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WHERE HAS NAPA VALLEY GONE?

John Tilson • 10/26/14        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share

LONG TIME PASSING

WHEN WILL WE EVER LEARN?

Napa Valley sign

question mark red

As I look back on the changes in Napa Valley over the last 40 years since my friends and I first started going there in the early 1970s, I cannot help but reflect on the great Pete Seeger song “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”. This song was popular in the 60s and 70s and was sung by several different folk singers. It is a haunting social lament as to the transformations in our lives that occur over time. In those early days, my wife, friends, and I spent a lot of time visiting the Napa Valley and getting to know the wines and the people. It was a magical place filled with special wines and very special and dedicated people. There were very few places to stay and very few restaurants. We first stayed at the El Bonita Motel in St. Helena. Later, when the first phase of the Harvest Inn opened, we would often rent the owner’s house and buy provisions in Sonoma to do our own cooking. In the evening we would invite friends, winemakers, and winery owners to dinner and enjoy a lot of Napa Valley wines. There were many wonderful Cabernets available to buy from 1968, 1969, and 1970 as well as some lovely 1973s.

Then everything really began looking up in the late 1970s. There was the famous Judgment of Paris Tasting where Napa Valley wines bested those from France (to read about that tasting and another version of the tasting done much later click here), and several great vintages beginning with 1974. These include many superb Cabernets from the 1976, 1977, and 1978 vintages which are still remarkable today. After a century of producing wine, Napa Valley was just beginning to make its mark on the world of wine and become an “overnight” success. New wineries continued to open, and there was the beginning of an explosion of new restaurants and hotels. From a place where there were few places to stay and very few places to eat, Napa Valley was soon to become a mecca for really good restaurants and nice hotels.

For most of the existence of Napa Valley it was an agricultural area where a wide variety of crops were grown. The first grapes were planted here in the 1830s and the town of Napa was founded in the mid 19th century. In the later part of the 19th century grapes were planted in several areas of Napa Valley as they were in other parts of California and commercial wine production began. Wineries began to slowly be created. The best known of these early wineries was Inglenook which was founded by Gustave Niebaum in the 1870s. The next few decades resulted in the production of very fine Napa Valley red wines that achieved world wide recognition for quality. There were probably something like a dozen Napa Valley wineries in existence during this period.

1934 inglenook

Then came Prohibition and in the 1930s wine production was severely curtailed (some wineries survived by mostly selling wine for church communion). After this period Inglenook produced some of the greatest wines ever made in California. Unfortunately, a change of ownership resulted in the end of the great Inglenook wines after the early 1960s. And, after all this time, it has never achieved the same level of excellence. Other old established wineries such as Charles Krug, Louis Martini, Beaulieu Vineyards, Beringer, and a handful of others were also producing some fine wines during this period and they continue today.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s expansion began, and several new wineries came into being. These included wineries such as Robert Mondavi, Souverain, and Heitz Cellars. At this time there were only about 2 dozen wineries in Napa Valley. Then in the late 60s and early 70s there were many more new wineries such as Burgess Cellars, Cakebread Cellars, Conn Creek, Chappellet, Cuvaison,  Spring Mountain, Diamond Creek Vineyards, Caymus, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Joseph Phelps Vineyards, Sterling, Ritchie Creek, Shafer, and others such as a reappearance of Chateau Montelena, Mayacamas, and Freemark Abbey which had been originally founded as early as the late 19th century. The late 70s and early to mid 1980s resulted in the creation of even more wineries such as Grace Family Vineyards, Dunn Vineyards, Dominus Estate, Forman Winery, Spottswoode, Duckhorn, St. Clement, and others.

During the period of the 70s, many of the new wineries and others pushed for the establishment of designated areas for growing grapes. I remember speaking with winery owners many times about the differences in the Cabernets from different parts of the valley. In particular we would talk of the difference between wines from the more established areas such as Rutherford and others from newer parts of Napa Valley including those of our friend Al Brounstein at Diamond Creek Vineyards. Also, there was much discussion about the differences between the wines from the valley versus those from the mountains. The Cabernets from all these areas could be great, but they were different. Yet within many of these smaller Napa Valley areas the wines had a stylistic similarity.  Years later, through much time and effort involving many people, specific areas within Napa Valley were finally designated. In 1981 Napa Valley became first Agricultural Viticulture Area in California and the second Agricultural Viticulture Area in the United States. (An American Viticultural Area (AVA) is a designated wine grape-growing region that is distinguishable by geographic features. The boundaries are defined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), United States Department of the Treasury.) In Napa Valley there were 16 AVA sub-classifications made. These were made to distinguish areas with differences in climate, soil, and exposure. The idea was that each of these areas were capable of producing their own distinct wine, and this would be designated by the specific AVA such as Oakville, Rutherford, Stags Leap, St. Helena, Calistoga, Diamond Mountain, etc.

