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In Napa Valley, the past is prelude to the future

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In a few paragraphs in “Winetaster’s Choice,” written 42 years ago, Harry Waugh anticipated much of Napa Valley’s modern history, although he likely did not know it. It was on March 30, 1972, that Harry, the “grand old man of the English wine trade” who also was on the board of directors of Chateau Latour, made his third visit to Napa and found the region so dry that “It is said to be the worst drought since 1870!” Those of us who live here know that every ten years or so we do have a drought, and while I don’t mean to sound dismissive of the water situation (after all, the population of California has more than doubled since 1970), sometimes the media does seem to make things sound worse than they really are. (By the way, the rains of February have switched this winter from being the driest ever to the third driest.)

Harry’s visit coincided with a time when Napa’s boutique winery era was reaching an apogee. He was friends with Belle and Barney Rhodes, who’d planted Martha’s Vineyard, from which Joe Heitz produced one of the first vineyard-designated Cabernet Sauvignons (and which can lay claim to being California’s first modern-era “cult” wine). Martha’s Vineyard is, of course, located in the same general area of Oakville as Harlan Estate and Far Niente.

A few days later, Harry also visited Mayacamas Vineyard, high up on Mount Veeder, way above Oakville, and was dazzled by the views, which visitors still are today. “For sheer beauty the views in every direction…are, to my mind, unsurpassed,” and this despite his penchant for “splendid Alsace” and “my beloved Beaujolais country.” Tasting with Mayacamas’s founder, Bob Travers, Harry sampled the winery’s Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (the wines were made, partly or wholly, from purchased grapes, because Bob’s new vineyard plantings hadn’t yet matured). Mayacamas was, of course, recently purchased from the Travers family by Charles Banks, who has vowed to restore the estate to greatness.

Harry also tasted a Mayacamas 1968 Zinfandel, a wine he said “caused such a stir” for its alcohol of 17%! [The exclamation point was his.] Being possessed of a European palate, and particularly fond of Bordeaux, Harry might easily have pooh-poohed that Zin, the way certain of our Europhile writers do today to wines of high alcohol. But he called it “one of the richest unfortified wines I have ever tasted” and added, “It is gratifying to know already I have a case of this most unusual wine tucked away in London.” One of the reasons I admired Harry was because of the catholicism [small “c”] of his palate. He was always in search of what he called “the pick of the bunch,” the best wines in whatever country or region he was touring, and did not bring provincial or biased tastes to his experiences.

During that same period, as a sort of lark, Harry and his wife, Prue, traveled to Lodi, which is not so far as the crow flies from Napa Valley, but seems altogether different, being on lowlands in the Sacramento Delta. However this trip was not to sample its wines or tour its vineyards. He’d been invited by “Bob and Marge Mondavi” to “a square dance club” to trip the light fantastic. I wish Harry had described this scene in greater detail, but in 1972 he could not have known the iconic status Robert Mondavi would later achieve. Isn’t it fun to imagine Mr. Mondavi dosado’ing in jeans and cowboy hat.

Another winery Harry went to was Louis M. Martini, then under the control of the Martini family (Gallo bought it in 2002), where he tasted “1970 Mountain Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon,” with a Sonoma County appellation. Could this have been Monte Rosso? Harry loved its “rich, sweet nose” and called it “gorgeous, big”; it even reminded him of the 1970 clarets (“the best vintage there since 1961”), with “its fabulous colour…richness and complexity.” I wonder what the alcohol was on that wine; today, Monte Bello Cabs tend to be on the hefty side. Perhaps a Martini will read this and let us know.

You see why it’s such fun to read about the history of wine regions. We discover that the things we are concerned with today are not without precedent. Nothing springs parthenogentically from nothing; everything has origins, and if you love wine, you must love understanding how today came out of yesterday, and all the years before.

  1. “1970 Mountain Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon,” with a Sonoma County appellation. Could this have been Monte Bello?

    Nope, it couldn’t have been!

    I assume you meant Monte Rosso…

  2. very cool post

  3. Kyle, of course you’re correct, that’s what I get for rushing out a morning post! Thanks.

  4. Bill Haydon says:

    I had the privilege in the late 90s of attending a blind tasting that featured 68 and 74 Martha’s Vineyard, 84 Caymus Special Select and 85 Cask 23 paired up with 59 Latour, 61 Pichon-Lalande, 78 La Mission Haut Brion and 82 Cheval Blanc. Excepting the Caymus, the other three Napa wines more than held their own against the Bordeaux. The Heitz in particular are two of the most memorable wines that I have ever drank.

