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Retrospective Review


John Tilson • 11/16/12        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share


We are currently reproducing a copy of Volume III, Number 1 of The Underground Wineletter. Also there is a Retrospective Review which has an updated review of each article with commentary on what we got right and what we got wrong.  This format will be followed with each successive issue. So Volume III, Number 2 will be coming next. The issues 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 Retrospective Review you can click to read the entire issue. We welcome your comments.

Highlights include 1979 White Burgundies, California wines, 1978 DRC Montrachet,  Romanée-Conti with notes on 33 vintages from 1915-1978, and other interesting commentary and wine notes


 Napamedoc=Auction Fever=Publicity

In this One Winedrinker’s Opinion article I comment on a recent Napa Valley wine auction where a New York Wine Merchant paid $24,000 for a case of wine designated “Napamedoc”. This was the name first given to what was later named Opus One, the joint venture between Robert Mondavi and the Baron Philippe de Rothschild. At this time $24,000 for a case of young wine ($2,000 per bottle) was unheard of. Remember that a bottle of Romanee-Conti from the great 1978 vintage was selling for under $300 and that was expensive! After the sale, Robert Mondavi was quoted as saying “Anyone who would buy a wine without tasting has got to be crazy”. This really got my attention. The focus of my article was that it was not at all crazy if you considered the publicity value and not the wine value. (In retrospect, today you can also take the comment in the context of wines that are regularly sold based on recommendations and numbers with the buyer never having tasted the wine). But, I also mentioned that the buyer also said “Maybe I will hold the wine for 10 years and sell it back to the auction for 10 times what I paid today”. To which I commented “Yeah, and if so, bread will cost $500 a loaf!”

I also reported that “…The top bidders were interested only in the first case. Reportedly, they did not bid on any of the other 19 cases of the same wine which went for much lower prices. Had someone really cared about the intrinsic worth of the wine, an attempt would have been made to acquire some at the best price. There is, after all, no additional worth to the first case sold. It all will come from the same barrel”. Also, there was a comment on a tasting note on the wine that came from a person who requested anonymity. It said in part “…a nice wine, well made, no real faults, but not much different from other good Mondavi Cabernets”. Lastly I speculated on the price which I expected to be publicity driven and quoted a rumored price of $50 per bottle.


Next was our first article on the 1979 White Burgundies. The conclusion was “Generally the quality is surprisingly good, but the wines tend to be quite variable”. There were a total of 83 wines tasted. The prices ranged from $7.50 to $74 and had nothing to do with quality. The best wines were priced from $16-$45. Some of the least attractive wines were priced from $17-$50. There were 7 wines rated Outstanding, 58 were rated Very Good, 16 Good, and 2 Below Average. There were 6 Montrachets tasted, none of which rated Outstanding. They were priced from $55-$74.

The Outstanding wines were:

  • Criots Batard Montrachet (Delagrange-Bachelet)
  • Chevalier Montrachet (Niellon)
  • Chevalier Montrachet “Les Demoiselles” (Jadot)
  • Criot Batard Montrachet (Gagnard Delagrange)
  • Meursault “Les Casse Tete” (J. F. Coche Dury)
  • Meursault Charmes (Jobard)
  • Meursault Perrieres (J. F. Coche Dury)

It is interesting to note that early on we identified the quality of the wines from J. F. Coche Dury which were amongst the very best wines and amongst the lowest priced at $16 and $20, respectively.

The report also identified many wines that were not so good including many of the Louis Latour Grand Crus. A “Best Buy” included  a Bourgogne “Les Clous” (Villaine) rated Very Good and priced at $7.50. Here is the note: Yes, this estate bottled wine is from the property of the well-known co-owner of Romanee-Conti. It is a lovely White Burgundy with the style and flavor of wines from the best properties. The color is light yellow and the nose is somewhat subdued with a fruity/spicy quality. It has nice fruit, good flavor and a firm backbone with a balance to acid. The wine should improve for a few years, but is also lovely to drink now”.

One of the worst wines of the tasting was a Puligny Montrachet “Les Referts” (Sauzet). The note was to become an Underground classic. Here it is: “‘Les Referts’ indeed. The skunky, hydrogen sulphide, rotten egg smell is decidedly unpleasant. Otherwise it is soft and flabby with pineapple flavors.”

Today many of the 1979s are still great. They include the wines from J. F. Coche Dury and Jobard. These were real Underground finds!  The notes on these wines are still very interesting today. If you love White Burgundies, I encourage you to take a look at the article.


