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Retrospective Review


John Tilson • 8/23/12        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share


We are currently reproducing a copy of Volume II, Number 6 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 III, 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.



Some Thoughts on Investing in Bordeaux Futures

In our One Winedrinkers Opinion article, East Coast Associate Editor, Geoffrey Troy, writes about investing in Bordeaux futures and whether buying futures in the 1979 vintage was worthwhile. In it he outlined the reasons to buy Bordeaux futures and the ones to buy. His conclusion is to not buy 1979 Bordeaux as futures. This was the right call. The futures game has changed a lot since this was written, but the fact remains that this article articulated the time and conditions to buy futures. Had you followed this advice you would be sitting pretty today. And, as Geoffrey concluded “…whether you are in the wine game for pleasure or profit, the one thing that remains a certainty is that no matter if prices go up or down, you can always ‘liquidate’ your investment by drinking your ‘stock’…”


The lead article More 1978 Red Burgundies went on to say “…approximately 250 wines have now been evaluated and the number should intimately reach nearly 300.” In those days, this was quite a feat to taste this many current vintage Red Burgundies so soon after bottling. The Underground was certainly leading the parade in Burgundy coverage. For the 1978s, in this our fourth article (the first article was in Volume II, Number 3 and subsequent articles followed in Volume II, Number 4, and Volume II, Number 5), we stated “The basic premise is unchanged. While the vintage is variable, there are many great wines. And. while many are almost unbelievably expensive, no Burgundy lover should miss cellaring at least a few favorites….”

We reviewed 35 wines in this article. Led by the 1978 Domaine de la Romanee Conti Richebourg (the picture of which graced the cover following the 1978 Henri Jayer Richebourg which appeared on the cover of Volume II, Number 3, previously – to read that article click here.  8 wines were rated Outstanding including the 1978 Domaine Dujac Clos Saint Denis and the 1978 Compte de Vogue Musigny “Vielles Vignes” as well as all 5 of the other 1978 Domaine de la Romanee Conti wines – Echezeazux, Grands Echezeaux, La Tache, Romanee-Conti, and Romanee St. Vivant. Following there were 26 wines that rated Very Good, including such wines as 1978 Domaine Rousseau Chambertin Clos de Beze and 1978 Domaine Ponsot Clos de la Roche. And, lastly there was one wine that rated Good. The prices ranged from $15 for a  Best Buy 1978 Domaine de l’Abbaye de Santenay to $275 for the 1978 Domaine de la Romanee Conti Romanee-Conti.

In retrospect, our ratings were too conservative and our aversion to the prices was off the mark. Fortunately, our advice to buy the wines was spot on. The 1978 Red Burgundy vintage has proven to be one of the all time great modern vintages and many of the best wines were truly remarkable with a large number still drinking beautifully today and showing no signs of decline.


The next article was on California Chardonnays. In our continuing coverage of the incredibly popular California Chardonnays, we reviewed 57 wines. In this group we found none that were Outstanding, 32 that were Very Good, 22 that were Good, and 3 that were Below Average. Most were from the 1979 vintage with a few 1978s and 1980s. I commented on pricing trends and the increasing difficulty in finding some of the best Chardonnays. The prices ranged from $4-$17 and I noted “As things presently stand, any very good Chardonnay at under$9·10 per bottle is worth buying. Unfortunately, they seem to be an endangered species.”

Three of the best wines – 1979 Chateau St. Jean “Robert Young Vineyards”, 1979 Lambert Bridge, and 1979 Zaca Mesa “Special Select” –  were wines that we had previously reviewed before release in a new feature called Barrels and Bottles. The Barrels and Bottles feature was introduced to give readers advance notice of what we felt would be the best upcoming California wines. The Underground was, I believe, the first publication to begin reviewing California wines from barrel and from bottle before release.

Also, consistent with the Underground style, the article featured some interesting and unusual wines. Not to mention some very strange and not very good ones. This was not unusual in the early days of the wine boom. Commentary on a few of them is shown below. Take a look!