    If wines like that are the prelude to a possible future when Napa Valley throws away its Michel Rolland cookbook and goes back to making wines of elegance and harmony, I may need to rethink my current loathing of the place.

  5. Mr. Haydon. Your current loathing of the place is misplaced. There are plenty of great wines in the style you profess to like. Napa is not a monolithic place with a monolithic style.

    And, the difference between the near 14% alc for 74 Martha’s, a great wine even today, and the majority of today’s wines that are in the 14-14.5% range is so negligible in both taste and texture that lumping those wines in with those that are higher in alc is just plain wrong on its face.

    But, please, do not take my word or Steve’s word on this topic. Go out and taste Corison, Spottswoode, Farella, Cuvaison, Trefethen, Rubicon, Dominus, Elizabeth Spencer, etc, etc, for yourself. I think you will find dozens of Napa Cabs that hit your taste preference sweet spot.

  6. Bill Haydon says:

    Charlie, I will agree with you that those wines exist, and I respect many on your list (though after the Chronicle article, it’ll be cold day in hell that I ever give the Trefethen family any money). I’ll break my response down into two parts.

    First, I agree that diversity does exist and always has. Even in the deepest, darkest depths of Parker/Rolland influence, it existed. We disagree on the extent of it. I say that for every Hanzell or Steve Edmunds ten years ago, there were literally scores if not hundreds of by-the-numbers 15% Cabs being launched, all chasing the Golden Ticket of being the next Screaming Eagle. As I’ve mentioned countless times here, that the tide is swinging away from that and back towards the more restrained style of those old Martha’s Vineyards is a good, positive and (at to be a cynic) necessary development for the future of Napa Valley.

    Secondly, with regards to winemaking and grape physiology, I will contend that a fundamental difference starts to happen to Cabernet when it inches too far past the 14% mark. Natural acidity in those grapes declines at a rate far quicker than alcohol inches up. Half a point in alcohol may not seem much, but it can be a world of difference in the finished pH and TA of those grapes and the subsequent amount of adjustment necessary. And to me, one of the three great sins of the modern Napa cab/chard style (along with fruit flavors edging into the brown spectrum and garish use of new oak) is the disjointed “sharp elbows” structure that comes from heavy acid adjustments.

    Also relevant is the question of what the true alcohol level on that 14.3 wine is in the first place. It may not have been an issue ten years ago as there was little or no market damage to putting 15.4% on a label, but as winemakers tend to take notice of market trends and perceptions, I think you will see a lot more of them using the full extent of the ttb window to make their wines seem as low alcohol as possible. I honestly don’t know what the alcohol levels are in John Kongsgaard’s latest releases, but I’m willing to wager that if they are all exactly 14.1 as stated on the labels, I’ll allow Tom Wark to tie me to a stake in the St. Helena town square and kick me in the balls with everything he’s got.

  7. Bill Haydon, I think a lot of confusion was created with the practice by many wineries (especially in the past) of labeling their wines at 12.5% every vintage. There is a lot of misplaced nostalgia persisting over wines that were labeled as such, but were actually just under 14% alcohol. Certainly there has be an upward creep in alcohol levels, with some critics stripping lots of points off their scores with any perception of green, vegetal, or herbal characters that in times past were acceptable components of some of the classic Cabs mentioned in this thread. As a small Cab producer in Napa Valley it is a fine line we have to play: for our site, in most vintages, we are into the zone of attractive ripe aromas and supple tannins at around 24 to 25 brix. The resulting alcohol level may be just over or just under 14% alcohol. It is unfortunate that not only is this the divide between tax categories, but also has become a divide that has been created in the public perception by some people in the wine community aggressively declaring they will have nothing to do with wines that measure over this level. But in any event, I think the loathing might be overcome by tasting more of the Napa Cabs that never went down the road of excessive ripeness in the quest for uber scores.

  8. For those remaining confused about TTB categories for alcohol, the following from the Napa Valley Vintners web site is a clear explanation:T

    “This statement on a wine label indicates the alcohol content by volume, with a tolerance of plus or minus 1.5% if the wine has an alcohol content of 14% or less and a tolerance of plus or minus 1.0% if the wine has an alcohol content of more than 14%. However, the tolerance cannot be used to cross the 14% alcohol content threshold, which is the dividing line between two tax classes. So a wine that is actually 13.5% alcohol by volume could be labeled 12% or 14% but not above 14%. Finally, a wine that is 14% or less alcohol by volume can be labeled “table wine” without any notation of the numeric alcohol content.”

    By the way, there is no “town square” in St. Helena, so I would suggest as an alternative site the Bocce courts, where a lot of balls are already exposed…

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