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California Cabernet Sauvignon: Wines in “crisis”, or just best enjoyed young?



I’ve wondered for many years if the big, oaky, ripely sweet Napa Cabernets I’ve given high scores to will age or not. In most cases, my suspicion had been “only moderately,” but it was awfully hard to tell, since not even I, as a wine critic, could frequently get my hands on older bottlings—and besides, many of the famous “cult” Cabs weren’t old enough to be considered “old,” by the time I stopped reviewing California wine, last March.

Still, my reviews over the years show my increasing skepticism about these wines’ longterm performance. Where once I might have suggested 15 or 20 years for my top-rated California Cabs and Bordeaux blends, by 2005 or so I was lowering my estimates, and advising readers to drink their wines immediately, or over the ensuing six years.

Much of this was based on my own experience. I would routinely pull older (ten-plus years) bottles from my cellar, only to find them prematurely old and tired. The superripe fruit had turned raisiny; the alcohol had turned hot as the fruit dropped out, and the oak, which seemed like a pleasant skein of toasty richness in youth, now appeared merely clumsy.

This is why I increasingly raised an eyebrow at some critics’ prognostications about the ageability of Napa Valley and other Cabernet Sauvignons. It did not seem likely to me that many would survive twenty years, or even fifteen, or even a dozen, for that matter. But one of the glaring deficiencies of our system of critical writing is that journalists never investigate ageability recommendations of famous critics ten of fifteen years after they’ve been issued. The reasons why not are obvious: Nobody’s got the time, nobody’s got access to the wines, and ten or fifteen years after a review has been published, nobody knows or cares about it anymore. Thus, the question of the ageability of these Big Cabs has never been adequately answered, which is really a shame.

Now, in a very important article, Decanter has addressed the situation, calling into question the ability of certain Barolos, Napa Cabs, Bordeaux, Rhones and Burgundies to age before they start exhibiting exotic scents of prunes and figs, the burnt toast undertones of barrel ageing, the silky mouthfeel and unmistakable heat of high alcohol.” The article adds, “Before you decide whether this sounds appealing or not, consider that these signs of a sunshine-filled wine from a hot vintage might just also be indications of a wine crisis hiding in plain sight.”

It seems that more and more people who do have access to older bottles of these big wines are discovering “premox,” or premature oxidation, in them. After premox issues with certain white wines, a professor of enology in Bordeaux told Decanter, “I believe there is a similar scandal with red wine, and that in 10 years’ time it will be just as explosive as the one affecting white Burgundy has been. And it’s not limited to one region; all red wines that are expected to be aged for long periods of time – so Barolo, Napa, Bordeaux, the Rhône, Burgundy and others – are in danger of ignoring this threat.”

The article’s author, Jane Anson, pulls no punches. “I first wrote about the subject [of premox] for last year and quickly realised that the findings throw into doubt not only the leading viticultural practices of the past decade, but also the work of several leading critics who have amply rewarded low acidity and super-ripe fruit; two of the leading offenders for rapid ageing.” We can debate just who those “leading critics” are. The point I would like to contribute is this: I too gave very high scores to these types of wines. But I did so based on their sheer impressiveness at the time I reviewed them, which was almost always just as they were being released. I stood by my scores then, and I stand by them today, because these wines are magnificent creatures, as rich and delicious as any wines produced in human history. Thus they fully merited their high scores.

But, like I said, I increasingly warned that these wines are not long agers. I did not bemoan this fact: most people nowadays don’t care about aging wine for a long time, anyway, even if they have a decent storage area to do it.

Can the problem be reversed? The Decanter article quotes another French researcher as claiming it can be, if “two principal risk factors” are avoided: leaving the grapes on the vine to get overripe, and then using too much oxygen during the winemaking process.

But these are difficult practices to get away from. Winemakers can pick their fruit a little earlier than they used to, but not too much: if the grapes haven’t lost their green tastes and high acids then the wine won’t be any good. And exposing Cabernet to oxygen, however it’s done, is almost de rigeur these days (through pumping over, racking and various micro-ox techniques), in order to tame the troubling tannins that can be so fierce in Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

It’s worth noting, too, that Michael Rolland’s wife was interviewed for the Decanter article, and she believes that the problem of premox in red wines is overstated. “We simply protect the fruit and ensure stable conditions throughout the winemaking process,” she said.

The Decanter article certainly doesn’t resolve the issue; nothing will, at this point. But it’s an important article because it raises a profoundly important question. What’s been your experience with older (say, ten-plus years) Napa Valley Cabernet and Bordeaux blends, particularly from the 21st century?

  1. Great topic Steve! Especially for those few of us who appreciate aged wines.

    I’ll share a story. Years ago there was a well respected wine magazine that projected a particular specific vineyard, “reserve” Napa Cab from a well known winery as the best wine of the year – one with all the praise worthy attributes that would accompany such a fine example of the vintner’s art. Of course, with such high praise it became scarce. I found a case and bought it all. That was back in 1989, even before Napa went so heavily into its “fruit bomb” binge.

    I open one of these bottles every year since it passed its 12th birthday and, as you can guess by the fact that I’m commenting on your article, the wine did not take age well. It has been a disappointment.

    Was that just an individual case or is it reflective of some larger trend? I surely don’t know that answer. It’s just a single data point that I share for those who seek to buy and age young wines based on some critics’ praise and projections.

    Perhaps critics need to sample and critique older wines also?

  2. Steve,

    My take on the Decanter article was very different that yours (and I tried to comment on it over there, but my comments were not published).

    First, the study referenced unfortunately focuses on the 2003 vintage. The Decanter article gives a brief acknowledgement that 2003 was different “Granted, 2003 was an unusual vintage the result of a heat spike across Europe that has not (quite) been repeated since” – but that is certainly downplaying the extent of the 2003 heat spike. It was so hot that it has its own Wikipedia entry ( where it is noted as being the hottest summer since 1540 (and we all know how those wines turned out). Almost 15,000 French men and women perished due to the heat. To use that vintage as the base and then draw conclusions from it seems quite a stretch to me.

    Second, as is noted in the last line of the Decanter article, the French study focuses on Merlot. So we are now asked to draw conclusions not only based on an unprecedented hot year, but also based on Merlot in France. And we are supposed to believe that these tell us something about the ageworthiness of Barolo, Napa Cabernet, the Rhone, and Burgundy? Why do so many claim the uniqueness of terroir and yet so quickly abandon it when something comes along that fits neatly into their world view?

    I am sorry, but I am not buying it. I am not saying your doubts aren’t legitimate and not saying your conclusions aren’t accurate, based on your own experience. But I think this article (I have not read the entire study) does little to lead anyone to draw larger conclusions.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  3. Steve,
    When you have a chance, wander over to my place and I will show you the results of aging trials on Napa Cabs like Shafer Hillside Select, Spottswoode, Phelps Insignia.

    Those wines do age. I can’t offer an opinion on the too ripe Colgins, Eagles, Bonds, etc because they are beyond my means to taste, and I do not review wines tasted at the wineries.

    So, now I am wondering about how the Chappellet Pritchard Hills and the Staglins have aged. Those are ripe-oriented wines often about 15%. Have they died off in ten years and turned into pruney, porty parodies of themselves or not? Maybe you should join me on that quest.

