In the spring of 1982, Volume III, Number 5 offered the following articles: One Winedrinker’s Opinion – The Absurdity of Classifying American Cabernet Sauvignon, Coming Attractions, More 1979 Red Burgundies, California Cabernet Sauvignons, More 1978 Bordeaux, California Chardonnays, More 1979 White Burgundies, Distinctive New Wines, More 1979 Rhones, and Cork Poppers. We are currently reproducing a copy of Volume III, Number 5 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 6 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.
Volume III, Number 5 was a continuation of many of the themes we had focused on previously and a few new things. There was a commentary on the absurdity of classifying American Cabernet Sauvignon. And, to make a Cabernet Sauvignon classification 30 years ago even more absurd, look at the dramatic change in the style of Cabernet Sauvignon being made today. Coming Attractions listed the wines to be reviewed in future issues. And there were six follow up articles on 1979 Red Burgundies, California Cabernet Sauvignons, 1978 Bordeaux, California Chardonnays, 1979 White Burgundies, and 1979 Rhônes. Distinctive New Wines offered notes on some terrific wine values and Cork Poppers, featuring particularly interesting letters from our subscribers, was published for the second time. We called this edition of Cork Poppers Our Version of T and A: Double T and A (Timeliness, Tastings, and All Answered). There were 3 letters featured in this Cork Poppers – all of them are still very interesting and thought provoking today. (Below is the Retrospective Review of Volume III, Number 5 from April-May 1982):
ONE WINEDRINKER’S OPINION
The Absurdity of Classifying American Cabernet Sauvignon
With the wine boom barely 10 years old someone decided it was time to “classify” Cabernet Sauvignon. We felt this was not at all appropriate. I wrote the following editorial which I feel is, if anything, even more valid today 30 years later, than it was then. Take a look!
It was bound to happen. Someone’s trying to “Classify” Cabernet Sauvignon. From Jason Publishing Corporation, Ronald A. Kapon, “Correspondent at Large, Liquor Store Magazine, and Senior Editor Les Amis du Vin Magazine polled “Thirty-nine of the finest retail and restaurant American wine enthusiasts (including four ‘interested parties’). Respondents were asked to vote for no more than eight First Growths, fourteen Second Growths, fourteen Third Growths, ten Fourth Growths, and seventeen Fifth Growths. Oh yes, the classification is approximately the same as that of the 1855 classification of Bordeaux. We’re told that plans are to revise the classification “at least every other year”.
Super. Just what we need. A re-classification every year or two. Presumably, any wines that go over the hill during the interim period would be declassified or at least scaled down a notch or two. Also, with the rate that new wineries are springing up, it would allow for a hot new winery to jump to the top of the list. Armed with “First Growth” status, the price could then be placed on a parity with Lafite, Latour, etc. For now, we’re told Beaulieu “Private Reserve”, Chappellet, Chateau Montelena, Heitz “Martha’s Vineyard”, Mayacamas, Robert Mondavi “Reserve”, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, and Sterling “Reserve” are “First Growths”. Why? Who knows? Of these only Beaulieu “Private Reserve” has been making wine for longer than 15 years. Of the rest, Heitz Martha’s Vineyard” dates to 1966, Chappellet to 1968, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars to 1972, Sterling “Reserve” to 1973, Robert Mondavi “Reserve” also 1973 (other lots of wine designated “unfined”, “unfiltered”, etc. were produced prior, but even so, the first Cabemet was 1966). The other two, Mayacamas and Chateau Montelena,although they have Cabernet vineyards planted, have to date, primarily relied on grapes purchased from different sources for their wines. Under present ownership Mayacamas dates back to 1968 and Chateau Montelena about 1972. How can anything be determined in so short a period? Consider poor Bob Travers, the owner/winemaker of Mayacamas. I’m sure he’s happy to know that he has “First Growth” status, but he has no Cabernet to drink because none of it is mature; and, early on, his wines tend to be very tannic. Most of the wines from the other producers also are not mature. Only BV “Private Reserve” has stood the test of time for more than a few vintages. Even here, there is a very real question as to the quality of the wine before the 1970 vintage and after. And what about Inglenook, now under the same corporate ownership as BV? The best of the Inglenooks may be the best Cabernet ever made in California – wines like the superlative 1949, still a great wine. Trouble is the best, like the 1949, were from years ago; few have tasted them and few exist today. And, alas, today the wine is very different. For its past efforts Inglenook is not even mentioned, the “Cask” is a “Fourth Growth”. What about the other “Classified Growths”? Jordan is a “Second Growth” with only its third vintage coming to market. Duckhorn is a “Third Growth”. It will release its second Cabernet next spring. Nice going, Dan. On the other side of the ledger, Spring Mountain is a “Second Growth” despite having produced some very mediocre to poor wines in otherwise good to great years, e.g. 1973 and 1974. Ditto for Free mark Abbey, a “Third Growth”. We could go on and on. And talk about inconsistencies, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is a “First Growth”, but its best lot of wine, Cask 23, produced from what owner I wine maker Warren Winiarski believes is his best plot of vineyard, is only a “Fifth Growth”, in there with Chateau Chevalier, Clos du Bois, and Cuvaison, to name a few. Back to the drawing board, Warren! Maybe Cask 63 would be better.
