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Drive to Compete Sets Some Vintners Apart

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Dec 17, 2007 12:41pm ET

What do Robert Mondavi, Paul Draper, Bob Travers, Ed Sbragia, Craig Williams and Jeffery Patterson have in common? They’ve each made significant contributions to our wine world.

And one of the reasons they—and others of their mindset, including Diamond Creek and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars—are successful is that they are fearless competitors.

They may not think about themselves in those terms. But I’ve come to appreciate their attitude since for years I’ve been asking them to participate in tastings of older wines that they and their colleagues have made (Most recently, their 1977 California Cabernets). And without fail, they and others submit the wines, usually two or more bottles, knowing that the wines might not show well. But also knowing that in order to triumph they have to participate.

It’s a distinguishing trait among these and other winemakers of these times—maybe California wine’s greatest generation—and their attitude on the chances of winning praise or criticism.

Clearly, participating in a retrospective tasting of 30-year-old wines may not hold out much hope for success, knowing that the odds might be stacked against them, since all wines eventually get old and expire.

But ask Travers, of Mayacamas, or Patterson, winemaker for Mount Eden, or Williams, of Joseph Phelps, or Sbragia, of Beringer, whether it’s worth it or not to trot out their elder vintages and they don’t blink. Their attitude: Tell me when and where you want the wines and we’ll be there.

Assessing older wines is a vital part of the business, one way to measure where we’ve been and a road map to where we should be headed.

What’s perhaps even more interesting is that each of them takes the time to write down their recollections of the vintage at hand (Draper being, as you might expect, an especially thoughtful, reflective and eloquent writer) and on top of that even when their wines don’t fare well (based on my tastes). None has ever complained about the process, a blind tasting, or results. Disagreed with me? Sure. Admired their older wines for different reasons? Absolutely. Thought they might have had a better bottle recently? Yup.

Still, their willingness to show their wines for whatever reason takes intestinal fortitude and I wonder whether that will be the case with future generations. I hope it will be. You can’t win unless you play.

Robert Israel
NY, New York —  December 17, 2007 8:35pm ET
I've been buying early '90's California Cabernet recently (especially Mondavi which have been very reasonably priced) but I'm tentative to go into the early '80's, never mind back to the 70's. I am interested to hear how these vintages are holding up. The 90's had a string of supposedly great vintages which makes the buying decision a bit easier. My '87 experience was great and I have another waiting, but do I dare go to, say, 1977? I would love to hear about any recent experiences you've had of those Cali cabs created way back when.
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  December 18, 2007 9:54am ET
Jim,I really appreciate this column. I do think that the way you and the Wine Spectator approach tastings makes it easier to participate. At the very least, as winemakers we know that the tasting is going to be fair and blind and that however the wine shows it will be based on the quality of what is in the bottle. Certainly we can and do disagree with you occasionally on the merits (or lack thereof) of certain bottles - but not with the process.Adam Lee, Siduri Wines & Novy Family Winery

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