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Recapping an Epic Tasting of 1968 Cabernet Sauvignon

Why taste of a bunch of wines from all the way back in 1968? Is it a stunt or for bragging rights? No, it’s for the love of wine and the history of wine. My friend, Rich Meinecke, who organized the tasting and sourced almost all of the wines put it this way.

“Why 1968? It was a watershed vintage for California and Napa Valley, showing California could make world class wines. We see the emergence of ”boutique“ wineries (Heitz, Robert Mondavi and Mayacamas) to challenge and perhaps even surpass the big five (Inglenook, Krug, Martini, BV, Beringer). It was also the ”Wild West" period of California winemaking. Winemakers were willing to take chances.

I’ve tried to find wines that would still be alive, significant, educational and interesting. I want to look at the age-ability of California wines and set a benchmark for comparison to today’s wines. Do the old school wines age better? Are they more enjoyable when aged? Does it matter?"

I would add that some of these wines have historical significance beyond their mere age and the vintage overall, the last vintage at Ridge before Paul Draper’s arrival and the very first “Late Harvest” Zinfandel. Here’s what we tasted (the links take you to the commentary on each wine in this article):

1968 Hanzell Chardonnay Sonoma County
1968 Louis M Martini Pinot Noir Private Reserve
1968 Inglenook Charbono
1968 Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de la Tour Private Reserve Napa Valley
1968 Buena Vista Cabernet Sauvignon Haraszthy Cellars Cask 102 Sonoma County
1968 Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon Martha’s Vineyard Napa Valley
1968 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon Cask H–12 Napa Valley
1968 Krug Cabernet Sauvignon Vintage Selection Cesare Mondavi Napa Valley
1968 Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Unfined Napa Valley
1968 Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Monte Bello
1968 Souverain Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
1968 Mayacamas Zinfandel Late Harvest
1957 Ficklin NV Port

Hanzell Martini Charbono
"Starter" wines for the tasting of 1968 Cabernet Sauvignons. Photo: Fred Swan

About the 1968 Vintage
1968 was a warm, but long, growing season. There were some significant heat spikes, with one in late August and two in late September leading to sudden acceleration of ripeness. In some cases, such as Mayacamas’ Zinfandel, the spikes resulted in some raisining. Nonetheless, Stephen Brook characterizes grapes to have been “clean, intense and well-balanced.” He believes 1968 to have been the best vintage for California Cabernet Sauvignon since 1947.[1]

About our Tasting Venue, The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards
Finally, before I proceed to the wines, I want to express my appreciation to The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards for being such an excellent host for the tastings Rich and I have been holding over the past few years. Their private, downstairs dining room is a perfect venue for up to 18 people. The service is simultaneously friendly and professional, the food is delicious.

Fried Green TomatoesPork Chop
Crispy fried green tomatoes and Wente's signature smoked pork chop were among the excellent dishes for our dinner. Photos: Fred Swan

 1968 Hanzell Chardonnay Sonoma County
This wine was made by Brad Webb (d. 1999), Hanzell’s founding winemaker. The winery had closed down in about 1964 but re-opened under new ownership in 1967. Webb returned as winemaker while also taking on those duties at Freemark Abbey where he had become part owner.[2]

At Hanzell, Webb helped pioneer numerous winemaking techniques, including controlled malolactic fermentation, the use of glass-lined stainless steel fermentation tanks and the use of inert gas to prevent oxidation.

I don’t know exactly how he made the Chardonnay in 1968. My understanding is that it was probably old Wente clone fruit. Regardless, in this tasting intended to highlight Cabernet Sauvignon, Hanzell’s bright, powerful and delicious Chardonnay was so good that I’d have been content to drink nothing but that all night. Seriously.

The wine is amber with medium- color intensity, a water-white rim and some haziness. The nose is concentrated and lovely, showing baked pear and golden apple, baking spice, fresh herb and sweet cream. After a few moments, caramel and apricot upside-down cake emerged.

The palate is full-bodied and juicy with vibrant flavors of apricot, baking spice, pear and peach plus a talc-like texture. The wine stayed strong in the glass all night, developing additional nuances—one taster suggested Bananas Foster. The only negative note was some heat on the palate from alcohol. James Laube gave this 91 points in 1990. Today, I’m a point or two higher, Highly Recommended+.

 1968 Louis M Martini Pinot Noir Private Reserve
This wine was made by Louis P. Martini who studied winemaking at U. C. Berkeley and U. C. Davis[3] before taking over for his father in 1954. He passed the reins to his own son, Michael, in 1977. Though I can’t confirm it with certainty, I’ve been told that the grapes for this wine probably came from Stanly Ranch in Carneros.