But why be too critical. By revising such a list every year or two, we should have something meaningful in maybe another 20-30 years. By then such a list will be very different from that today. At least I certainly hope it will!
So there you have it! This was a really stupid idea. Just look at the Cabernet Sauvignons today. Contrast many of the big alcoholic fruit bombs of today with the traditional wines that were being produced 30 years ago. How does that work? And, what about the thousands of new labels today? The great majority do not have a track record of any significance. Anyone for a “new” classification? Not me, it’s just as dumb now as it was then. The 20-30 year time period I mentioned as maybe producing something meaningful was woefully too short. But, I was right that the list would be very different. In fact, things are so different now that I think it will take another 30 or more years before any meaningful classification can even be considered. And, by then, who knows? The style of wine may have again changed dramatically further postponing the validity of any classification. Vamos a Ver! But, one thing I do know is that when the next 30 years passes by, I am very unlikely to be here to comment on it!!
MORE 1979 RED BURGUNDIES
The first featured article included notes on more 1979 Red Burgundies. Here we reaffirmed our initial assessment that the vintage was characterized by a great deal of variability. Also, given the rising prices we stated that our evaluations of the 1979s would not approach the number of 1978s where we tasted over 350 wines. There were 49 wines evaluated – 4 rated Outstanding and were from small producers, Chevillon and Maume. Both of these producers were relatively unknown here having only first been imported a few years prior. There were 27 that rated Very Good and 18 that were rated Good. One of the lowest scoring wines was also one of the most expensive. It was the Clos Vougeot from J. Grivot. Where we commented “How low for Clos Vougeot”. Here is the note on that wine:
Clos de Vougeot (J. Grivot). This wine has a medium color and an orange/ amber edge with a subdued, fruity/spicy nose. It is rather thin and sharp, lacking finesse, breed, and style. How sad it is. A prime example of a mediocre wine selling at a high price simply because of the label (12). $43
In those days Clos Vougeot was often not that good and most often was relatively expensive. Today the reverse is true. There are many wonderful Clos Vougeots and they are relatively inexpensive.
CALIFORNIA CABERNET SAUVIGNONS
Selectively continues to be the key
Here we talked about the need to be selective in buying Cabernet Sauvignons. There were 37 wines evaluated with none rated Outstanding. There were 31 that rated Very Good. The top wine was the 1978 Joseph Phelps Backus Vineyard. This wine was quite tannic then, but it evolved beautifully and should have been rated Outstanding. There were 6 wines rated Below Average. This was an interesting group in that 25 wines were priced at $10 or below yet none were good enough to rate a Best Buy. And, some were really poor as evidenced by the note on the lowest scoring wine which is reproduced below:
1979 Santa Barbara Winery “Reserve, Santa Ynez Valley”. This estate bottled wine has a medium dark color with an orange/ amber edge and a vegetative/bell pepper/green bean nose with a vegetative/green bean flavor. With a tannic finish, this is a poor wine – a green grocer special (8). $6
MORE 1978 BORDEAUX
“…1978 is certainly a vintage to be well represented in the cellar of every Bordeaux lover.”
