Earlier this year I attended a wine and food dinner featuring old Santa Cruz Mountain wines from two of the early pioneers, Hallcrest and Martin Ray. There was also an old BV Pinot Noir from Napa Valley, a very old Madeira, and a very rare Cabernet from Hanzell. And, for starters there was a wonderful Franck Bonville Champagane. The event was hosted by K&L Wines and included Clyde Beffa, Jr., the co-founder with Todd Zucker of K&L in 1976, and members of the K&L staff as well as noted wine and food authority and the owner of Corti Brothers, Darrell Corti. K&L has three store locations, a terrific selection of wines at great prices, a very extensive and easy to use website and a very knowledgeable service staff. The Corti Brothers store is in Sacramento. Corti Brothers also has a very interesting website and a terrific newsletter. They offer a wide variety of unusual and great foods and wines that are often unique. I have been a customer of both K&L and Corti Brothers for many years. And, both are listed in Links To Our Friends which has links to their websites. If you are not familiar with them I highly recommend that you check them out and get on the mailing lists. Also, in attendance was Gary Westby, the old wine specialist and Champagne buyer at K&L, Jim Westby, the father of Gary Westby and photographer, and my old friend John Brincko, who is a contributing editor to this publication. The wines had been acquired from two different underground private cellars in the Bay area and consisted of some five dozen bottles in total. At this dinner there were 21 different wines. There was one bottle of each wine, except in one instance where there were two. The remaining bottles of the old wines were subsequently sold by K&L. The event was held at John Bentley’s Restaurant in Redwood City www.johnbentleys.com. The food was really good and paired very nicely with the wines.
A copy of the menu and wines served is reproduced below. (The 1959 Hanzell Cabernet which I brought is not on the list, but was served with the last group of Hallcrest Cabernet Sauvignons. And, the old Madeira is also not on the list, but was served at the end of the meal.) This is followed by a brief history of some of the wines and wineries. At the end of article there are notes and ratings on the wines presented and my concluding remarks.
Hallcrest. Hallcrest was purchased by the Hall family in the 1880s. It sits on the crest above the town of Felton in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Chaffee Hall planted the Hallcrest Estate Vineyard in 1941 and built an on site winery in 1945. The first wines were released in 1946. The grape varieties were White Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon. I have drunk many of the Hallcrest Cabernet Sauvignons over the years and still have bottles in my cellar as far back as 1947. Although there are many great old Hallcrest Cabernet Sauvignons, the greatest surely is the 1947 which is one of the greatest old Cabernets ever made in California (and from young vines no less!) After Chaffee Hall retired in the early 1970s, it was operated as Felton Empire winery who produced White Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon. I still have Felton Empire Cabernets from 1976 and 1977 in my cellar as well as some late harvest White Rieslings. The wines are remarkably good and still evolving. In 1987, the John Schumaker family purchased the property and restored the original Hallcrest Vineyards name and label. Today the wines are made from purchased grapes from different vineyards in California.
Martin Ray. Martin Ray was a true wine pioneer. After prohibition, the California wine industry was in disarray. There were a few producers such as Inglenook in Napa Valley who produced stunning wines in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. But, there were very few others. Interestingly, among the few were wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains. Martin Ray began at Paul Masson in the 1930s after prohibition and soon had his own vineyards and winery which he established in 1943. He has been described as passionate, temperamental, flamboyant, independent, and often offensive. And, some went so far as to call him a crook (see Old Wine, Fine Wine written by the late Roy Brady and published in 1989). But, Martin Ray also had a certain personal magnetism that drew people to him.