  4. Simply put, an age worthy wine cannot be made from fruit which has already begun to decompose on a cellular level.

  5. Patrick Frank says:

    Question for Pro Tasters: I always thought that a main criterion for awarding a score over 90 was supposed to be predicted improvement with cellaring (at least that’s what Parker said). Future potential, in other words. So now I am hearing that those wines that were given 95s and 97s don’t have all that much potential. This is disillusioning.

  6. I have a wine enthusiast friend who retired to Carneros. He subscribes to all of the “wine country” newspapers for the wine articles and columns.

    He mails them to me once he’s done.

    Let me pull out of my hoary archive this 2009 column by Dan Berger:

    From the Napa Valley Register
    (Friday, March 27, 2009, Page C2):

    “Bigger: Is it Better?”

    By Dan Berger
    “On Wine” Column


    Back in the early 1980s, the common wisdom was that wines with 14 percent alcohol or more were considered high in alcohol. Some even thought 13.5 percent alcohol was a bit too much for a dry red wine aimed at the dinner table.

    I haven dozens of wines in my cellar from the 1970s that say 12.5 percent alcohol on the label and the wines are all fine to this day.

    Winemakers have long known that the higher the alcohol, the “richer” the wine is. That is, higher alcohols give a wine the impression of sweetness and the higher the alcohol, the greater that impression is.

    Recently, two winemakers old enough to remember that period reminisced about that old line referring to “14 percent alcohol.”

    “Remember that?” asked one. “Well, today’s 15 percent is the old 14 percent.”

    “No, it isn’t,” said the second winemaker, “16 percent is.”

    Has the culture of wine making changed so much that we no longer have many wines aimed at the dinner table? Youngsters who think of themselves as wine savvy and who love to toss around terms like “fruit bomb” could be extolling the dubious virtues of another abomination: sweet red wine.

    I was chatting with a winemaker the other day whose name would be mud if I were to identify him. He is old enough to recall when red wine was both actually and figuratively dry.

    “We got a bottle of —” and he named a particularly famous Napa Valley cabernet, “and we tasted it. It was sweet. Well, the label said it was 14.8 percent alcohol, so we took it to the lab.

    “It tested out at nearly 16 percent! And the acid was quite low, and the pH was nearly 4.0,” an indication of a very unbalanced wine.

    “So they are now making wine that is sweet,” he said with a look of disdain. “And this wine gets scores in the high 90s from people who should know better.”

    That evening, I decided we needed a wine to go with dinner, so I descended to the cellar and rooted around for one of my last remaining bottles of 1995 Thurston Wolfe Syrah from Washington. The label said 13 percent alcohol. And I knew it to be dry, both actually and figuratively.

    Late that evening, we popped into a fine little cafe in San Francisco called Sauce and pulled the cork. The wine was not only astoundingly fine, but structurally similar to what I knew was there when a bought a case a decade earlier. It was perfect with our food.

    Our server was an eager wine novice, so I poured her a glass — but not before explaining what had happened to most West Coast red wines in the last two decades. They have moved into the sweet end of the scale, abandoning the dinner table.

    “Wow, that’s really dry,” she said.

    “It’s made to go with food,” I reiterated.

    “I get it,” she said.

    I’m not sure she did, but my one-man campaign to encourage really dry red wine took one more step in that direction.

    Is there a message here? For me, it is simply that bigger is rarely better and that smaller can be sublime.

    A good friend and wine columnist some years ago swore off even trying any wine with 14 percent alcohol or more. I’m fast reaching a similar conclusion.

    Wine of the Week: 2005 Mossback Cabernet Sauvignon, Chalk Hill ($25) — A very stylish effort with classic herbal/black cherry aroma, and a full, crisp entry that is dry. This Sonoma County wine has only 13.7 percent alcohol and it is structured to go nicely with meats now, but will age nicely for another few years. It is clearly not for those people who think red wine should be sweet.

    [Dan Berger resides in Sonoma County. Berger publishes a weekly newsletter on wine and can be reached at]

  7. I agree with Patrick. In a previous discussion about why some wines will never get high 90 scores, lack of aging ability was the reason. Now you are saying you stand by your scores because “based on their sheer impressiveness at the time”. So are we throwing out the aging factor in scoring wines going forward? That should stop scoring inflation.

  8. While I await for my preceding comment to pass “moderation,” this anecdote.

    Last night I dined at a wine friend’s restaurant in the company of fellow enthusiasts.

    We drank these wines:

    1969 Mondavi Cab: tasted like prunes / quasi-Port.

    1975 Mayacamas Cab: tasted very good right out of the bottle, having shed its tannic mantle.

    1975 Rodney Strong “Alexander’s Crown Vineyard” Cab: okay, but began to fade fairly quickly.

    1984 Dunn Howell Mountain Cab: tasted very nice right out of the bottle — also having shed its tannic mantle.

    1986 Dunn Howell Mountain Cab: a bigger, more deeply extracted version of the 1984.

    The 2000 Colgin wine (I’m not sure which bottling we sampled at the end of the evening) was a “strange bird.” Not “bad” or technically flawed. Not exceptional either. Left me feeling rather indifferent about the wine. If served blind in a flight of red wines, you would move right past it without a second thought.

    As they say: “There are no great wines . . . only great [individual] bottles.”

    Every collector needs to adhere to the late Len Evans’s “Theory of Capacity” advice: drink ’em up if you got ’em. They’re not necessarily getting any better. And you’re not getting any younger.


  9. Patrick,

    “Question for Pro Tasters: I always thought that a main criterion for awarding a score over 90 was supposed to be predicted improvement with cellaring (at least that’s what Parker said). Future potential, in other words. So now I am hearing that those wines that were given 95s and 97s don’t have all that much potential. This is disillusioning.”

    That’s the question du jour.

    The 2009 Anakota “Helena Dakota” Knights Valley Cabernet I tasted last week at a Beverly Hills trade tasting was wonderful.

    And to his credit, Robert Parker similarly praised it.

    But even taking into account his projection that the wine could last “50 years,” he awarded a very enviable 95 points.

    Any wine that can potentially bottle age for 50 years should be garnering more “bonus points” on the Parker scale — closer to a 100 point score.

    For those with long memories (or who have archived copies of old Wine Advocate issues) will recall Parker’s effusive praise for the 1986 Mouton — a wine Parker projected could last 100 years. But its tannins are so fierce that he advised against drinking it for at least 35 years. (Those tannins contributed to its 100 point “perfect” score.)

    I served it in my single-blind 1986 red Bordeaux versus California Cabernets tasting.

    It is very impressively endowed with a blackberry fruit aroma and flavor. All behind a nearly impenetrable wall of tannin.


  10. Charlie, I’d love to join you in that quest!

  11. Charlie,

    “So, now I am wondering about how the Chappellet Pritchard Hills . . . have aged.”

    The same wine cellar client who “gifted” me with the 1975 Mayacamas Cab and the Rodney Strong “Alexander’s Crown Vineyard” Cab also gave me 1980 Chappellet Cabs.

    Excluding the first bottle I opened that had a cork problem (dried out; not TCA), they taste fully mature, ripe but not overly ripe, with lively acidity and resolved tannins. In short, like a “California claret.”

    And on that phrase, this anecdote.

    When I met Joe and Alice Heitz at a winemaker dinner in Los Angeles in the 1990s, I asked him how he described the aroma of his “Martha’s Vineyard” Cabernet.

    “Young man,” he intoned, “I describe it as classic California claret.”

    (No mention of the controversial herbal / minty / eucalyptus notes.)

