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Retrospective Review

Retrospective Review: Volume 1, Number 6 (June-July, 1980)

John Tilson • 10/6/10        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share


We are currently reproducing a copy of the sixth issue of The Underground Wineletter. Below you’ll find an updated review of each article, where I  go over what we got right and what we got wrong. We will follow this format with each successive issue. So Volume II, Number 1 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.

retroreview-junjul80Volume I, Number 6

With Volume I, Number 6 in June-July 1980, we ended our first year of publication.  My lead editorial was a glimpse of things to come and was titled “It’s Our Anniversary! But The Best Is Yet To Come!”  In it I talked about the launch of our barrels and bottles feature which would review wines in barrel and bottle before they were released for sale.  The idea, which was to prove to be the wave of the future, was “to evaluate some of the best wines before they begin their way through the retail trade.”  I stated our intention to focus on fine wines exclusively – Chardonnay, Cabernet both old and new and other California wines such as Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Gewurztraminer, and also Vintage Ports.  And French wines such as 1978 Burgundies, 1978 Bordeaux and Sauternes, plus older Bordeaux vintage reviews 1970, 1966, 1961, 1928 and 1929 and a review of Chateau Petrus from 1920-1976.  These reviews of older vintages were timely because the older wines were readily available at auctions in England and then through wine merchants in Europe and the U.S.  And, it is important to remember, that this was before the plague of wine fraud was to rear its ugly head!

Our review of 1975 California Cabernet Sauvignon concluded that “While most 1975s will mature earlier than their 1974 counterparts, many are very attractive.”  I’m not so sure that the 1975s did mature earlier.  That fact is that wines from both years drank very well early on and many remain excellent today.

The facts on acreage are particularly interesting.  In 1975, there were 26,788 acres of Cabernet planted, but due to the proliferation of new planting 14,073 acres, or 53% of the total, were not old enough to produce a commercial crop.  This included 31% of the acreage in Napa and 51% of the acreage in Sonoma.  And this was despite a slow down in planting in 1975 to only 440 acres (vs 5,772 acres the previous year).  But, this was just the beginning. As of last year, some 75,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon were planted in California.

We reviewed some 120 1975 Cabernets.  The best wines were from Caymus, Joseph Phelps and Diamond Creek.  These were followed by Cabernets from Robert Mondavi, Ritchie Creek, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Tulocay, Veedercrest Vineyards, Villa Mt. Eden, Burgess Cellars, Chateau St. Jean, Cuvaison, Mayacamas, Sterling Cellars, Arroyo Sonoma, Cakebread Cellars, Chappellet Vineyard, Hacienda Wine Cellars, Heitz Cellars, HMR, Mt. Veeder, Raymond, Ridge, Stonegate and Trefethen.  As you can see many of these are still going strong and some have faded or been absorbed into something else (Villa Mt. Eden, for example, is now Plumpjack).

Two of the 118 wines were rated outstanding, 31 were rated very good, 70 were rated good and 15 were rated below average.  At the top were Caymus, Joseph Phelps and Caymus Special Selection.  We preferred the regular Caymus bottling to the Special Selection.  The difference in the two wines was additional time in oak and a higher price for the Special Selection.  The wines were both made from estate grown grapes.  Of the 1,890 cases produced some 190 were the Special Selection.  Later, all estate grown grapes would go into the Caymus Special Selection, while purchased grapes would be used for bottlings under the Caymus label.  This was to prove a genius marketing idea resulting in a much larger quantity of the Special Selection at a much higher price.

We also really liked the Joseph Phelps bottling which totaled some 2,500 cases.  It was a lovely wine early on, but was one that did mature quite early and the last bottles I drank some 15 years ago were beginning to show a touch of dryness.  We preferred the regular bottling to the small amount of Eisele Vineyard Cabernet that Phelps made in the first vintage of Eisele.  Over the longer term, the Eisele has proven to be the better wine.  It is still delicious today.

The Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow bottling was our favorite of the three (Volcanic Hill and Red Rock Terrace being the other two).  Only 95 cases were produced.  We underrated it a bit in the review.  It has developed into an outstanding wine and is still  lovely today.  Most of the other 1975 Cabernets I have not had in many years, but there are probably still quite a few of the 1975s that are drinking well today.

Next we reviewed 1977 Bordeaux where we concluded that “Like the uninvited dinner guest, they should have stayed home.”  Based on our initial tastings, we felt the wines were not that good and too expensive, so we did not do an extensive tasting.  Only six wines were reviewed with only Lafite meriting a very good rating  I did not have much experience with 1977 Bordeaux in subsequent years.  For despite it being our son, Jeff’s birth year, I did not buy much 1977 Bordeaux except for some magnums of 1977 Lafleur Petrus.

Amazingly, the magnums of 1977 Lafleur Petrus turned out to be lovely and are still drinking very well today.  (I would also add that despite 1977 being a “terrible” “vintage for nearly all French wines, we have had gorgeous bottles of 1977 White Burgundies – 1977 Leflaive Bienvenues Batard Montrachet, 1977 Bonneau du Martray Corton Charlemagne and 1977 Drouhin Marquis de Laguiche Montrachet.  The last bottle of the Leflaive was consumed about five years ago and it was still delicious.  The Corton Charlemagne and Montrachet are still excellent today and the Montrachet, in particular, is really outstanding.)

Next, we reviewed 32 California Chardonnays, mostly 1978s, with a few 1979s.  Two were rated outstanding, 18 were rated very good, 8 were rated good and four were rated below average.  The 1978 Quail Ridge, Lot 2 from vineyards on Mt. Veeder Road in the Mayacamas Mountains and 1978 Zaca Mesa Barrel Fermented were at the top.  We commented that the Zaca Mesa bottling from Santa Ynez was “showing all the fruit flavors and style of the finest Chardonnay produced anywhere in California.”  Both of these Chardonnays were in a very rich style as were many of the other top-rated wines including 1978 David Bruce from Santa Cruz County and a very unusual bottle of 1978 Pendleton Vantana Vineyards from Monterey County.  We called it “… perhaps the most unusual Chardonnay ever!”  Why?  The color “… golden amber with a tinge of pink.”  The taste “…like light syrup.”  Well, I think you get the picture.  California Chardonnay was already pushing the envelope way back then!

In our first Barrels and Bottles feature we advised “…use this as a guide for what promises to be some of the best of upcoming new releases from California.” (And take a look at the article in the original issue on page 13 paying particular attention to the cartoon with the caption “The Underground Wine letter staff has been barrel sampling.”)  We cautioned that the wines reviewed from barrel would not receive a score until after bottling.  And, we offered the notes as only a “…indication of potential quality” with only wines felt to ultimately merit very good to outstanding scores reviewed.  We reviewed more 1978 vintage wines and also a few from the 1976, 1977 and 1979 vintages.  The wineries reviewed included notes on wines from Napa, Sonoma, Monterey, Santa Cruz, Santa Ynez Valley and San Luis Obispo showing the wide diversity of wines and growing areas that were developing in California.

Highlights of our review were the great 1978 Cabernets from Diamond Creek.  Including the first ever review of the legendary 1978 Lake bottling.  We tasted this wine from barrel and felt it was one of the greatest young Cabernets we had ever tasted.  We tried to convince the owner, the late Al Brounstein, to bottle it separately (there was only one barrel – 25 cases), but he insisted he would blend it with Gravelly Meadow as he had done in the past.  Later, as we persisted in trying to persuade him to do a separate bottling, he did just that.  And what a wine it turned out to be.  A case of it sold at the Napa Valley Wine Auction shortly after bottling at a then record price of something like $5,000 for a case.  Today all the 1978 Diamond Creeks are great wines and the 1978 Lake is off the charts!