Many years ago when I first began drinking wine, I can remember a wine buddy, George Starke, talking about Martin Ray. Back in the day, George knew him quite well and often visited him. When Martin Ray incorporated Mount Eden Vineyards he asked George to be the Treasurer. George agreed, but soon he saw clouds on the horizon and resigned his position. This proved to be a wise decision as Martin Ray and the shareholders disagreed and ultimately Martin Ray lost control of the company. George described Martin as having a very strange personality. On the one hand, he could charm the birds out of the trees, according to George. And, Martin Ray was always a gracious and exciting host who was always the center of attention at any gathering. But, on the other hand, there was a very dark side to his personality which included flying into a rage with anyone who disagreed with him. George also described Martin Ray wines as sometimes terrible, often very good or great, but always expensive. That was our experience back in the day. And, over the years, I have had many other experiences with Martin Ray wines that correlate pretty much as George described. George and his wife, Bette, now own and operate a bed and breakfast inn in Napa Valley. It is called The Zinfandel House and is located in Calistoga at the North end of the Napa Valley. George and Bette are great hosts. And, if you are in the area, I would recommend that you spend some time there and get some perspective on old California wines and Martin Ray. You can check it out at www.zinfandelhouse.com .
One of Martin Ray’s lasting influences was his constant vigilance in advocating varietal labeling and enforcement. He also believed in using mountain grown grapes to make the best wines and intuitive winemaking. It was the “intuitive winemaking” part that I think contributed to his occasionally producing some strange results. But despite this, Martin Ray wines could also be brilliant. That dichotomy seems to me to be consistent with the man’s personality. And, despite his idiosyncrasies, Martin Ray was a pioneer and a true visionary. Martin Ray passed away in 1976 (interestingly, the first of the two great California drought years). But, as was the case with Martin Ray throughout his life, there was turmoil and controversy right up to the end. The result is that today the legacy of Martin Ray lives in two different places (and, if you consider his surviving family members, I guess you could say three.)
Mount Eden Vineyards. Shortly before Martin Ray’s death the Martin Ray property came under the control of shareholders to whom Martin Ray had sold stock over the years. They began producing wines under the Mount Eden Vineyards label in 1972. The rights to the old Martin Ray wines and the Martin Ray label were retained by the Ray family. The late Dick Graff, founder of Chalone Vineyard, made the first wines under this label. Then Merry Edwards made the wines for a few years before leaving to help start Matanzas Creek Winery in Sonoma. And, today Mount Eden Vineyards www.mounteden.com operates the old Martin Ray winery and harvests grapes from some of the original vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains above Saratoga. This last period, now approaching some four decades, has been a phenomenal period, particularly the last 30 years or so. It is during this time, under the direction of Jeffrey Patterson, that Mount Eden Vineyards has been consistently producing some of the best Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs, and Cabernets in California. I have been recommending these wines in the Underground for this entire period. And, I own them, and drink them regularly. They age beautifully and will be a great asset to anyone’s cellar. Everyone should experience these wines and I encourage you to go to the website and get on their mailing list. Also, if you are interested in reading all about the history of Martin Ray as seen through the eyes of his wife, Eleanor, you can purchase the book Vineyards in the Sky by going to the Mount Eden website.
Martin Ray Winery. In 1990, Courtney Benham walked through an old warehouse in San Jose and discovered 1500 cases of old Martin Ray wines. After researching Martin Ray, he subsequently bought the old wine library and the rights to the Martin Ray label from the Ray family. Today wines are made in Santa Rosa bearing the Martin Ray label and using mountain grown grapes and the intuitive winemaking techniques of Martin Ray. I have yet to taste any wines from here, but I look forward to tasting them some time in the future. This would tie together the old, mostly estate wines from Martin Ray (the man), and the new interpretation of Martin Ray (the label.) Martin Ray reincarnated in a new place with new sources of grapes and his name should be quite interesting. I wonder what Martin Ray would think? Stay tuned!
Beaulieu Vineyards. Beaulieu Vineyards, or BV for short, is one of the oldest continually operating wineries in America. Beaulieu (translated as “beautiful place” in French) was founded by Georges de Latour in 1900. The winery and vineyards are located in Rutherford in the heart of the Napa Valley. BV Ranch #1 consisting of 128 acres was purchased in 1903. In 1906 BV Ranch #2 was purchased. BV survived the years of prohibition when most wineries closed by obtaining a contract to produce sacramental wine for the Catholic Church. In 1933 Prohibition was repealed and BV Ranch #3 was purchased. The original vines were replanted some 20 years ago. The company’s flagship Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon bears Georges de Latour’s name. The first vintage was 1936. In terms of old BVs, in the period of the 1940s and 1950s there were some memorable Private Reserve Cabernets and Beaumont Pinot Noirs made. These would include such wines as the 1951 and 1958 BV Private Reserves and the 1942, 1945 and 1946 Beaumont Pinot Noirs. Today the winery has broadened its product offering, Wines are made from estate grown grapes as well as purchased grapes. The emphasis is on Cabernet Sauvignon and the Beaumont Pinot Noir is no longer made.
