A Guide to Wine, Food & the Good Life


John Tilson • 5/25/11        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share

I recently wrote an article including tasting notes on a trade tasting of California Pinot Noirs “In Pursuit Of Balance.” It was held at RN74 in San Francisco. The purpose was to showcase California Pinot Noirs that are balanced and not overly extracted and alcoholic. It was a great success. And, if you did not see my article, please take a look at it under Trade Tastings. After the tasting we had a lovely dinner at the restaurant. It is relatively new and serves very good food. The restaurant is very wine friendly and features an extensive wine list highlighting Burgundy from A to Z. The restaurant is named for the famous road that runs through the heart of Burgundy. Every one had brought wines and people were buying wines off the wine list. Many of the wines were being circulated around. In this respect, it was sort of like a mini “La Paulee” which is the famous traditional Burgundy celebration in honor of the grape harvest. “La Paulee” has now been commercialized and is being repeated in various locations each year. These events are attended by large numbers of people with great Burgundies passed around and flowing like water. Our little function was nothing like that. It was more restrained, but we did have some terrific wines.

Original image from the cover of Volume II, Number 2  October-November 1980For me the most impressive white wine I tasted was a 1978 Louis Jadot Chevalier-Montrachet Les Demoiselles.  In my book, this wine is a legend. I wrote it up with a glowing, near perfect review in the October-November 1980 issue of The Underground Wineletter (The original image from the cover of this issue is shown on the left) . We loved the 1978 Burgundy vintage, both red and white, and this wine was one of the best White Burgundies of the vintage. I had quite a few bottles which I drank over many years into the late 1990s. They were all great. Alas, I have no more. Apparently, more than 1 bottle of this wine had been opened and someone said that the bottle I tasted was not quite as good as another one. Perhaps. But, then that always seems to be the case at group tastings with different people. For me, this wine was terrific. Not the very best bottle of the wine that I have ever tasted, but still extraordinary.  Below is my tasting note:

1978 Louis Jadot Chevalier-Montrachet Les Demoiselles. Light gold in color, the wine has a stunning perfume with honeyed, citrus, spice, and hazelnut nuances. Balanced with gorgeous flavor and finesse, it has balance and complexity with a long lingering finish. Maybe there’s a better bottle, but this works for me. It is really sad that so many of the recent White Burgundies from this venerable estate have succumbed to the malady of premature oxidation or Pre-Mox as it is unaffectionately  known. White Burgundies like this great 1978 are to be savored and enjoyed after many years in the bottle –- Extraordinary. 4-yellow-stars

