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Retrospective Review

Retrospective Review: Volume I, Number 5 (April-May, 1980)

John Tilson • 8/13/10        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share


We are currently reproducing a copy of the fifth 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 6 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.



featissue-aprmay80In Volume I, Number 5 April-May 1980, we began with “California Wines: Availability and Price.  Look Out World, Here We Come.”  The basic point was that California wines, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, were beginning to be noticed around the world.  The 1974 Cabernet Sauvignon vintage had generated a great deal of interest and the number of different wines coming to market was increasing.  The famous Paris tasting in 1976 had focused on Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay but the Cabernets were from 1969-1973.  Since the quality of the 1974 vintage of Cabernet was widely heralded, the world’s attention immediately focused here.  And the notation “Look out world, here we come” was to prove to be very accurate as people from all over the world would be flocking to California to buy and plant vineyards and build or purchase wineries for years to come.

Our feature article was on 1974 Cabernet Sauvignon.  We tasted 90 different wines.  Two were rated outstanding, 20 were rated very good and 49 were rated good, and 10 were rated below average.  At the time of the 1974 harvest we estimated there were over 70 producers of Cabernet Sauvignon up from perhaps two dozen in 1970.

The two best wines were Heitz Martha’s Vineyard and Diamond Creek Vineyards Gravelly Meadow.  The Martha’s Vineyard production was some 4,500 cases, the Gravelly Meadow 105 cases.  These two wines are still great today.  The Martha’s Vineyard has exhibited some bottle variation over the years with some bottles exhibiting a touch of dryness.  But the wine can still be outstanding.  The Gravelly Meadow has been consistently superb and is still wonderful today. The Conn Creek Eisele Vineyard was ranked third just a bit short of outstanding.  This was too conservative.  The wine has been consistently great and is fabulous today. About 480 cases were produced. Today I would say the Conn Creek Eisele Vineyard is the wine of the vintage, followed by the Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow and Heitz Martha’s Vineyard.  The next few top wines have also aged very well.  The Ridge Monte Bello and Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill are particularly good.  And even in a year blessed with a great growing season, nearly 2/3 of the wines reviewed were not terribly interesting.  This was all about to change as upcoming vintages would show consistent improvement in the quality of California Cabernet Sauvignon.

Next we reviewed California’s unique wine, Zinfandel.  We reviewed 111 different wines, mostly from the drought  years 1976 and 1977.  The best wine was from San Luis Obispo, a 1976 HMR Sauret Vineyard bottling.  This can still be a lovely wine to drink today.  Interestingly, it was listed as 12 ½% alcohol.

Other top wines were also from San Luis Obispo, as well as Amador, Sonoma and Napa counties and a 1977 Ridge Monte Bello from vineyards on Monte Bello Ridge, Picchetti and Jimsomare.  Most of the wines reviewed were good, but not particularly distinctive with prices from $2-$10.  The 1976 HMR Sauret Vineyard was also $10 and we commented “Although no denying $10 is a lot for a bottle of Zinfandel, this one is worth it.”

We concluded with a brief article on a relatively new device called a “Screwpull.”  We said that “It’s as close to perfect as we can imagine.”  After numerous improvements over the years and lots of other “new and improved” devices for extracting corks from bottles, the Screwpull base model, along with the Ah-so, are my two favorite types of corkscrews.  I use mostly a Screwpull, but always have an Ah-so around to use to extract corks that are either too soft or that have a tendency to crumble.  For the other 99% of corks, it’s a Screwpull for me.

In Vino Veritas,

John Tilson

And take a look at the bottom of page 15 – “Some may find Zinfandels primitive, but they’re great for picnics!”

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8 comments for “Retrospective Review: Volume I, Number 5 (April-May, 1980)”

  • Darrell Jang says:

    Hello John,

    I just love reading your reviews of past issues of the UWL and your comment about Screwpull reminded me of a technique that I use for older wines that might have an Ah-so drive a loose cork into the bottle which all of us don’t relish due to lead salts going into the wine. Said cork would likely have a hole drilled into it, even by a Screwpull, a hollow axis auger meant to do less damage and maintain the integrity of a cork. Stumbled across this technique because of a pocket model of a corkscrew where the screw folds 180 degrees into the handle and won’t puncture you if carried in your pocket.
    Screw this corkscrew into the frail and possibly loose cork and bend the handle 90 degrees to allow an Ah-so type to slip over the screw and the prongs down the side of the cork. The corkscrew won’t allow the cork to slip into the bottle as you work the prongs between cork and neck of the bottle. Work all this as one unit to extract the cork. I had to use this technique 12/19/11 at a nice restaurant where the cork did break at the lower part which was extracted with just the auger part of the Screwpull, a fantastic invention. If I find the proper forum, I will update the tasting of this bottle.

    In vino veritas,


    • John Tilson says:

      Thanks Darrell.
      I use a Screwpull and Ah-So exclusively. It’s what works for me, but just like wine, everyone has a preference.
      I hope to get into more of the old issues. So far, I have been too busy and have not had enough time. Maybe this year as I will be doing the Underground views on wine fraud and greatest wines. I have been going through all the old issues and it is utterly fascinating to follow the wine trail in the rear view mirror as well as the road ahead. Hopefully, I can get more of this out this year.
      In Vino Veritas,

  • Bill Tisch says:

    I fondly drank a nice amount of the Mount Edens in the ’70’s and 80’s, but haven’t had one for about a decade–I’ll try one again soon, and thanks for the reminder.

