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Retrospective Review


John Tilson • 1/14/13        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share


We are currently reproducing a copy of Volume III, Number 2 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 3 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 One Winedrinker’s Opinion, Distinctive New Wines, California Chardonnays, More 1978 Red Burgundies, 1975 Sauternes, Cellar Notes, and Coming Attractions

I believe this issue, Volume III Number 2 from October-November 1981, is one of the most interesting of all the old Underground issues. It discusses the differences between California and French wines from several perspectives, introduces a new feature called Distinctive New Wines, and offers commentary on more 1978 Red Burgundies, California Chardonnays, and 1975 Sauternes. And, the Cellar Notes article concludes with a report on a tasting of 1970 California Cabernets and Bordeaux. This was one of the first comprehensive reviews of California Cabernet and Bordeaux from a very good vintage. And, it was the first time there were enough wines to make a comparison of wines from each region. As such, the tasting is of great historical interest and one that would be very interesting to repeat today.


California Wine Vs. French Wine: Who Cares?

We began with a look at the differences between California and French wine. This article is just as relevant today as it was over 30 years ago. It is reproduced in its entirety below. Take a look!

Americans have a way of becoming intensely interested in things. Whatever we do we tend to do in a big, grand style. Good for us. So it is that we are in the midst of a wine boom. There’s really nothing startling about that. And, yes, there are those who attack the subject in different ways with different degrees of intensity. In California many people drink only California wines. There are a number of so-called wine “experts” in this category. They could care less about French wines. After all, there are many new devotees that have been drawn into the fold based on all the publicity and hoopla about such and such California wine besting such and such French wine. So, armed with irrefutable evidence, there is no need to know anything about anything else.

Were the French duped into these widely publicized tastings? Not likely, but many Frenchmen know very little about California wine. Indeed after hundreds of years of production history, many have settled into a comfortable niche of familiarity. Others are rather bored with the whole thing. Wine is a commodity. What’s the big deal? Some juice in a bottle. No more romance than beans in a can. What is more, many Burgundian producers could care less about Bordeaux and vice versa. It’s just not that important. Some don’t even drink much wine, even though they may produce a wine of world-wide reputation.

 So it is. Viva la difference. California wine vs. French wine: who cares? We do. Not to compare one with the other necessarily. They are distinctly different. Very few California wines taste French and certainly there are few, if any, Frenchmen dedicated to emulating California wines. Who wants French Zinfandel? French wines are the standard for the world and while California wines have come a long way in 10 years, they still have a long way to go. Frank Prial, the former wine writer for the New York Times, spent several years learning and writing about California wines. He wrote some glowing reviews. Now he says he was only “among those who were consistently trying to write something perceptive and flattering about California wines”. From this description one might think he was subjected to some sort of Chinese water torture. Then, a few years ago, he is transferred to Paris. Guess what? The exposure to French wines increases and now comes a slap at California wines in a recent New York Times article entitled, “A Dissenter’s View of California Wines”. Dissent indeed. The wheel is reinvented for the upteenth zillion time since man evolved from the apes. The article pokes fun at the intensity of the American consumer. It seems that while U.S. consumption has gone up, the number of people who drink wine has not. Ah yes, there are just a few of us supporting the wine boom. Further, we’re told that one day we may wake up and say, “I don’t have to drink wine either, or listen to – or read – people who do.” No doubt this trend is further along in France, but it took a few hundred years. Along the way no doubt many livers were lost. Looks to us that we still have a ways to go here before mass boredom engulfs us or we suffer a mass epidemic of liver failure. After all, we have the best of both worlds – French and California. If we become bored with one we can shift to another. This could add another few hundred years. No doubt medical science will improve also, so we won’t have to worry so much about our livers.