Next was an article on California Cabernet Sauvignons. There wine boom was taking off and there were many new offerings. This article covered recent releases from 1978, 1979, and 1980 with the note that supplies were increasing and that “The consumer can now afford to be selective”. There were 59 wines tasted with 41 rated Very Good and 18 rated Good.

The top rated wines were:

  • 1979 H.Coturri “Glen Ellen Vineyards”
  • 1978 Duckhorn Vineyards “Napa Valley”
  • 1977 Heitz Cellars “Fay Vineyard”
  • 1977 Joseph Phelps “Backus Vineyard”
  • 1978 Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard “Santa Cruz Mountain, John Bates Ranch”
  • 1978 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars “Stag’s Leap Vineyards”
  • 1978 Sunrise “Frey Vineyard”
  • 1978 Villa Mt. Eden “Napa Valley”

Close behind were:

  • 1978 Chappellet “Napa Valley”
  • 1978 McDowell Valley Vineyards “Mendocino County”
  • 1977 Ritchie Creek “Napa Valley”
  • 1978 Shafer Winery “Napa Valley”

Interestingly, most of these wines are still lovely today. The H. Coturri I do not know. We visited the winery later and found the wines not to our liking so I have very little experience with the wines. Likewise for the Sunrise which was from Mendocino with only 120 cases made. Several other wines were also rated Very Good a notch below those above. These included the 1977 Insignia from Joseph Phelps, the 1978 Mr. Veeder “Bernstein Vineyard”, and the 1978 Burgess Cellars “Napa Valley”. These were under rated and can be marvelous today.


This edition of Selected Tasting Notes featured Domestic White Rieslings. We commented on the levels of residual sugar in the wines and the difficulty in knowing the degree of sweetness since many labels did not have an indication of sweetness. There were 41 wines tasted with 19 rated Very Good, 19 Good, and 3 Below Average. The wines were from the 1978 and 1980 vintages with one exception. The prices ranged from $3-$9 and the price bore little relationship to the quality. The best wine was 1980 Santa Ynez Valley Winery White Riesling “California” which at $5.25 was also the Best Buy. A non vintage Ernest and Julio Gallo Johannisberg Riesling was one of the two best wines in the Good category and at $3 was also a Best Buy with the note that “This is one of the best Gallo varietals”.


Distinctive New Wines featured notes on many fascinating, unique, and great wines. They included:

  • 1979 Santa Ynez Valley Winery Cabernet Franc “La Marque”
  • 1979 Chateau Grillet
  • 1980 Andrew Quady “Essencia”
  • 1978 Montrachet (Domaine de la Romanee Conti)

The Cabernet Franc was produced as an experiment from a vineyard of only 1 acre and only 50 cases were made. Santa Ynez Valley was producing herbaceous/grassy Cabernet Sauvignons that were not very attractive. But this Cabernet Franc had none of those qualities and was very fruity and flavorful. This led to this comment: “The results are very pleasing and much better than previous Santa Ynez Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. While the tiny quantity will preclude many from tasting it, perhaps favorable commentary will prompt other vineyards and wineries in the area to conduct similar experiments”.

Alas, this was not to be. The founder and proprietor of Santa Ynez Valley winery, Fred Brander, did not follow through with Cabernet Franc and replanted the vineyard. The consumer infatuation with Cabernet Sauvignon made that wine more popular and easier to sell. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to serve the 1979 Cabernet Franc blind to Fred and my friend Darrell Corti of Corti Brothers in Sacramento. Both loved the wine, but could not identify it. Fred was in shock when he saw the label! The 1979 Cabernet Franc is still great today. And it is only just now that a few people are starting to produce Cabernet Franc in the Santa Ynez Valley. I believe that Cabernet Franc will  likely prove to be superior to the Cabernet Sauvignon that is produced in the area.

The Essencia was the first commercial bottling in California of an Orange Muscat wine. We loved it as did many others and it went on to be a great success for Andrew Quady along with other dessert wines like Black Muscat.

The was also a glowing review on the 1978 DRC Montrachet which has proven to be one of the all time great Montrachets and is still superb today. It was very expensive at the time ($250), but in retrospect it was a bargain!


This edition of Cellar Notes featured an article on Romanée-Conti and notes on a tasting of 33 vintages of Romanée Conti from 1915 to 1978.