In Volume II, Number 5 we first reviewed 1978 Bordeaux, including all the first growths (to read that article click here)  This article featured 1978 Bordeaux that was not tasted in that first article. We stated again that the first growths were the real story in 1978, but also pointed out the consistency and attractive pricing of other classified growths. There were 44 wines reviewed and 29 were rated Very Good with 20 of them priced below $20. The top wines were Certan-Giraud ($18), Certan-de-May ($30), Clerc-Milon ($19), La Lagune ($18), and Rausan-Ségla ($20). Les Ormes-de-Pez ($12) and Fourcas-Dupré were rated Best Buy. There were 14 wines rated Good and 1 rated Below Average – l’Angélus.
The California Chardonnay article featured notes of 21 wines with 7 rated Very Good and 14 rated Good. A rather obscure 1980 Napa Cellars “Alexander Valley – Black Mountain Vineyard” was the top rated wine. It was barrel fermented and had a degree of richness that set it apart. It was priced at $11.50 making it one of the least expensive wines in the tasting. The top wines were mostly described as “youthfully appealing”, while most of the others were uninspiring. The prices ranged from $10 to $21. And 2 of the most expensive wines at $18 and $21 ranked at the bottom of the good category.
MORE 1979 WHITE BURGUNDIES
A follow up article on more 1979 White Burgundies featured notes on 17 wines. Most were Premier Crus with a few village wines and no Grand Crus. The prices ranged from $12.50 to $27. There were 7 wines rated Very Good and priced from $14.95 to $21.79. The Meursault Perrières from Michelot-Buisson was the top rated wine and was priced at $20. There were 8 wines that rated Good and these were priced from $13.95 to $22. The 2 wines that were rated Below Average included the most expensive wine in the tasting ($27) and another that was one of the most expensive ($21). Here are the notes on those wines:
Chassagne-Montrachet “La Romanée” (Coffinet). This Burgundy has a slightly cloudy light yellow gold color and an oaky/spicy nose. There are oaky/spicy flavors that are a little flat and a slight sourness – if you own it drink it up, if you don’t forget it (11). S21
Puligny-Montrachet “Les Combettes” (J. Prieur). This wine has a light yellow gold color and a roasted/carmelized nose. There are toasty/carmelized flavors. Prematurely aged, here is a case of poor winemaking, poor storage, or both (11)! $27
Two of the interesting things about the Chardonnay article and the 1979 White Burgundy article are that the price ranges for both types of wines were very close. And, in both instances, the most expensive wines were at or near the bottom. This, I think, reflected the relative obscurity of most of the wines and the inability of the market to differentiate. Today the price ranges for both categories of wines are much wider and White Burgundies are generally much more expensive than Chardonnays from top to bottom.
DISTINCTIVE NEW WINES
The Distinctive New Wines feature was designed to showcase wines of particular interest. The wines were usually either relatively unknown and very high quality or very high quality and attractively priced. This Distinctive New Wines article including a delicious 1980 Condrieu from Château du Rozay and the 1981 St. Clement Sauvignon Blanc “Napa Valley”. In succeeding years, the St. Clement was to become a favorite California Sauvignon Blanc. The note on this 1981 said: “This lovely Sauvignon Blanc is representative of a “new” California style toward a lighter, fresher, easier to drink wine….” The price was $9. Interestingly, St. Clement still makes the same wonderful style of Sauvignon Blanc which today sells for only a few dollars more (To read the article featuring a recent vintage click here). 
