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Proof in the Bottle with the Editors

Posted: Jan 30, 2008 4:06pm ET

I just finished an amazing tasting with the senior editors of the magazine and owner/publisher Marvin Shanken. We tasted old California reds from the 1960s and 1970s in a secret hideway during editoral planning meetings for the magazine. I most certainly cannot tell you about the latter, but the former was mind-blowing.

The wines came from the magazine’s library of old wines, and they have been aging there for decades. It was a treat to dust the bottles off and pull the corks in blind tastings with all my colleagues, especially Marvin, who is one of the most knowledgable guys I know about old California wines. He has been buying, collecting and drinking the old timers such as Beaulieu Vineyard, Inglenook, Mayacamas, Heitz, Hanzell, Souverain, Mondavi, Ridge and Charles Krug, among others, for as long as I can remember. He knows his stuff. To add to the experience, my buddy James Laube was sitting right next to me during the tasting. He’s the main taster for California. And it’s always great to taste with him.

The experience, which happened in two separate tastings, one today and one last night during dinner, underlines how California has an impressive pedigree for making wines that age well. Granted, most wines today from the sunshine state are much more fruit-forward with riper tannins and higher alcohol. By comparison, most of the old wines we tasted were lower alcohol with slightly greener tannins and tart acidity. They even came across a little hard.

But the tastings, and others I have attended recently, show that California’s soil and climate has had potential for making world-class wines for a long time. And it will continue to do so, as all of you know.

I still remember 20 years ago, at a California Wine Experience, when a U.S. wine merchant questioned if California wines could age as well as the classic wines from Europe. And he was talking about some of the wines that we tasted today and yesterday. I hope he is reading this. (Unfortunately, I don’t remember his name!)

Here are my tasting notes. As in any tastings of old wines, some bottles were better than others due to cork problems. All the wines were served blind. We had no idea what we were being served. The first four were served in the order below for dinner and the second eight for lunch.

1961 Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley: Started off a bit funky and musty, but the strawberry and vanilla cream character soon came from the glass. It was full, fruity and round, with plenty of fruit still. Slightly one-dimensional but holding on well for its age. 89 points.

1975 Sterling Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Reserve: Sterling used to be a benchmark California red, and although the 1974 may be more famous, the 1975 was always a memorable wine. This was superb and reminded me of a great Paulliac from the 1950s. Right off the bat, aromas of currant, mineral, blackberry and sage. Full-bodied, with chewy tannins and plenty of currant, minty bay leaf and mineral flavors. Long and silky. Very firm and fresh. 96 points.

1966 Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Georges de Latour Private Reserve: This was better than I remember when I had it a few years ago in a vertical of BV in London. It was not giving away a lot at first, but then loads of plum and berry character rose from the glass. It was full and velvety with plenty of fruit and soft tannins. Not drying out at all this time around. Smooth. I remember drinking this when I was just starting out with the magazine in the early 1980s and it was wonderful, just like now. 92 points.

1968 Chateau Souverain Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley: This is very ripe and raisiny. You can tell that 1968 was a very ripe and powerful vintage. It was thick and Port-like, with prunes and spices. Full-bodied, a little hot but still fruity and powerful. 90 points.

1974 Ridge Zinfandel Fiddletown Amador County: Who says that Zin can’t age? Fun, funky and tasty. Aromas of tobacco, cedar and raisins with hints of coffee. Full and round with coffee and baked fruit with prunes. Round and pretty. Fades in the glass. Funky town, but impressive. 87 points.

1974 Hanzell Pinot Noir Sonoma Valley: This bottle was shot. Brown color. Smells of horse hair and sweaty leather with ripe fruit underneath. Maderized. Shame because Marvin said he had it a short while ago and it was amazing, one of the best wines he had had for a long time. 68 points.

1974 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Mountain: Very fruity with mineral, blackberry, mint and spice. Full and velvety with beautiful ripe fruit and a fresh and long finish. Very ripe. Solid and fresh. Layered. Mint turns to bay leaf. Turns a little hard with air, but still beautiful. I grew up with this wine. Love it. Gorgeous. 95 points.

1978 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley: Beautiful aromas of blackberry, green olive and fresh bay leaves. Turns to crushed cherries. Full body, with lots of ripe fruit and round tannins. Long and very fruit. Slightly monolithic now but holding on well. Turns hard. It fades in the glass quickly. 87 points.

1974 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon California Special Selection: Slightly cardboardy, but has ripe plum and berry character underneath. Turns a little volatile. Full-bodied, firm with some berry fruit but a little funky. Not a good bottle. 79 points.

1966 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Cask F29 Cabernet Sauvignon: Bad bottle. Shame. These old Inglenooks can be eye-openers. Tastes of day-old gravy to me. Ripe and raisiny fruit but hard to appreciate. Volatile and shot. 68 points.

1974 Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Martha's Vineyard: The legend. I have had better bottles of this but it was excellent quality nonetheless. Aromas of leather, dried red fruits and mahogany with mint and eucalyptus. Full-bodied, with firm tannins and a chewy texture. A bit hard but some impressive fruit with a long ripe finish. Sweet and fruity in the end. Not a perfect bottle. 92 points.