It also must be remembered that during the period of expansion from the 60s into the 80s, wine research institutes were advising new plantings with a wide variety of different grapes – think Riesling, French Columbard, Gamay Beaujolais, etc. This was just to make sure that there were always grapes to sell that were “commercial”.  HELLO! Talk about lack of vision. But, fortunately there were many mavericks who rejected this “wisdom” and proved to be right. Today, as in the very early days, Napa Valley is mostly known for Cabernet Sauvignon, and this was the primary grape planted by most of the new wineries.

Al Brounstein

 Al Brounstein, Founder of Diamond Creek Vineyards

For example, one of the late, great, Napa Valley mavericks, Al Brounstein, knew very little about wine when he started in the late 60s. But, he eschewed the conventional advice and planted only Cabernet Sauvignon in the north end of the Napa Valley in Calistoga on Diamond Mountain where the “experts” said this was not possible. So much for conventional wisdom!  His first commercial vintage was 1972, an auspicious start since it was a rare Napa Valley vintage marred by rain at the harvest. But it was, and continues to be to this day, an excellent wine. And the fact is that many of the Diamond Creek Cabernet Sauvignons from the 1970s are some of the best wines ever made in California. Initially there were some complaints about the tannins, just as there were for many Napa Cabernets, but this was a good thing, as the wines were in balance with the fruit and concentration of the wine. My friends and I loved these Cabernets. They were made in very small quantities and we bought them, drank a few, and cellared the rest. I also wrote about and recommended the Diamond Creek wines in The Underground Wineletter. Some of the other “critics” did not like that the wines were not instantly drinkable and had very little experience in buying, cellaring and drinking old wines. Sadly, it would turn out that their audience was mostly from the same camp! But the old Diamond Creek Cabernets that are still left today are great wines by any definition and great examples of what Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon can be. I have been drinking them for years and still have a lot left to enjoy.

During this period of the early 70s to the early 90s, accompanied by my wife Laurie and friends including Edward Lazarus and Geoffrey Troy, I visited Napa Valley often. With the launch of The Underground Wineletter in 1979, our visits became more frequent. We began reviewing hundreds of Napa Valley wines each year, visiting dozens of wineries, and tasting hundreds and then thousands of wines from barrel as well as hundreds and then thousands of wines from bottle in blind tastings. Our first review of new California Cabernet Sauvignons came in the Volume I, Number 5 issue of The Underground Wineletter published in April May 1980. This featured a report on the 1974 Cabernet Sauvignon vintage. The 1974 Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard was pictured on the cover (to read the Retrospective Review of that issue click here).

UGWL apr may 1980

The Underground published glowing reports on many of the early California  Cabernets and history has proven this to be correct (to read about some of these wines please take a look at those original issues and the Retrospective Reviews by clicking here). The Underground was a pioneer in doing barrel tastings in Napa Valley, and we discovered many wines such as the 1978 Grace Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and the 1978 Diamond Creek Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Lake Vineyard. After tasting the Lake Vineyard from barrel (there was only 1 barrel – 25 cases) we convinced the owner, the late Al Brounstein, to bottle the wine and the rest is history (to read more about the Lake Vineyard story as well as about Diamond Creek wines a great Diamond Creek tasting click here and to read the Retrospective review and the Underground issue containing the information on the discovery of Lake Vineyard click here and scroll down to Barrels and Bottles).

1978 lake

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, we bought, drank, and cellared many of these new Napa Valley wines as well as other new wines from California (think Ridge, Mount Eden, Au Bon Climat, Calera, etc. and to read about current wines from these producers click here).  As I said, these were magical times. We watched the evolution and development of Napa Valley wines and other California wines with admiration and respect. The best wines were harmonious and balanced with alcohol levels in the 12-13% range. While discovering all the new wines, we were also searching out old bottles of Napa Valley wines such as the old Inglenook Cabernets. The old Inglenook Cabernets from the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s were just amazing and continue to be to this day. I have bought, drank, and cellared hundreds and hundreds of bottles. And, I still have a lot in my cellar for future years. And there were a few others such as Hallcrest from the 1940s and 1950s and some Martin Rays and BVs from the same period. Luckily, I also still have a few of these.