The tasting notes on the 4 value priced wines are particularly interesting as they represent examples of a quality/price relationship that existed back then. A note on one of the wines is reproduced below:
1981 Gamay Touraine (Domalne de la Charmoise). This wine has a medium dark color and a lovely, perfumed, cherry nose with a hint of spice and vanilla. It is light and fresh with cherry/fruity/spicy/herbal flavors. There is a very slight bitterness in the finish but it is still delicious. Served with a slight chill, this will convert even the hardest core white wine drinker. Highly Recommended (16). $4.95
MORE 1979 RHONES
The article on more 1979 Rhônes featured notes on 10 wines. There were 2 wines that rated Outstanding. The notes on those wines are reproduced below (and note the prices):
Côte Rôtie (Champet). Lighter than Champet’s 1978, but no less delicious, this wine has a medium dark color with a slight amber edge. The nose is deep and complex with a plummy/spicy/smoky/earthy/green olive quality – something for everyone! The flavors are equally complex- fruity/smoky/green olive/earthy/spicy. By no means a lightweight, this should improve for at least 4-5 years (18). $17.95
Côte Rôtie (R. Rostaing). This Rhone has a dark color and a deeply perfumed, cherry/spicy/earthy/peppery/vanilla nose. There is deep flavor which is delicious – cherries/earth/spice. Long on the finish, it is delicious to drink now, but there is a trace of tannin and probably will be at a peak in 3-4 years (18). $14.95
Both of these wines were balanced and delicious and they drank beautifully for many, many years. They are examples of the style of wine that once was the standard for Rhône wines. Today this style of Rhône wine has largely been replaced by wines with higher extraction and alcohol. Nonetheless, it appears that there are still a relatively larger number of Côte Rôties being made in this style today than most of the other Rhône wines.
There were 5 wines that rated Very Good led by the Côte Rôtie “Côte Brune” (Gentaz-Dervieux). In retrospect, this wine was underrated. It proved to be the equal of the 2 higher rated wines and also was gorgeous to drink for many, many years. Also, there was the Côtes du Rhône “Château du Trignon” which at $3.99 we rated a Best Buy and called it a great bargain.
There were 3 wines rated Good including 2 Côtes du Rhônes that were priced at incredibly low prices of $2.39 and $2.89, respectively. Ah the good old days – very nice wines priced at the level of today’s 2 or 3 Buck Chuck (to read the article on these wines click here ).
We began this letters to the editor feature (which we called Cork Poppers) in Volume III, Number 1. This article featured 3 letters and based on content was sub-titled Our Version of T and A: Double T and A (Timeliness, Tastings, and All Answered). The first letter questioned the timeliness of our articles and asked detailed questions about how we tasted wines for the Underground. The second was a critical commentary on our rating system. And the third was a “Mad as hell” letter regarding the pricing of California Cabernet. All were answered candidly, accurately, and completely. They are particularly interesting and relevant today. But, of particular interest were the series of detailed questions about how we tasted wines for the Underground. My response is reproduced below:
…All tastings are done blind. No one knows the identity of each wine until they have been tasted,. discussed, evaluated, and scored. Tastings involve as few as two or as many as 15-20 people. Other connoisseurs, collectors, or just interested wine buffs participate. The scores are those of members of The Underground Wineletter staff (Desai, Klein, Troy, Lazarus, et al) supported by the consensus of other tasters. Many wines are tasted more than once, often by different groups with bottles purchased from different sources where necessary. For the most part, the tasting notes are mine. However, the published tasting notes reflect the collective notes of the members of The Underground Wineletter staff who participated in the particular tasting or tastings. We buy the great majority of the wines we taste. However, some wineries, importers, and agents do occasionally send samples. These are evaluated in the some manner as purchased wines. Whether or not the wine was purchased or shows up on our doorstep has absolutely no bearing in the rating. We have no ties with any winery. We are consumers, pure and simple. All of us ore employed full time in other professions where we earn a living – Ed Lazarus is an attorney, Brad Klein is an MD, Bipin Desai is a physics professor, Geoffrey Troy is a business executive, I am a securities analyst, etc. We all share one common interest- an avid and consuming interest in wine….
So here was the full disclosure on how we did our tastings. Contrast this with the disclosure (or mostly lack of disclosure) by other wine publications. Today in the online Underground the tastings are much the same with the exception that I do the tastings for everything posted under my name. Also, the wines I taste at home are tasted several times over a period of days or weeks. Typically 2-4 wines are tasted at a time. The wines are always tasted with food which is the way the tastings were conducted years ago. Everything else is the same. I do not make my living from tasting and writing about wine. I have no ties anywhere. I do this because I enjoy it. I love wine and I love being around people who share my passion. And, importantly, I want to try to help people understand wine. The notes I write are designed to be as accurate, simple, and understandable as possible. Hype, arbitrary scores, and imaginative and ridiculous wine descriptions were never part of the Underground and never will be. That’s it, pure and simple!
In Vino Veritas,