Hanzell Vineyards. In 1948 Ambassador James D. Zellerbach acquired 200 acres in the Mayacamas Mountains of Sonoma. The vision was to produce wines that would rival the great wines of Burgundy. The first six acres were planted in 1953 and that vineyard is now the oldest Pinot Noir vineyard in America. In 1956 a small gravity fed winery was built based on the 12th century press house at Clos de Vougeot in the heart of Burgundy. Brad Webb was hired that year as the winemaker. The name Hanzell was a contraction of Mrs. Hana Zellerbach’s name. The first vintage was 1957 and in the late 1950s total production was around 700 cases a year. Hanzell was a pioneer in the utilization of winemaking techniques that are widespread now, but unusual in those days. These included Stainless Steel Fermenters and the use of French oak barrels for aging. In 1965, after the death of Ambassador Zellerbach, the winery was sold. In 1973, Brad Webb hired Bob Sessions as winemaker. Bob continued the tradition and over a period of three decades produced many memorable wines. In 1975 the winery was sold to the de Brye family who continue as the owners today. In 1976 another 30 acres of vineyard were added. Today the estate has grown to 42 acres which produce some 6.000 cases annually (75% Chardonnay and 24% Pinot Noir). The historic winemaking practices today are under the direction of winemaker Michael McNeill.
My old friend and Contributing Editor, Ed Lazarus, and I have always had a keen interest in old wines. When I first met him he was already well down the road and I joined him in the quest which continues to this day. Back then we were often joined by “The Kid,” Geoffrey Troy, also a now old friend and Contributing Editor. And, a few others also joined along the way such as John Brincko and Dr. Bipin Desai, both old friends and Contributing Editors as well. Our quest for old wines included the great old wines of California. We searched them out, bought them, drank them, and cellared a few. We learned a lot. By the time The Underground Wineletter was launched I had done some 10 years of drinking, learning, and investigating. So it was an obvious choice to start with an article on old wines and I chose Pinot Noir. In those days no one thought much about Pinot Noir. But, my friends and I did. In the first ever Underground Wineletter (First Vintage-First Crush August-September 1979), I wrote an article entitled “Old Pinot Noirs vs. Burgundy” (If you would like to read that article in its entirety click here). My general observation then was that old California Pinot Noirs were capable of being great based on the wines tasted from the 1940s and 1950s. This was based on the efforts of pioneer producers such as Hanzell, Martin Ray, and BV. After a bit of a lapse, in the mid to late 1960s – early 1970s, new producers began to appear with really terrific Pinot Noirs. These included Chalone, Joseph Swan Vineyards, and ZD. These were followed by others such as Mount Eden Vineyards and Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard in the early to mid 1970s. Based on these two factors of a few great old California Pinot Noirs and the promise of the new Pinot Noir producers, I observed the following: “…a swan song was averted and the launching of Pinot Noirs ugly duckling transformation began.” And, despite some speed bumps (manipulative winemaking, overripe grapes, too much alcohol, addition of other wine such as Syrah, just to name a few), the transformation that I observed some 35 years ago continues with more and more really good California Pinot Noirs being made each year. (Stay tuned. I will have notes on some of these now old California Pinot Noirs from the 1970s and 1980s in future articles. And, for sure, I will have lot more future articles on the guys today that I think are making really good Pinot Noir.)
The bottle on the cover of the first issue of The Underground Wineletter was 1946 BV Pinot Noir which received an outstanding rating (along with a 1952 DRC Grands Echezeaux.) My comment on the 1946 BV then was: “Having stood the test of time and displaying all the characteristics of great wine, surely this would have to be called the finest mature California Pinot Noir that one could drink.”