49 and 51 Inglenook

In the late 1980s and early 1990s things changed. I needed to devote all of my time to a rapidly growing investment management business and turned The Underground Wineletter over to a new group of people, and I became less involved. It was in this period that the style of Napa Valley wine began to change. Driven by the 100 point mania, wines became increasingly extracted and alcoholic, and the number of wines being produced increased at a phenomenal rate. For a while, the old established producers mostly stayed true to the things that had worked them over time. But there were many new people lured to the promise of doing even better by changing things. This was driven, in large part, by big numbers critics tasting massive numbers of wines and declaring that bigger was better.

For a period of the next 15 years or so I rarely visited Napa Valley. During this period of time, the valley was to change dramatically in many respects. Not only the style of the wines, but the infrastructure, the access, and the commercialization. Revisiting the Napa Valley numerous times over the last few years, I can hardly recognize the transformation.

Today there are more than 450 wineries in Napa Valley which is a number that has not changed much in recent years. But, this number pales in comparison with the number of wines being produced. This number has exploded. Reportedly, there are now over 6,000 different bottlings of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons produced each year! And, from an era of wine growers and a laid back sort of personality, Napa Valley has become a playground for the international jet set and a crowded and busy tourist destination. Virtually everything has a decided aura of commercialization. The sense of place has blurred. Huge investments have been made in winery facilities and vineyards, and foreign investment has played a big part. As I said, I can hardly recognize what Napa was as compared to what it is today.

The increase in wineries and explosion of new wines driven by small production lots (often made from purchased grapes and produced in custom crush facilities where many different producers and winemakers share facilities and equipment) has resulted in the staggering number of wines we have today. It is now totally impossible for any one to keep up with all the different wines. But, even more strange is that for the flagship wine of Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon, many of the wines taste the same. The concept that we used to look for called “varietal character” is all but lost. And, the wines taste the same despite the fact that there are differences in the vines, climate, soil, and weather in different parts of the valley. If this continues, there will be no Napa Valley as we have known. What we will have is a “new and improved” Napa Valley. Will we really “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory”? Hard to imagine, but I guess anything is possible.

The efforts of the legacy wineries and many of the wineries founded in the 60s and 70s to establish specific growing areas within the valley (AVAs) have all now largely melded together. Some of the early producers are disappearing just as are the style of wines they made. What has made the wines so much the same today are vineyard practices and the harvesting of really ripe grapes and using various methods and additives to transform the wine. Today the traditional wine making methods have often been replaced by manipulative wine making, and this has created the sense of sameness. Where is the difference between Stags Leap, St. Helena, Calistoga, Rutherford, or any other area of Napa Valley for that matter? There is virtually no difference in many of the wines. In fact it seems that most of the wines are made in a homogenized style. New investors seem to be driven by what all investors seek and that is to make as much money as possible. But there is a difference in investing for the long term and being driven by a fad. Today, for many, all that seems to matter is the quest for that 100 point score as the number of “perfect” wines continues in a spiral upward! And with these numbers come much higher prices. It is sort of mind boggling that all of this is routinely accepted by so many.

For me, these new style big numbers wines that show variously extracted, alcoholic, over ripe, and manipulated qualities, are not something that rings my chime. Occasionally, just out of curiosity and prompted by someone, I try a few. Most are very forward and may be best young if you like big over ripe alcoholic wines. But, again, wines that are not harmonious and balanced are just not the wines for me young or old. And, I think the very greatest wines of all are the wines that, while they may taste lovely young, are not made for instant gratification. The really great wines have the ability to age and improve after they are bottled. These are the types of wines that the Underground has advocated, promoted, cellared, and drank for over 35 years! This is a proven fact.

Fortunately, there are still a few Napa Valley wines that meet the harmonious and balanced criteria. These include some of the older established producers who have not had a change in ownership or winemaking. And there are some newer wineries that are eschewing the more radical practices and making wines with balance and a sense of place. However, they have been largely ignored in the big numbers contest. But, over time, I believe they will emerge as winners. For, hopefully, these current traditionally made wines will live up to the potential that has been realized from many of the great Napa Valley Cabernets from the era of the 1930s to the 1990s. To do anything else is a great tragedy and something that few can be proud of.  I have many old Napa Valley Cabernets in my cellar which I love and drink often. They are simply remarkable and a great testament for Napa Valley Cabernets to age and develop over time. I can only hope that this style of wine will be available for future generations of wine drinkers.