There were  quite a few Red Burgundies that were opened. But the stars of the show, for me, were the two old California Pinot Noirs that I brought. They both had been in my cellar since release. The wines were 1978 Chalone Vineyard Pinot Noir Estate and 1979 Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noir Estate. The wines were tasted by quite a few people including several of the winemakers who were there. Everyone who tasted them was blown away. They raved about the complexity, depth, and balance of the wines and how they had evolved so beautifully over the 30 plus years. All marveled about the still youthful freshness of the wines. And, several said things like “Wow. We’ve really got our work cut out for us.” We started with the 1978 Chalone Vineyard  Pinot Noir Estate. People were simply amazed. I related the story of how, after tasting hundreds of 1978 Red Burgundies for The Underground Wineletter in the early 1980s, my friends and I decided to do a tasting of the best ones including wines from DRC, Leroy, Jayer, etc. And in this tasting of some 100 different bottles of the best 1978 Red Burgundies, we decided to put the 1978 Chalone in the tasting as a “ringer.” The tasting was done in three sessions over two days.  There were many really good tasters and Burgundy aficionados from all over the world at the tasting and no one identified the Chalone as a “ringer.” However, it was included as one of the top wines of the tasting on nearly everyone’s list! It continues today, as evidenced by this bottle, to be one of the greatest Pinot Noirs ever made in California. Later we poured the 1979 Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noir Estate. Everyone too was raving about it. And, soon Larry Stone appeared at our table. (Larry is a Master Sommelier and renowned for his wine knowledge and tasting abilities. I have known Larry for over 30 years. I first met him in the 1970s when he was the Sommelier at the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel in Seattle. Later we tasted wine together as he moved to Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago and then Rubicon in San Francisco. Currently, Larry is President of Evening Land Vineyards. I was delighted to see him earlier at the tasting after being out of touch for many years.) “John,” he exclaimed, “this wine is fabulous. It is one of my all time favorite California Pinot Noirs.” He went on to say how he had visited Ken Burnap, the founder and winemaker, at the winery on Jarvis Road and tasted the 1979 out of barrel. At that point, he was mesmerized by the wine, feeling it was the best young Pinot Noir he had ever tasted. And, later he purchased some which he drank with great pleasure over many years, but regretted that he had not saved a few. He continued to rhapsodize about the complexity and balance of the wine and how fantastic it had become with age. Need I say he was impressed? And, like Larry, I too was very impressed with Ken’s wines. Starting with the first vintage in 1975, I tasted wines from barrel at Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard every year for many, many years. I wrote many glowing reviews on these wines in the early issues of The Underground Wineletter. Today, there are some really fabulous Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noirs like this 1979. They include the 1975 and the 1977, to mention a few of the oldest ones, which are also absolutely great today.

Below are my notes on these two legendary California Pinot Noirs:

1978 Chalone Vineyard Pinot Noir Estate. Deep in color with a faint amber edge, this Pinot Noir has a knock-out perfume of plums and berries with a faint hint of exotic spice and green olive. With gorgeous fruit and great complexity, the wine is supple and rounded with a long lingering finish. Impeccably balanced and like velvet on the palate, this is a true legend in the history of California Pinot Noir with a long life ahead –- Extraordinary. 4-yellow-stars


1979 Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noir Estate. Dark in color with a faint amber edge, this wine has a stunningly complex perfume of dried leaves, vanilla, plum, and exotic spice. It is rich with layers of complex flavors. Lots of fruit and forest-like flavor components accented by faint hints of vanilla and spice all are melded together in a seamless fashion and follow through on a long finish. Underneath there is a brightness from the acidity, that holds the promise of a very long life for the wine ahead. Sadly, the old Jarvis vineyard that was the basis for this wine was pulled out and replanted in 2005 after the property was sold. But wines from this vineyard, like this 1979, and others like the 1975 and 1977, are lasting evidence of the great potential for California Pinot Noir and Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir in particular –- Extraordinary. 4-yellow-stars

So there you have it. A tasting starting with an objective of finding balance in California Pinot Noir and ending with two great California Pinot Noirs that are over 30 years old. Based on the greatness of these wines, I’d say we never completely lost balance  in California Pinot Noir. But the beauty of the wine has certainly been debased by those who practice over-extraction, high alcohol, and manipulative wine making in the name of pleasing the big numbers gods. Fortunately, there are many others who have chosen to not drink the kool aid.  And to those who follow in the footsteps of some of  the  early pioneers who have produced great Pinot Noir for the ages, the future is indeed bright for California Pinot Noir. That is as it should be and just as I predicted in the first issue of The Underground Wineletter in August of 1979!

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  • Darrell says:

    Hi John,
    In addressing Ron on May 2011 about Chalone and SCMV Pinots, I finally opened my first ’75 and ’77 SCMV Pinots around then, too. I definitely preferred the ’77. Amazing Pinot! I have been drinking up my ’78 Chalone all along, but neglected opening a bottle of the ’77 all these years and I am glad to hear it, too, is very good. I might have not opened the ’77 because I had been drinking the ’77 Chalone young vine Pinot and that is mighty fine too as it was had recently. Recently opened a ’77 Joe Swan Pinot at a fancy Reno steakhouse within a casino and couldn’t finish the bottle with my wife so I asked for a casino wine glass so I could finish the wine at the gaming tables. Somebody next to my wife at the table said “that sure smells good.” Gotta a kick out of that. By way of identification, I’m the guy who purchased the Heublein Auction 1946 Beaumont for what was a pretty penny then. Still have one bottle of this nectar of the gods.