Louis M. Martini (d. 1974) purchased 200 acres of the Stanly Ranch vineyard in 1942. He started experimenting with clones of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay there in 1948. Those trials continued through the 1950’s with some participation from the Wente family and U.C. Davis. Martini purchased additional Carneros acreage in the early 1960’s. Rich Meinecke says the old Martini Pinot Noir sometimes included some Pinot St. George (aka Nègrette).

Light garnet in the glass, the 1968 Louis Martini Pinot Noir was wholly tertiary throughout the evening: sanguine, earth, dark spice, old cigar box and shiitake mushrooms. The medium-bodied palate retains acidity and moderate talc-like tannins. The finish is quite long, maintaining flavors of earth, mushroom, dry herb and soy. While not a palette of tastes today’s Pinot drinkers expect, it is an interesting and enjoyable wine that would pair well with some umami-laden Japanese foods. Rich took the remains of the bottle home and tells me it blossomed overnight, showing some fruit and other youthful aspects. That said, drink ’em if you’ve got ’em.

 1968 Inglenook Charbono
The inclusion of Charbono in this tasting was a bit of a lark. Rich thought it would be fun to try, but I don’t think any of us was aware of the reputation Charbono used to have as an age-worthy varietal. I discovered in post-tasting research that members of the Inglenook Charbono Society routinely held bottles for decades and found that forty year-old wines looked and tasted half their age.

Our experience bore that out as this Inglenook was the surprise of the night and one of the evening’s most persistently pleasing wines. The color is still predominantly ruby, though there’s hints of orange at the rim. The nose is of baked red cherries and baking spice. The palate is nearly full-bodied, predominantly from fruit as the tannins and alcohol were both moderate. Rich flavors of baked cherry, baking spice, sanguine, earth, blackberry and chocolate kept us sipping. Recommended

BV Buena Vista Heitz
California icons stood toe to toe.
Photo: Fred Swan

 1968 Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de la Tour Private Reserve Napa Valley
I had big hopes for this wine. One of Napa Valley’s “Big Five” Cabernet Sauvignon producers, Beaulieu Vineyards has consistently been an excellent producer. The flagship Georges de la Tour is particularly solid. Last year, we tried a 1958. It was vigorous and full of ripe fruit.

Our 1968 hadn’t weathered that well, but was still enjoyable. The color is medium+ garnet and the nose gives cause for concern, offering only Worcestershire and celery salt. The palate is much more attractive though. Flavors include chocolate, brown spice, raisin and Christmas plum cake. There are moderate, talc-like tannins, medium+ body and a finish that’s long and full of juicy fruit. Drink right away.

 1968 Buena Vista Cabernet Sauvignon Haraszthy Cellars Cask 102 Sonoma County
There’s a long, long history of Cabernet Sauvignon in Sonoma County and who better to represent that than California’s first commercial, quality-focused winery, Buena Vista. Perhaps the magical revitalization Jean-Charles Boisset and his team have worked on the winery and its grounds sent positive energy to this bottle. It was a winner. Still light ruby in color, it blends flavors of fruit and development. Appealing aromas of cherry and drying leaves are followed by saliva-generating sweet/tart cherry and brown spice. Medium+ body, moderate talc-like tannins and a long finish completed the satisfying experience. At its developmental peak, drink now through 2016. Highly Recommended

 1968 Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon Martha’s Vineyard Napa Valley
Joseph Heitz is thought to be the second California producer to bottle vineyard-designated wine, the first being Ridge (Monte Bello). Heitz Cellar designated a Pinot Noir in 1967. 1968 was the debut for the Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.

Martha’s Vineyard is located in Oakville and was originally planted in the 1950s. An aroma of eucalyptus, stronger in some years than others, is considered a hallmark of the vineyard’s Cabernet Sauvignon. Joseph Heitz was known to get quite upset when people characterized the wine that way though. He considered the aroma purely in keeping with the traditional Cabernet.

Bam! Cabernet of the night. Ruby, ruby in the glass with just the slightest tinge of garnet at the rim. The nose is irresistible with moist earth, red cherry, coffee and a delicate spray of eucalyptus Cabernet Sauvignon typicity. Full-bodied and delicious in the mouth, the flavors of tart, black cherry, earth and mint are fresh. Moderate tannins and acidity remain. This wine’s probably got a good decade ahead of it, but why wait? Very Highly Recommended

 1968 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon Cask H–12 Napa Valley
From the sublime to the… brunch wine? Bottles of wine are like people, you never really know exactly how long they’ll live or what they’ll be like when they’ve hit their 45th birthday. The mystery was even greater for this bottle than many. Inglenook was, of course, another one of the big five. Under John Daniels Jr., the winery produced some of California’s most celebrated Cabernet Sauvignon. A bottle from 1963 that I tasted with Rich earlier in the week totally delivered.

