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Retrospective Review

Retrospective Review: Volume II, Number 5 (April – May 1981)

John Tilson • 6/24/12        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share


We are currently reproducing a copy of Volume II, Number 5 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 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 beginning and the end of this review you can click to read the entire issue. We welcome your comments.


With wine prices moving up rapidly from the early to mid 1970s, I offered some historic observations about wine prices for Bordeaux vs. California Cabernet Sauvignon in a One Winedrinker’s Opinion article entitled “Wine Prices: Who’s Kidding Whom?”

Here are some highlights:

  • Bordeaux prices were increasing sharply. Ex-chateau case prices for the 1975 vintage were $53 for Leoville Las Cases, $90 for La Mission Haut Brion, and $133 for Lafite Rothschild. Ex-chateau case prices for the 1978 vintage were $116 for Leoville Las Cases, $158 for La Mission Haut Brion, and $210 for Lafite Rothschild.
  • And, as rapidly as these prices were increasing, the price to the consumer was going up even faster. Prices to the consumer for the 1978s were as much as 3-4 times the ex-chateau price.
  • California Cabernet Sauvignon prices were also escalating. I pointed out that the prices of many of these wines with very short production histories had already reached the level of second growths and many had gone well beyond. A few specific examples mentioned were:  “Consider 1976 Sterling Reserve at a price higher than 1978 Lafite Rothschild, 1976 Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard at a price no first growth is even close to, and 1977 Clos du Val Reserve at a price higher than La Mission Haut Brion. And, so it goes.”

The bottom line: This was the very early stages of a major escalation in wine prices that had begun in the 1960s and then slowed in the early 1970s recession. But, by the late 1970s prices for both Bordeaux and California Cabernet Sauvignons, as well as other wines, were really taking off as inflation soared. So, despite what I thought looked to be a looming over supply, demand took off at an even faster rate and prices followed. Today, fueled by world-wide demand and unprecedented world-wide wealth creation, wine prices have reached levels that no one would have though possible 30 years ago or even 10-15 years ago. Thankfully, many of us were able to acquire a lot of our wines well in advance of today’s price levels. As I said then: “The market is saying something. We hope some one listens.”  Today, you make the call!



Next was a review of 1978 Bordeaux. We reviewed 47 classified growths (including all the first growths). Led by the re-surging Chateau Margaux, 8 were rated Outstanding, 24 were rated Very Good, and 15 were rated Good.

Here are some excerpts from my introduction: “While the 1978 Bordeaux vintage may be hailed by some as another “Vintage of the Century”(the eighth in the last 20 years with still 20 years to go), it is certainly one of the most miraculous vintages. What looked like another successive year of gloom and despair, quite unexpectedly truned into a vitage of considerable quality for a number of chateaux and outstanding quality for a select few….”

Also, I noted “…However, the real story for the 1978’s is the first growths. It is hard to remember when the first growths were all positioned at the top as they are in 1978. The only exception seems to be Cheval Blanc. Otherwise, Mouton, Latour, Haut-Brion, Lafite Rothschild, and Petrus have made excellent true-to-form wines. And, Margaux and Ausone have also joined the top rank….”

At the end of the introduction I said: “…To our knowledge, this is the most complete assessment of the vintage attempted in the U.S….” Contrast that with today, where at a pre-designated time, a cast of thousands descend on Bordeaux. Reviews of the wines from barrel begin to appear all over the world within hours with every imaginable proclamation. This is progress? Vamos a Ver!



In this article on 1978 Rhônes we reviewed 50 Red Rhône wines from the 1978 vintage. They were led by Emile Champet Côte Rotie, Gentaz-Dervieux Côte Rotie “Côte Brune”, and Paul Jaboulet Aîné Hermitage “La Chapelle” which rated Outstanding, 22 others were rated Very Good, 23 were rated Good, and 2 were rated below average.