Then there’s the matter of wine tastings. Mr. Prial suggests a label for California wines stating, “This wine was designed for competition and is not to be used for family dining.” Sort of like not having a street legal GT Ferrari to drive to the supermarket. While it’s true that many California wines suffer from the “too much” syndrome, there are a dedicated few who have begun to make wine in a different style – picking at lower sugars, achieving better balance and firm acidity. Consumers are maturing. They’re finding out that biggest isn’t necessarily best, but that drinkability is important. Ask any die hard California aficionado who has been collecting wines for a few years, how the late harvest Zinfandels are coming along? Or for that matter many Chardonnays more than a few years old. As for Cabernet, it’s a different story all together. No one really knows how some will age. Some may need 2 decades. Some of the greatest wines of France need decades to mature. Does anyone really want to drink 1978 Latour today? Did anyone consume the 1945 Latour in 1948 and find it pleasant drinking? Here the difference is a knowledge based on hundreds of years of production from the same vineyard that, if stored properly, the wine will be excellent in the year 2000. To our knowledge, there is no 1978 California Cabernet that can make that statement, although undoubtedly some will prove to be excellent wines at the turn of the century. Maturity in wine, as in people, is important for truly definitive evaluations. In the interim, we shall continue to monitor through comparative tastings the progress of individual bottles. In the last analysis, it is the only learning method available. Corks have to be pulled to taste the wine. Short of that there would be no knowledge and nothing for Mr. Prial or us to write about.

So, as provincial and crude as we are, some of us in California will plod along trying to “Out Chardonnay any kid on the block,” as Mr. Prial says. Along the way we will taste, drink, and enjoy thousands of bottles of White Burgundy and Chardonnay. We’ll do the same for Cabemet and Bordeaux (See Cellar Notes in this issue). And yes, even for Pinot Noir and Burgundy. We don’t have to out do anyone. There’s plenty of room for France and California to coexist peacefully in the world of wine. But, don’t be surprised, if along the way, California makes some stunning wines that even dissenters will love!

John Tilson


From this it is obvious that California wines had already begun a trend to heavy, alcoholic wines. Mr. Prial made his point about not liking this style of wine. And, the Underground view had always favored food friendly wines. The Underground view here was that there would be more wines in this style over time. And, indeed there were. But, these were vastly out numbered by even more bigger and more alcoholic wines. Indeed, were Mr. Prial to be with us today, he would no doubt be appalled at what has happened to many of his favorite food friendly French wines. Not to the extent of California wines perhaps, but still not like the wines of the era in which this was written. And, despite the trend of big alcoholic wines, we can once again see a trend to more food friendly wines. With less new entrants joining the game, this time I think it will be a long lasting trend that will gradually bring a swing back in the pendulum with food friendly wines outnumbering the big fruit bombs.


Distinctive New Wines appeared for the first time as a review of a wide variety of newly released wines that we found particularly attractive. This was offered as a way to get information out faster on a greater variety of wines and complemented our historical reviews of individual wine types based on comparative tastings.

There were only four recommendations led by the now legendary 1978 Vieux Télégraphe Chateauneuf-du-Pape. A picture of the bottle was featured on the cover and here’s the beginning of the note: Simply put, this is an incredible wine and a fantastic bargain. It is one of the finest Chateauneuf-du-Pape’s anyone could ever want to drink and one of the very best wines of the great 1978 Rhone vintage. And, the price?  $10! This wine is stunningly great today. And, by the way so is the 1977 Vieux Télégraphe Chateauneuf-du-Pape. And, yet another outstanding wine, the 1980 Chalone Pinot Blanc was called “…consistently one of the best Chardonnays in California.” We drank a lot of this wine back then and its resemblance to a great Chardonnay was uncanny. Also, reviewed was a 1980 Chateau St. Jean Fumé Blanc “La Petite Etoile”. Here is the introduction to that wine: Chateau St. Jean consistently produces some of the state’s best white wines. This is one of the nicest wines of this variety yet produced in California. And lastly was a new wine discovery for us, Muscat De Beaumes-de-Venise. We reviewed one from Prosper Maufoux calling it …an exquisite dessert wine.


Another in the continuing series of California Chardonnay reviews featured commentary and notes on 68 different newly released California Chardonnays mostly from the 1979 and 1980 vintages. Four wines were rated Outstanding: 1980 Acacia “Winery Lake”, 1979 Hanzell “Sonoma”, 1979 Matanzas Creek, and 1980 St. Clement “Napa Valley”. They were priced at $13 to $18 per bottle. Thirty five Chardonnays were rated Very Good (priced at $10-$16 per bottle), twenty one were rated Good (priced at $6-$17 per bottle), five were rated Below Average (priced at $8-$20 per bottle), and three were not rated.