    This Saturday night I am bringing two bottles of 1977 Beaulieu Vineyard “Georges de Latour Private Reserve” Cabs (from that same wine cellar) to a dinner party — in part, because the wines are older than some of the attendees. (And who doesn’t want to taste “birth year wines” — or something close to a birth year wine?)


  12. One more column from Dan Berger . . .

    From the Napa Valley Register
    (November 5, 2010, Page Unknown):

    “Is Bigger Better?”

    By Dan Berger
    “On Wine” Column


    One of my pet peeves over the last 15 years or so has been the overripe flavors we seem to be saddled with in so many red California wines.

    And this trend isn’t just here; many areas of the world are making wines fairly big and unctuous.

    I was reared in wine during an era when red wines were totally dry, had 12 to 13 percent alcohol, and gained their food compatibility from a combination of elements that included lower alcohol levels than we see today, flavors that speak to basic varietal characteristics and a structural balance with good acidity.

    Today, the overripe elements, higher alcohols, general softness and lower acidity that are so prevalent in many red wines leave us all with a chewier, softer, almost sweet red wine.

    Such wines don’t work very well with food. Soft, almost unctuous red wines do not encourage salivation, nor do they bring out flavors in what we are eating. Moreover, most of today’s red wines generally don’t have the stuffing or texture to age very well.

    Some people care not for this argument. They say they, “buy wines and drink them.” Aging red wine is a lost art, they say.

    Well, if that were so widespread a belief, why are wine cabinets, cellars and storage systems so popular? Do people invest hundreds or thousands of dollars in them just to lay down red wines for a few months before drinking them?

    No, my suspicion is that a lot of people are putting red wines down for the traditional aging periods, such as 10 or 15 years, and have yet to realize that the wines are not aging well at all. Many collectors may well be disappointed with the results.

    Drinking red wines such as Napa Valley cabernets when they are less than 3 years old is sort of like sipping alcoholic grape juice. To me, the stuff doesn’t taste like wine at that stage.

    For a time in the late 1990s, when I began writing about this trend, I suspected I was alone. The vast majority of high-image U.S. wine writers seemed perfectly content with this new style of red wine.

    But there are plenty of people who remember the good ol’ days of the 1970s and early 1980s when balance was a lot more likely and when the wines aged nicely.

    Two years ago, we began to hear other voices opposed to this softness trend. Most were British wine writers, and they have taken a stand against this modernist view of red wine.

    One of the most vocal was British wine writer and author Oz Clarke.

    Two years ago in his Pocket Wine Book, the witty Clarke intimated that he was weary of the “wines that are overripe, overalcoholic, over-oaked, and overbearing.”

    He blamed those “who are slavishly following the Faux High Priest of superripeness … Some of the world’s most influential [wine] critics sadly are obsessed with superripe flavours” and many producers, seeking to gain a high score from these reviewers, make wines to please them, he wrote.

    “One of the ways this ‘dead fruit’ flavour is created in wine is by willfully re-interpreting when might be called ‘full physiological ripeness’ in the grapes. What was taken as fully ripe a generation ago is now seen as underripe.

    “But it’s not underripe if you regard wine as a reasonably adult pleasure that sometimes requires a little understanding and patience rather than merely an alcoholic concoction designed for instant gratification and inebriation.”

    I agree with Clarke, and hope for a bit more sanity in the way red wines are made. And actually, the cool 2010 vintage in California lets wine makers reach back 30 years and make a style of wine we once saw routinely. Temperatures were so moderate that sugars were slow to develop.

    But will wine makers make more balanced wines in 2010? I doubt it. A handful of hot days in September and October gave most wine makers the heat they require to make a big, chewy, alcoholic red wine.

  13. While I have much less experience than people like Steve or Charlie, I have found that wine ageworthiness is pretty similar to any other fruit. A green banana will be firm and angular in its youth, but will last longer on your countertop than a soft and ripe yellow banana. So it is with wine, that a soft and ripe wine will taste great in its youth, but will not last as long in your cellar.

    My only real experience tasting aged Napa Cab was in the tasting room at Corison, and all of those wines aged with dignity and grace. So clearly Napa Cab can age well under proper care and winemaking.

    In Oregon, I have a lot more information about the winemaking styles of each winery, and I have tasted more old wines, so I can speak with a little more authority (although I am clearly not at the level of professional wine critics). But my experience, without naming names, has been that the very ripe, high-scoring wines are usually made with less acidity, more fining agents, and don’t age very gracefully. I usually compare them to old women who were attractive in their youth, but had too much plastic surgery. The wines that do age well tend to be the lighter bodied, higher acid wines (pH below 3.6), which I would describe as “subtle” in their youth. Over time, those subtleties grow deeper, while the restraint they showed in their youth keeps them from falling apart over time. I’m sure many people would consider these subtle wines to be less interesting than the bombastic high-scoring wines, and that may very well be true, but the things that make a wine taste good when it’s young are not necessarily the things that give a wine aging potential.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents. Really excellent article, and very interesting comments as well. Steve, you rock.

  14. redmond barry says:

    For some of us, balance and harmony in a wine to be enjoyed at leisure with food, family and friends is what counts. I’ve noticed that some of the better-made Cali Cabs, that are midway between the newer style and the traditional,firm up at 5-7 years but don’t close up as of old, and hit a sweet spot sooner. It’s too soon to see if they will age like the wines of the 60s-80s. Maybe the winemakers can make wines that will do that, but are they even trying?

  15. redmond barry, your “are they even trying” question reduces me to making a shameless plug:

  16. People who are used to big, ripe, fruity young Napa Cabernets may be disappointed with the way some older Cabernets show, but that’s part of the beauty of these snapshots of a wine at age 10. They create yet another moment—one we won’t be able to replicate another 10 years from now—that helps us determine just how long a life these wines will have.

    And they remind us that wine really isn’t so much a living thing as a dying thing.

  17. Hi Steve,

    Great topic as usual.

    When I returned to California in 2000, I had lunch with an avid collector of Napa cabernets who admitted he was purging his cellar of late 80’s and early 90’s heavy-hitter wines. He was terribly disappointed in their performance, and complained that many wineries had aimed for a hedonistic, ripe and fruity style that did not stand the test of time. This was the first time I’d heard this mentioned, and it struck a chord.

    Since this subject became a particular interest of mine, we’ve paid particular attention as wines from the 80’s and 90’s started to come out of our cellar, and the cellars of friends. After years of trial, I find that red wines produced in an overtly ripe and extracted style tend to be enjoyed relatively young, and need to be consumed within a ten year period, generally over the hill at nine or ten years. White wines produced in the same style tend to drop off precipitously after four or five years.

    I also find that wines produced in a more structured manner, with naturally low pH, high acidity and moderate alcohol content (“natural” meaning not adjusted by addition, neutralization or mechanical removal) tend to age and improve well for at least two if not three decades. In fact, many of these wines are not as wonderfully enjoyable or accessible in their youth – say, in their first five years from the vintage, or about three years in the bottle. Old timers here refer to these as “claret style” wines.

    In 2008 Eric Asimov wrote extensively about this difference in approach here:

    With regard to critics revising previous views, this is not without precedent, most notably James Laube’s yearly reassessments of Napa cabernets, in which he frequently recognizes that the ripe style is not altogether suited for long-term cellaring. In his April 24, 2012 article on the subject he writes,

    “People who are used to big, ripe, fruity young Napa Cabernets may be disappointed with the way some older Cabernets show, but that’s part of the beauty of these snapshots of a wine at age 10. They create yet another moment—one we won’t be able to replicate another 10 years from now—that helps us determine just how long a life these wines will have. And they remind us that wine really isn’t so much a living thing as a dying thing.”

