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NorCal Wine Blog

18 Delicious Zinfandels You Need to Try at ZAP

The 2014 ZAP Zinfandel Experience this year has a new format and a new location. The majority of events will be held at the scenic Presidio. And, rather than offering one massive, open hall of producers, this year’s main event is divided into three “tasting tracks,” each in a dedicated building. There will be Sensory Tasting, Reserve & Barrel Tasting, and Terroir Tasting. Each session lasts two hours so, if you wish, you can buy tickets for each session or spend six hours at one, etc.

Get More Info and Buy Tickets Here

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I like the idea of dividing things up into more manageable and organized sections. The Presidio is a lovely venue too. Parking there can be an issue though. Arrive early or use whatever public/event transit is available. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these changes and especially your reactions if you attend. I won’t be able to go to the main event so I’m relying on you for feedback.

Another change this year was moving the trade & media tasting to a separate day. It took place Wednesday at Rockwall Winery in Alameda. I think this was a good move overall as it made for a saner, more focused tasting. There weren’t as many producers available but there were still many more than anyone could get to within the three hours allotted. Letting media taste in advance also gives me the chance to mention some highlights for you to seek out on Saturday.

Here are my favorites from among the nearly 60 wines I tasted during the walk-around.

(In alphabetical order by producer)
2011 Beekeeper Zinfandel Madrone Vineyard, Rockpile - $65
Very focused with rich black fruit and spice. Fine, grippy tannins and a long finish. Highly Recommended

2012 Bedrock Wine Company Evangelho Heritage, Contra Costa - $35
Concentrated and pretty with dark cherries and spice. Highly Recommended

2012 Robert Biale Vineyards Zinfandel RW Moore Vineyard, Coombsville - $50
Fine, chalky tannins lend structure to this richly fruited wine with toasty wood and chocolate. Highly Recommended

2011 Dashe Cellars Zinfandel Florence Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley - $35
Intense but balanced and showing a captivating melange of spice on top of ripe, dark berries. Very Highly Recommended

2011 Fields Family Zinfandel Old Vine Sherman Family Vineyard, Lodi - $24
Full-bodied and richly flavored with dark fruit, chocolate and a hint of dry herb. Highly Recommended

2012 Gamba Vineyards Zinfandel Estate Old Vine, Russian River Valley - $45
Luscious berries, chocolate and spice. Concentrated and smooth. Highly Recommended

2010 Grgich Hills Estate Zinfandel, Napa Valley - $35
A delicious, complete wine with lovely texture and 3% Petite Sirah lending Chinese 5-spice aromatics. Highly Recommended

2010 Harney Lane Winery Zinfandel Old Vine Lizzy James Vineyard, Lodi - $35
The vines are a century old but don’t lack power. Fine tannins and a blend of spice, ripe dark fruit and chocolate. Highly Recommended

2011 Hendry Zinfandel Blocks 7 & 12, Napa Valley - $35
A study in texture with liquer-like fruit and “walk through the forest” aromatics. Highly Recommended

2011 Jeff Cohn Cellars Zinfandel Landy Sweetwater Springs, Russian River Valley - $38
A complex and romantic blend of spices plus rich, chocolatey fruit. Very Highly Recommended

2012 Jeff Cohn Cellars Impostor, California - $35
Chinese 5-spice, garrigue and assorted fruit with a cashmere mouthfeel. Highly Recommended

2010 McCay Cellars Zinfandel “Jupiter,” Lodi - $28
A creamy attack precedes fine, powdery tannins and harmonious flavors of black and red fruit, exotic spice and toasted hazelnut. Highly Recommended

2010 McCay Cellars Zinfandel “Equity,” Lodi - $32
Scrumptious, earthy fruit and sophisticated texture. Highly Recommended+

2010 McCay Cellars Zinfandel “Contention,” Lodi - $64
Gorgeous texture and a symphony of harmoniously integrated flavors. A Zinfandel to savor and think about over the course of an evening. Very Highly Recommended

2012 The Prisoner, Napa Valley - $40
A full-bodied and potent blend with earthy, dark red fruit, Chinese five-spice, licorice and more. Highly Recommended

