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One-Hit Wine Wonders

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Dec 26, 2006 4:45pm ET

Last week I read a story in the New York Times about 1960s rocker Norman Greenbaum.

Some of you will recall he wrote the one-hit wonder, "Spirit In The Sky," in 1969, which by the way was a great vintage for Napa Cabernet and a washout in Bordeaux.

Those too young to remember the song in its heyday may have heard it in one of many movies—Ocean’s 11 and Apollo 13 are two that come to mind.

I think about one-hit wine wonders from time to time, too.

The other day when I drove past the winery that once housed Shown & Sons, I recalled what a great 1978 Cabernet Dick Shown produced. Rich and plush, with chocolate-covered cherry flavors and velvety tannins, it was a fantastic expression of Rutherford fruit.

The 1979, on the other hand, was disappointing. It turned out herbaceous and it wasn’t long before Shown & Sons was out of business.

Joe Heitz bought the winery and vineyard, on Silverado Trail near the Rutherford Crossroad, and he changed the name to Heitz Cellar Trailside Vineyard. Heitz produces Cabernet, just as the former owners did.

In 1981, Belvedere Winery bottled the greatest Winery Lake Pinot ever made. Ripe, smooth, fleshy, elegant and stylish. Those of us who drank this wine were absolutely stunned by its complexity and finesse.

The wine convinced many—growers, winemakers and critics—that Carneros would be the "Promised Land for Pinot Noir."

The 1982, however, was weedy and herbaceous and well off the pace of its predecessor. By 1986, Rene di Rosa, Winery Lake Vineyard’s founder, sold the vineyard in Carneros to Sterling Vineyards, which still produces a Winery Lake Pinot.

Tell me about your favorite one-hit wine wonders.

Mark Mccullough
GA —  December 26, 2006 6:59pm ET
The ultimate one-hit wonders must be any wine made by Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non. Krankl makes some fabulous cult wines (especially syrahs!) but Krankl never makes the same wine twice.
Jason Thompson
Foster City, CA —  December 26, 2006 7:13pm ET
I don't want to call them a one hit wonder, but the 1997 Justin Isosceles was the greatest wine they ever produced. It was world's better than any Cabernet that has ever come out of Paso before or since. Justin still makes some very good Cabs and Syrahs, but nothing ever compares to their '97 Isosceles. Such raw, untamed fruit and power that just made me sit up and take notice. Paso was on the map!!! I know that Paso has an even brighter future ahead of it, but I don't think that the future of Paso wineries is Cab...probably Syrah, blends, and even Zin still.
John Wilen
Texas —  December 27, 2006 12:21am ET
Cabs: DeMoor, Smith & Hawk, Chestnut Hill, Stone Creek

Merlots: Lakespring, Vina Vista, Chateau Chevre, Straus

Apologies if any of these wineries is still alive and kickin'!
Chris Kolodziej
Reno,NV —  December 27, 2006 12:41am ET
About five years ago at a party all my friends clammering about a bottle of Viader that one of them brought. I believe it ranked high on the top 100. Just funny to me that none of them ever talk about that wine anymore. (for good reason).
John Danby
Napa —  December 27, 2006 12:50am ET
A sidebar on Winery Lake Pinot. I believe that 2004 was the last Sterling vintage. The grapes now go to Acacia.
Danapat Promphan
Bangkok, Thailand —  December 27, 2006 6:44am ET

I thought Viader 2000 was excellent, and I gave 92 points. The 2001 was even better (94 points). These are the two Viader I've ever tried however. I would like more comments on recent vintage too. (and I heard most 2003 was lost in a fire)...

I would like to nominate Whitehall Lane Regular Cabernet to one-hit list. The 1999 was excellent and it deserved its place in WS Top 10. But vintages after that were not even near the quality of 1999.