    Personally, we recently enjoyed a 1986 Dunn Howell Mountain from my wife’s collection, and, at a mere 13% alcohol, was fresh and fruit-forward with, in the assembled tasters’ opinions, the ability to cellar for at least another ten years.

    On a final note, I observe that over the last 20 years once-prized, highly-rated vintners using the same vineyards and techniques over decades resulting in reliably structured, age-worthy wines, now receive middling scores, in favor of the newest and biggest. I think this begs the question of collectors who have dutifully cellared at least thousands and in some cases tens of thousands of bottles based on high marks for Napa cabernets.

    My opinion is that the style pendulum, ever swinging, is retreating from its ultra-ripe zenith and headed back to the median. There are producers who will continue to have great success with “big” California cabernet (and heavily oaked chardonnay, for that matter), and these wines will be lovingly enjoyed in their youth. However, with the collectors, the chickens may well come home to roost, and enthusiasts will, perhaps, consider high scores and multi-decade prognostications with a grain of salt, looking more to history and end-user opinion. This would, as I see it, be a natural result of our wine region’s maturation combined with now more readily available consumer interaction on-line.


  18. Last night I opened up two bottles of the 1977 Beaulieu Vineyard “Rutherford” Cabernet bottling (mistaken in the wine cellar for the “Georges de Latour Private Reserve” Cabernet bottling).

    1977 was a drought year — which historically has been handily eclipsed by the book-end vintages 1976 and 1978.

    Mahogany in color, it exhibited a tart Bing cherry aroma and flavor, a slightly mushroomy bouquet, lively acidity and fully resolved tannins. Not bad for nothing considered anything other than everyday drinking table wine. (As memory serves, BV did not release a “Reserve” in 1977.)

    On the subject of drought and wine grape growing, see today’s front page newspaper article . . .

    Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Main News” Section
    (November 23, 2014, Page A1ff):

    “The Case for Dry Wine;
    Drought revives interest in a ‘forgotten art’:
    growing grapes using no irrigation, a technique some say yields better flavor”


    By David Pierson
    Times Staff Reporter

    . . .

    Everyone used to dry farm wine grapes until the late 1970s, when irrigation was introduced. Dry farmed wines put California on the global map by winning a seminal blind tasting test in 1976 called the “Judgment of Paris.”

    Today, only a handful of producers continue the tradition — and only where there’s just enough rain. Adherents are discovering revived interest in the practice now that California’s $23-billion wine industry is facing an emerging water crisis of historic proportions.

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    “It’s like a forgotten art,” said Frank Leeds, head of vineyard operations for Frog’s Leap Winery in Rutherford, a leading dry farm and organic wine producer in Napa Valley. “There’s very few guys that dry farm and less guys that actively dry farm. It’s easier, I’m sure, to turn on the tap.”

    Leeds estimates that up to 85% of Napa Valley has enough rain to practice dry farming. But it’s hardly an option in Temecula, or in the largely bone-dry San Joaquin Valley, which produces more than 70% of the state’s wine.

    . . .

    Research that [Larry Williams, a professor at UC Davis’ Department of Viticulture and Enology] . . . conducted on Chardonnay grape vines in the Carneros region of Napa Valley found it took 14.2 gallons of water to produce a four-ounce pour of dry farmed wine. A same-sized pour of wine made from irrigated grapevines required 15.3 gallons of water — more than half of which was rainwater.

    . . .

    [Frank Leeds, head of vineyard operations for Frog’s Leap Winery in Rutherford] . . . who was hired on at Frog’s Leap in 1992, estimates he saves 65,000 gallons of water per acre each year by dry farming for the winery. Leeds says he primarily dry farms to make better wine.

  19. Other metrics on water consumption . . .

    Excerpts from The Wall Street Journal “Main News” Section
    (February 17, 2009, Page A11):

    “Yet Another ‘Footprint’ to Worry About: Water;
    Taking a Cue From Carbon Tracking, Companies and Conservationists Tally Hidden Sources of Consumption”


    By Alexandra Alter
    Staff Reporter

    It takes roughly 20 gallons of water to make a pint of beer . . .

    . . .

    . . . A cup of coffee takes roughly 35 gallons. . . . A typical hamburger takes 630 gallons of water to produce — more than three times the amount the average American uses every day for drinking, bathing, washing dishes and flushing toilets. The bulk is used to grow grain for cattle feed.

    . . .

    . . . as high as 132 gallons of water per 2-liter bottle of soda if you add the water used to grow ingredients such as sugar cane . . .

  20. Bob Henry, you raise some great points about drought and irrigation:

    Sometime last summer you posted a question directed to vineyardists, referring to the common practice of turning on sprinklers during heat spikes for the cooling effect, and asking how lack of water might affect practices this season. I don’t think anyone replied, but I thought it was an interesting question, and one I was wrestling with—and continued to think about throughout the season. Using sprinklers to cool vines seemed like an extravagant practice under these drought conditions, and I think few people had that option. Yet we seemed to have an excellent vintage here in Napa. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned as we face climate change.

    Our vineyard is on a bench with volcanic gravel over cobble and boulders. I’ve been of a mind to irrigate this as little as possible. My experiences this season lead me to think we might be able to withhold water entirely. When we planted in 1993 we chose a rootstock commonly used on rocky hillsides in Tuscany (1103 Paulson) that goes deep—it has a tap-root that likes to get down. At the time I had some lively debates with viticulturists who advocated planting shallow rootstocks—their thinking was that they could control vine vigor by carefully regulating irrigation to keep the vines small—and their assumption was water availability. I associate this strategy as being motivated by bringing a crop to early maturity, and keeping the vines up and running to achieve ultra-high brix. Yes, farming for points. At the time, my defense included the idea that deep rooted vines, exploring a vast soil horizon, taking more of the season to ripen, resulting in wines more reflective of their terroir–while shallow rooted vines grown almost hydroponically, are more suited to achieving the high brix, hedonistic style with gobs of fruit that can be reproduced across many sites.

    Early on, my disinclination to irrigate may have been to the detriment of our ’99 vintage: our vines dropped all their leaves in early October before we picked, and I don’t think that allowed the tannins to be fully resolved. So over the next decade and more I moved to a strategy of watering infrequently, but deeply. In the 2013 season there were only three overnight irrigations, 5 or 6 gallons per vine each time.

    This season, not knowing the capacity of our well, which we depend on not only for the vineyard, but also for the house, I was even more stingy. We did one overnight irrigation, at versaison, in early August. After that there were only 3 more short irrigations (about 2 to 3 hours each) mainly for the sake of replants. In total this was less than 20 gallons per vine for the entire season. We ended up with a very nice harvest—good quantity as well as quality. Now that the vines are 20+ years old and deep rooted, they did not suffer like in ’99.The vineyard did not looked stressed at all at harvest. I drove by many vineyards that were limp and drooping. I think these were shallow rooted vineyards, calibrated to frequent irrigations, and they suffered when subjected to drought conditions when irrigation was not an option.

    I think the wave of the future is for deep-rooted vineyards that produce balanced wines at brix levels yielding modest alcohol levels. They will not be as dependent on irrigation, which may be less available going forward. I have been aware of efforts by producers like Frog’s Leap that are dry farming on the valley floor, but only recently became aware of, and am super impressed by, Stu Smith (Smith Madrone) dry farming his vines way up on Spring Mountain—at elevations between 1 and 2 thousand feet. Every grapegrower should pay attention to what he is doing.