The note on the highest rated wine, the Emile Champet Côte Rotie stated “No words can really adequately describe this wine. It is an absolute masterpiece, a grea wine by any measure. The color is very dark. From here it is more difficult. The nose is unbelievably complex, very perfumed, almost an essence. Black currants, vanilla, pepper, and a hint of bacon all compete to challenge the sense of smell. The flavors are deeply chiseled. Fruity, cherry-like, earthy, hint of pepper, again the wine makes an assault. Long on the palate, marvelous acid/tannin balance, this should be a magnificent, rich, velvety wine of complexity and depth in 10-15 years. A GREAT bargain. $14”

Indeed, this wine evolved as a classic Côte-Rotie.  It remained intensely perfumed with a great underlying roasted quality and was very complex and velvety on the palate. I waited about 10 years before starting to drink the wine and then drank it over the next 10 or so years. Alas, there is no more in my cellar. And, even more tragic is that Red Rhone wines like this with great harmony, complexity, and balance have largely been replaced with over extracted, alcoholic fruit bombs. But, I believe something is brewing that may yet bring back wines like this that are balanced and have a real sense of place.

At the opposite end, here is the note on the lowest rated wine, the 1978 Peyrouse Crozes-Hermitage: “Ugh! This wine has a medium dark color and not much else that’s good.The nose has a skunky/rubbery quality. The wine is soft in a light style. But it tastes like cooked cabbage. $8

Note the difference in price between a sublime wine at $14 and a terrible one at $8. Caveat emptor!



This was the third article in our series on 1978 Red Burgundies. Here’s what I said in the introduction: “So far over 200 different wines from this vintage have been evaluated. Since many have not yet arrived, it is likely that several more such articles will be forthcoming. (Most likely the most comprehensive series ever done on 1978 Burgundies!) In this repect, this series has more ups and downs that a roller coaster. Labels don’t mean a thing. (Nowhere is this more perplexing than with the Richebourg of Labouré-Roi). Neither does price, except that nearly everything is horribly expensive. Such is the nature of Burgundy. However, a few things bear repeating. First, 1978 is clearly fertile ground. There are some great Burgundies. There are just not as many as might have been expected from such a highly touted year. Second, there are some really mediocre ones. Particularly some shippers wines. This only serves to arouse suspicions that what is on the label may not necessarily be what’s in the bottle. Third supplies are very small. Prices are high. Selectivity is an absolute must. Nonetheless, the best wines are worth EVERYTHING!

In this article 45 wines were reviewed. Led by the 1978 Robert Groffier Bonnes-Mares, 5 were rated Outstanding, 31 were rated very good, and 9 were rated good. The 1978 Robert Groffier Bonne-Mares was $54. I complained about pricing on many of the wines which was as high or higher, but not as good. A 1978 Drouhin Chambertin-Clos de Bèze which was rated Very Good was the highest priced at $77. The 1978 Robert Chevillon Bourgogne-Passe-Tout-Grains was a Best Buy and the lowest priced wine at $9. Here is what I said about that wine: “Are you kidding? Nobody buys this stuff. Wrong. These wines are as good as the integrity of the producer. In this case, it is very high indeed. Tasted with Chevillon’s four Nuits-Saint-Georges, this is amazingly similar with the same fruity/spicy/bacon-like nose and flavor. Just a bit less flavor and a slightly harsh finish not blanced by enough fruit to warrant long term aging, still a very nice wine for consumption now and over the next 2-3 years.” (The 1978 Robert Chevillon Nuits-Saint-Georges Les Vaucrains was one of the 5 wines rated Outstanding and was the lowest priced of the Outstanding wines at $24.)

