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Retrospective Review

Retrospective Review: Volume II, Number 2 (October-November, 1980)

John Tilson • 5/27/11        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share


We are currently reproducing a copy of Volume II, Number 2 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 II, 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.



Volume II, Number 2   October-November 1980

Some Thoughts On Buying Old Wine

Over 30 years ago, our lead off One Winedrinker’s Opinion editorial was a note of advice and caution entitled “Some Thoughts On Buying Old Wine”. In it, Ed Lazarus, my good friend and then West Coast Associate Editor, talks about bottle variation, the importance of provenance, and good storage. It is a timeless article and is well worth reading today. Those who followed this advice were well served and avoided a lot of grief.

More 1978 White Burgundies

Next was an article on “More 1978 White Burgundies”. We were really impressed with the quality of the wines, but noted, with prices at $35-$69 for the best wines, that “There are many superb wines with prices to match”. Ah, for the good old days! Our favorite wine was the 1978 Louis Jadot Chevalier-Montrachet “Les Demoiselles” which received a rare near perfect score. An image of the bottle graced the cover. It remains an all time classic wine today. It is such a shame that so many of the recent vintages of Louis Jadot White Burgundies have been leveled by the pre-mature oxidation malady known as “Pre-mox”. (I’ll have an article on this phenomenon in a later article). Like wise there were the great Domaine Leflaive wines led by 1978 Domaine Leflaive Bienevenues-Batard-Montrachet and 1978 Domaine Leflaive Chevalier-Montrachet and the great 1978 Louis Latour Corton-Charlemagne (this was many years before Louis Latour lost part of the vineyard to J.F. Coche-Dury and Michel Julliot). Next came the 1978 Domaine Leflaive Batard-Montrachet, the 1978 Louis Latour Batard-Montrachet, and the 1978 Marc Colin Montrachet. Rounding out the list of wines rated Outstanding were the 1978 Louis Jadot Corton-Charlemagne, the 1978 Louis Jadot Montrachet, and the 1978 Louis Latour Montrachet. It is also of interest to note our tasting of the 1978 Marcilly Criots-Batard-Montrachet. We were always diligent in searching for the real truth. In this instance, we had a bottle from the West Coast importer which was oxidized. So we got a bottle from the East Coast importer that was not oxidized. We made note of that fact and gave the wine a Very Good score based on the bottle that was not oxidized. We also advised “Caveat Emptor”. It was not unusual in those days to have Burgundies (White and Red) that had been the victims of poor conditions (most notably excessive heat resulting in oxidation) in shipping and storage from the producers to distributors/wholesalers to retailers.

More 1976 Cabernet Sauvignons

An article on “More 1976 Cabernet Sauvignons” followed. The year 1976 was the first of two consecutive drought years. Our favorite wine this time around was a Very Good 1976 Cabernet Sauvignon HMR “Hoffman Vineyard” from Paso Robles! This followed the trend of our earlier tasting in Volume I, Number1 where a number of the top Cabernets were from Santa Cruz. Next came a number of mostly Napa Valley Cabernets with Very Good ratings. The 1976s were difficult to taste young. Some were picked too late and exhibited dried fruit (raisin and prune) flavors. These wines were not good and were a negative factor in some people’s assessment of the vintage. Also, some of the wines had a lot of tannin. In retrospective, we under-rated  the 1976 Joseph Phelps “Insignia”. Also, we under-rated the 1976 Diamond Creek Vineyards Red Rock Terrace (259 cases produced) and the 1976 Diamond Creek Vineyards Volcanic Hill about which we said was no where near ready to drink, but had potential for the future. All of these wines are Outstanding today (and the 1976 Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow with only 122 cases produced is even better!) At the bottom was Almaden, a perennial under-achiever that is now defunct, with its 1976 Almaden “California” Cabernet Sauvignon. It was joined at the bottom by two Santa Barbara County Cabernet Sauvignons – 1976 David Bruce Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Barbara County Los Olivos and 1976 Zaca Mesa Santa Barbara Cabernet Sauvignon. From the very beginning the Cabernet Sauvignons from Santa Barbara County were not very good. And, while somewhat better today, after over 40 years it seems pretty clear that Cabernet Sauvignon is best from areas other than Santa Barbara County.

Recently Released California Chardonnays

Our review of “Recently Released California Chardonnays” consisted of 55 wines from the 1978 and 1979 vintages. We noted that they were relative bargains at $12.50 – $16.00

for the best wines as compared to White Burgundies at several times that price, but also mentioned that Chardonnay prices were in an upward spiral to $15.00 or more. Having said all that we also cautioned: “…some Chardonnays seem like relative bargains, but it’s like comparing apples and oranges. A White Burgundy is a White Burgundy. A Chardonnay is a Chardonnay. They are not often similar. Still with such a price disparity, it seems easy, for example, to prefer apples over oranges, although those with a taste for oranges would find them hard to live without. This is the stuff higher prices are made of.”