  21. Bill:

    As I recall down here in Los Angeles, 1999 was the year we never experienced a “true” Summer: a “marine layer effect” that lent itself to atypical fog in the morning and hazy, overcast skies in the afternoon.

    Enlighten me if you likewise experienced a “Summer less” Summer up in Napa.

    With diminished sunshine that vintage, I would “think” (and hey, I’m no viticulturist) that the vines dropping their leaves was an unwelcomed but recoverable occurrence in 1999. (More cataclysmic in a torridly hot year, where canopy management would be critical to avoiding “sunburned grapes.” Or am I misreading the situation?)

    (Aside: I recall selling the 1999 California Cabs upon release. In their youth they had formidable tannins. But today most 1999s that I sample exhibit a relative youthfulness and continuing ability to bottle age — not unlike the 1986 Dunn “Howell Mountain” Cabernet I sampled last week.)


  22. Reiterating an earlier point made in previous comment to this blog, I describe the replanting of the Napa and Sonoma due to phylloxera as a “game changer.” And part of that was replacing old dry farmed vines with new vines dependent on irrigation.

    Decades later a source of anxiety to vineyard managers and owners:

  23. Excerpt from the Wine Searcher article titled “California Vines Age Prematurely”:

    “One of the first questions was, how old is old? ‘For California, 20 years is an old vineyard,’ responded winemaker Steve Matthiasson. ‘It’s not producing as much. Diseases are kicking in. You have to decide whether it’s time to replant.’ ”

    Winemakers like Joel Petersen are making Zinfandel from 130 year old dry farmed vines:

  24. Bob,
    No, I don’t recall ’99 being particularly cool, and going back to the weather data from the vintage, it looks like October was above normal, with several days over 100 F in Oakville. I our case, leaf drop was due to under watering young vines.

    I think you are right that post phyloxxera plantings in California included a lot of shallow rooted vines, especially on richer, heavier soils, in order to control vigor by practicing deficit irrigation. A good strategy if one has sufficient water resources.

    But for deeper, well drained soils, the old reliable St George rootstock (and a couple of others like 110R and 1103 Paulson) are more likely to allow dry farming.

  25. Couple of random comments on the comments:

    1) I do recall 1999 being quite cool. It is the only year we didn’t pick until October. However, what wasn’t cool in 1999 was October. It was pretty warm. It is one of those years where Pinot makers will have a different recollection than Cabernet makers because late season weather was different for each one.

    2) Michael, you mention wines “with naturally low pH, high acidity and moderate alcohol content (“natural” meaning not adjusted by addition, neutralization or mechanical removal) tend to age and improve well for at least two if not three decades.” And yet the wine that people often point to as the great, long-lived California Cabernets of the 1970s were acid adjusted with great regularity (check out Robert Benson’s seminal work “Great Winemakers of California”). And the Dunn wine that you mentioned? Randy watered back (he now spins out the alcohol). He is open about that, which is why I mention it.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  26. Adam – you point out more myths and stereotypes about wine. It’s awfully hard dispelling them, because they get repeated over and over until they have the appearance of truth. And yet, they’re not true, and are due to lazy journalism. So we have to just keep on speaking truth.

  27. Bob Henry says:

    Preface: Bob Benson was a colleague of mine at Loyola Law School. I agree with Adam that his California winemaker interview book is a must-read “classic.”

    On Adam’s statement . . .

    “. . . the wine that people often point to as the great, long-lived California Cabernets of the 1970s were acid adjusted with great regularity (check out Robert Benson’s seminal work ‘Great Winemakers of California’).”

    . . . I vividly recall the 1985 vintage California Cabernets being acidified (a standard practice out of the UC Davis playbook) — and not the “better” for it.

    [Aside: Dan Berger has written repeatedly about this 1980s era phenomenon in his Napa Valley Register column.]

    Tasted after a decade or more of bottle age, the 1985 Cabs evinced a mean streak of acidity that was “foreign” to the innate acidity one might find in such a wine. (An “Ugh!” experience awaits those current day collectors who only commit to memory the initial reviews, and not the re-reviews years later.)

    By contrast, the leading 1984 Cabernets didn’t appear to be (overly-) acidified, and better stood the test of time.

  28. Bill Haydon says:


    You set up this false dichotomy when talking about acid adjustments in an earlier era. It’s not a black and white issue of either you acidify or you do not acidify but rather one with numerous shades of grey along a continuum.

    I don’t doubt that those Napa cabs from the 70s may have been adjusted. What you can’t convine me of is that those wines with finished alcohols of 13 and below were anywhere near as massively adjusted as the more recent Frankenwines coming into the cellar at 26, 27 and even 28 brix with finished alcohols over 15%. At some point along that continuum, the acid adjustments crossed a threshold where the amount of acid needed just to stabilize these wines never integrates organically into the body of the wine. It may lay underneath all that alcohol and extract and allow the wine a brief period of stability, but that’s it. It’s too great a manipulation to allow anything remotely resembling graceful long term aging.

    It’s increasingly become accepted wisdom of tasters who’ve tasted ten and fifteen year retrospectives on these massively adjusted wines that they do fall apart. All that added acid does become disjointed from the body of the wine leaving a shell of dried out brown fruit flavors and harsh tannins.

  29. Bob Henry says:

    At the risk of turning this comment section into a hagiography on Dan Berger’s wine columns, allow me to proffer this bibliography questioning the aging ability of “new style” California Cabernets.

    From my hoary archive of newsclippings:

    From the Napa Valley Register
    (December 19, 2008, Page C7):

    “The Aging Myth”

    By Dan Berger
    “On Wine” Column


    — and —

    From the Napa Valley Register
    (Friday, March 27, 2009, Page C2):

    “Bigger: Is it Better?”

    By Dan Berger
    “On Wine” Column


    — and —

    From the Napa Valley Register
    (January 8, 2010, Page C1ff):

    “Aged Wine”

    By Dan Berger
    “On Wine” Column


    — and —

    From the Napa Valley Register
    (January 22, 2010, Page C1ff):

    “The Collapse of Cabernet”

    By Dan Berger
    “On Wine” Column


    — and —

    From the Napa Valley Register
    (August 20, 2010, Page C2):

    “A Troubling Trend?”

    By Dan Berger
    “On Wine” Column


    — and —

    From the Napa Valley Register
    (November 5, 2010, Page C1ff):

    “Is Bigger Better?”

    By Dan Berger
    “On Wine” Column


    — and —

    From the Napa Valley Register
    (December 17, 2010, Page C1ff):

    “Pondering the Mystique of Old Red Wines”

    By Dan Berger
    “On Wine” Column


    (And I still have boxes and boxes of “wine country” newspapers from this period to go through that might supplement the above opinion pieces.)

  30. Bill,

    Sorry for the delay in getting back to you, I’ve been on the road.

    First off, I wasn’t trying to set up a false dichotomy when talking about acid adjustments in a previous era. I was simply responding the the post by Michael, where he seemed to make it more of a black and white issue. That is why I quoted him directly.