 A Peachy Wine

1980 Parsons Creek “Mendocino”. The novice may find this wine very appealing, but most wine drinkers will find the sweetness a flaw. For early consumption, probably best suited as a sipping wine, it is quite nice to drink The color is light yellow gold with an unusual peaches ‘n cream nose showing a hint of vanilla The wine has a ripe, fruity / peachy flavor with a slight petillance. It is round, soft, and slightly sweet (14)  $8

 Pink Chardonnay

1980 Callaway Vineyard & Winery. Wines from this Temecula estate are often unusual, but pink Chardonnay is a new one! (Actually it’s not all that new – the now famous 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that won the Paris tasting turned pink after it was bottled, causing the fledgling young winery no end of distress. Later, the wine cleared up and ultimately put Chateau Montelena in the pink!!) Actually, this wine isn’t really pink, more a light salmon Therefore, it’s unlikely to win a Paris tasting Aside from this, it has a fruity, floral, oaky nose and, as you might expect, fruity/floral/oaky flavors (13) $8

 “Limited Flavor”

Ernest & Julio Gallo “California“. This long awaited Chardonnay from Gallo carries a “Limited Release” designation. This is quite amusing since the “Limited Release” probably exceeds the total production of every Chardonnay reviewed here a zillion times over. It will probably be available in nearly every nook and cranny of the U.S from Maine to California Frankly, the wine is not much different than what should be expected from a mass produced wine. A “Limited Flavor” designation is appropriate. It’s clean and light with a fruity character that approximates Chardonnay, although varietal character is not a strong point. It does have some noticeable oak in the nose and taste. Just how it got there is an interesting question.  But, overall, It is a good, decent glass of wine (12IJz).

1979 Wine Discovery “Santa Barbara“. Except for the price, this wine is not much of a discovery, but for $4 one shouldn’t expect much either. Seems like a fair trade-off. The wine is at least clean – light yellow color, fruity/lemony nose, clean, fresh, tart, fruity flavors (121/2).

1979 Alta Vineyard “North Coast”. This is a terribly overpriced wine at $13.50 – even one-half the price would make it no brainer. The color is light yellow gold and the nose has a musty/ banana-like quality . It is ripe, fruity, and oaky, but awkward with a short finish . It’s too big and not too good (12).

 Where Did the Deer Go?

1979 Deer ParkSan Luis Obispo. Someone said the deer must have wandered into the winery. Maybe. Who knows, but this is strange stuff. The color is light yellow gold and there is a fruity/ cheesy/ herbal nose. The wine has fruit, but also a slight spritz. Not awful, but not much either (12). $8.50

1979 Rutherford Hill “Napa Valley. What went wrong here? The wine has a light yellow color, but the fruitiness in the nose is marred by an over-ripe cheese quality. The taste also is marred by a musty, petroleum-like component. Save for cheese loving oil barons, few will find this wine attractive (10).  $10



Next was a Selected Tasting Notes article featuring a review of 32 California Sauvignon Blancs. I noted that Robert Mondavi had named the wine Fumé Blanc to make it more saleable. Others followed and in this article 9 of the wines carried that name. There were no wines rated Outstanding and 17 rated Very Good, 14 rated Good, and 1 was Below Average. My comments included the following note: “…Sauvignon Blanc probably is California‘s second best white grape uariety after Chardonnay. Typically, about one half as much Sauvignon Blanc as Chardonnay is produced.  It is a wine that is well suited to food. Fish. pork, veal, or chicken in white sauce seem to be particularly good accompaniments. As California learns how to deal with the grape , the wines should show a marked improvement….”

Interestingly, 3 of the 4 best wines carried the Fumé Blanc name. The best wines were 1980 Chateau St. Jean Fumé Blanc “Napa Valley”, 1980 Iron Horse Fumé Blanc “Alexander Vaslley”, 1979 Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc “Napa Valley”, and 1980 Stonegate Sauvignon Blanc “California”. The wines ranged in price from $6 to $15 with most in the $6-$8 range.

Below is a note on the lowest scoring wine.