70 Heitz, Mayacamas, and BV

At this stage in my life, I can remember what Napa Valley used to be. What it is today is completely different. And what it will be tomorrow is anyone’s guess. Where Has Napa Valley Gone? Long Time Passing. When Will We Ever Learn?

In Vino Veritas,Sig

John Tilson

 

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24 comments for “WHERE HAS NAPA VALLEY GONE?”

  1. Good morning Mr. Tilson. Thank you for your insights and views on Napa. I am new to the appreciation of wine from Napa and would like to ask for some specifics names of producers who are , as you remarked, “…are still a few Napa Valley wines that meet the harmonious and balanced criteria.” I would welcome the opportunity to find wines that you suggest and compare for myself the style differences. Thank you.

    Best regards,
    Peter Stevens

    Posted by Peter Stevens | October 26, 2014, 4:45 am
  2. John, great article on Napa. It fills in some blanks for me and and adds 10 years that predates my knowledge of the region. Loved reading it and appreciate your writing it. If we can get more discussion around things like balance in Napa wines, and wines which include vineyard characteristics as well as the the fruit, perhaps one day it will happen.

    Posted by Wesley Jennison | October 26, 2014, 5:40 am
  3. John you are an absolutely brilliant writer and can convince me of anything and everything except you know what and if things get much worse, maybe even that. Have I ever had some of these wines you write about when you have hosted me to these gala events.

    John, seriously, why don;t you write a book or have you already.Love to you Grandpa.

    Posted by rhoda sharp | October 26, 2014, 8:58 am
  4. Ms. Sharp, brilliant suggestion. Would love a book from Mr. Tilson recounting what must have been his many exhilarating experiences with wine over nearly half a century.

    Posted by Bill Tisch | October 26, 2014, 10:31 am
  5. Great article John! I agree with the others who think a book by you would be great. I think some wineries still do keep to the tradition of the AVAs. I think that Pine Ridge has some nice AVA designated wines that are classic in style. I too recall the Heitz Cellars Cabs from the later 70s. They were lovely. I collected them. The winery has not put out wines of that quality in over 25 years. I very much enjoy your articles. Thank you.

    Posted by Keith Weyuker | October 27, 2014, 9:38 am
  6. I go back only to the ’80s, but have had the same experience. Going there stopped being fun, the wines were no longe appealing, there were no more real discoveries to be made, and the target audience was overfunded and undereducated.
    With a very few exceptions, the wines I loved then are basically extinct. I have a very large cellar, but it includes very few Napa wines made later than the early 90s. They just stopped being enjoyable, and the pricing is ridiculous in comparison with most of the great wines from elsewhere.
    Happily (or sadly), the old ones have evolved fantastically, and really did and do rank among the great wines of the world. Every so often, I still indulge in a big old dusty Napa cab, there is really nothing else quite like it today, in Napa or anywhere else.

    You didn’t address this, but the manipulated newer wines do not generally improve with age. My experiences with them were that the older ones had almost routinely fallen apart, pruney with no backbone. Ironically the old ones still pretty much taste all the same as each other.

    Posted by Grant price | October 27, 2014, 11:20 am
  7. John… what a great article! It has been too lonmg since you and I and Lee Hallaberg quaffed some great Clifornia cabs. I hearoccssionally from Lee. He is living in Las Vegas and ot as maobile asxs e used to be…ut aren’s we all! George

    Posted by George Starke | October 27, 2014, 1:59 pm
  8. Hi George,
    Thanks! It is great to hear from you. I hope you and Betty are doing well. Have not heard from Lee in many years. Would you please pass this article along to him with my regards. It has, indeed, been a long time. I assume you are still in Napa. Maybe we can share one of the old Napa Cabs one day.
    In Vino Veritas,
    John