    Nor will I try to convince you that the acid adjustments were the same or greater or lesser in the 1970s than they are now. The simple fact is, neither you nor I know. We simply don’t have access to the records and those records probably don’t exist. Heitz is a good example of how different things were. At Heitz, they would write that their wines didn’t go through ML. In fact, we know that they did. But in the 1970s the didn’t innoculate for ML (freeze dried ML cultures didn’t exist and I don’t believe liquid did either in the mid-70s) and they didn’t test for it, so they assumed it didn’t happen. So we don’t have the records to see what was done, what the numbers were, etc.

    You mention one factor that is certainly cited in declining acid numbers, higher brix. But, let me ask you, do you believe that acid declines because of higher brix or longer hang time or both? With AxR yields were far higher in vineyards (go back and divide grape tonnage number from the CA Grape Crush report by acreage numbers from CA Grape Acreage Report) and then factor in how much more sparsely planted the vineyards were — its a big difference. Yields were higher, hang times were longer — I believe those things factor into acid numbers. What were irrigation practices at the time? We know that changes acid numbers. The list goes on and on — so much so that we can’t say how much acid they added compared to now.

    As far as how the wines have aged, I will let you say that. I don’t drink a lot of Cabernet myself, and certainly not aged Cabernet. I think I’d have a hard time saying that things haven’t aged well because of an acid add without knowing what the original numbers were, how much acid was added, when it was added, etc. But if you feel comfortable doing that, go for it.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  31. Troy Pearse says:

    To the original question: I definitely find that CA Cabernet improves with age and am often surprised how many people expect to drink it upon release, in my opinion it needs at least a few years to be drinkable. There are certainly exceptions of cabernet based wines that drink well young, sometimes Cab blends drink early and other times the grapes seem to battle each other in the bottle and take time to meld. I’ve had many CA Cabernets that are excellent at 10-12 years old (Phelps, Mondavi, Caymus, BV, Silver Oak, Bond, Berringer) and I’ve had some disappointments.

    Aging wines isn’t easy, every winemaker and vintage is different and some years age better than others based on tannins, acidity, and alcohol. For example 2001 CA cabs have been aging great while many 2002 cabs peaked early and my 2000 Bordeaux hasn’t even entered the drink window. I’ve certainly found that wines with a higher Ph (over 3.75) peak earlier. Over the years I’ve tried to pay more attention to acidity when buying a wine I intend to age as well as deciding when to drink it. In contrast I’ve found my French wines (Rhone and Bordeaux) tend to age longer and often do not drink well young.

    I recognize the trend in winemaking to craft wines that are more drinkable early in their life to satisfy the majority of consumers who want instant gratification. Overall this trend is good for most people who don’t age wine but it makes things more difficult for those of us that do. I tend to agree that higher scores (say 93+) are representative of the wine’s expected peak which is only achievable when the wine has time to evolve in the bottle.

    I have had some very good CA Cabs at 5-7 years old but I can say that all of my “wow” wine experiences have been on older (10+ years) bottles. I am cautiously holding a few CA cabernets past 12 years (99 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, 01 & 02 Phelps Insignia, 02 Phelps Backus, 01 Mondavi Reserve) but admit I am nervous. I plan to open a magnum of 1999 Burgess Cellars cabernet at Christmas which should be a good test (alcohol 13.8 and ph 3.68).

  32. Troy Pearse, I’d bet on that ’99 Burgess! I gave it 90 points when I reviewed it (2003) and felt its overall balance made it ageable.

  33. Troy,

    The 1999 California Cab/Cab-blend/Merlot vintage is a “keeper.”

    I attended a dinner party three weeks ago, and was pleasantly surprised to find an attendee had generously offered up a 1999 Duckhorn Merlot in magnum format.

    Showing some signs of maturity, but not overly so.

    I suspect you will find favor with the Burgess.

    (Aside: while alcohol levels are printed on the label, what resource did you turn to for the Burgess’s pH level?)

    ~~ Bob

  34. At the risk of being redundant, let me cite here Robert Parker’s circa 1989 Wine Times (later renamed/relaunched Wine Enthusiast) interview observations on California Cabernets and tannins:

    PARKER: “. . . how I evaluate vintages in general. To me the greatness of a vintage is assessed two ways: 1) its ability to provide great pleasure — wine provides, above all, pleasure; 2) the time period over which it can provide that pleasure.

    “If a vintage can provide pleasure after 4 or 5 years and continue for 25 to 30 years, all the time being drinkable and providing immense satisfaction, that’s an extraordinary vintage. If you have to wait 20 years before you can drink the wines and you have basically a 5 or 10 year period to drink them before [the fruit flavors] ‘dry out,’ it’s debatable then whether that’s a great vintage.

    “Most people are hung up on wines that are brawny and tannic. One thing I’m certain about in the wine business is that wines are often too tannic. People perceive that all that tannin is going to melt away and this gorgeous fruit will emerge. But that rarely ever happens. The good wines in good vintages not only have the depth but also the precociousness. I used to think some of the softer ones wouldn’t last more than a couple of years, but they get more and more interesting. Most California wines are not only overly acidified, but the type of tannins they have in most of their Cabernets — whether the vines are too immature, the climate is different, whatever — are too hard, too astringent. And you see that even in the older ones. . . .”


    (“Wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more?” as the Pythons say . . .)

  35. Troy Pearse says:

    Hi Bob and Steve,

    I’ve had several of the ’99 Burgess cabs in 750ml bottles over the years and have enjoyed them (enough to get the Magnum for longer term aging). Overall 1999 (California Cabs) has been one of the funnier aging vintages for me and one of the few cases where I felt like the (CA) wines were not “ready” when I opened them at 10 years.

    It can be difficult to find the Ph on a wine, and there can often be confusion about the initial Ph of the “must” vs. the Ph of the finished wine (which are often different). In this case I had emailed Burgess and they sent me a “fact sheet” on the wine that included the Ph.

  36. (Aside: while alcohol levels are printed on the label, what resource did you turn to for the Burgess’s pH level?)

    I suspected you had accessed a “fact sheet” — perhaps at a time closer to the wine’s release?

    They seem to drop of the wineries’ websites after a few years.

  37. Troy Pearse says:

    In this case I asked for the wine fact sheet many years after the wine’s release, as I started learning/realizing the role of acidity in aging wine. As I’ve read about aging wine everyone says that acidity is critical but I’ve found very little information on recommended Ph and TA levels. Some winemaking textbooks suggest values in the range 3.4-3.65, which would eliminate many cabernets from the aging category (including the Burgess I’m opening this Christmas).

    I am finding that my cabernets that (unexpectedly) peaked early (ie: don’t age as long) often had a higher ph–over 3.7. However, ph doesn’t seem to tell the whole story. For example I had a 2001 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet last year and it was wonderful and seems to be no where near “fading”. It’s final ph is listed as (gasp) 3.76 and alcohol is 14.6, but it has a total acid # of 0.60% (6.0 g/l), which is (I think) a good number. In contrast, I had a bottle of Dunham’s 2007 Lewis Vineyard Cabernet (Washington) last month and it was drinking beautifully (and started faded after 2 hours). That wine’s ph is listed as 3.75 with ta of 6.2 g/l.

    I don’t think there is a standard formula you can apply for ageing cabernet. Although acidity is important, I’ve found that “tannic” years like 2001 have aged much better than years that drink well early, like 1997 (and I suspect the average acidity for 2001 was better). Certainly ph is important and higher ph numbers should be treated with caution if your goal is aging the wine.

    Every wine is different, every year. That’s part of its elusive beauty.

  38. Troy,

    From my hoary archive of newsclippings, Dan Berger’s advice on pH levels and age-ability.

