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Get ready for the Annual Family Winemakers of California Tasting in SF on Aug 23

While much of the sheer volume of California wine is produced by very large corporate wineries, the vast majority of wineries in the state are family owned. It is those small, unique wineries that produce most of the best wines this country has to offer.

It isn’t always easy to find many of the wines for tasting though. Production quantities tend to be low and distribution limited. Some of the best small wineries don’t even have tasting rooms. So, while family wineries thrive on selling wine direct to consumer it’s often hard for consumers to get that essential first introduction to a wine.

The Annual Family Winemakers of California Tasting at Fort Mason in San Francisco is perhaps the best chance to taste a multitude of these special wines. This year, on Sunday, August 23, there will be about 360 small wineries offering tastes. With most of the wineries providing samples of multiple wines, the variety will be staggering. As will some of the tasters.

Good Wine: A Matter of Degrees?

Chardonnay_grapes_close_upI tried a wine the other day at a walk-around trade tasting. It was an unoaked California Chardonnay. The winemaker poured it for me from the bottle displayed on the table.

I brought the glass to my nose with an open mind. The wine’s aromas surprised me: powerful but with an odd green figgy note. I took a sip. The wine was heavier than I anticipated, very round and without texture. The flavors were similar to the nose with fruit that was simultaneously green and cloyingly ripe. I was seriously disappointed.

I had been anticipating — perhaps even hoping for — a crisp wine with taut flavors. I expected green flavors, but wanted them to be of green apple and citrus. The winemaker said he strives to deliver minerality. I had gotten some, but it was too much like the aroma of an empty beer can. The wine was not something I’d recommend.

Later, I was standing near the same table when a women walked up. “Thank you so much,” she said to the winemaker. “This unoaked Chardonnay is my favorite wine of the tasting.” “Wow,” I thought to myself. “Either her taste is waaaay different than mine or I’m missing something.”

A few minutes later, I ran into someone who’s opinion on wines I value highly. He’s a master sommelier with an excellent knowledge of Burgundy. “Could you do me a favor?” I asked him. “Try that unoaked Chardonnay over there and let me know what you think.”

The master somm came back to me a few minutes later. “Thanks so much for turning me onto that wine,” he enthused. “It was really good. Exactly what I look for in an unoaked Chardonnay.” A storm of question marks and exclamation points burst over my head.

I walked directly over to that table again. “May I try the unoaked Chardonnay again,” I asked the winemaker. “Absolutely,” he said. Then he reached under the table and pulled a bottle from an ice bucket hidden behind the tablecloth. He poured. I sniffed. Tart fruit, citrus with a hint of tropical, limestone and steel.

I took a sip. The wine was very cool and fresh with a light, chalky texture. The flavors were crisp and the body medium-minus. It was a really good wine.

The difference, in this case, between a bad wine and and a good one was a matter of degrees — Fahrenheit. It’s impossible to know exactly, but I’d say the wine I tasted first was at about 62°. That’s an appropriate temperature for medium- to full-bodied red wines but too warm for most whites. The second pour was closer to 50°, the proper temperature for light- and medium-bodied white wines.

The difference in both temperature and perceived quality was extreme in this particular case. A delta of as little as three degrees can make a significant difference in the way a wine smells, tastes and feels. Warmer temperatures emphasize sweetness, ripeness of fruit, oak and alcohol. Cooler temperatures enhance the perception of acidity, tart fruit and minerality while making the body seem lighter.

You can easily experiment with this at home. Pop one of your favorite wines into the refrigerator for an hour. Take it back out and pour some in a glass. Give it a try, thinking about the aromas, taste and mouthfeel. Keep trying the wine at 15 minute intervals as it warms up in your glass. Experiment with a few different wines and you’ll soon find the temperature zones you prefer for different styles of wine.

For more specific advice on the best temperatures for different types of wine, and for other tips on serving wine, take a look at this article: Serving Wine.

By the way, I’m very happy to recommend the 2010 Joyce Vineyards “Stele” Chardonnay Monterey County ($16, 13.7% alcohol). It’s made solely from Dijon clone Chardonnay from the Franscioni Vineyard, fermented cold in stainless steel tanks. There was no malolactic fermentation, oak aging or stirring of lees. Serve it well-chilled.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. Photo of Chardonnay grapes by Dan Random. All rights reserved.

Review: "101 Wines" by Gary Vaynerchuk

Gary Vaynerchuk’s WineLibraryTV is the world’s leading video wine blog. His informative and entertaining tastings on video attract as many as 80,000 viewers daily, not to mention the people who download his podcasts via Apple iTunes. (I watch them on my Apple iPhone 3G while on the treadmill. I don’t like getting on the treadmill, but Gary’s videos really make the time fly by. Three or four of his podcasts, which typically run between 15 and 22 minutes, give me enough time to get in a good workout including warm up and cool down. Plus, I get to broaden my wine horizons and frequently get a good laugh or two. Since, he’s recorded almost 600 of the podcasts now, I should be in decent shape by the time I’ve seen them all... If you haven’t checked them out, you really should.