1979 Napa Vintners Sauvlgnon Blanc “Lake County. This Napa winery evidently decided the grapes were riper across the lake. They may have been, but the boat must have sunk on the way back. The wine has a light yellow color, and a musty/skunky nose. The flavors are ripe and fruity without much character (11). $6.75


  “A Guide to Some of the Best Pre-Release California Wines”

This article featured notes on unreleased wines from Acacia, Chateau Montelena, Diamond Creek Vineyards, Duckhorn Vineyards, Forman Winery, Kistler Vineyards, La Crema Vinera, Long Vineyards, Robert Mondavi Winery, Ritchie Creek Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, Shafer winery, Satg’s Leap Wine Cellars, and Villa Mt. Eden.

This is a very interesting read about some of the best wines being made in the early days of the wine boom. I would encourage you to read the entire article. Below are some of the highlights.

Diamond Creek Vineyards

1979 “Volcanic Hill”.  I noted that there were two lots of the 1979 Volcanic Hill that were picked at different times from different parts of the vineyard. And, like we did with the 1978 “Lake(to read about that story click here), we encouraged Al to bottle the “First Pick” separately as it was clearly better. And, as he did with the 1978 “Lake, Al followed our advice and bottled a 1979 Volcanic Hill, First Pick. It was great in it’s youth. In fact, the late Dr. Barney Rhodes, an extraordinary man and one of the greatest wine experts at that time, told me that he thought the 1979 Diamond Creek Vineyards Volcanic Hill, First Pick was the greatest young California Cabernet Sauvignon he had ever tasted. Today the wine is superb and clearly one of the best California Cabernets produced in that era.

 Duckhorn Vineyards

At this time this winery was just getting started. We loved the 1978 Merlot and Cabernet and in this article wrote about 1979 and 1980 releases and said “Here is a winery to watch….Upcoming releases will further enhance the winery’s growing reputation.” And, how true this proved to be as the winery went on to produce a string of consistently fine wines including one of the very best Merlots.

 Forman Winery

Here was another new winery just getting started. We first met Ric Forman when he was the wine maker at Sterling Vineyards. We said, “If there is one winery that exemplifies a dedication to making California wine in a more European style it is Forman. In fact, you could call wine maker Ric Forman’s (formerly with Sterling Vineyards) dedication near insanity. Funny thing, well bet this ultimately will become one of the most successful of all California wineries.” Today Ric continues to make wines true to his style that are pure and well crafted and age beautifully.

 La Crema Vinera

We visited wine maker Rod Berglund at the new facility in Petaluma and tasted 6 different wines. Here is what we said, “This is a prime example of the high quality of small California wineries. These days there are many small wineries, but a few stand out. La Crema Vinera is one to watch. Presently located in an industrial park in Petaluma, the winery looks to an annual production of 6· 7,000 cases and there are ambitious plans for a new winery and vineyard plantings in the long dormant Petaluma area just north of San Francisco. The winery is concentrating on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Grapes are purchased from some of California‘s finest vineyards and vinified in classical French style. The first wines show impressiue potential.” Later, Rod’s winery would be known as La Crema and he would marry Joe Swan’s daughter, Lynn, and later become the winemaker at Joseph Swan Vineyards where he is today (to read my article on Joseph Swan Vineyards click here).

 Ritchie Creek Vineyard

The Underground began visiting this tiny winery on Spring Mountain in the early 70s. My good friend, the late Dr. Ham Kelly, suggested we visit a friend of his who has planted a vineyard and built a winery and was making wine. And, all of this he was doing with no outside help. We were intrigued and visited Dr. Pete Minor and his wife Maggie and loved the wines (to read my article on Ritchie Creek Vineyard click here)

On this visit we tasted the 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon. Here is what I had to say, “One day this winery will be better known. While quantities are very small, the winery has produced very fine Cabernet since the first vintage in 1974.” And, from this time up until the last vintage in 2009, this tiny winery which was the work of one amazing man produced fabulous Caberents which have stood the test of time and are wonderful today.

 Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard

Ken Burnap, like Joseph Swan and Pete Minor, is a man who independently forged new trails. Ken produced magnificent Pinot Noir from his vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains from 1975 to 2003 (to read my article on the history of this winery click here) . Today the old San Cruz Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noirs are legendary. Vintages such as 1975, 1977, and 1979 are fabulous wines today. In this review, speaking of the 1979 Santa Cruz Mountain Pinot Noir Estate, I said “This may be the winery’s best Pinot Noir yet…” And, we also tasted two new Cabernets from Bates Ranch in Santa Cruz and had this to say, This winery has made a reputation for producing some of the best Pinot Noirs in California. But the Bates Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon from the Santa Cruz Mountains should establish a wide reputation for this variety as well. The 1978 has just been released and was previously reviewed in Barrels and Bottles Volume I. Number 6. Subsequent vintages show a stylistic similarity.” And, over time, like the Pinor Noirs, these Cabernets have ages beautifully.

 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

Warren Winiarski founded this winery and produced his first Cabernet in 1972. We visited shortly thereafter. His 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon famously put Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars on the map when it won the famous “Judgment of Paris” wine tasting in 1976. But, it was the “Cask 23” that really grabbed our attention. My long time friend, Darrell Corti who is the proprietor of the fabulous Corti Brothers store in Sacramento www.cortibros.biz , mentioned that he had tasted a fabulous 1974 Cabernet Sauvignon at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. He said Warren was aging it in a large old puncheon which was labeled “Cask 23”. We immediately went to taste it and were astounded at the quality of the wine. I believe the Underground was the first publication to write about the Cask 23. From the time of our first visit, we visited every year to taste the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars wines and the Cask 23. The timing of the bottling and subsequent release for sale of the Cask 23 was interminable. Warren waited until he thought the time was exactly right and often changed his mind. On this visit we tasted the 1978 Cask 23 from bottle and the 1979 Cask 23 from barrel.


Our Distinctive New Wines article featured two unusual wines from Robert Pecota, a French Columbard and a gorgeous sweet Muscat named “Muscato di Andrea” which I believe was named for his daughter. The Robert Pecota wines were light, fresh and delicious. We loved the wines and drank a lot of them. Also, there were notes on a few other wines including the 1979 Ridge Vineyards Santa Cruz Mountains Jimsomare Zinfandel.



“A guide to older wines and vintages”

Château Pétrus

The Cellar Notes article was a real tour de force. I offered a background on the Château and offered notes on why I thought really old bottles of Château Petrus probably no longer existed. Also, I observed that the bottles from the 1920s seemed to be in decline.

Please consider this observation in the context of the proliferation of old “great” bottles of Château Petrus that would suddenly start to appear in the 1980s and increase in alarming numbers from that time forward. It was during this time that wine fraud was really starting to take hold and my friends and I became increasingly suspect of these “newly discovered” old bottles (to read my article on the beginnings of this trend click here).

The tasting notes covered  thirty vintages of Château Petrus from 1920-1978. They were from 3 large tastings in 1978-80 and “…consumption of scores of other bottles on different occasions in the past 2-3 years….”  The concluding sentence was “To the best of our knowledge, this is the most comprehensive evaluation ever done on the wines of this great Château.”

My tasting notes stated the number of times that each vintage had been tasted and ranged from 1 to 6 times. A perfect rating was given to the 1947 and other top vintages were 1945, 1952, and 1961. Many of the wines we felt could use additional bottle age, including the 1945 and 1961! The article included my notes on the 1920, 1928, and 1929 vintages which spanned 6 different tastings. The earlier wines were all past their prime and the 3 bottles of the 1929 that were tasted were all a bit past their prime with the note that the bottles were probably at their best 10 years prior. Both the 1950 (tasted 4 times) and the 1967 (tasted 6 times) were rated Outstanding. But, this rating was too conservative. Since that time I have had several bottles of the 1950 that were even better. Likewise, for the 1967. (The year 1967 is our wedding anniversary. I purchased several cases of 1967 Petrus and have drunk at least 2 cases over the course of the last 30 years. It is a phenomenal wine and amazingly consistent. Petrus and La Mission Haut Brion are unquestionably the best of the 1967 Bordeaux. Both have been at their peak of perfection for many years, but show no sign of decline.) From the 1970s, the 1970, 1971, and 1975 were the stars. All have evolved beautifully and are delicious today.

If you are interested in more detail on Chateau Petrus and old wines in general, I strongly recommend that you read the entire article.

In Vino Veritas,Sig

John Tilson

















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