    ~~ Bob

    A “lightly edited” (for emphasis) version from the Napa Valley Register “On Wine” Section
    (October 27, 2011, Page Unknown):

    “How to Age Red Wine”


    By Dan Berger
    “On Wine” Column

    That old saying referring to the greatness of old wine applies to only a tiny number of wines — and even then you have to know what you’re doing to gain any benefit from the process.

    And it is a process, starting with the buyer liking mature wine. If you don’t, you face no financial threat from this commentary.

    Some people simply love the flavors they find in young wines, white or red, and don’t like wine that has gained some of the complexities of maturity. For them, fresher and younger is best. And it’s cheaper.

    If a fine, aging wine is matured just a few years, it can become exciting. As wines age, they begin to lose some of their primary fruit and gain other less-fruity elements, which some people adore. This occurs far more reliably in great red wines, a lot less in whites.

    But there are pitfalls here. For one, not every wine is a candidate for the cellar. And there is no single factor that can assure buyers they will be getting one of the aging wines.

    Second, and most importantly, the buyer should ideally be someone who appreciates older wine, which is an acquired taste. And having the right storage conditions is crucial.

    And finally, some of the finest aging wines in the world can be expensive when released, such as Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, classified growth red Bordeaux, and cool-climate pinot noirs.

    Indeed, cheaper wines are typically made to be consumed immediately. Some may benefit from aging, but they are rare.

    If you had to rely on a single factor to determine the aging potential of a wine, it would be the wine’s pH, a measure of acidity.

    Briefly, red wines with pH levels between 3.4 and 3.6 should age well.

    Reds with pH levels 3.7 to 3.8 may age a bit.

    But once you get to a wine with a pH of 3.9 and above, the chances are pretty slim the wine will benefit from much, if any, bottle aging.

    In general, the higher the pH, the faster the wine will age.

    Also, seek wines of moderate alcohols. Many of those 16 percent alcohol “fruit bombs” explode on your taste buds but aren’t compatible with food.

    What prompted this article was a wine I tasted last week that, for some people, might be a bit on the expensive side. But it’s almost a guarantee to age well for 3-5 years, and improve along the way.

    (Some may even prefer it at 10 years from the vintage, but the longer you go the riskier the concept gets.)

  39. Troy Pearse says:

    Nice article on aging wines, thanks for sharing–the ph numbers match my experiences. Haven’t found any good numbers for total acidity, would be interested if someone has a reference as it seems like ph doesn’t tell the whole acidity story (eg. my recent mind blowing experience with 2001 Mondavi Reserve Cab that has a ph of 3.76 and ta of 0.60).

    A quick report on the 1999 Burgess Cabernet. 91 is a fair score, although it was a very pleasing wine and had the elegance that only age can bring to a wine–my wife loved it. The acidity struck me right away (was best with dinner) and it took a couple of hours for the wine to open up fully, which leads me to believe it easily would have lasted another 5 years. It was a lovely Christmas wine served with rare prime rib. Wish I had more to try in a few years.

    In contrast I’m enjoying a 2004 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet leading into New Years. It is a lovely wine that is ripe, full and started drinking well immediately, and drinking noticeably well “without food”. For comparison it’s ph is 3.7 (ta 0.66), which fits the model of a wine that will age a bit. The question is how much longer will the 2004 improve? (Overall 2004 seems to be a year for CA Cabs that are drinking earlier.)

    I’m looking for a few Cabernets (WA or CA) to lay down for extended ageing (15+ years). Looking for suggestions. 😀


  40. Bob Henry says:


    Happy new year.

    Take your lead from this article — on wines from an epoch I liken to “The Golden Age of Winemaking” for California Cabernets.

    ~~ Bob

    Excerpts from the Los Angeles Times “Food” Section
    (April 23, 2008, Page F1ff):

    “It’s Vintage Napa”
    [Classic California Cabs can pack a big reward]

    By Corie Brown
    Times Staff Writer

    . . .

    In this overheated atmosphere with collectors from all over the world vying for the big names in old wine, one corner of the wine market — California Cabernet Sauvignon vintage 1985 and older — remains stocked with affordable treasures, according to experts on rare wine.

    A handful of savvy connoisseurs collects these wines — not to fill their cellars with bragging rights, but to drink. Bidding on these older California wines in online auctions offers novice enthusiasts an avenue for exploring the pleasures of mature fine wine.

    . . .

    These Cabs have proved to be among the longest-lived California wines made. Yet, they were produced with little fanfare, originally selling for $5 to $20 a bottle at a time when few Americans understood how to properly store wine. So the risk of damage from poor storage is higher than with more celebrated wines. And they are unlikely to increase in value, so they’re not for investors.

    . . .

    Major auction houses, including Sotheby’s and Christie’s, rarely feature these wines. When it comes to California, their clients prefer Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Colgin and the other cult Cabs from Napa Valley. But smaller houses such as Acker Merrall & Condit have developed online auctions that feature less expensive wines, including what Acker owner John Kapon calls “classic” California wines. Hart Davis Hart Wine Co. and Zachys Wine Auctions have established online retail outlets for the same purpose.

    . . .

    “[Wine critics] Robert Parker and Wine Spectator favor the cult Cabs and ignore the classics,” says Kapon. “You can buy a Dunn, Ridge or Chateau Montelena for $100 a bottle versus a California cult Cab such as Colgin for $600 or more. Classic California wines are the best values on the market today.”

    . . . vintages . . . 1949, 1951, 1958, 1965, 1968, 1970, 1974 and 1985 — were exemplary years for other Napa wineries such as Freemark Abbey Winery, Louis M. Martini Winery, Heitz Wine Cellars, Caymus Vineyards, Grace Family Vineyards, Roddis and Chappellet Vineyard.

    . . .

    Acker’s Kapon has developed a list of “best bets” when it comes to buying “classic” California wines. Beaulieu Vineyard, Heitz, Dunn, Ridge, Chateau Montelena, Robert Mondavi, Foreman and Spottswood are the names to watch, he says.

    “But in a good vintage — ’66, ’68, ’70, ’74, ’78, ’84 ,’85, ’87 — any producer, even someone you’ve never heard of, is a good bet. I’ve had great random wines from this period in California that have shown better than the big name Bordeaux wines.”

    . . .

    (Bob’s aside: I “audit” and organize and arrange the sale of wine cellars in Los Angeles. Just did one for the widow of a collector — stocked with Heitz Cellars “Martha’s Vineyard” Cabs [autographed by Joe and Alice Heitz] and First Growths from the 1980s. All destined for resell to the public through a leading California wine merchant.

    My advice: introduce yourself to the owners of private wine locker facilities near where you reside or work. Inform the owners that you are interested in buying older wines from tenants. Many of these facilities spawn discreet “trading groups” among the tenants.

    Get introduced to the tenants by attending their “BYOB” events on- or off-premises. Collectors would rather make a sale and a new friend today, instead of consigning excess/unwanted inventory through a wine auction three or six months down the road.

    Good hunting, Troy.)

  41. Troy Pearse says:

    Thanks for the info and recommendations, Bob. I like the idea of adding some mountain fruit to my cellar and am looking at Dunn particularly. Alas, I’ve not had any of their wine (yet). I will seek out an aged bottle to see how I like them and then look for a good new release.

    Cheers to the new year!