    Posted by John Tilson | October 27, 2014, 4:10 pm
  9. Thanks Grant. I am in total agreement with you. And, while the old Cabs have evolved beautifully, the few later ones I had did not do so well. Now I have only very few Cabernets in my cellar from 2000 on. The only one that I now buy every year is Ridge Monte Bello. I have been doing this since the 1970s. The wine is simply remarkable. I also buy the Mount Eden Caberent and occasionally a few others, but that is about it. I have some California Caberents from the 90s, but most of what I have is from the 60s, 70s, and 80s with some from the 30s, 40s, and 50s as well. Many of these wines are truly remarkable. The “new style” wines are formulated for early consumption. Some people that are buying them are drinking them. But there are a lot of these big numbers wines that are being hoarded by collectors looking to make a killing. I say this is a game of greater fool. An yes when many of them taste the same young they also follow this sameness trend into the declining years. This will be interesting to follow. But I will be on the sidelines. I have too many old wines that I need to drink and I am not getting any younger! Please pass the Underground on to your friends.
    In Vino Veritas,
    John

    Posted by John Tilson | October 27, 2014, 4:23 pm
  10. Thanks so much Keith.
    Insofar as a book in concerned, I am having trouble with keeping up with all I have on my plate now.
    As I mentioned in the article, I have not followed the Napa scene in depth for many years. In the last few years, I have tasted quite a few of the different new wines. But I have not focused on finding the new traditional wines. So I do not know Pine Ridge, but I have visited some of the traditional winemakers from the past who have not changed their style of wine. And, friends and winemakers have told me about a few others which I have not tasted.
    I love the old Heitz wines. I think one of the issues in comparing the old wines is the amount of wine being produced. From relatively small quantities years ago from certain vineyards, the quantities are larger now. Often the grapes are sold in relatively small quantities to make a few barrels of each wine to create an illusion of scarcity. That is how there are so many different labels. Some of the old Estate Bottled wines still exist, but many times the wines being made are different from what they used to be. Also, a lot of wineries are making wines with significantly higher alcohol levels than in the past. In short, it has become a complicated game.
    Thanks for your support and please pass the Underground on to your friends.
    In Vino Veritas,
    John

    Posted by John Tilson | October 27, 2014, 4:43 pm
  11. Thanks Bill. First I have to get all the Retrospective Reviews done and then maybe I will have time to make those the basis for a book with an update spanning the interval between the Underground print version and the Underground online version. Vamos a ver!
    In Vino Veritas,
    John

    Posted by John Tilson | October 27, 2014, 4:47 pm
  12. Thanks! I am glad that you find me persuasive about something. But I am not trying to convince you. I just want to offer information that you might find helpful in making your own decisions. And you know that that includes your that!
    I normally do not serve really old wines unless I am planning an evening around them. This we do often, but more often it is just the 2 of us enjoying and old bottle from the cellar.
    You flatter me with the book idea. But, it is not in the cards until I get my Retrospective Reviews done and then see what I and the rest of the world looks like then.
    In Vino Veritas,
    John

    Posted by John Tilson | October 27, 2014, 4:54 pm
  13. Thanks Wes. Great to hear from you. Yes, the first thing is for things to be dialed back a bit toward balance. And vineyard characteristics are likely only to be expressed from those sites where there are estate bottled wines. Remember that Robert Mondavi never designated a vineyard. He wanted to emphasize his brand. It was the estate bottled wines where the expression existed – think Stag’s Leap, Diamond Creek, Mayacamas, etc. And, if you look at the 3 I just mentioned 2 are under new ownership with a new way of doing things. Maybe later I will have time to get together with a few people and work on setting up tastings of traditionally made Napa Cabernets. Vamos a ver!
    By the way, are you out this way these days? If so, let me know when you plan on being here and maybe we could pursue the idea.
    In Vino Veritas,
    John

    Posted by John Tilson | October 27, 2014, 5:03 pm
  14. John:

    Excellent article, I couldn’t agree more. When I was working for a wholesaler in Anaheim a few years ago, we came across 9 bottles of 1968 Inglenook Cab that had long been taken out of inventory. As such, there was no price, so the warehouse manager agreed to part with them for $5 each! Five dollars! We had one later that night with Silverado’s winemaker Jack Stuart and needless to say, it was one of the absolute best Napa Cabs any of us could ever hope to taste. It had been stored substandardly at best, but was remarkable for its purity of fruit. Medium-bodied and possessing still terrific acidity, I can recall it as I write.

    There is, as you stated, a definite homogenization that has taken place in Napa with Cabernet in particular, and as someone who has been fortunate to taste many of these pre-1990 Cabs, it saddens me.

    I hope someday for a return to the wines and standards of old, but I’m afraid it’s merely just hope. But as the famous movie quote goes: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best thing.”

    In Vino Veritas indeed!