Other noteworthy California Pinot Noirs mentioned in the article were the 1942 BV and the 1951 Martin Ray. Both of these wines were rated “Very Good.” The 1942 BV had lots of ripe fruit. The 1951 Martin Ray was described as having very good fruit and complexity as well as high acidity. My concluding observation on the Martin Ray was that: “Bottled in a Champagne bottle this is certainly one of California’s most esoteric old wines.” And, I stand behind this same observation today as you will see in the notes that follow on other old Martin Ray vintages.
Franck Bonville Blanc de Blancs Belles Voyes Champagne. This is the prestige cuvée from Franck Bonville. Although it does not say so on the bottle, this wine is 100% from the great 2004 vintage. The grapes come from the small 1 ¾ acre estate-owned, old vines Grand Cru vineyard in Oger which was planted in the 1920s and 1930s. Because the vines are very old and produce wines that are very consistent year to year, Franck Bonville chooses not to use a vintage and uses only the name of the vineyard. Annual production totals only about 3,000 bottles. This Champagne is stunning. The color is light yellow and there is a gorgeous perfume of citrus and minerals with floral, peach undertones and a hint of spice. It is rich and flavorful, but with great finesse. Citrus, floral and peach flavors are followed by a kiss of spice and a very faint mineral nuance. Just now there is a lovely creaminess which is sure to intensify as the wine ages. This is a great Champagne with balance, structure, flavor and a long, crisp finish. It should age gracefully over a long period of time – Extraordinary.
1952 Martin Ray Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay. This wine was bottled in a Champagne bottle with the indented cork held in by a metal clamp. This is the old style of cork used in Champagne until it was replaced by the wire cage and capsule. This wine is golden in color with a nice floral, faintly buttery and spicy perfume. It is rich and rounded with firm acidity underneath. The flavors hint of spice, butter, and dried flowers and there is a nice crispness on the finish. At nearly 60 years of age this wine is amazing – Outstanding.
1954 Martin Ray Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay. This wine was also bottled in the same style Champagne bottle as the 1952. Golden in color with a touch of amber this Chardonnay has a spicy perfume with a faint tinge of caramel. On the palate it is rich with faintly buttery, spicy, vanilla, and caramel tinged flavors. Underneath is a firm core of citrus and the wine finishes very crisp with a pronounced citrus tinge. It may be even more amazing than the 1952. I say “may be” because after the tasting and dinner were finished some one noticed that there was another bottle of the 1954 that had been opened. There were five or six of us still at the table so, of course, we had to drink it. The two bottles of 1954 were nearly identical. And, the 1954 may have made more of an impression than the 1952 because I drank more of it! No matter, it is a great old Chardonnay that still has so much vibrancy that it is hard to guess how long it might last – Outstanding Plus.
1956 Martin Ray Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Blanc de Noir. Yes, this is a white wine made from Pinot Noir grapes. This unusual wine is golden in color with an amber tone and has a deep perfume with hazelnut, burnt butter, and spice nuances. It is rich and flavorful with burnt butter and hazelnut nuances and a tart citrus tinged finish. Still vibrant and alive, the acidity in this wine is amazing – Highly Recommended.
1957 Martin Ray Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Blanc de Noir. Very similar to the 1956 this wine has golden color with an amber tone and a burnt butter, nutty, faintly spicy perfume. Rich with burnt butter and spice flavors it to has a tart citrus tinged finish – Highly Recommended.
1945 Beaulieu Vineyards Napa Valley Beaumont Pinot Noir. This is a gorgeous old BV Pinot Noir that I would say ranks right up there with the 1946. It has a deep color with some amber and an amber edge. The perfume is lovely showing faint hints of herbs and green olive with just a touch of smokiness and spice. Soft, rounded, and silky, and still retaining its fruit, the wine has complex flavors of herbs, green olive and spice and a long crisp finish – Outstanding Plus.
1952 Martin Ray Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir. This wine and all the other Martin Ray Pinot Noirs were bottled in the same style Champagne bottles as the Chardonnays. With a nice light color just amber at the edge this wine has a perfume of dried leaves with a faint underlying floral and spice nuance. It is flavorful and has fruit with a faintly spicy and herbal undertone. Underneath is firm acidity which leads to a crisp finish – Highly Recommended.