1978 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley: This is big and powerful with lots of fruit and spices. Black pepper. Full and ripe with good fruit and firm tannins. Turns to fresh herbs. Seems like there might be some Zin or Petite Sirah in this. Not a refined wine but impressive for what it is. 91 points.

Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  January 30, 2008 5:07pm ET
What a treat for you guys. I'm jealous! The most surprising was the 1974 Ridge Zin. Any Zin over 6 years old, no matter what the pedigree, has been disappointing. Thanks for sharing! Hey, have you tried Cicada yet?
Charles J Stanton
Eugene, OR —  January 30, 2008 5:20pm ET
James, did you note the ETOH levels of the wines you favored the most? My question is whether the wines that showed the best had ripe fruit at lower sugar levels than we manage to see today out of Napa and elsewhere. I think that the very ripe fruit/high ETOH wines of today may not age with the same elegance as some of those older Californian bottlings of the 60's and 70's.
James Suckling
 —  January 30, 2008 5:21pm ET
I will look at the bottles and get back to you. But the Zin was 14.5 and Souverain 14.9, if I remember correctly.
Todd Storch
TX —  January 30, 2008 8:10pm ET
Wow! What fun.So...how does a wine that smells of 'horse hair and sweaty leather' and also 'day old gravy' score 68 points?Is that the basement score?Thanks for the insight!
James Suckling
 —  January 30, 2008 10:13pm ET
I guess I was being generous!
Carole Wurster
New York —  January 31, 2008 2:12am ET
James,if we guess the "secret hideaway", do we win a dinner with you? Your restaurant contest was great fun. Please test us again soon!
Hoyt Hill Jr
Nashville, TN —  January 31, 2008 10:35am ET
I was the sommelier at a tasting of 24 Cabernets from the 1974 vintage a couple of years ago. Four of the wines were showing beautifuly - all Ms! - Mayacamas, Mondavi Reserve, Chateau Montelena and Martha's Vineyard. The others were uniformly over the hill.
Brent L Pierce
St. Helena, CA —  January 31, 2008 2:48pm ET
Nice stuff. 74 Hanzell rocks. Try to find another bottle.
Roberto R Ricardo
Stanford, CA —  February 1, 2008 1:41am ET
Hi James, Thanks for the post. I am looking forward to '78 and '79 Mayacamas for my wife and then my 30th birthday. It's great to see that the Travers had truly made wines to last "forever".
Stewart Lancaster
beaver,pa —  February 1, 2008 2:53pm ET
At our local restaurant, the "Wooden Angel",Alex Sebastian has ridge zins dating back to the '70's. I've been amazed at how well some of them have tasted
Michael Mohammadi
Baltimore, MD —  February 1, 2008 4:27pm ET
Hi James,Great post. It must be an incredible experience to be able to grab handfuls of 30+ year old wines, dust them off, bag them, and enjoy them with colleagues and friends. I'm very jealous!I'm debating between a 1978 California Cabernet and a 1978 Barolo/Barbaresco for my girlfriends 30th birthday in May. Seems like the Mayacamas might be a winner.Just wondering who wrote the previous tasting notes on this wine (1978 Mayacamas) on the WS ratings page? The first rating was a 75 pt score back in 1978...since, the score jumped to an 88, then a 91! That's quite a large leap in perceived overall quality and, in my opinion, very cool to see.
James Suckling
 —  February 2, 2008 10:13am ET
Michael. It's the first time I published a note on the wine. The other (lower) scores were someone else... I still remember the 1978 Mayacamas. Delicious.
Thomas Altmayer
February 2, 2008 7:03pm ET
Thanks for the notes, we had the '74 Mayacamas a couple of nights ago and it was phenomenal, one of the best I've ever tasted.
Larry Walsh
February 5, 2008 9:19am ET
A note for the 30th birthday. I was married in 78 and bought some wines on release. Last year we had a 78 Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill. The Sommelier returned with the decanted bottle and said he wouldn't have believed that it was a 78 CA Cab. The wine was beautiful. This year for our 30th we will have the 78 DC Lake.
Roberto Chiaradia
Rio de Janeiro/Brazil —  February 5, 2008 10:03am ET
My sister, met you in LA and would love to meet you for a caf¿.! Her name is Natasha and you met at the DRC tasting, 4 days ago. Is it true that the Bordeaux 2005 are fantastic?
Hugh L Sutherland Jr-m
miramar beach, fl —  February 5, 2008 3:05pm ET
i thought that you might have tasted the winner of the France tasting. Several of these wineries that had such good wines in the future do not make very good wines now. Could it be due to the winemaker or maybe the high alcohol mentioned above? Something to say about the "good old days".
Steve Lenzo
PHX, AZ —  February 5, 2008 11:47pm ET
JamesI'm just seeing this tonight for the first time, what timing, as I'm sitting here drinking 1978 Mondavi Reserve that a friend from a wine store gave me earlier today since I placed a big order with him this afternoon.

I was shocked at it ripeness for a 30 year old bottle from Napa. It showed bright red fruits, cherry mostly, vanilla Oak and tobacco. Quite honestly while I knew it was stored well, I really thought it would be well past its prime by now. I was wrong.

My friend also offered me a bottle of 1986 Heitz Martha's Vineyard, and the 1987 Mondavi reserve as well. Have you had any of these lately you would reccomend?

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