Daniels sold the winery’s name and about 75 acres in 1964. He stayed on as a consultant for a time but the new owners, Allied Growers/United Vintners, soon showed an interest in volume over quality. Drinks giant Heublein bought them out in 1969 and continued the trend. It’s unclear who made this wine which was vinified under one owner, then aged and blended under another. I’m pretty certain it wasn’t John Daniels Jr. though. It’s also hard to say where the fruit came from.

I called this a brunch wine because, all flavors wrapped into one, it smells and tastes like a Bloody Mary: Worcestershire, celery salt, tomato juice and even a grind of black pepper. I made that observation aloud, prompting journalist and wine-industry veteran Cy Musiker to suggest I was describing the wine accurately yet somehow making it sound better than it actually was. Fair enough. The bottle was D.O.A. Next!

 1968 Krug Cabernet Sauvignon Vintage Selection Cesare Mondavi Napa Valley
Yet another member of the Big Five and perhaps the one that gets less attention than it deserves. I’ve tasted of a number of long-aged Krug recently (1950’s and 1960’s). Profile and quality vary with the vintage but they’ve all been quite good. And, like the other four producers, Krug is still making very good wine.

This particular bottle was in excellent shape with a nose of sandalwood and exotic spice plus both red and black cherry. Fruit on the juicy palate was tart, yet jammy, red cherry along with brown spice and tobacco. Good for another 5 years. Highly Recommended+

 1968 Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Unfined Napa Valley
Robert Mondavi Winery was founded in 1966 and released it's first release came in 1968.[4] 1968 was also the year Mondavi bought 500 acres of the legendary To Kalon Vineyard.[1] Beginning in 1971, the Robert Mondavi Winery Unfined Cabernet Sauvignon wines were marketed as “Reserve.”[4]

Another well-preserved 45-year old, our ’68 Mondavi Unfiltered was deeply-colored and only just garnet at the rim. The nose showed sweet black currant, brown spice and tobacco. The palate was medium+ in body with matching acidity and tannins, light and chalky. Flavors included tart raspberry and red cherry, spice and loads of caramel, all of which lingered generously. It will hold for a few years yet. Highly Recommended+

68 Mondavi Cabernet
When this label was printed, paint was still fresh on the now famous Robert Mondavi Winery building it depicts.
Photo: Fred Swan

 1968 Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Monte Bello
Founding Ridge winemaker David Bennion [d. 1988] produced this wine in the historic winery/barn that’s attached to the current tasting room.[5] (Paul Draper joined the company in 1969 and didn’t assume all winemaking responsibilities until 1971.[6])

Crystalline ruby in the glass, this amazingly fresh wine delighted with its combination of vibrant fruit and tertiary notes. Aromas of black currant, red cherry and forest floor led into flavors red cherry, tangy red berries and cigar box. Medium+ body, acidity and talc-like tannins plus a lengthy finish. This was, with the Heitz, very clearly one of the two best Cabernets of the night. However, the Ridge didn’t weather an evening’s worth of air in the glass as well as the Napa wine so it mightn’t have as many strong years ahead of it. Very Highly Recommended

68 Ridge Monte Bello
Fun numbers: 2,300 feet, 1968 vintage, 12.7% alcohol.
Photo: Fred Swan

 1968 Souverain Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
Souverain, now located in Alexander Valley, was founded by Lee Stewart [d. 1986] on Howell Mountain in 1944. The derelict winery and vineyards he bought then had originated in 1884 as the Fulgencio Rossini estate.[6] Stewart sold to investors in 1970 who themselves sold the property to Tom Burgess in 1973. It’s been the home of Burgess Cellars ever since.

Wines from that vineyard are thought to be especially age-worthy and this particular wine had held up pretty well. Our bottle of 1968 Souverain Cabernet was fully-mature with aromas of moist earth, porcini mushrooms, soy and zesty herb. The palate was still full-bodied with chalky, medium+ tannins and juicy berry flavors. Drink Now. Recommended+

Mayacamas Ficklin
A great finish.
Photo: Fred Swan

 1968 Mayacamas Zinfandel Late Harvest
1968 was the year Robert (Bob) and Elinor Travers purchased the Mayacamas Vineyard and winery from the Taylor family which had operated it since 1941. Travers’ 1968 Mayacamas Zinfandel was late harvest by circumstance rather than intent. By the time there was an empty fermentation tank to accommodate that year’s Zin, the grapes had begun to raisin. Travers and his winemaker, Bob Sessions, who later took over winemaking at Hanzell, nonetheless fermented the wine dry. The result was a delicious, concentrated wine of 17.3% alcohol. That was the first time a Zinfandel had been labeled “Late Harvest” and was tasty enough to inspire others, including Paul Draper at Ridge, to emulate the style.[1]

Our bottle of ’68 Late Harvest Zinfandel held a wine just turning garnet and smelling of cherries, raspberries and… vinyl. All thoughts of pool toys disappeared with a sip though. The wine was full-bodied and long with sleek tannins and beautiful, vivacious flavors of kirsch and candied cherry. Absolutely delicious and likely good for another decade. Very Highly Recommended

 1957 Ficklin NV Port
Walter Ficklin Jr. planted his family's first vines in 1945. From the outset, Ficklin Vineyards aimed to make Port-style wine. By 1948, their Madera County vineyard held 15 acres of Alvarelhao, Souzao, Tinta Cao, Tinta Madeira and Touriga. Walter Jr.’s brother, David Ficklin, had studied fermentation science at U. C. Davis and made the family’s wines.