1954 Martin Ray Santa Cruz Pinot Noir. This is a remarkable wine. It has a deep color with some amber at the edge and a complex perfume with hints of chocolate, spice, and a faint herbal undertone. The wine has complex flavors hinting of bacon, dried roses, spice, and dried herbs. Rounded and quite lush, yet with a very firm backbone this Pinot Noir is quite vigorous and a pleasure to drink – Outstanding Plus.
1954 Martin Ray Santa Cruz Pinot Noir Third Crush. This wine was made from grapes harvested three weeks later than the regular crop. It is amazingly fruity. The color is deep with an amber edge and the perfume shows cassis and raspberry interwoven with floral, herbal nuances. Rounded and flavorful with cassis and plum nuances there is also a floral, spice, and dried herbs complexity. Here the acidity is somewhat masked, but there is no question that the wine has structure and length – Outstanding Plus.
1956 Martin Ray Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir. With a deep amber tinged color, this is a complex wine with a lovely perfume of dried leaves and flowers intermingled with hints of spice. It is very flavorful with a nice underlying fruit and a spice and faintly chocolate quality backed by a crisp finish – Outstanding Plus
NV Martin Ray “La Montana” Woodside Cabernet. This wine was made from grapes grown on the Rixford La Questa Vineyard in Woodside. It was made by the owner, Halsey Rixford. Martin Ray bought quite a number of barrels of the wine after Halsey decided to sell the vineyard. The barrels were from different years (probably from the mid 1940s) and the wine had spent quite a long time in the barrel when Martin Ray bought it. Subsequently, he blended and bottled it under the La Montana label. It is a very unique wine and the exact age is not known. With a nice light color showing a hint of amber the wine has a lovely perfume with a tinge of hazelnuts and spice. It has delicate fruit flavors and a slight underlying nuttiness and a crisp finish. Quite unusual, but, nonetheless, a lovely and tasty Cabernet – Highly Recommended.
1947 Martin Ray Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon. This Cabernet was also bottled in the same style champagne bottle as the others. It has an amazingly dark color and an unusual perfume that hints of sauerkraut and green olive with a floral nuance. It is rich and round with lots of fruit backed by an earthy, faintly spicy undertone. The backbone is still there and the wine has lots of flavor and vigor – Outstanding Plus.
1950 Hallcrest Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a curious bottle. The printed year 1948 is crossed out and the year 1950 written in. In this era, this was sometimes done under different circumstances which could include: a large inventory of unused old labels, a small production which didn’t merit getting new labels, or maybe just to save some money. It also might have been that some bottles were not labeled. Then, at a later date, there were no more labels from that vintage so older labels were used and the correct vintage written in. After all this time, it is impossible to know, but it is highly unlikely that someone decided that it would be better to have 1950 on the bottle than the vintage 1948 which was printed. Well, so much for that. But, the wine inside is also unusual. It has a deep color and a distinct earthy, peppery perfume with herbal undertones. It is flavorful and quite rich with good fruit and more subdued flavor elements than the nose would suggest. And, underneath the wine is firm and finishes with a distinct crispness. All in all, it is the most different of all the Hallcrest Cabernets presented – Recommended.
1951 Hallcrest Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon. Dark in color with some amber, this wine has a great perfume of ripe fruit and earthy, faintly peppery nuances. It is rich and flavorful with complex flavors, of earth, spice and a faint peppery quality. There is ample fruit and the wine still retains a firm backbone and finishes long and crisp – Outstanding.
1953 Hallcrest Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon. Dark in color with some amber this 1953 has a gorgeous perfume of herbs and spice with a faint dried fruit undertone. It has lots of flavor, but also has a lot of finesse. The flavors show a nice fruit component balanced by a spice and herbs complexity. The wine is well structured with balanced acidity and a long crisp finish – Outstanding Plus.
1958 Hallcrest Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon. Wow. This is an amazing wine. It is consistently great and, along with the legendary 1947 Hallcrest, truly one of California’s greatest old Cabernets. The color is dark with some amber and there is a glorious perfume of cedar, spice, and earth with underlying floral notes. Impressively flavorful and beautifully balanced the wine shows a wonderful complexity of fruit, cedar, spices, herbs, and a faint earthy component. The finish is long and lingering with a nice underlying crispness – Exceptional.