We also reviewed the superb 1976 and 1978 Insignia bottlings from Joseph Phelps, both of which are still gorgeous wines. And, in our review of the 1977 and 1978 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Cask 23, we preferred the 1978 to the 1977.  But, over time, the 1977 has turned out to be one of the greatest Cask 23s along with others such as the 1978 and 1985.  A number of years ago at an event at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars with then owner Warren Winiarski, we had a jeroboam of 1977 Cask 23 along with the 1985 Cask 23.  Both were outstanding, but the jeroboam of the 1977 Cask 23 was absolutely incredible and over shadowed the bottles of the great 1985 Cask 23.

In Vino Veritas,

John Tilson


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6 comments for “Retrospective Review: Volume 1, Number 6 (June-July, 1980)”

  • Frank MC says:

    What you hit out of the park was the note on the barrel sample of the 79 Jordan CS. That wine is stunning right now. Having worked there a few years back, we had multiple opportunities to open that wine.

    • John Tilson says:

      Thanks Frank.
      This is nice to hear. I have never had an old Jordan Cab.

      • Darrell J says:
        Your comment is awaiting moderation. This is a preview; your comment will be visible after it has been approved.
        John and Frank, early on I bought Jordan’s first vintages and agree these wines have lasted. The 1978 had varietal character for the longest time, didn’t change for a couple of decades. Corks are quality. It is nice to have a Bordeaux-like red from CA that ages.
        • FrankMC says:
          Your comment is awaiting moderation. This is a preview; your comment will be visible after it has been approved.
          It helps having one winemaker who was tutored by Andrè Tchelistcheff, for 40 years. Although Rob Davis recently retired, I believe the 2016 is one of his best. Balance is impeccable. Funny you notice the corks, I’m pretty sure they but the absolute best in the market and their TCA levels are microscopic. Enjoyed an 85 a few weeks back, it was beautiful. Cheers Frank
  • Darrell J. says:

    Hi John,

    I, too, concur with you about the Caymus 1976 regular CS vs. the Special Selection. I do miss the estate bottling, but I can’t blame Charlie and Chuck for that decision seeing how that ground is so great for CS. They used to have Gamay and Riesling in their vineyards and possibly other varietals and I hope those were pulled out for Cab.

    • John Tilson says:

      Thanks Darrell.
      They made the decision which was a really good one. It is a terrific vineyard. This year I hope to get up to Napa and do some barrel tastings. I will concentrate on some of the older, more traditional producers plus a few new ones. But, I will look for balance over oak and extraction as I always do.
      In Vino Veritas,

  • Brian Devine says:

    A few years ago at a ROPP dinner I served a flight which was the battle of the 1985s which consisted of:
    1985 Sassicaia, 1985 Le Pin, 1985 Leroy Hospices de Beaune Madeleine Collignon Mazis Chambertin, and the 1985 Stag Leap’s Wine Cellars Cask 23.
    The Cask 23 was the unanimous favorite and most thought it was a Bordeaux until the unveiling.
    I would love to try the 1977 Cask 23 if it is better.

    • John Tilson says:

      Hi Brian,
      I don’t know how the 1977 cask 23 from bottle would compare with the 1985. The 1977 we had was from a jeroboam that Warren bottled for me as 1977 was our son’s birth year. It was, as far as I know, a unique bottle which I stored in my cellar at 50 degrees for nearly 30 years. And, on the occasion of drinking it a few years ago, it was simply amazing and one of the best California Caberents I have ever had. The 1985s (we had multiple bottles) came from the winery’s reserve. They too were terrific, but the 1977 Jeroboam was even better. I no longer have any Cask 23s from the 70s, but I would venture that properly stored bottles of the 77,78, and 85 are all great today. That would be a good group to pursue for a future ROPP event. And, maybe even throwing in a1982 first growth just for the thrill of it!
      In Vino Veritas,

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