Light night, even as flames roared through the chaparral of Southern California, I attended a wine tasting event to benefit fire relief in Northern California. The mood was quite somber as many of us reflected on how far from complete are the relief efforts in our own back yard, let alone what will be needed when the maelstrom settles in Southern California.
It is, however, not so easy to remain somber while tasting pieces of California history, especially when they are in spectacular shape, as some of the gems below were. Even up until about five years ago, many of these wines (the Diamond Creek wines excepted) could be bought for a song. Or more specifically $25 to $45 on web sites such as WineBid.Com.
But thanks to growing interest and publicity, not the least of which was the spectacular wine program that Kelli White and her husband Scott Brenner put together at Press Restaurant in Napa, these wines have become both more sought-after, and consequently, more expensive.
Tasting such wines is a privilege and a treat, especially when some of them are older than yourself. The alchemy of time can work wonderful magic on well made wines, and transform them into flavors and aromas that are amazing.
And of course, time is also an enemy of these delicate bottles. Not all the wines were in perfect shape. Some far from it. But as many say, after 20 years there are no good wines, only good bottles. Each bottle, even in an unopened case of wine, will age differently, and those differences become magnified with time. And that’s before sunlight, oxygen, cork taint, brettanomyces, rot, heat and other dangers set in.
But when you get a bottle that has not only survived such vicissitudes, but grown profound, the experience can be quite moving. Tasting wine older than oneself can lean towards profundity, when it is not merely delicious.
Here are a few old gems from California, cracked open to celebrate the state, and to collect some badly needed funds for fire relief, to which I was happy to contribute.
1982 Diamond Creek “Red Rock Terrace” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Dark ruby with brown edges, this wine smells of wet felt and herbs. In the mouth, tight tannins clench around herbs, a touch of smoked meets and dirt. Angular and narrow in its expression, there’s still some beauty in the austerity. Rain and heavy crops meant tougher harvest this year. Tasted out of magnum. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $195. click to buy.
1982 Diamond Creek “Gravelly Meadow” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Medium to dark ruby tinged with coffee, this wine smells of herbs and dried fruit and graphite. In the mouth, pencil lead and dried fruit are balanced by dried herbs and wrapped tightly in a skein of muscular tannins. Good acidity and a long finish help this austere wine, but it remains tightly wound and narrow in its expression. A tricky vintage dodging the rain. Tasted out of magnum. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $300. click to buy.
1982 Diamond Creek “Volcanic Hill” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Brownish brick red in color, this wine smells of graphite and leather and earth. In the mouth, tight muscular tannins wrap around a core of earth and green herbs and fried fruit. Angular and somewhat unforgiving. Were this wine 20 years younger I’d say give it more time, but sadly I fear it will not improve. Not an easy vintage. Tasted out of magnum. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $120. click to buy.
1989 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Red Blend, Napa Valley
A strong medium ruby in the glass, showing the time dilation effects of such a large format bottle, this wine smells of dried herbs and leather. In the mouth, the wine is tight and angular, with a SweetTart sourness of cherry and leather and herbs. Not the best of vintages thanks to rain during harvest, and, well, it shows. Tasted out of a 5-liter bottle. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $175. click to buy.
1985 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Medium ruby in the glass with only a bit of orange hue at the rim, this wine smells of smoked meats and graphite and leather. In the mouth, herbs, graphite and leather wrap around the fading core of dried red fruit. Fine grained tannins hang at the edges of perception. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $85. click to buy.
1975 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
A light coffee mocha color in the glass with lots of sediment, this wine smells of dirt and dried fruits. In the mouth, the wine simply tastes muddy, dried out and tired. This bottle is dead. A shame, because I’ve had some fantastic bottles of this wine. Score: around 6. Cost: $282. click to buy.
1965 Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
A light ruby with orange highlights in the glass, this wine has a stunning aroma of bacon fat, fresh herbs, and red fruit. In the mouth, gorgeously silky flavors of dried flowers, dried berries, leather and herbs have a slightly saline character that, along with fantastic acidity, makes the mouth water. Stunningly bright and delicious, this wine is in spectacular shape. This particular bottle was quite unusual, as it is actually a magnum champagne bottle, that for some reason Joe Heitz and Narsai David filled with their Cabernet in 1965. Remarkable, and about as rare a bottle of California wine as you can find these days. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $260. click to buy.
1969 Sebastiani Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma
A pale coffee and ruby shade in the glass, this wine has a heady aroma of mint and wet earth. In the mouth, beautiful cedar and cherry and leather flavors linger for a long while on the palate. Excellent acidity. Score: around 9. Cost: $75 click to buy.
1985 Groth Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Medium brownish red in the glass with fine sediments, this wine smells of dried herbs, earth, and leather with a touch of mint. In the mouth, leathery flavors of dried fruits and dirt are quite savory and angular. There’s something to enjoy here in this wine, but it’s fleeting in its floral leatheriness and savory herbs. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $85. click to buy.
1986 Silver Oak “Bonny’s” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa
Medium ruby in the glass but browning considerably with lots of fine sediment, this wine smells of camphor wood and peat. In the mouth, camphor wood and moth ball flavors mix with dried fruit and leather. This bottle has not aged well and is quite nasty. Score: between 6.5 and 7. Cost: $600 (magnum). click to buy.
1994 Seavey Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa
Medium ruby in the glass with a touch of brick, this wine smells of earth and graphite and forest floor. In the mouth, dark and rich flavors of raisins, chocolate and cherry have a wonderful brightness thanks to still-excellent acidity. Great length. Tasted out of Magnum from one of California’s storied (very warm) vintages. Score: around 9. Cost: $125. click to buy.
1990 Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa
A strong medium ruby in the glass with only a bit of brick red at the rim, this wine appears yet quite youthful. It smells of graphite, mint, and dried herbs. In the mouth beautifully supple, powdery tannins support very pretty, aromatically sweet flavors of cherry, graphite, and dried herbs with a touch of mint and leather. Beautifully balanced with a long finish. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $115. click to buy.