  42. redmond barry says:

    Bob Henry’s experience is similar, if vastly more extensive , to my own.No one can say whether the wines of the 2000s+ will age more quickly and/or as well as their forebears, but my experience with 90s benchland wines has been very good, especially 1997 and 1999, which remind me of 1984 and 1985, the 1984 and 1997 more classic and the 1985 and 1999 more rich and modern but equally long -lived.

  43. Bob Henry says:

    Within the last 45 days I sampled during a dinner with friends the 1984 and 1986 Dunn “Napa” bottlings — not the “Howell” bottlings.

    The 1984 was mature but not over-the-hill. The 1986 was more vibrant in its fruit and more deeply extracted. Glad to have tasted both — and would “vote with my wallet” on acquiring the 1986 over the 1984 today (if you could only choose one).

    But if these wines were sampled five or ten years ago, I would swap their order of preference.

    (Aside: 15 years ago, friends and I organized a vertical tasting of every Dunn Cabernet — tasting each year’s two bottlings side-by-side. It was self-evident that the Dunns that found greatest favor came from the warmest vintages: 1985 and 1987 and 1990 and so on. And that the “Napa” bottling was more approachable than the “Howell” bottling . . . the latter too often being a tannic monster.

    But as I have commented on an earlier occasion, Robert Parker gave “100 points” to the 1986 Mouton — advising against drinking that tannic monster until . . . 2025? A clear example of “bonus” points awarded for “longevity.” But who has the cellar space or patience to wait that long?

    Here’s another 1986 red Bordeaux that Parker hung a high score on: 1986 Gruard Larose. Undrinkably tannic. Not worth waiting out — which is “why” I sometimes see “11 bottle lots” at auction. I surmise: the original caee owner finally popped a bottle to sample this “treasure” — hated it — and sold off the remainder of the case to the next “bigger fool.”

    Caveat emptor: )

  44. Bob Henry says:


    “It was self-evident that the Dunns that found greatest favor came from the warmest vintages: 1985 and 1987 and 1990 and so on.”

    Let me substitute 1984 for 1985 in that declaration.

    Corrected spelling: Gruaud Larose — not “Gruard” (“Vanna, can I sell back a consonant?”)

  45. Bob Henry says:


    I think the Ridge “Monte Bello Vineyard” Cabernet (a fave of the British M.W.s, such as Jancis Robinson*) is a nice place to start for mountain fruit Cabernets that are reasonably priced and age wonderfully.

    And Spring Mountain Cabernets and Merlots — underpriced to Napa Valley floor counterparts.

    ~~ Bob

    *See my next comment for a bibliography — which will be delayed while it awaits “moderation” (a fate of any comment with two or more embedded links).

  46. Bob Henry says:

    Jancis Robinson, Master of Wine praised Ridge in this 2006 interview with Wines and Vines magazine:

    The popular author addresses California sweetness,
    global values and the MW exam”



    “. . . probably my favorite California Cab of all is (Ridge) Monte Bello, which truly expresses its location. … I am a huge admirer of the consistency of Ridge wines. That 1971 Monte Bello, even if supposedly a ‘weaker’ vintage, looked great at the [Judgement of] Paris [30-year reenactment] re-run [in 2011, in which the 1971 Ridge took top honors].”

    From Jancis Robinson, Master of Wine Website
    (posted March 13, 2010):

    “Ridge — a California Exception”


    From Jancis Robinson, Master of Wine Web site
    (posted April 15, 2001):

    “Is California Dreaming?;
    An extraordinary assessment of the cult wines
    that cost more than Bordeaux’s First Growths.”

    [Subheadline: “California Cult Cabs: Ridge “Monte Bello” is a Steal]


  47. Bob Henry says:

    Redmond, et. al.:

    1999 is a “sleeper” vintage in California for age-able red wines.

    Down here in La-La-Land, we never experienced a Summer that year. The weather was continually overcast from a “marine layer” of fog and clouds — really, more like San Francisco Bay Area weather (without the clearing ocean breezes).

    Up in Napa Valley (‘cuse me, Bill Haydon: “Disneyland” a.k.a. “Dwarfland”), the similar cool weather that year produced small clusters of deeply extracted but fairly tannic Cabernet Sauvignon — not for early drinking. But go back today and you will be rewarded with some exceptional (and reasonably priced at auction) wines.

  48. Bob Henry says:


    At the risk of stating the obvious, those 1999s are ripe (but far from “fruit bombs”), with high acidity and low alcohol levels.

    Just the kind of wines that pre-phylloxera replanting Cabernet collectors and contemporary East Coast somms wish we saw more of coming out of the North Coast.

  49. Bob Henry says:

    Redmond, et. al.:

    “No one can say whether the wines of the 2000s+ will age more quickly and/or as well as their forebears . . .”

    Contemporary California red wines might be “pre-mox” ticking time bombs.

    Excerpt from Decanter
    (May 24, 2013):

    “Red Wines May Have Premature Oxidation Problems, Say Bordeaux Researchers”


    By Jane Anson
    Reporting from Bordeaux

    Denis Dubourdieu, professor at the faculty of oenology (ISVV) in Bordeaux and author of a leading study into premature oxidation in white wines, told, ‘Ten years ago, many people were aware of the premature oxidation problem in white wines, but didn’t want to talk about it. For me, it’s a similar situation now with red wines.’

    Dubourdieu points to the 2003 vintage as the most obvious example, although any very ripe vintages – such as 2009 – could be at risk. ‘And it is not limited to Bordeaux – any region that makes long-living red wines, from Tuscany to NAPA, should be aware of the potential issues.’

    [CAPITALIZATION used for emphasis. — Bob]

    Red wines have greater natural protection against premature oxidation, as the tannins and phenolics are natural buffers against oxygen. ‘But I have seen issues with a number of classified wines that are POTENTIALLY STORING UP TROUBLE FOR LATER,’ warns Dubourdieu. ‘The Right Bank is the worst affected because Merlot is so vulnerable.’

    The warnings signs of premox in reds comes through the appearance of certain aroma markers such as PRUNES, STEWED FRUITS and DRIED FIGS, and is often linked to a rapid evolution in colour, as with whites.

    [Cabernets that smell and taste more like Zinfandel or Ripassa Valpolicella. — Bob]

    Dubourdieu, along with Valérie Lavigne and Alexandre Pons at the ISVV, has found two specific molecules – ZO1 giving the PRUNE aroma and ZO2 giving a STEWED FRUIT smell – that develop rapidly in the presence of oxygen.

    The causes are numerous, Dubourdieu believes: harvesting later in a bid for riper grapes with low acidity, and winemaking practises including too much new oak barrels, or LOW DOSES OF SULPHUR DIOXIDE particularly when coupled with a high pH (over a pH of 4, SO2 loses almost all of its effectiveness).”

    [Caveat emptor: “natural” wines that have too little sulphur dioxide to protect them. — Bob]

    . . .

    ‘These are practices that winemakers are doing with the BEST INTENTIONS,’ Dubourdieu said. ‘RIPER GRAPES, NEW OAK, LOW SULPHUR USE – these are all things intended to improve the wine and to benefit the consumer. But I would prefer to warn winemakers now that it’s possible to go too far, rather than say nothing simply to be politically correct.

  50. Bob Henry:
    Nice to see some discussion that acknowledges the complexity of ageability of wines instead of the old reductionist explanation taking it all back to pH and acidity. One of the local wine critics quoted earlier in this thread has the amusing practice of only accepting wines for tasting that are below a specified pH level–thereby missing out on some great wines!

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