2011 Ridge Zinfandel Lytton Springs, Dry Creek Valley - $38
The coolness of 2011 brings notes of dark flowers and pretty spice to the fore. Highly Recommended

2011 Tres Sabores Zinfandel Rutherford Estate, Napa Valley - $38
Lovely, elegant and even lower in alcohol than usual for Tres Sabores. Ripe, dark fruit, attractive spice and a chiffonnade of savory herb. Highly Recommended

2012 Turley Wine Cellars Zinfandel Kirschenmann Vineyard, Lodi - $32
Full-bodied and creamy with fine, powdery tannins and a rich, tightly integrated blend of fruit flavors. Highly Recommended

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to Copyright 2014. The ZAP Zinfandel Experience banner is the property of ZAP. All rights reserved.

Awesome Sauvignon Blanc in Santa Ynez Valley

Sauvignon Blanc is not a variety widely associated with Santa Barbara County. Pinot Noir went “Sideways,” nuanced Rhone-variety wines have a 30-year history there and wine lovers in-the-know seek out Chardonnay. Nonetheless, Santa Barbara County—more specifically, Happy Canyon and Santa Ynez Valley—is easily one of California’s very best Sauvignon Blanc growing regions.

Soils and topography play roles in this, but the primary factor is climate. Daytime during growing season in Happy Canyon and Santa Ynez is very warm which eliminates pyrazines—a source of leafy and bell pepper flavors—but evening brings a massive temperature drop that preserves acidity and slows sugar production. This and the long, dry growing season allow wineries to produce many different styles of Sauvignon Blanc.

Early harvests deliver crisp, citrusy Sauvignon Blanc with some of the grassy flavors popularized by New Zealand, but without the green beans or aggressively pungent edge. Late harvests bring ripe tropical and stone fruits in full-bodied wines that still refresh. Some wineries create a broad spectrum of flavors by picking over the course of several weeks, using a mix of vessels—stainless steel, oak, acacia and concrete—and allowing only partial malolactic fermentation. Blends with Semillon are not uncommon.

This diversity in high-quality Sauvignon Blanc was borne out by a tasting conducted recently for me and Richard Jennings at Gainey Vineyard in Santa Ynez. We tasted six current releases with representatives from some of the area’s top producers: Grassini Family Vineyards, Margerum Wine Company, The Brander Vineyard, Jonata and Gainey. I present them below in the order in which we tasted them.

Six Delicious Sauvignon Blanc from Santa Ynez Valley and Happy Canyon

2012 Gainey Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Estate, Santa Ynez Valley - $11.24
This affordable Sauvignon Blanc is made solely from Gainey Home Ranch Vineyard fruit. Both free-run and press juice were cold fermented in stainless tanks, no malolactic fermentation was allowed. Winemaker Jeff Lebard says he looks to make "a multi-occasional wine with  bright, vibrant acidity and exuberant fruit" from their Sauvignon Blanc. In the 2012, tropical fruit and floral accents are the primary aromas and flavors. Lime pith and peppery spice add interest on the palate (medium+ body), as does a lightly grainy texture. An enjoyable, easy-going Sauvignon Blanc with the pricing and restraint to be a Spring/Summer house white. 13.0% alcohol. 2,300 cases produced. Drink now through 2014. Recommended

Gainey Vineyard winemaker Jeff Lebard in December, 2013.
Photo: Fred Swan

2012 Grassini Family Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Estate, Happy Canyon - $28
Grassini planted 15-acres Sauvignon Blanc at their Happy Canyon estate vineyard in 2002. It has rapidly become one of the most sought-after sources for that variety. For their own wine, Sauvignon Blanc Clone 1 grapes were whole-cluster pressed and the juice fermented mostly in stainless steel tanks but also some neutral oak puncheons. Aging was seven months in a combination of stainless and neutral oak as well. The wine's pretty and expressive nose shines with a core of white peach, Meyer lemon and lime accented by flint. It is reminiscent to me of some white Bordeaux though Grassiini isn't looking to be anything but true to their region. Katie Grassini told us they're "going for the Happy Canyon-style." Lightly grainy texture and lime-edged acidity frame the medium+ bodied palate. The finish is lengthy with a texture that moves to chalk. 13.5% alcohol. 530 cases produced. Drink now through 2015. Highly Recommended

