Exerpt: Diary 19: Carte Blanche by Albert Givton
June 24, 1999
A very special wine event featuring California Cabernet Sauvignon Rarities.
The word “Rarities” is an understatement—the youngest wine was a 1969, the oldest a 1947. Several of these wineries are extinct now, and most of the great pioneering figures who created these wines have now departed from this world, or have been in retirement for some years. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a group of 15 tasters to taste historic and extremely rare California Cabernets. All wines came from my cellar; one bottle of each wine was tasted.
After a glass of Champagne, Veuve Clicquot, Brut Gold Label nonvintage, and a slightly overoaked Sonoma Cutrer Chardonnay 1995, “The Cutrer,” we sat down to an excellent dinner at “La Belle Auberge” restaurant, in Ladner. The dinner was prepared by Chef/Owner Bruno Marti, who has in the past prepared many very fine meals for us to accompany some great wines.
Ridge Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon N/V:
This is a blend of the 1966 and 1971 vintages, bottled in April 1972. The Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are from the Monte Bello Vineyard. Dark colour, impressive for its age; sweet, rich, slightly herbaceous, probably some young vines in there. Because the wine was bottled in April 1972, the portion of the wine that is from the 1971 vintage probably must have been from very young vines. Good, ripe fruit, just a hint of rubber, but rich, excellent balance, and has held very well in the glass. An impressive effort for a wine that is almost 32 years old.
Gemello Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon N/V “35th Anniversary,” California:
From the Santa Cruz mountains. This is a blend of the 1959 and 1960 vintages. The wine had an evolved orange colour at rim, but otherwise, very good depth. Full, fruity, cedary, rich. Slightly acidic, and a bit short after 15 minutes in the glass. Hint of chocolate, cocoa; a rustic wine typical of this winery’s style. An impressive effort, nevertheless, and a wine that has certainly survived the test of time.
Heitz Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 1968, Napa Valley:
The best wine overall in the first flight. Mature colour with good depth, orangy rim; slightly stemmy, but a lot of elegance, hint of cedar, even of eucalyptus, although it’s not the “Martha’s Vineyard” but the regular Cabernet. Complex, stylish, very long, and it has held in the glass at least an hour before drying up. Most impressive effort.
Spring Mountain Vineyards, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon N/V “Lot H, L/N 1968/69”:
This is actually a Heitz Vineyards wine (Lot H) aged in Limousin and Nevers Oak (L/N), respectively, in the 1968 and 1969 Vintages (1968/69). It is a blend of about 50% Napa Valley Cabernet and 50% “Martha’s Vineyard.” Joe Heitz was short of cash at the time, and had to sell off some of this great juice to satisfy his bankers. The owners of Spring Mountain thought it only fair to bottle it . . . but to give the credit to Joe Heitz. Minty, slightly rubbery, very good deep colour; good fruit, rich; hint of roasted almonds, but noticeable acidity and dry finish. Having tasted this wine on five previous occasions, I would say this wasn’t the best bottle. It was a good wine, nevertheless; however, it lacked the complexity and class of the Heitz’s 1968 Cabernet that preceded it.
Heitz Cellars Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon:
No vintage or vineyard indication. This is actually the 1959 Hanzell, their first vintage produced by Joe Heitz. Joe told me he produced this wine, and bottled it in 1962. Dr. Barney Rhodes confirmed that this is the Hanzell. Heitz said that Ivan Shaw, who helped finance Heitz Cellars, bottled this lot for himself and stored it in his grandmother’s cellar. This was my third experience with this wine, having bought a lot of three bottles at auction a few years ago. This was the most evolved wine—and most evolved colour, orangy rim. The wine was cracking up; noticeable acidity, low fruit, but some fruit was there; certainly drinkable, but without the depth, weight, and fruit concentration of the first two and the fourth wines of this flight, and without the complexity of Heitz’s 1968 Cabernet. Pleasant, nevertheless, and of course, a historic wine.
Martin Ray Cabernet Sauvignon 1947, Saratoga:
This was produced by the legendary eccentric man himself. One of the very rarest California Cabernets! Pre-1953, this wine was bottled in heavy Champagne bottles, with Champagne corks and wire. Very impressive, dark colour to rim, like a wine 25 years its junior. Hint of ether, burnt smell at first, but a rich, solid wine that was brilliant in its colour; most impressive appearance. The nose, however, bothered most tasters. The fruit was there, but it was a rustic wine with a hint of rubber. Surprisingly, after about 45 minutes in the glass, the unpleasant smells dissipated, and the wine improved dramatically. It displayed rich fruit, solid backbone, and impressive balance. A historic, irreplaceable treasure.