1959 Hallcrest Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a really lovely Cabernet. Dark in color with an amber tone, the wine has a gorgeous perfume of plum and tinges of spice, herbs, and dried flowers. There is lots of fruit and flavor and it is rounded with hints of spice and a faint earthy undertone – Outstanding Plus.
1961 Hallcrest Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon. With a very nice color showing an amber tone, this wine has a lovely perfume with a tinge of herbs and spice and a faint nuttiness. It has deep fruit and a good backbone with earthy, spicy nuances. The finish is long and crisp – Outstanding.
1964 Hallcrest Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon. The 1964 vintage was the last for Hallcrest. It is very similar to the 1961. The wine has a very good color with an amber tone and there is a deep cedary perfume with hints of earth and spice. It has fruit accented by a faintly spicy, herbal nuance, good backbone and a lovely crisp finish – Outstanding.
1959 Hanzell Vineyards California Cabernet. This bottle I brought to the event. The bottle had been in my cellar since the 1970s. It is extremely rare and unusual since Hanzell is not a Cabernet producer. This wine has an interesting history. During the time that this wine was made, Ivan Schoch was the vineyard manager at Hanzell. The fruit came from one of his vineyards in the Napa Valley. It was likely the Stelling Vineyard which is located at the base of the western hills in Oakville in the center of the Napa Valley. It is a really lovely wine. With a deep color showing just a hint of amber and amber at the edge there is a perfume of ripe plums intermingled with dried fig and hints of spice. Beautifully balanced, the wine has finesse and complexity and lovely fruit with a touch of spice – Outstanding.
1880 Welsh Brothers Boal Reserve Madeira. Madeira is an island to the Southwest of Portugal where wine has been made for some 500 years. From the beginning the wines were fortified with Brandy to allow them to make the long journey to export markets without spoiling. As a fortified wine, Madeiras seemingly can live forever. Boal or Bual Madeira is a sweet Madeira, but generally not as sweet as Malmsey. This 1880 came from the same cellar that contained the old Martin Ray wines. Light amber in color with a golden hue and golden edge, the perfume is intense with caramelized apple and pear, intermingled with floral, citrus, and spice notes. Like wise on the palate there is great intensity. Caramelized apple and pear are intermingled with hint of spice and the sweetness is balanced by a gorgeous citrus tang. Long and velvety on the finish, the sweet caramel and citrus flavors go on and on – Extraordinary Plus.
The statement made by these old California wines is undeniable. The wines obviously had been very well stored. And, they had moved only a very short distance from where they were made and had been there for a very long time. Hence, I think it is fair to say that they represent the best that these wines can be at this point in time. And they are amazing. These are some of the very best Martin Ray wines I have ever had. Ditto For the Hallcrest Cabernet Sauvignons. The 1945 BV Pinot Noir I don’t remember ever having. But, it is great. And, again ditto for the Hanzell Cabernet. What a story these wines tell. It is a story of how great old wines can be with patience and time.
But, there is no question that things have changed. Wines like this are mostly not made anymore. This is a real pity in many respects. First, many people will never be able to taste wines like this. Second, in a world of what Paul Draper has called “Industrial Winemaking,” with few exceptions, there are too many wines that are virtually the same. This sameness belies the source of the wine or even the type of wine. To me, this is the real tragedy. Wines that are made true to their source in a non-manipulative way are something that hopefully will continue to gain momentum and offer a choice to consumers.
And no matter what your wine preferences might be, it is certainly the case that old wines can offer remarkable drinking experiences. It is true for the California wines reviewed here, other old California wines, and old wines in general. It is no coincidence that the greatest wines that I have ever experienced (and the greatest wines any of my friends who are associated with this publication have ever experienced) are wines with at least 10-20 years bottle age and for most of the wines even older than that. Stay tuned. In an upcoming article we will deal with the question of the world’s greatest wines as determined by the all-star panel of Contributing Editors to this publication. This group has unparalleled wine expertise in drinking and evaluating old wines that cumulatively totals some 200 years!