    John, I think it was you in the Underground Wineletter (perhaps 30 years ago) who recommended a very strange California chardonnay that I loved — Pendleton Chardonnay. My guess is that it was a vintage in the late 70’s or early ’80’s (?), and I think that was the only vintage of this wine you ever reviewed. I recall a pink hue and wondrously exotic flavors that I am at a loss to describe. It was offbeat, unique and mysterious — and, for me, quite wonderful!

    Continuing my reverie for long lost wineries, I still have one bottle of impeccably cellared 1976 Chateau Chevalier cabernet. I’ve never had this wine, but when I bought it on release I was told that it was impossibly hard, yet might become a classic in 30 years, if it became drinkable by then! Maybe now’s the time.

    But the present is here too, and I must make a decision — should I purchase a magnum of the 2008 Harlan Estate cab (offered to me on the mailing list) for the princely sum of $1,100. If you have any comments on the 2008 Napa vintage or this wine, I’d be very interested. Unless the 2008 Napa vintage looks to be terrific and this Harlan might warrant a 19 or 20, I’d be inclined to pass.

    In any case, thanks for the memories.


    • John Tilson says:

      Thanks Bill.
      I must confess I do not remember either the Chardonnay or the Cabernet you mention. I probably tasted them only one time and that was many, many years ago. I do not know if they even exist today. But Mt Eden does and their wines are consistently great. You should get on their mailing list.
      Regarding the Harlan, I’m afraid I cannot be of much help as I have not tasted the wine. The 2008s from Napa are supposed to be quite good according to reports. As for the Harland and the price, well that just depends on how much you have liked the wines and what they are worth to you. However, I suspect a lot of these wines are not being purchased to drink, but to speculate on higher prices later on. My own feeling is that we may be in the late innings of this game as per my recent editorial “Lemmings To The Sea”
      In Vino Veritas,

  • Bill Tisch says:

    Well I adored the 1981 Volcanic Hill from Diamond Creek. And I do have some 1984, 1987 and 1990 of the Lake, but I’ve never had one –hope I’ll like them some day. Went to Robert Parker’s website to find out how he rated those Lakes and how long he thinks they’ll last, but alas was astonished to see that he has absolutely nothing on them!

    As for “alcoholic” wines, my wife objects. On a day trip to Santa Barbara a few months ago, I took a 2008 Aubert (Reuling) Chardonnay to Seagrass Restaurant. In fear, I had deeply chilled down that 15.6% alc. beauty hoping for the best. We all loved it, even my wife — for the first half hour. Then, as the Aubert warmed up and the alcohol came out, she whispered “That’s Hot” (not in a good way), and my wife is not Paris Hilton. Nevertheless, I did much like that Aubert, but agree it was too damn hot.


    • John Tilson says:

      Hi Bill,
      I am a big fan of the Diamond Creeks in the 70s and some of the vintages in the 80s and 90s. The Lake Vineyard wines you mention are delicious and have a long life ahead. You can drink now or keep them. Later we will have a review on the older Diamond Creeks.
      I am not a fan of the big, alcoholic Chardonnays. I find them ponderous, too oaky, and hot on the finish. Thankfully, they all do not have all of these characteristics at the same time, but when they do it is not a good thing.
      And the “big” numbers for some of these wines and comparisons with Grand Cru White Burgundy are really
      puzzling. Caveat Emptor!
      My favorite California Chardonnay continues to be The Mount Eden Vineyards Estate. It has been consistently great since the 70s!!
      In Vino Veritas,

  • Bill Tisch says:

    Having read that Issue No. 5 some 30 years ago and apparently having been persuaded by Mr. Tilson, I bought some 1974 Martha’s and some Volcanic Hills and, after much searching, somehow stumbled upon the ’76 HMR Sauret at a small wine store in Westlake Village.

    Good to know the ’74 Martha’s is still good as I still have 7 bottles of that and a few ’74 Monte Bellos but, alas, I finished off the ’74 Volcanic Hill years ago. You love that Volcanic Hill and the Gravelly Meadow, but heck all I now have of the 1974 Diamond Creeks is a lonely bottle of the Red Rock Terrace, so is the ’74 RRT any good?

    As for the 1976 HMR Sauret, I had a bottle of that about 15 years ago with 5 other friends at dinner. The other bottle we had that night was a 1964 Latour. We are far from experts, but we preferred the Sauret over the Latour hands down.

    Agree about Mr. T’s writing style, so direct and unpretentious, yet with vibrancy. It appears that Muse still lives, so I’ll hope for a resurrection of the Underground Wineletter.

    • John Tilson says:

      Thanks Bill. We are indeed back and plan on a lot more articles and wine notes as time goes on.
      I am sure the the 1974 Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace will be good. It’s just a question of which of the three vineyard bottlings you prefer. In most years I prefer the Gravelly Meadow as was the case in 1974.
      The Sauret Zinfandel was amazing. For you to like it better than 1964 Latour says something for sure. And it was really claret like with it’s 12% alcohol. These type of wines I believe are destined to return as people tire of the alcoholic, over extracted wines that have evolved in recent years.
      In Vino Veritas,

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