    • John Tilson says:

      Thanks Darrell,
      Yes the old Pinots from Chalone, Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards, and Joe Swan can be great. I am very pleased that I bought the wines and kept them. They are delicious to drink now!
      In Vino Veritas,

  • John Steach says:

    John, was there a 1979 and a MV 78/79? SCMV

    • John Tilson says:

      Hi John,
      There was a 1979 Estate and I think there might have been a 78/79 blend as well. You might want to check back through the old Underground issues.
      In Vino Veritas,

  • John Steach says:

    Great stuff John, I’m sorry I missed you for the last 30 years,I found you on cellartracker. Lots of reading to catch up on. Love the article on the
    Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noir Estate. I was just able to purchase a 75,77,78/79,82. I has been 20 years since a last tasted. Can’t wait !!!
    Thanks again.

  • Jeffrey E. Prag says:

    I was fortunate enough to meet Ken and visit the winery many times in the late 70s and early 80s, having been turned on to his wines from early Underground Wineletter reviews (an original subscriber). Last year I opened my last magnum of the 79 Pinot Noir, and it was as you described it above–magnificent. I have exactly one bottle remaining, an 82 Pinot Noir, which I am saving for some special occasion or other. Thank you for reminding us how great a job Ken was doing for so many years.

    • John Tilson says:

      Thanks Jeffrey,
      Ken’s wines are legends. They are the kind of wines we need more of today. Jeff Emery is following in his footsteps at the new Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard and is making excellent wines. You can check out my articles on the web site and should get on their mailing list. The sister winery, Quinta Cruz, launched by Jeff, is also terrific.
      I’m glad you found the new Underground. Please pass it along.
      In Vino Veritas,

  • Dr. Ron Light says:

    John, I could not agree with you more! about the two California Pinot Noirs. I still have two bottles of the Chalone 1978. One is signed
    by Dick Graff and Phil Woodward.It is in my
    opinion the finest California Pinot I have ever
    tasted ! As to Ken Burnap and the Santa Cruz
    Mtn. he was a very good friend and winemaker but unforntunatly I finished all his wines when
    he sold the winery and went to Mexico.. RON

    • John Tilson says:

      Thanks Ron.
      The 1977 Chalone Pinot Noir is also great and the equal of the 1978. I took one to Mt. Eden this week and drank it with Jefferey Patterson and some other people along with the 1977 Mt. Eden. The Mt. Eden was lovely and the Chalone sensational. I have had several bottles of the 78 and 77 Chalone from my cellar in the last year or so. All have been exceptional. Ken’s 77 SCMV Pinot Noir is also off the charts great. After he sold the winery he and his wife bought a boat and went on a cruise around the world that lasted 6 years! They’re back now and spend their time in Mexico and Aptos. I had dinner with them in Aptos a few weeks ago. We had two 75 SCMV Pinots, one in French oak, the other in American oak. Both were gorgeous, but the French oak was a bit better. I took a 1976 Swan Zinfandel from my cellar. What a wine! Stunning. A great wine by any standard! Old California wines are great!
      In Vino Veritas,

  • rhoda sharp says:

    I love pinot noirs. What’s good and reasonable now? I’m spending a small fortune on a full time care giver which I will need another 6 weeks

    • John Tilson says:

      Hi Rhoda,
      I hope you are doing well. Notes on current Pinot Noirs can be found in the articles on Tyler Winery and Santa Cruz Mountain Winery as well as in the trade tasting article on Pinot Noir.
      In Vino Veritas,

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