Katie Grassini 1024
Katie Grassini is CEO, aka "Big Sis," at Grassini Family Vineyards.
Photo: Fred Swan

2012 Margerum “Sybarite” Sauvignon Blanc, Happy Canyon - $21
For this wine, Margerum took the approach of picking Clone 1 early, late and in-between from four different vineyards (50% McGinley, 20% Grassini, 15% Star Lane, 15% Curtis, the latter in Foxen Canyon) to produce a wine of charming contradictions. It’s high in both quality and volume, but low in alcohol and price. And it satisfies on the palate. The nose presents sweet lemon-lime and white flowers. They are joined in the mouth by chalky minerality. Bi-weekly batonage contributed medium+ body and light grip. 12.1% alcohol. 5,000 cases. Highly Recommended

Jason Barrette 1024
Jason Barrette is winemaker for Margerum and also Penfolds' Magill Estate winery. Photo: Fred Swan

2012 Brander Cuvée Nicolas - $28
This strikingly unique wine offsets Sauvignon Blanc with a 35% share of Semillon, both own-rooted and planted in 1975. The Sauvignon Blanc juice—from Clone 1 vines that yield just 1.5 tons/acre—enjoyed a full day of skin contact. The Semillon, picked at 25 brix, is full of character. Fred Brander believes his "best vintages are those with at least 20% Semillon," but that's not possible every year as the grape is thin-skinned and vulnerable to pests and bunch rot. All of the 2012 fermentation was in barrel (two-thirds new). Malolactic fermentation was prevented but the wine was softened by three months on the lees in barrel. The aromas and flavors are very savory, meaty with smoke and flint, but there’s also grilled white peach and a hint of grapefruit. The palate is nearly full-bodied with a grippy, light-grained texture and prominent, persistent acidity. The mineral-laden finish is long. 14.0% alcohol. 200 cases produced. Drink now through 2016. Very Highly Recommended
(Note: The currently released wine is still 2011, a 100% Sauvignon Blanc. I have not tasted it.)

Fred Brander 1024
Fred Brander is one of the pioneers of Santa Barbara County wine and produced its first gold medal winner. Photo: Fred Swan

2012 Margerum D Sauvignon Blanc - $36
The 2012 Margerum D, a “best two vineyards blend,” is a wine of citrus blossom, vanilla, delicate white peach and pretty spice. It’s lithe and juicy in the mouth and lightly grippy. Surprisingly low in alcohol (12.3%), the body is nonetheless medium+ due to nine months aging with batonage every two weeks in 265 liter French oak barrels (60% new). Filtration was light. The blend is 50% McGinley Vineyard (Point Block 2A), 48% Grassini Vineyard and 2% Semillon from Crown Point. 12.35 alcohol. 103 cases produced. Drink now through 2015. Highly Recommended+ 

2010 Jonata Flor White Wine Santa Ynez Valley - $59.99
The decadent 2010 Jonata Flor allures with aromas and flavors of straw, just-ripe white peach, yellow and green apples and perfumed wood. It is full-bodied in the mouth with a creamy attack, textured mid-palate and luxurious finish. This estate wine includes 69% Sauvignon Blanc (Musqué clone), 29% Semillon and 2% Viognier.