Peter J Gatti
Austin, —  December 27, 2006 9:50am ET
1980 Pinot Noir by Walter Schug, under his eponymous label (metallic silver background with his family crest overlaid) while still at Phelps, from purchased fruit that Phelps had decided to discontinue. Still one of the greatest modern era Pinot Noirs I've tasted in 30 years in the business. Made once, and I have no idea where the fruit went subsequently. Smoky, meaty, cranberry, raspberry, cassis laden wine that by 1988 had dropped substantial sediment, but still had structure and acidity to burn and fabulous balance. It's probably still drinking beautifully today if there's any extant. One of a handful of wines whose flavors and aromas I can still bring back fully from memory!
Tom Hudson
Wilmington, Delaware —  December 27, 2006 10:43am ET
1997 Cathy MacGregor "Dusi Ranch" Zinfandel. The private label of the owner of Windemere Winery in Edna Valley.A small 300+ case production that was by far the most interesting and delicious Zinfandel I have ever tasted. All the other vintages after this have been "eh" at best.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  December 27, 2006 10:58am ET
Jim - do you remember a Cali Cab from the late 70s called Rothschild Brothers? I think it had an eagle on the label. I can't remember the exact vintage, but it was a great wine. Only saw one vintage ever released... they probably got sued over the name.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  December 27, 2006 12:12pm ET
Brian, I do. I'm not sure how you remember a Napa Cabernet from that era, since you were probably in junior high school. I think it was the 1979 vintage...See you on the 20th!
Jay J Cooke
Ripon CA —  December 27, 2006 2:15pm ET
James,I started drinking wine with the great 1974 vintage. It seemed you could not find a bad bottle of 74 cabernet. However, I have fond memories of a 1976 Jordan cab. Jordan still makes good wine, but that was one of the finest wines I have ever had. The Wine Spectator has been my "Wine Bible" over the years. James, your tips & recommendations have allowed me to enjoy many great wines. I sincerely thank you!
Jason Grege
Grants Pass, Oregon —  December 27, 2006 2:49pm ET
Rabbit Ridge 1994 Coniglio Selezione Sangiovese. Outstanding wine. Never again would they make another wine even close to this.
Michael Buchmeier
Encinitas, California —  December 27, 2006 3:18pm ET
My vote has to go to the now defunct Hartmann-Lane Russian River Pinot Noir. Said to be a premium project of the De Loach group, was marketed initially at ~$75 for the 2000 vintage, and ended up closing out at around $20 for the 2001. A nice buy at that price.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  December 27, 2006 3:58pm ET
Jay, you're welcome and I have to agree -- I loved the 1976 Jordan Cabernet. At the time it had a textural purity that reminded me of a Cabernet masquerading as a Pinot. By the way, the late, great Andre Tchelischeff had a hand in that wine and the style.
Alton D Trawick
Sammamish, WA —  December 27, 2006 6:15pm ET
First wine that came to mind as a one hit wonder was the 85 Groth Reserve Cabernet. Wasn't this the 1st CA Cab that R.P. rated 100 (out of 100)? W.S. rated it a 95. I personally thought it was exceptional and started taking notice of Groth Cabs starting from that point. No more. The 94 was the last one I purchased. Wonder if Nils Venge leaving had something to do with it.
Paul Manchester
Santa Cruz, CA —  December 27, 2006 6:54pm ET
I once had a 1993 Pinot Noir from Page Mill Winery that was amazing. Such pure, succulent Pinot fruit, it was amazing!!!! I've never tasted another Pinot like it. Sometimes I think that wineries get a little "lucky" and can't repeat the excellence. I also agree with Jason, the 97 Isosceles was the best effort by far from Justin, never to be repeated.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  December 27, 2006 7:50pm ET
Paul, I remember the Page Mill Pinot, too. Alton, the Groth Reserves under Venge were excellent.
Mr Randy Beranek
Napa, CA —  December 27, 2006 8:04pm ET
James,Oddly enough I heard Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" on satellite radio yesterday for the first time in years. Needless to say the volume in my car immediately went to "blow hair back" level.Dan, I have to disagree with you on including Whitehall Lane on any one hit wonder list. Check out WS's Nov. 11th issue on the Top 50 cabs and you'll see their Napa cab at #49 overall AND #2 on the price to value ratio. Few if any producers can match their entire lineup on the price to value scale. I do however agree with you on Viader. I took a bottle of 01 V to a "bring your own" bottle night to Backroom Wines in Napa a few months back and it was the first bottle to go empty that night.My one hit wonder nominee is Hewitt Rutherford Cab. The 01 showed great but has sunk like a stone ever since.
Mark Lewis
Napa —  December 27, 2006 9:21pm ET
The 2001 Blockheadia Zinfandel. It had great fruit with a nice finish.
Tim Webb
high point nc —  December 28, 2006 9:03am ET
in 1996 and 1997 gallo barelli creek cab was a godsend. really nice wines (scored 88 and 89) at very affordable prices. in 1998 they tanked (though they weren't the only ones) and apparently never recovered. i haven't seen one recently. what happened?
Steven Glazer
Orinda —  December 28, 2006 5:00pm ET
Tim- I have a few bottles of the Gallo Barelli Creek Cab 1999. It was a bit tannic a few years ago with good fruit. It has softened now and is quite pleasant. I'd give it an 88. I believe I bought it at BevMo in 2004 at a cost of around $20.
Bryan So
CA —  December 28, 2006 5:24pm ET
Have you had 1997 J. Lohr Hilltop Vineyard Cabernet? It is a very unusual (and good) wine. But the same characteristic of distinctive blueberry is no longer found in any of their wines afterwards.
Mark A Zoltay
Denver, CO —  December 28, 2006 5:24pm ET
Not exactly a one hit wonder, but a big downward spiral. Conn Creek Anthology-- 97, 98 and 99 were great, 2000 was ok, but both 2001 and 2002 were BIG disappointments.
Jim Gallagher
Jim Gallagher —  December 31, 2006 1:29pm ET
Perhaps a little late to this party, but I would like to suggest the 1986 Gan Eden Cabernet Sauvignon as one of the top "one hit wonders". The wine was well received winning the top award at the Aspen tasting, as well as many local small group tastings with much lauded Napa 86 Cabs. I concur the 81 Pinot Noir, Belvedere Winery, 'Winery Lake Vyd.' was an outstanding wine. I was fortunate in stashing a supply that still shows remarkable character and finesse as of August 2006.
Charles Mathis
Germantown, —  January 5, 2007 12:20pm ET
I hesitate to add to this blog, but I am especially critical of Mayacamas and Dominus. I have enjoyed both wines, but that was many years ago...I stopped buying Dominus after 1995 or 1996, and Mayacamas in the 80's. What happened, or is it my problem??? I do think part of my Dominus problem was QPR!
James T Vitelli
Connecticut —  January 5, 2007 4:55pm ET
My vote goes to Buena Vista's 1985 Reserve Cabernet. That was a truly wonderful wine, and one that got me started down the path of wine appreciation. But it's been more than 20 years now, and I don't think that producer has bottled a Cabernet since that I would score above 82-83 points. It's as if they lost their own secret formual or something.
Dan Hansen
January 9, 2007 7:41pm ET
OK 1978 Rutherford Ranch Cabernet was one that rocked my boat in my wine drinking youth. Can't remember any since...also 1978 Ch St Jean Glen Ellen Vineyard cab was a show stopper in a 1978 blind tasting of all the big guns at the time sterling,Martha's Montelena etc.Great blog,it's about 5 here in Sonoma...making me thirsty!Thanks,D

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