That is still mostly true today. There are many more Chardonnays today. Some are more Burgundian. But, sadly, many of the big numbers Chardonnays are heavy, cumbersome, and out of balance. The best California Chardonnays are still wines like Mt. Eden Chardonnay Estate Bottled. Some of the big numbers heavy-handed Chardonnays that are priced like great White Burgundies are simply ludicrous. Interestingly, this article included reviews of the first Chardonnays from a new winery in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County. That winery was Kistler and the first vintage was 1979. This was probably the first review of Kistler wines anywhere. Our favorite of the Kistler Chardonnays reviewed was the 1979 Kistler California Chardonnay Dutton Ranch. Made in a very rich, ripe style, we opined that it should develop for a few years. In fact, it turns out that most Kistler Chardonnays are best young. In fact, over the years they have seemed to go the opposite of the trend in White Burgundy getting richer and fatter while White Burgundies have emphasized balance and finesse. This is no doubt driven by the big numbers trend for bigger, more extracted wines. A 1978 Matanzas Creek Chardonnay Sonoma (partially made from Dutton Ranch grapes) and a 1978 Mt. Eden Vineyards Chardonnay Estate Bottled were also rated Outstanding and totaled only 3 wines out of the 55 reviewed. In speaking of the Mt. Eden Chardonnay, we noted way back then that the site nearly always produced excellent Chardonnay. Today over 30 years later nearly every vintage has been outstanding and nearly every vintage is still remarkably alive and delicious. The 1978 was a particularly ripe, rich vintage. Amazingly, the wine is still great today. So, for me, the message is very clear. And, it is one I have often repeated over the years; but the trend is still very much intact with each passing year. Very simply, the Chardonnays from the Mt. Eden Vineyards Estate are consistently the best and most age worthy of all California Chardonnays. They have an unparalleled track record that no other California Chardonnay can come close to matching.

Wine Price Trends

Next came an article that I wrote on wine price trends. It was motivated, I suppose, by the upward spiral in price trends that I had noted in my articles on White Burgundies and Chardonnays. My conclusion was that “Unfortunately, no matter how dear a coveted bottle or bottles seem today, the almost inescapable conclusion is that the wine will be substantially more expensive a year from now.” This was a statement that I often repeated for over 30 years. It has proven to be extremely accurate. I followed my own advice as did many of my friends and subscribers to the Underground. We have been all well rewarded. This article also talks about Bordeaux pricing and mentions the Bordeaux Price Index which was created by Decanter magazine in August, 1978. For any one interested in the beginning of the near straight up price increases in Bordeaux prices since, I strongly recommend that you read this article. And, always remember, that nothing, but nothing goes up forever. It is for this reason, combined with “vintages of the century” now approaching 50% of all recent vintages, that I think that this upward price spiral in Bordeaux is very long in the tooth. Prices are very inflated and there are simply too many speculators in the market now. If you are one of them, good luck!

Barrels and Bottles

The final article was one that we called Barrels and Bottles. It was designed to be a guide to some of the best Pre-release California wines. We were very early in doing this and we did not try to attach a score to wines that were not released. Rather we were trying to alert people to what we thought might be some the best wines that would be coming to market in the future. Later, we would initiate these kinds of tastings in France by going to Burgundy and Bordeaux to taste beginning in 1981. This article includes glowing reviews on many wines including those from wineries that were not in Napa Valley such as Chateau St. Jean, Iron Horse Vineyards, Matanzas Creek, Mount Eden Vineyards, and Ridge Vineyards as well as a few others including the initial 1978 Pinot Noirs from Calera Wine Company. The 1978 Calera Pinot Noirs were made from 4 year old vines planted in limestone soil in the Gavilan mountains. The quantities produced were miniscule. The three original vineyards were Jensen, Reed, and Selleck. The production of Jensen and Reed was 25 cases each, while Selleck produced only 15 cases. Subsequently, the wines were bottled only in half bottles. We noted then that Calera was a winery to watch. Indeed! I recently visited with Josh Jensen, the founder and proprietor, to taste barrel samples and unreleased wines (the results will be published in an upcoming article). I took a half bottle of Jensen and Reed from my cellar. We had them over dinner with some other older Calera wines (these notes will also appear in the upcoming article).

Stay tuned. I think the results will surprise you!

How To Make Great Wine

Finally, we concluded with a brief note and graphic representation of traditional techniques to make great wine. Take a look below.

to make great wines there's no substitute for traditional techniques

In Vino Veritas,Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard

John Tilson



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