The two lowest scoring wines were really something. Here are the reviews:

1979 H. Cotturi “Sonoma Valley”. This winery is using wild yeast for fermentation. Seems like there was some really wild stuff that got in this batch! The color is cloudy and light yellow gold. The nose is foul – like dirty gym socks. There are roasty/toasty/ butterscotch flavors in case anyone cares. The $20 price is a joke.

1980 Felton-Empire “Maritime Series”. Made from Sonoma and Santa Barbara grapes, this wine’s chief attribute is a short finish. It is cloudy with a vinegary, rotten egg nose, and thin, tart, acidic flavors.

Three wines were not rated with the notation “A Timely Review of Wine Before It’s Time”. It was a review of three recently released 1980 Kistler Chardonnays. The year before was the first release of the Kistler Chardonnays which we liked and reviewed immediately after release. We had also tasted the 1980s from barrel and issued a positive review. But, when we got the 1980s after bottling they were flawed and full of sulphur. Hence, we chose not to rate the wines. As I recall, the winery recalled the first release of the 1980s and released them at a later date.

All in all, this Chardonnay review was fairly typical of the market for Chardonnay at the time. There were a few really outstanding wines, a lot of very nice wines, some good wines, and a few really poor wines. The really interesting thing is that the worst wines would often have higher prices than the best wines as was the case in this review. In fact, in this review the most expensive wine was the worst! Here a part of the concluding commentary:

“…However, even if higher prices are forthcoming, it seems inadvisable to cellar large quantifies of Chardonnay. There are several reasons. First, the aging potential of many of the wines seems questionable. Many peak within a year or two and some are in decline a year or two after. Second, there is a tremendous quantity of product coming to market. Indeed there are literally hundreds of new wines and every year seems to produce a number of really fine bottles. Finally, the wines are improving. We are learning which vineyards produce the best wines and what techniques are necessary to extract the best balance. Hence, it is likely that future wines will be even better than those available today. As a result, consumers with cellars full of Chardonnay are likely to be disappointed on several counts. Incurable collectors should turn elsewhere. With few exceptions, buy Chardonnay to drink within a few years after the vintage. As can be seen from the following notes, the choices are numerous.”


This was our fifth article on 1978 Red Burgundies. Here is part of the introduction to the fourth article from Volume II Number 6: “…approximately 250 wines have now been evaluated and the number should intimately reach nearly 300.”

And here is part of the Retrospective Review of that article (to read that review click here) . “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….’’’

This article would bring the number of 1978 Red burgundies tasted to over 300. Sixty 1978 Red Burgundies were reviewed (with prices ranging from $13 for a Côte de Beaune “La Grande Chatelaine” to $74 for Leroy Chambertin) and two rated Outstanding:  Drouhin-Larose Bonnes Mares and Leroy Chambertin. Another 42 rated Very Good, 14 wines were rated Good and 2 were rated Below Average. The sub-title said: “Over 300 wines have now been evaluated and selectivity cannot be overemphasized.”

Also, the introduction to that article has many observations about Burgundy that have proved invaluable in guiding purchases over the years. Here is that introduction:

Over the course of the past 10 months we hove attempted to evaluate every 1978 Burgundy available in the U.S. Many of these were reviewed prior to their arrival on our shores. This endeavor has encompassed a great deal of time, effort, and expense. It is not likely to be duplicated. Now we reach what is likely to be the final chapter of the saga. Over 300 wines have now been evaluated and selectivity cannot be overemphasized. Only some 26 wines were ranked “Outstanding”: There were scores of “Very Good” wines, but alas there were many very expensive wines that could only be ranked “Good” – passable but having major faults. And. yes, there were a few really terrible bottles. Generally speaking, these wines ranged in price from $15-250 per bottle making them the most expensive young wines available.