According to winemaker Matt Dees, the Sauvignon Blanc just doesn't taste sufficiently ripe at low brix on Jonata's Ballard Canyon property which is farther west and cooler than the others here. Most of the grapes are picked at 24 or 25. "We don't water back or anything along those lines so our wines wind up at 15%, 15.2, we've bottled 16.4" Despite that, measured acidity is very high. Complexity is built by picking some of the blocks at as many as ten different times, yielding everything from super-acidic grapes with green flavors to honeyed, tropical notes. The grapes were squeezed in 20 batches using a gentle one-ton press and then the varieties are co-fermented in various proportions. Fermentation vessels were one-third new oak, one-third used oak and the remaining third in stainless steel. Neither malolactic fermentation nor batonage took place. 15.2% alcohol. Less than 250 cases were produced. Drink now through 2015. Very Highly Recommended

Matt Dees, winemaker for Jonata and Goodland Wines.
Photo: Fred Swan

Star Lane Vineyard
Star Lane Vineyard didn’t participate in this tasting but, later in the day, Richard and I ambled through the expansive cellars of their winery, tasting from tanks and barrels with Tyler Thomas, Star Lane’s new winemaker, formerly with Donelan Family, HdV and Fiddlehead. The 2013 Sauvignon Blanc in both wood and stainless, tasted fabulous. I was particularly taken by the wine in barrel, lively and perfumed with a core of white peach. That, along with the crisp, green-fruited wine in tank, provides a broad spectrum of tasty options for the final blend.


Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

It's Not Too Late! Downloadable Gifts for Wine Lovers

It’s the day before Christmas and officially time to panic if you’re still short on gifts for the wine lovers in your life. Mail order won’t get the job done in time. A trip to the mall or downtown shopping district means parking blues, hordes of Cinnabon-fueled zombies and lengthy lines at the register.

What you need are downloadable gifts. Here are some great digital doodads for wine lovers:

The World Atlas of Wine - 7th Edition by Hugh Johnson & Jancis Robinson
atlas of wineThe most recent update of this venerable guide to wine was just released in October. While the hardcover book is lovely and looks good on a coffee table, I opted for the Apple iBooks version, $14.99 The 400-page resource is weightless on my iPad, the photos still vivid, and it includes video which you just can't get in print.

The book isn't perfect. Today's world of wine is a big place and, when single regions such as California or Argentina are worthy of 500 pages themselves, a book such as this one can’t cover any topic exhaustively. There is also a minor formatting problem, at least on my iPad Mini, which cuts off a bit of text here and there.

Those quibbles aside, the book is an excellent resource and wonderful to have in hip pocket or purse at all times. Maps are a primary element of any atlas. Here, there’s a “tap to zoom” feature which makes detailed maps, such as the complete vineyard-level layout of Gevrey-Chambertin, very easy to navigate and read. Likewise, a single tap provides larger-than-life renderings of wine labels. The hyperlinked table of contents and search functions are fast and effective. Pop-up regional sidebars offer info on climate, viticultural hazards and principal grape varieties.

The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste by Jon Bonné
91ldTo5opKL. SL1500 Hot off the press, but also available for Kindle, is this book by the SF Chronicle’s wine editor. It provides a great overview of California wine from the beginning to now. Wine recommendations are organized by varietal, perfect for people who don’t know producer names but want to find a killer Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, etc.

Jon Bonné has a point of view which becomes obvious as one gets to the latter stages of the book. The book is best for people who share his tastes or who gave up on California wine years ago due to a perceived lack of nuance, minerality and acidity. If your intended recipient loves mouth-filling, fruit-forward wines and isn’t afraid of alcohol, or needs a compleat compendium of regions and wineries, this book may not be for them. But, for a fresh look at California wine, a guide to domestic bottles with Old World flair and an overview of the most controversial topics in wine, this is your tome.

My full review is here. The Kindle edition is currently selling for $13.29, 62% off the hardcover price.

Wine Cellar Management Software
I’ve tried at least a dozen software packages designed for cataloging and managing a large wine collection. Most of them are horrible. You-couldn’t-pay-me-to-use-the-horrible. There are two very good options though.