As the tremendously successful operator of the Wine Library wine shop and one of the hardest working guys you’ll ever meet, Gary has tasted a stunning number of wines and famously developed his palate by sniffing and tasting pretty much every substance under the sun, as evidenced by Vaynerchuk’s appearances on the Conan O’Brien show among others. Gary’s detailed but irreverent tastings of wines from all over the world are a great way to get tips on expanding your own palate or finding tasty, if sometimes obscure, new wines to try.

While browsing the wine shelf at my local mega-chain bookstore, I was pleased to see that Gary has a book out and immediately snapped it up. Gary Vaynerchuk’s “101 Wines Guaranteed to Inspire, Delight and Bring Thunder to Your World” is medium garnet in color with a paper-white rim. It’s too early to tell, but I suspect it has legs.

Wine Tasting in Paso Robles - 5 Can’t Miss Wineries in Northwest Paso

NorCalWine’s tasting guide to Paso Robles continues. This week we’re off to what I’m calling northwest Paso Robles. It could also be described as the wineries of Adelaide Rd. This article will detail my top five tasting recommendations there. It’s well worth a full day of tasting (or more).

Tasting Wine in Paso Robles: Northwest/Adelaida Road

Two main things distinguish this part of Paso Robles from other areas when it comes to growing wine grapes: proximity to the ocean and the soil. Being closer to the ocean means temperatures are more moderate. The growing season is longer. This increases the potential for elegance and complexity in the wine, and just the right level of ripeness.

There is more calcareous soil (a mixture of limestone and clay) in the Paso Robles AVA as a whole than in any other AVA in California. But, in these western hills, it is less granular and often mixed with denser clay. That allows for dry-farming in many years. Calcareous soil and a cool climate are prized for Chardonnay in Burgundy. It also makes this zone Paso Robles’ best for Chardonnay in my opinion.

Getting to these wineries takes more time than those in most other parts of Paso Robles. It’s not too long a trip though. Driving directly from a likely starting point, such as the Starbucks near 24th St. and Highway 101, to the most far-flung winery, Justin Winery, only takes 30 minutes.

You’ll spend five minutes or so heading west on 24th Street. Then, just as the road changes its name to Paso Robles Rd, your surroundings change from town to outskirts. Soon you pass the historic Paso Robles District Cemetery and the road changes names again. Now you’re on Nacimiento Lake Drive/Hwy G14. Just past Jardine Ranch, make a left turn onto Adelaide Rd.

As you wind through the countryside - driving carefully on the narrow two-lane roads — you’ll quickly find yourself in a totally rural/ranching environment with grassy slopes, scattered oak trees and the occasional wild boar jogging across your path. Most wineries here are set back from the road, so keep to the speed limit and watch for their signs lest you cruise right by.

Aside from Deborah’s Room at Justin which is open for lunch on weekends, there are no restaurants in this area. Unless you’ve made reservations at Deborah’s, you should definitely bring a picnic lunch of some sort, or be ready to buy some deli food at Halter Ranch or Justin. Almost all of the wineries in the area have nice places to sit down and enjoy your meal.


Alta Colina

Our first stop on this route is Alta Colina. Alta Colina is a small, relatively new, family-run winery known for excellent Rhone varietals from their estate vineyard. The tasting room is compact but there’s a good chance you’ll be tasting with one of the family members.

The Tillman family’s first vines were planted in April, 2005. Despite their young age, the vines are already leading to excellent wine. Their pedigree is excellent, coming from a French, government-owned, nursery and from Alban Vineyard in Edna Valley. The Alta Colina vineyard includes four red and four white Rhone varietals. Two star winemakers from the Paso Robles region, Amy Butler and Scott Hawley, guide the winemaking. Highlights for me recently were the 12 O'Clock High Viognier blend, the GSM and the Old 900 Syrah blend.

Address: 2725 Adelaida Rd., Paso Robles CA 93446 (co-located with Villacana Winery)
Phone: (805) 227-4191
Open Hours: 11am - 5pm, Thursday - Sunday Tours
Available: Vineyard tour by appointment
Food Available: No
Picnic Area: No


Adelaida Cellars

The next recommended stop as you head west is Adelaida Cellars. The first Adelaida Cellars wine was made in 1981, but it wasn’t until ten years later that their first estate vineyard - the Viking Vineyard - was planted. Three years after that, the winery purchased 400 acres of the Hoffman Mountain Ranch vineyard. That land was, in 1964, the first in either San Luis Obispo or Santa Barbara Counties to be planted to Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir is not among the top five, or even ten, varietals that usually come to mind with regard to Paso Robles. However, Adelaida Cellars’ HMR Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir is very good. It offers aromas and flavors of cherry, raspberry, Dr. Pepper and spice with a smooth mouthfeel and long finish. Other wines not to miss include the Version White, a Roussanne/Grenache Blanc blend and the Viking Estate Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.