Here is the introduction: “In April, 1981, a tasting was held in Los Angeles consisting of 32 vintages of Romanee-Conti from 1915-1978. Arranged by Ed Lazarus with major contributions by Bipin Desai, Brad Klein, and Geoffrey Troy, it is thought to be the most comprehensive tasting of Romanee-Conti wines ever held. Many of the wines are no longer available at the Domaine (the oldest bottle there is 1911). It took four years of diligent searching all over the world to put the tasting together. All bottles were of excellent fill, condition, and appearance. Conducted over a two day period, the rarity of many of the bottles makes it an event unlikely to be duplicated. Listed below are the notes from this tasting with postscripts indicating variances, if any, of the particular wines in this tasting as compared with bottles from the same vintage tasted on previous  occasions. Also included are production figures for each vintage. From 1953 on the number of bottles produced has appeared on the label. Prior to 1953 there was no such listing. Unfortunately, the records for pre-1945 vintages were very nearly completely destroyed during the German occupation in World War II. Hence, production figures are available for only four of the pre-1945 vintages”.

And here is the conclusion: “All in all. the Romanee-Conti tasting just described is probably the most unique of all time. As the most exalted of all Burgundies, the wine has been in great demand for centuries. Yet production never is much over 9.000 bottles making many vintages exceedingly rare. This tasting consisted of every good vintage for the past 65 years. Only the 1924 was missing. Unfortunate, for it is considered by the Domaine to be one of the nine top wines of the 1924-78 period (the others being 1978. 1971, 1966, 1962, 1961, 1954, 1952, and 1929). Nonetheless, to be missing only one bottle of real significance in such a tasting of rare wines is an utterly remarkable achievement. Of the 33 bottles tasted, 20 were ranked Very Good or better. Not bad for a range of vintages going back over six decades. Moreover, there were a few bottles, most notably the 1934 and 1937, where the bottles were decidedly less good than the wine is known to have been on other occasions. This is the luck of the draw. It should also be remembered that the past history of the bottles is virtually impossible to ascertain. Many of the younger wines have been resting in private cellars for years. Conversely, many of the older bottles were purchased in recent years. Therefore, while the outward appearance of all was very good to outstanding, a definitive statement cannot be mode based on one bottle. Hence, in those cases where there is no previous experience with the wine, it is impossible to know how much better or worse it might be. Moreover, it is unlikely that some of these vintages will ever be tasted again. Some may not even exist. Who knows? This definitive work may be one day as highly valued as a bottle of Romanée-Conti!”

In this tasting the best wines were the 1978, 1971, 1961, and 1952. There were also lovely bottles of the 1925, 1928, 1929, 1945, 1953, 1955, 1959, 1962, and 1972. But, a very important thing to note is the fact that some bottles were not as good as the same wine tasted on other occasions. Also, the 1945 tasted in later years on two occasions was better than the bottle in this tasting. The point is that not all old bottles are the same. There is tremendous variation as we were to point out time and time again in Underground articles on old wines (to read about the phenomenon of bottle variation with Chateau Pétrus click here).

Today many people expect every bottle of old wine to be great. But, the fact is that it just isn’t so. Add to that that many people do not know what the old wines should taste like and you have a major reason why fraud has become so rampant. If you have an interest in Romanée Conti, or old wines in general, I encourage you to read the entire article.  


The last article was a new feature called Cork Poppers were we published letters of particular interest. The first two were on bottle variation and why the Underground Wineletter was such a valuable tool for wine lovers. In the second letter reference was made to our discovery of the 1978 Jayers (to read about that click here).  Here’s a part of what was said “…The 1978 Jayer Burgundies are a perfect example. I had never heard of Jayer before, but by acting promptly on your reviews in The Underground Wineletter I was able to buy several cases while the original (best) shipment was still available. Since repeated blind tastings confirm that these Jayer wines are indeed signilicancly better than the most world-famed Burgundies of them all, prices have more than doubled, and will no doubt continue to rise. Thus on just those 3 cases of Jayer I have already saved more than twenty-seven times the cost of an annual subscription….”

So there it is, a review of the first issue of Volume 3 which was the beginning of our third year of publication. We were establishing unbiased credibility and providing information on the rapidly developing world of wine, both new and old. But, there was much more to come in many more issues and volumes. Stay tuned. Over time, they will all be reproduced here in their entirety along with my updated Retrospective Review commentary on each issue.

In Vino Veritas,Sig

John Tilson



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