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Golden State Oldies

Napa's Cabernets of yesteryear are experiencing a revival
Photo by: James Laube
Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow 1986 checked in at 12.5 percent alcohol.

Posted: Aug 7, 2014 12:10pm ET

There's a spirit of revival in California with older wines, with some vintners, many of them young, taking a keen interest in wines of yesteryear. 

It's a healthy sign. "What's past is prologue" has merit in just about every aspect of life. Much of this new attention in California is directed toward Napa Valley Cabernets from the 1970s, and to a lesser extent the 1960s, because of the wines' reputations for longevity.

The darlings are indeed some of the greatest Cabernets ever made in the Golden State, largely because they were so enduring. Cabernets such as Inglenook (dating back to the 1940s), Beaulieu, Chateau Montelena, Sterling, Mayacamas and Diamond Creek are but a few.

It's striking how many of the older Mayacamas Cabernets (1970 or 1974, for instance) or Heitz (1968, 1970 and 1974) are still in circulation and in such pristine condition. Ditto for old vintages of Sterling and Charles Krug. Vintners periodically send me notes about their positive and often exciting experiences with these and other wines, revealing their amazement at the wines' longevity. They don't write when the wines are disappointments.

Much of the intellectual curiosity centers on the essentials: Grape, locale, ripeness, tannins, time and type of oak. An inordinate amount of that attention, however, lands on one number: alcohol percent. Wines from decades ago seldom topped 13 to 13.5, and were often labeled 12 or 12.5 (or 12 ½ on the 1986 Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow). Fourteen percent was largely unheard of except for the odd Zinfandel here and there.

Note that there is a caveat when considering printed alcohol levels, more so with older wines than today's: They're not always reliable. In the 1970s and '80s, vintners usually picked their Cabernets at lower sugar levels, and routinely printed the same alcohol level year after year.

There is merit to emulating the styles of these long-lived older Cabernets (i.e. harvesting at lower sugar levels) if you understand the vintners' objectives, and indeed longevity was one of their goals. It's a byproduct of the French tradition.

Longevity is a measure of a wine's character, but I'm not sure it's that important. Pleasure is at the top of my list. What you can tell about a wine that's lasted for decades is that it was perfectly balanced when bottled, stored under ideal conditions (usually rarely moved) and sealed with a great cork.

Appreciating an aged wine can be a great experience. But they're rarely as exciting to drink. It's another matter entirely drinking these gems in their youth.

A couple of years ago when I visited with Ric Forman and tasted his Cabernets, I noticed the wines were a shade riper than they had been. He allowed as much, admitting too that when he drank his older wines he didn't find them as compelling as the younger, riper versions.

Vintners often admire aged wines, but they often prefer to drink something younger. I think that's a valuable lesson.

Adam Lee
Sonoma County, CA —  August 8, 2014 8:21am ET

I don't know if you've read it, but one of my favorite books to read about those older Cabernets is an collection of interviews of the winemakers by Robert Benson entitled "Great Winemakers of California." It provides invaluable insight into how the wines were made (including frequent acid additions, etc).

It can be found used on Amazon for around $5.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Jason Carey
Oakland, CA, USA —  August 8, 2014 12:01pm ET
Yet another in your never ending series of small digs at people who don't share your personal taste in wine, which would be fine if you and RP didn't have such an overwhelming influence on how California wines have been made for the last 25 years. Its disengenuous for you to pretend otherwise. What you consider the pleasure of a plusher riper wine for some other people is an over extracted over ripe wine.. period.. There is room for both tastes, but you always dig at others who don't share your personal taste.

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