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Retrospective Review

Retrospective Review: Volume I, Number 2 (October-November 1979)

John Tilson • 2/16/10        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share


We are reproducing here a copy of the second issue of The Underground Wineletter. Below you’ll find an updated review of each article, where I will go over what we got right and what we got wrong. We will follow this format with each successive issue. So Volume I, Number 3 will be coming next. We think you will find the chronology will present a very interesting view of the evolution of many different wines as the “Wine Boom” took hold. At the end of this review you can click to read the entire issue. We welcome your comments.

California Chardonnay

After taking California Pinot Noir in our first issue, we turned to California Chardonnay as the focus of our second issue.  But, unlike Pinot Noir, Chardonnay was already wildly popular as a generally fruity, oaky, easy-to-drink beverage.

In reviewing the California Chardonnays of the 1976 – 78 vintages we concluded that many of the best seemed to prefer slightly cooler climates…our favorites came from producers such as Burgess, Chalone, Freemark Abbey, Hanzell, Heitz Cellars, Mayacamas, Mount Eden Vineyards,  Spring Mountain,  Stony Hill and Villa Mt. Eden.  Most of these wines were made from estate-grown grapes, while a few used purchased grapes, such as “Dutton Ranch” or “Winery Lake.”

In the 1976 vintage we favored the Estate Bottled Mount Eden Vineyards from Saratoga and a Villa Mt. Eden from Napa Valley.  The Mount Eden Estate is still going strong.  We have said for a very long time that Mount Eden Vineyards is the best, most consistent Chardonnay made in California.  The 1976 reviewed here is still wonderful today as are the others from the 1970s and, of course, the later ones from the 1980s – to date.  (Stay tuned, we will have a complete review of Mount Eden Chardonnays,  coming up soon.)

The Villa Mt. Eden wine no longer exists as the winery and vineyard were purchased in 1995 by Gordon Getty and Gavin Newsome and is now known as Plumpjack.  Alas, we have no frame of reference for the old Villa Mt. Eden Chardonnays, but would guess that they were best consumed in their first few years of life.

Interestingly, both the Mount Eden Vineyards and Villa Mt. Eden Chardonnays were produced in minimal quantities of about 200 cases each.  Also, of the some 50 1976 Chardonnays reviewed, only those two scored outstanding.  About one-half were very good, the rest were mediocre to poor.

In the 1977 vintage we reviewed close to 100 different Chardonnays.  Three ranked outstanding – Hanzell, from Sonoma, Long Vineyards, from the  Pritchard Hill area in Napa Valley, and Monterey Peninsula Winery “Arroyo Seco Vineyards.”  Again, production of each was minimal ranging from 140 cases for Long Vineyards, to a few hundred cases for Hanzell.  Both Hanzell and Long Vineyards enjoyed a very long life while Monterey Peninsula was at the best in its first few years.  About one-quarter of the wines reviewed were ranked very good led by a “Winery Lake” bottling  from Burgess, a “Dutton Ranch” bottling from Martin Ray, and estate bottled wines from Chalone and Mount Eden Vineyards.  However, most of the 1977 Chardonnays were pretty uninspiring including a large number of  poorly made duds!

We reviewed only a couple dozen 1978s as the vintage was just coming to market at the time of our tasting.  We ranked  one St. Clement Napa Valley bottling as outstanding, our description emphasized the complexity and elegance that came through.  Interestingly, this showed well early in its life despite the relativity high alcohol.  However, it was best in its first few years of life.  And again, many of the wines reviewed were mediocre and a few downright terrible. Back then there were many mistakes being made in the vineyard and particularly in the wine making.

These tastings and our experience with other Chardonnays and vintages led us to conclude the following:

“The Chardonnay grape has found a home in California where it makes a rich, fruity wine.  Comparisons are often made with White Burgundies, but the wines are usually easily distinguished.  Chardonnays tend to be fruitier and/or less acidic and/or more heavily oaked than their French counterparts.  The comparison of French wine deriving tastes from the soil and California wine deriving tastes from the grape seems particularly valid in the case of Chardonnay.  “Montrachet-like” comparisons are trite and nearly always lacking validity.  Nonetheless, there are a few California Chardonnays that can rank very high by any yardstick of comparison.  Unfortunately, there are many more that are rather ordinary, and some really poor ones, being the result of poor grapes, poor winemaking, or both!”

Today, over 30 years later I believe this is still true.  California Chardonnays have remained, for the most part, rich, fruity wines.  Most are still too heavily oaked for my taste.  And, yes there are still a voluminous amount of dull, oaky Chardonnays.  At the other end of the spectrum, no oak Chardonnays tend to produce simple, uninteresting wines, often tending towards too much alcohol.  And, despite the continued over-used hype and comparison with “Montrachet,” the fact is that this Chardonnay/Montrachet animal continues to be very elusive.  So, after all these years, it is time for California Chardonnay to grow up and make wine that fits into a few basic styles largely based on the growing areas.  In warmer areas, more wines made in a lighter style, with lower alcohol and less oak would be welcomed.

In other cooler areas, an emphasis on letting the grapes show through without too much intervention by winemakers would, in my opinion, likely result in a considerable improvement.

But, more on this later as we begin our investigation of the “new wave” of Chardonnay producers.  And, rest assured, that is the group we do not find “bigger, better.”  Stay tuned.

Wine Bargains

In a very brief concluding article, entitled “Wine Bargains,” we found that “California jug wines are mostly junk.”  Enough said!


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