And, just to show how things were (and still can be) with Burgundy, here’s the paradox of the 1978 Labouré-Roi Richebourg, one imported and sold on the East Coast and another imported and sold on the West Coast:

East Coast

1978 Labouré-Roi Richebourg. This is an outstanding Burgundy. But all 1978 Labouré-Roi Richebourg is not the same. This is the wine available on the East Coast. It has a dark color and a deeply perfumed fruity nose. There is lots of depth and concentration with massive fruit and good  tannin/ acid balance. Long on the palate. this wine will take 8-10 years to develop (18) $45



West Coast

1978 Labouré-Roi Richebourg. Despite the label, this is not an outstanding Burgundy. It is, however, what is masquerading as the wine on the West Coast. Caveat Emptor. The wine has a dark color and a coffee bean nose. There is good structure, but the flavor also shows a coffee bean component. Was this wine damaged in shipment? Or is it a different batch? Who knows?? At $48 per bottle, it’s easy to pass on this (14).

So from the very beginning the Underground was looking out for the wine consumer. This is no more apparent than in these two reviews of what appeared at first glance to be the same wine. Minor differences could be noted on close examination – the wine imported on the East Coast was listed at 13% alcohol, while the wine imported on the West Coast was listed at 13½% alcohol. But, clearly the wine on the West Coast was inferior. In retrospect, I strongly suspect it was heat damaged. Back then many wines came to the West Coast in non refrigerated containers through the Panama Canal. And, once here many wines were stored in buildings without air conditioning. So, in addition to being careful about the wine you were buying from Burgundy, you had to be very careful about who imported the wine and who was selling it. Tough game!



Our last article was on California Chenin Blancs. Why Chenin Blanc you might ask? Here’s why: “After French Columbard (a grape of little distinction that is properly beused for blending in generic wines), Chenin Blanc is the most widely planted white grape variety in California. It is grown from the northernmost to the southernmost areas of the state.It is also made in many different styles from very sweet to dry, from no oak to heavy oak, and from light and crisp to full bodied and rich….”  So there you have it. Chardonnay was growing fast, but was still far behind French Columbard and Chenin Blanc! That was all about to change and change dramatically.

There were 21 wines reviewed, 6 were rated Very Good, 13 were rated Good, and 2 rated Below Average. Prices ranged from $4 to $7.50. It is also interesting to note that Charles Krug, a pioneer producer of Chenin Blanc, was still bottling non vintage Chenin Blanc and we noted the bottle variations. The 1979 Beringer Chenin Blanc “Knight’s Valley Estate”  was one of the best and one of the least expensive – rated Very Good and a Best Buy at $4. At the bottom and one of the most expensive wines at $6 was the 1979 Callaway “Temecula” Chenin Blanc. Noted entrepreneur Ely Callaway (later of Callaway golf fame) was a pioneer grower and producer in the new Temecula area in the very Southern part of the state. Many of these Temecula wines were off the mark. Here’s what we said about the 1979 Callaway “Temecula” Chenin Blanc: “This estate bottled wine from Southern California is labled Dry. So much for the label. It is characterized by the most  foul nose imaginable – a nauseating, skunky, rotten potato smell. In the mouth, it has a moldy, rotten fruit character. It gets points only because it looks like wine.”

And, just for fun, here is a note on a Chenin Blanc that rated in the middle:

 Which Island?

1979 Bogle Vineyards “Merritt Island,Yolo County”. This won’t Bogle the islands of your mind, but don’t blame yo local wine merchant if he thinks it Merritts your attention. The wine is simple and pleasant with a slight petillance. The nose has an earthy/ fruity/ grapy character and the flavors are fruity, grapy, and sweet (13). $4.75


In Vino Veritas,Sig

John Tilson


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2 comments for “Retrospective Review: Volume II, Number 5 (April – May 1981)”

  • javier says:

    what would a bottle of Callaway 1979 Cabernet sauvignon cost?

    • John Tilson says:

      Hi Javier,
      I have no idea, but I would think it would not be very much. I’m not even sure if you could find it as I doubt that very many people cellared that wine. You might try checking in online from time to time to see if it shows up.
      In Vino Veritas,

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