8:36pm ET
James,Speaking of older Napa Pinots I was given a 1974 Charles Krug Napa Valley Burgandy a few years ago by a woman that at the time lived in California. This was the last bottle she had from a case that was served a her sons wedding. Are you familiar with this wine?. After hearing some of your experiences with these older Pinots I'm thinkingthis might be a special bottle.Dale
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 29, 2007 8:42pm ET
Dale, my guess is the Pinot (I mean Burgundy) came from Napa Valley proper (not Carneros) and might still be good. 1974 was a very ripe year for Cabernet and many "Burgundies" had Pinot and other grapes blended in. I doubt it's special, but there's only one way to find out. Let us know.
Christopher Riley
Phoenix, AZ —  January 29, 2007 9:22pm ET
James,Cool stuff. Its a shame that there are so few pinots grown in the the valley, with the exception of Carneros. Are there any similariities to the Judd's Hill Pinot which is also grown on the east side of the valley.How would you compare the Siduri to the Brewer Clifton from the same vineyard. I have had 2 bottles recently of the 2003 Brewer Clifton Cargasacchi and both seemed alcoholic and the fruit was that of the stewed variety and not very fresh or vibrant...any thoughts?All the best,Chris
Gene Keenan
san francisco —  January 29, 2007 9:59pm ET
I am finding cali pinots age better than people think. I was at an offline 8 months ago where we tasted old cali pinot going back to 65. All the wines were very good to stellar. I brought a bottle of 81 Deloach RRV that i had found on auction for a few dollars (less than $5.00 i recall) and we were all completely amazed at how vibrant and fresh the wine was still.
Kirk R Grant
Ellsworth, ME —  January 29, 2007 11:13pm ET
James this story brings up something I find interesting. When WS reviews wines you often give us a best from dates. For most 2004 pinots you aren't saying anything past 2012 (ie:Domaine Alfred Califa "Drink now through 2012."). When you say give these dates are you trying to give the "safest" dates to ensure everyone can enjoy their wines...or are you saying that you rarely feel that these wines of today will last longer than 8 years? It's something I've often wondered but seldom think to ask.
Claude Pope
Raleigh, NC —  January 29, 2007 11:38pm ET
Speaking of old Pinots, I have a 1981 Sebastiani Pinot. Just never got around to drinking it. Time to find out??
Laura Long
Santa Rosa, CA —  January 30, 2007 12:47am ET
This is all very interesting regarding Pinot and Napa Valley. Someone mentioned Judd's Hill Pinot, one of the only interesting Pinots being produced in Napa from Milliken Creek Vineyard grapes, cool climate vineyards but not so acidic like Carneros. And yes, some of those old De Loach Vineyards Pinot can be stunning. I had a 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1989 recently with a bunch of wine folks and found most of them had a lot going on. Randy Ullom made those wines and did a great job.
David A Zajac
January 30, 2007 8:25am ET
Christopher, I too have had the B-C Cargassachi wines and find them uninspiring, and I love B-C wines! To me, it is their least interesting wine from the dozen or so they make. I was actually starting to question the vineyard but now would like to try a bottle of the Siduri and see for myself. Maybe that vineyard just doesn't appeal to you and me, but others love it?
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  January 30, 2007 10:22am ET
First off, thanks Jim for the kind notes on the 2002 Cargasacchi. I am not even certain if we have any of that still around the winery but I am certainly going to look for it now. -- With regards to Brewer-Clifton - they employ 100% whole cluster fermentation on all of their Pinots. Some people obviously care for that a great dea and others not - but, as far as I know, they are the only producer of Cargasacchi Pinot that does that so I would be hesitant to write off the entire vineyard based on their wines. -- Adam Lee, Siduri Wines
David A Zajac
January 30, 2007 12:29pm ET
Thanks for the input Adam, its interesting because I really like all their other wines, especially their pinot's from Ashley's, Melville and Santa Rosa...so to some extent I understand what your saying and to another, I still question why that one stands out to me as being so difficult to warm up to. I will have to keep an eye out for yours upon reading Jim's comments though! Wow, 97 unofficial points, the price just went up!
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  January 30, 2007 3:03pm ET
David,Nah, can't raise the prices just because of a good review - next thing you know you get a mediocre review and you gotta lower prices. Better just to price it at what you think is fair and live with that. -- Adam Lee, Siduri Wines
David A Zajac
January 30, 2007 7:38pm ET
Adam, I love your thought process. I was really referring more to the auction market though, try to find a Kosta Browne wine for under $200, its actually kinda sad that critics like James and RP have so much influence on prices, no offense James.
Dave Adams
Maple Grove, MN —  February 5, 2007 9:49pm ET
Mr. Zajac. Why, you can find KB for less than $200. In fact, I just had a bottle of 2004 Sonoma Coast at Lon's Restaurant in Phoenix for $130. High when you consider I paid $32 when I bought it from KB, but not bad since it's mostly unavailable now.

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