The Personal Wine Curator 3.0 ($49.99, PC or Mac) is a purpose-built, standalone application that is powerful but easy-to-use, flexible but doesn’t require configuration, and speeds data entry with both a wine database and “duplicate entry” function. The program suggests drink by dates as well as food pairings. It can manage multiple cellars and supports printing and scanning of bar codes. There is also an add-on mobile option ($29.99/yr.) that will both back up your data to their server and allow you to access your database via smart phone.

wine curator

The second good option is a two-tool solution, CellarTracker plus Most people know CellarTracker as a crowd-sourced repository of wine reviews. However, it has a cellar management tool and currently boasts an online hoard of 46.5 million user bottles. The CellarTracker cellar manager is focused on basic inventory, prices and scores and is much less feature rich than The Personal Wine Curator. It doesn’t offer wine maturity tracking or wine pairing. But you can use CellarTracker for free, though they request a voluntary payment and require at least $36/year for automatic valuations and access to some of the “pro” wine scores. is an iPhone/iPad/Android app that connects with CellarTracker over the internet. It costs $1.99 and lets users access their CellarTracker inventory as well as the full database of reviews. It is integrated with Facebook and Twitter, so users can easily share comments on what they're drinking.

For a full-featured cellar manager, go with The Personal Wine Curator. If your wine-loving friend just needs an inventory of what they have, is interested in comparing their notes to user reviews or likes to share comments on wine via social media, try CellarTracker.

Happy Holidays!

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to Copyright 2013. Cover art and screenshots are the property of their respective holders. All rights reserved.

4 Great Gifts for Wine Collectors

Finding great gifts for wine collectors can be a challenge. Giving wine is dicey since collectors are often very particular. Instead, choose something which shows you support their love of wine and went the extra mile to learn what serious collectors can really use but may not have.

Durand - The Very Best Corkscrew for Aged Wines

1 the-durandThere’s one thing all prized, old bottles of wine have in common, old corks. They can be a real problem.

Some corks break into pieces when you try to pull them with a regular corkscrew. Others aren’t solid enough to hold onto the screw. Those problems can be solved with an ah-so, a device with two flat prongs that slide between the cork and bottle. Sometimes the  the ah-so just pushes the cork into the bottle though.

The Durand is a corkscrew and ah-so in one. The screw holds the cork while the two metal prongs secure it from the sides. No more broken, crumbled or lost corks! $125

coravinCoravin - Pour Wines by the Glass Without Removing the Cork

Sometimes you want to taste a wine, but not drink the whole bottle. You can reseal an opened bottle, but you still have to finish it within a day or so. Coravin lets you extract  as much wine as you want without removing the cork.

The Coravin system inserts a hollow needle of surgical steel through the cork. Then it pushes inert, food-safe argon gas into the bottle. This allows the wine to flow and also keeps oxygen out of the bottle.

It sounds complicated but is easy to use. And it really works. Sommeliers, wine bars and collectors love it. See my full Coravin review here$299

The Wine Check - The Safe, Convenient Way to Fly with Wine

the wine checkSerious wine lovers like taking their own wine with them on vacation and bringing bottles back from overseas winery visits. The Wine Check is the best way to check a case of wine as luggage.

The Wine Check's internal box has 12 individual styrofoam cavities which isolate bottles from both cold and heat while also protecting against breakage. The outer bag is tough, water-resistant and has wheels and a pull strap for easy mobility. There's a large, flat pocket which is perfect for holding winery brochures and a corkscrew.

I get a lot of use out of mine, and not just for domestic and international flights. I take it with me when I drive to wine country so the bottles I buy don’t get hot sitting in the car. (If you like a one-stop shop, you can also buy The Durand in The Wine Check’s online store.) $75

Travelwell 12-Bottle Limo - an Excellent, Compact Carrier for Local Travel

I received Travelwell Polyester Bottle Limo 12 Bottle Wine Case as a gift myself and am very happy with it. It holds 12 bottles, but half of the padded dividers are movable so you can carry odd-shaped bottles or use the carrier as a cooler. The bag is well-constructed with a sturdy, telescoping handle and a pair of smoothly-rolling wheels on each back corner. There are big, flat pockets on both sides and another one in front with slots for cards, etc.

The compact design—half the size of The Wine Check—is very convenient. I wouldn't suggest using it as checked luggage though. There's not enough padding and insulation for that. The telescoping handle would be liable to get damaged too. $78.25

wine carrier



Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to Copyright 2013. 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+

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” 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.  ↩