The tasting room at Adelaida Cellars has just one stone-topped counter, but it's long enough to accomodate a dozen people. As you’re tasting, you can look beyond the bar through the large picture windows that reveal the stainless steel fermentation tanks. To the left are glass doors leading to the barrel room.

Address: 5805 Adelaida Road, Paso Robles CA 93446
Phone: (800) 676-1232
Open Hours: Daily, 10am - 5pm
Tours Available: By appointment
Food Available: No
Picnic Area: Yes


Halter Ranch

Halter Ranch, with it’s newly remodeled facilities, is another excellent spot for tasting. It is in a lovely setting, surrounded by big oak trees and a nice garden. The ranch-style buildings are lovely too, as is the restored Victorian Farmhouse.

The Halter Ranch vineyard was established in 1996. Planted on well-drained, south-facing slopes are 20 different grape varieties, almost all of which are either Rhone or Bordeaux varieties. Initially, the grapes were only sold to other wineries. Some, such as Justin, have used them as important components in flagship wines. Now Halter Ranch produces its own wines too. I particularly recommend the Viognier, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Address: 8910 Adelaida Road, Paso Robles CA 93446
Phone: (805) 226-9455
Open Hours: Daily, 11am - 5pm
Tours Available: By appointment
Food Available: Yes
Picnic Area: Yes


Justin Winery

Justin and Deborah Baldwin founded Justin Winery in 1981. There were very few wineries in Paso Robles back then, and almost none were focused on high-end wine. Justin thrived. It has developed massive and loyal wine club — the Justin Wine Society — and produces a large number of very good wines, with broad distribution. It's focus on quallity and the good life extended to its grounds too, which made it what was probably the first true destination winery in Paso Robles.

There are now two tasting areas. One is at the original facility, which also houses Deborah’s Room restaurant (dinners served nightly), a very chic four-room bed and breakfast and nice gardens. Members of the wine club can also enjoy the Wine Society Lounge. That’s located down the road at the massive winery and event center.

The wines range from excellent but affordable whites and reds up to the very exclusive Bordeaux-varietal blend, Isosceles Reserve. Over the years, Justin has also experimented with a lot of different varietals. And they’ve done a good job with them. There has been Malbec, Nebbiolo, Tempranillo and a very convincing Sangiovese among others. My usual favorites are their crisply citrusy Sauvignon Blanc, the various red Bordeaux-varietal blends and the Reserve Chardonnay which may be Paso Robles’ best take on white Burgundy.

Past NorCalWine review of Justin wines:
2008 Justin Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles
2008 Justin Sauvignon Blanc Paso Robles
2008 Justin Reserve Chardonnay Paso Robles

Address: 11680 Chimney Rock Road, Paso Robles CA 93446
Phone: (805) 238-6932
Open Hours: Daily, 10am - 5pm
Tours Available: By appointment
Food Available: Yes
Picnic Area: Yes


Tablas Creek

Tablas Creek is probably the best-known of all Paso Robles wineries specializing in Rhone-variety wines. That recognition is well-deserved. Tablas Creek was among the very first in the area to put a major focus on such wines. And it has been one of the most important on all of the west coast for popularizing Rhone varietals. This is no accident.

Tablas Creek is a partnership between Chateau de Beaucastel, the most celebrated winery in all of Chateauneuf du Pape, and Robert Haas. They chose this area of Paso Robles for its close similarity to the climate and soil conditions of Chateauneuf du Pape. The Rhone variety vines planted there now were all taken from Chateau de Beaucastel or grown at Tablas Creek’s nursery from those cuttings. The winery produces a very large number of Rhone blend and varietal wines as well as a couple of Chardonnay. All are very high quality. The Esprit de Beaucastel red blend is the flagship wine, excellent and ageworthy every year. But, make sure you try the Cote de Tablas. It's very good too and a great value.

Tablas Creek’s hospitality center has also been remodeled recently. Now there is a very large and elegant tasting room with three long counters of polished wood. Behind the central counter is a long wall of glass showing massive wooden barriques used for aging some of the red wines. There is another smaller tasting room with two counters. The gift shop has been expanded. And there is a large patio and picnic area just outside.

Past NorCalWine review of Tablas Creek wines:
2009 Tablas Creek Rosé Paso Robles
2008 Tablas Creek Roussanne and Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc Paso Robles

Address: 9339 Adelaida Road, Paso Robles CA 93446
Phone: (805) 237-1231
Open Hours: Daily, 10am - 5pm
Tours Available: By appointment
Food Available: No
Picnic Area: Yes

Wine Tasting in Other Parts of Paso Robles

This article is one in a five-part series on wine tasting in Paso Robles' different areas. Here are links to the other four articles:
5 Excellent Stops near 101 and Downtown
My Top 4 Picks in Southwest Paso Robles
3 Top Stops on Anderson Road
3 Winning Wineries on Live Oak and Arbor Roads

If you enjoyed this article, please share it! Icons for popular sharing services are at the right above and also below.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

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.

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  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.  ↩

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