Why go to all the trouble? Simple. At its best Red Burgundy is sublime. A great wine that is at once seductive, supple, and glorious. Unfortunately, the great wlt1es come few and far between even in a potentially great year such as 1978. Some shippers have put forth so much mediocre wine that Burgundy’s reputation has suffered. However, it is precisely for this reason that many growers have elected to begin making their own wine. Hence, with even less of the best quality grapes for their blends it doesn’t seem likely that much improvement can be expected from the big name shippers. On the other hand, there should be more glorious bottlings from small producers. Certainly THE story of the 1978 vintage is the superb wines of Henri Jayer (See Volume II. Number 3. To read that issue click here).

Finally, great Burgundy will never be available in large quantity. There just aren’t enough great parcels of land in Burgundy to produce immense quantities of great wine. Historically, Burgundy has been relatively expensive. This is also unlikely to change. Bur U.S. consumers should ‘not be misled. Contrary to the widely quoted statement that the best Burgundy doesn’t come to the U.S., this just doesn’t seem to be true. It does come here, but only in small quantities. Hence, some very great wines are known only to a handful of people. So it is. Still identifying great producers is worthwhile even if all the current vintage wine is sold out. After all, hopefully there will be future great vintages to anticipate. Knowing which producers have made the best wine should be invaluable to consumers and merchants in making buying decisions for future vintages.

It seems very apparent that for anyone who was learning about Burgundy that this series of articles would prove invaluable. And, for those who followed the advice that was offered it has been a very good ride indeed!


Next was a report on 1975 Sauternes. The comment was “Truly 1975 was an extraordinary year. Unfortunately, the quality of the individual châteaux varies considerably…” Because of the economic realities of the price of the wines vs. the cost of production many Château could not afford to do the repeated pickings necessary to make great Sauternes. So the conclusion was that “…the quality of the overall 1975 vintage cannot be called great.” At the top and by far the best wine was Château d’Yquem which was called “…one of the great d’Yquems of the century. It received a rare nearly perfect score and was priced at $80. Château Climens was the other Outstanding wine and was priced at $28. Nine other wines were rated Very Good and 3 were rated Good. They ranged in price from $10 – $32.


1970 Bordeaux vs. 1970 California Cabernet Sauvignon: The Ultimate Match?

This was the final article and was based on a single tasting of 1970 Bordeaux and California Cabernet Sauvignon. Many of us were very interested in these comparisons in those days. We had experienced great Cabernets from the 30s, 40s, and 50s and great Bordeaux from the 19th century and the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. But because there were so few California Cabernets produced from the 30s, 40s, and 50s, and none before that, to do a comparison of any size was impossible. In the 1960s there were still very few California Cabernets and the few that existed were from the latter 60s. In the latter 60s Bordeaux was experiencing terrible vintages so there was nothing to do there. Then came 1970 which was the first successful vintage for both areas where there were a large enough number of wines to make comparisons. Now at over 10 years of age seemed to be the perfect time to do this tasting. We had all been cellaring and drinking the wines for 10 years and were very familiar with all the wines. And, now we felt most of them should be approaching maturity.

The blind tasting consisted of 20 wines – 12 Bordeaux and 8 Cabernets. It was fascinating and I encourage you to read the article in its entirety including the tasting notes on the wines as they were that evening. Thirteen of the 20 wines were rated Outstanding led by Latour, Lynch Bages, and Palmer. And, I offered an analysis of the tasting at the end of the article including a complete disclosure of my findings. This is reproduced below:

So what did the tasting prove? Well, at least for my palate, there are a number of points that can be made with reference to 1970 Bordeaux and 1970 Cabernet Sauvignons:

  • Of the 20 wines tasted, 13 were outstanding. Even though pre-selected, this is phenomenal and attests to the quality of the vintage. Of the 13 outstanding wines, 8 were Bordeaux, 5 were Cabernets. Of the 5 wines ranked at the very top, 4 were Bordeaux, and 1 was Cabernet.
  • Of the 20 wines tasted, 5 were very good. Three were Cabernets and 2 were Bordeaux. Of the 2 that were less than very good, one was a Bordeaux, the other a Cabernet. The Bordeaux has been better, the Cabernet hasn’t.
  • The differentiation of Bordeaux us. Cabernet was not difficult. I picked 18 of the 20 correctly by smell without ever tasting the wine. Interestingly, the 2 incorrectly identified were Chappellet and Pètrus. In retrospect, looking over my notes I’m surprised I didn’t identify the origin of these two as well.
  • Part of the scoring is based on potential. A similar tasting in the future may not yield the same results. Again, the pairing of the Mayacamas and Latour around 1995 should be intensely interesting.
  • I identified 7 of the wines correctly: BV, Mayacamas, Ridge, Heitz, SpringMountain, Lynch-Bages, and La Mission-Haut-Brion. Thus, I correctly identified 5 of the 8 California wines, confusing the somewhat similar Mondavi and Freemark wines, but being totally baffled by the Chappellet whose origin I didn’t even get right. As for the Bordeaux, I was pathetic, identifying only 2 of 12 wines and making such mistakes as confusing Mouton with Ducru, Lafite with Lèoville-Las-Cases,and worse yet Latour with Trotanoy. Some of the other Bordeaux I didn’t even attempt to guess.
  • After the tasting, the remainder of the wine in the glasses was consumed with dinner. In this case, a nice cut of rare beef. The better Bordeaux and Cabernets went equally well with the food. For instance, while the Palmer was more drinkable, the flavors of the Latour and Mayacamas were marvelous even though they clearly are much more tannic. The pairing of food and wine is the ultimate test. Tastings are fine, but wines such as these are meant to be consumed with food.

So that’s how I found these particular wines on one evening in a blind tasting. All In all, it was pretty consistent with previous experiences with each of the wines. Still there are many questions that can be asked in analyzing the results. One of the foremost seems to be to what extent one Is prejudiced by wines that are recognizable. My scoring on this tasting might lead some to concur that I have a “California palate”; although I disagree, and readily admit having a preference for Bordeaux finding them more elegant, finesseful and complex. However, maybe I just don’t taste as well when it comes to Bordeaux. It’s certainly not from a lack of tasting them. I drink far more Bordeaux than Cabernet. But maybe it is that the differences in Bordeaux are more subtle, whereas the differences in Cabernet are obvious. Personally, I opt for the latter. After all, it’s the integrity of my palate that I’m defending here! At any rate, the point is were my scores prejudiced by recognizing some of the wines? Oh, with the exception of a few that jumped right out of the glass as recognizable just from the smell (which was, by the way, the case for 5 of the 7 that I correctly identified), I tried not to play the “guessing game” until the wines were evaluated and scored. Nonetheless, the fact that I am very fond of these particular BV, Heitz, Mayacamas, Ridge, and Lynch Bages bottlings, and that I am usually able to identify them, undoubtedly influenced my scores. But, would the results be more valid if someone who had never tasted the wines and had no idea what they were evaluated them and scored them higher or lower. Except for that taster, I think not, but then again that’s a personal prejudice. In the last analysis that’s what this whole thing of wine tasting is about. Each of us is trying to find something we really like. By reading about and participating in tastings such as these we move yet another step forward in the never ending quest to educate our palates. Having once moved forward, it’s nice to be able to then confirm what we’ve learned by making a correct identification. Education is prejudice. – John Tilson, Editor

Certainly, my fully disclosed analysis of the tasting was something that was not often done then and is not often done today. When was the last time you saw a big numbers wine critic disclose the results of a blind tasting in detail? But, the disclosure aspect is something that has always been a part of the Underground DNA. I think that is very clear in the last few sentences above.


In Vino Veritas,Sig

John Tilson


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  • Joel Deutsch says:

    John, fascinating article. However, when I attempted to view the original issue discussed in your article your link went to Volume III number 1 rather than number 2. I would love to read the original Volume III number 2 issue if it is available. Thanks. Keep up the good work.

    • John Tilson says:

      Hi Joel,
      I don’t know why it didn’t work. I tried it from the original email notice and also from the home page of the website and it worked both times. If it still doesn’t work, please let me know what exactly you are doing to access the issue and maybe we can track it that way. Thanks for the kind words.
      In Vino Veritas,

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