It might seem odd to see a year on the label of non-vintage “Port.” In this case it designates the final vintage included in the mix. The wine is a solera-style blend, primarily of Tinta Madeira (aka Tinta Negra Mole or Negramoll)[7], from vintages 1948 through 1957. It was bottled in 1960 and released in 1968. An attractive nose of creamy raisin leads to a much more complex palate with intense flavors of sweet baking spice, brown sugar, golden raisins, white chocolate and hazelnut that go on and on. It’s a full-bodied wine, sweet and fortified to 20% alcohol but without perceptible heat. Fully-developed but will hold for ages. Highly Recommended+

Conclusions
It’s impossible to know now whether or not California’s most iconic Cabernet Sauvignon of the 1960’s were more age-worthy than those made in the 1980’s, 1990’s or today. We have to see how the more recent wines last. However, this tasting proved once again that California’s best vineyards and wineries have the potential to make wines with tremendous aging potential.

Does it matter? That’s up to you. Consumer tastes have changed as has our willingness to cellar wines. New techniques in the vineyard and the winery have also made it possible to produce wines that are accessible immediately while retaining the ability to develop well over an extended period of time. Those people who do enjoy the complexity, tertiary flavors and graceful structure of thoroughly aged landmark wines shouldn’t hesitate to buy bottles when such as those above when they turn up at reasonable prices.

Note: An earlier version of this article stated that 1968 was the first vintage for Mondavi. In actuality, 1968 was when they first released a wine, but it was from the 1966 vintage.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. All rights reserved.


  1. Brook, Stephen. The Wines of California. Faber & Faber, 1999  ↩

  2. Laube, James. “Brad Webb, Pioneer of California Chardonnay, Dies” Wine Spectator October 4, 1999  ↩

  3. Adams, Leon. The Wines of America, third edition. McGraw Hill, 1985  ↩

  4. Lewin, Benjamin. Clarets and Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignon. Vendange Press, 2013  ↩

  5. Bonné, Jon. “Monte Bello Through the Years” SFGate.com March 9, 2010  ↩

  6. Sullivan, Charles L. “A Companion to California Wine”. University of California Press, 1998  ↩

  7. Robinson, Jancis, Harding, Julia and Vouillamoz, José. Wine Grapes. Harper Collins, 2012.  ↩

Comments   

 
Richard Jennings
#1 Richard Jennings 2013-11-26 22:32
Great report Fred! I think you captured the beauty and ageworthiness of the wines we enjoyed that day very well. Thanks again to Rich for organizing such a memorable tasting.
Quote
 
 
Rich Meinecke
#2 Rich Meinecke 2013-11-27 03:02
Hi Fred:

Thank you for writing a thorough and well researched article about these wines. I think that part of the appeal of older wines, besides the rarity, is that good wines develop distinct character and really reflect the terroir and winemakers style. I come away from a tasting like this with a good sense of the vintage and the style of the wines at the time.

Rich
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Pamela Heiligenthal
#3 Pamela Heiligenthal 2013-12-21 06:28
I am so envious! This was definitely a tasting of a lifetime!

Pamela
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Bob Henry
#4 Bob Henry 2014-03-21 08:56
Fred,

Ol' man Joe Heitz HATED the descriptor "eucalyptus" when applied to his beloved "Martha's Vineyard" Cab.

See this remembrance upon his passing:

articles.latimes.com/.../...

I made the mistake of invoking that word on the one and only occasion of meeting Joe: a winemaker dinner feting him, organized by a Los Angeles wine merchant.

During the pre-dinner Q & A, I cited that word (directly quoting a wine magazine review circulated to all participants), and asked him how he would describe the smell of his wine.

After a l-o-n-g pause (as the room fell deathly silent in anticipation), he forcefully declared:

"Young man, I describe it as 'classic California claret.'"

(Footnote: Adding injury to the insult of my effrontery, my dinner table won the door prize that evening: a signed magnum of the 1974 Heitz "Martha's Vineyard" Cab. My being asked to go up to the front of the room to claim the prize and do a "photo op" with Joe was greeted with howls of ironic laughter by the diners. The ol' curmudgeon became "Mr. Congeniality" when we spoke privately.)

~~ Bob
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