Inglenook Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1959 “Classic Claret”:
Deep, bright colour; Port-like, a lot of fruit extraction, jammy, ripe, and rich. A rather simple wine, however, with no sign of new oak or complexity, yet it held its own in the glass for half-an-hour without drying up.
Inglenook Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1968, Lot H-12 “Limited Cask”:
This was the best wine of the second flight. Very impressive, deep colour, even more brilliant than the 1959 Inglenook. Lovely concentrated black and red fruit on nose; not much complexity, but well balanced and full of life. This wine, if well cellared, could easily last another decade or so. Most enjoyable.
Hallcrest Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1959:
Produced from grapes grown on a mountain vineyard in Santa Cruz. Founded by Chafiee Hall, a San Francisco attorney in the 1940s, this boutique winery was closed in the mid-1960s. Another once-in-a-lifetime experience. Again, the appearance of the wine was very impressive: bright, deep colour, slightly evolved rim. Stemmy, herbaceous, hint of dill on nose. On palate, very concentrated, well-balanced, ripe fruit; not much complexity, but a lot of body and depth, and it held its own in the glass for a good hour before the acidity took over.
The last wine of this flight was a mystery wine. It was served to the participants double-blind. Paul Draper, winemaker at Ridge Vineyards, spent some time with Dourthe Frères, the negoçiant house from Bordeaux. When he joined Ridge Vineyards in 1969, he acquired, from Dourthe Frères, two barrels each of Château Montrose and Château Leoville-Lascases, all from the 1966 vintage. We tasted the Lascases. He bottled them at Ridge Vineyards. Needless to say, this is an extremely rare wine. The reason I introduced it to the tasting was because of the connection between this particular bottling and Ridge Vineyards.
The wine was slightly musty but not corked. Very much Haut-Médoc style, rather than California, without the youthful ripe fruit concentration that is typical of most 1966 Haut-Médocs nowadays. In other words, it is a masculine, fairly hard wine that is starting to lose its fruit. Good complexity and class, but outperformed in this flight by much more concentrated and fruity wines. Of course, one does not know how much time this wine spent in barrel before being bottled, and whether it saw any new oak at all, and how it was treated in transit between Bordeaux and California.
The third flight was made up of three of the greatest California Cabernet Sauvignons produced by the previous generation, and wines that, indeed, were very, very different from the way California wines, notably Cabernet Sauvignons, are made today. These wines have personality and individuality, which modern Cabernet Sauvignons lack; modern Cabernets boast great extract and use of new oak, but have no personality.
Beaulieu Vineyards “Georges de Latour - Private Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon 1968, Napa Valley:
Produced by the great André Tschelitcheff. An absolutely magnificent wine. Very impressive, deep colour; one would guess at a blind tasting that this was a wine from the 1980s, not the 1960s. Solid bright-red colour to rim; fabulous ripe, rich fruit; sweet vanilla, American oak on nose; similar impressions on palate. Great fruit extract, great balance, and lingering aftertaste. A lovely, magnificent wine that is almost ageless. This wine could easily last half-a-century. Superb effort.
Heitz Cellars “Martha’s Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon 1968, Napa Valley:
A wine of great reputation and class. Fabulous cedary fruit, hint of eucalyptus and mint, gorgeous bright deep-red colour to rim. Leaner, tighter, racier than the B.V., very, very different in style of course, expressing the terroir of “Martha’s Vineyard,” with its eucalyptus trees. Another great bottle, although I slightly preferred the sheer fruit concentration of the Beaulieu Vineyards tonight.
Heitz Cellars “Martha’s Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon 1969, Napa Valley:
While the 1968 is more famous and sought-after, the 1969 is one of Joe Heitz’s all-time favourites. Very similar colour to the 1968. More forthcoming, open nose—again of cedar, eucalyptus, and hint of mint. On palate, however, a little more evolved, a little more loosely knit—not quite as tight and concentrated as the 1968. Another great bottle and a memorable wine.
Thus ended one of the rarest possible California Cabernet Sauvignon tastings. We all had the opportunity to taste wines that will never again be available; they were made by the true pioneers in California. Nowadays, the philosophy of wine production and ageing has changed so dramatically that this experience may always belong to the past. The wines may not have been as impeccably made—or as clean or as oaky—and did not have the clean, fruity taste of today’s Cabernet Sauvignons, but they did have one very important attribute that today’s Cabernets—even the most expensive, rarest, and most sought-after—lack, and that is personality.