    Posted by John Weeks | October 27, 2014, 6:21 pm
  15. Young girls have picked them everyone, oh when will they ever learn, where have all the young girls gone long time passing, gone for husbands everywhere, oh when will they ever learn, and where will all the husbands go, to graveyards everywhere, oh when we ever learn. Pete Seeger would have loved the “old” Napa and if alive would shed tears over its demise at the hands of the rich and their enablers. Too bad for all of us, the wines John remembers are some of the greatest ever made.

    Posted by Eric Hille | October 27, 2014, 9:47 pm
  16. Thanks Eric. Great expansion of the theme. Yes, it is sad. Like I said we can all only hope that there will be a new order and that the old wines that we know and love as some of the greatest Cabernet based wines ever made will not disappear from the face of the earth. Some critics have said that the new wines are “magical”. Say what? Magic is a fantasy, not reality. Stay tuned. The Underground has much more to say on this subject. And, please. as always, pass the Underground along.
    In Vino Veritas,
    John

    Posted by John Tilson | October 27, 2014, 10:12 pm
  17. Thanks John. Yes you are correct. Even though the really great old Inglenooks ended in the early 60s (I say 1962. Some of my other friends say it was a year or two earlier). But no matter. I still love the 1962 Iglenook as well as all the ones before it back to the early 30s. But, after that there were other vintages that turned out to be surprisingly good like the 1968 you mention. But even as late as the early 90s some of the Inglenook Cabernets have turned out to be lovely wines. Trader Joes (when it was mostly a local chain here in Southern California California) sold the 1990 and 1991 Inglenook Cabs for $1.99. That is less than the price of 2 buck chuck today (you can read about 2 buck chuck on the website). The difference is that 2 buck chuck is a joke and the old $1.99 Inglenooks have proven to be really delicious, particularly the 1991. Why? Because the wines were balanced to begin with. That is something that is missing in the “new and improved” wines which I think are mostly over the top and manipulated.
    And, yes you are spot on with “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best thing”. Where there is hope there is opportunity.
    The consumer needs ingredient labeling as a start to try to figure out where things have gone ballistic. Stay with the Underground! And, yes “In Vino Veritas” has taken on even more meaning. With that, I wish you all the best and sign off with the Underground motto.
    In Vino Veritas,
    John

    Posted by John Tilson | October 27, 2014, 10:30 pm
  18. Thanks Peter. Like I said in the article, it is difficult today to sort out the Napa Cabernets because so many taste the same. Also, many of the old producers such as Stag’s Leap and Mayacamas are under new ownership with a new agenda. You might try some the old producers that have stayed true to their standards such as Dunn and Forman. Also, I know there are some new wineries that people I trust have told me about that are making Napa Valley wines that are in a traditional style. But, to be honest with you, I have not tried many of them and cannot recommend them unless I have tasted them over a period of time and have some insight as to their ability to age and improve. Maybe I will get into this later. But, right now I have other issues that are more pressing. I have bought very few Napa Valley Cabernets since the 1990s. I have tasted quite a few of the “new style big points” wines which I generally do not find to my taste. What I would suggest to you is to talk to a local wine merchant who carries a wide variety of wines, tell them what you like, and have them make suggestions. The you can decide for yourself. In the old days we bought everything we could find and tasted the wines blind and then made recommendations. I bought the wines I liked best, drank them and cellared them. These are the old wines that I am drinking today. As for new California Cabernets, my first choice is the wine I have bought every year since the 1970s. That is Ridge Monte Bello. If you do not own this you really should. If you are not familiar with it, there are several articles on Ridge on the website. I also regularly buy Mount Eden Cabernet and the Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards Cabernet. Again, there are articles about them on the website. The Central Coast has not been bitten by the new style Cabernet. The wineries I write about are making the wines the way they have historically. And,I only write about the wines I like, drink, and buy. Said another way, I eat my own cooking. Always have. Always will. That is a huge difference between the Underground and the 100 point boys!
    Again, thank you for your comments. They are always welcomed. And, please stay with the Underground and pass it along!
    In Vino Veritas,
    John

    Posted by John Tilson | October 27, 2014, 10:58 pm
  19. Hi John,

    Had no idea when you got back to The Underground Wine Letter but perhaps that can happen in Napa too when it returns to it’s soul. For decades now, I have been telling friends that the greatest wines were made in Napa before 1990…fewer in the 80’s than the great 70’s some stellar cellar worthy 60’s and beyond. The last vintage that had general varietal character was probably 1993. The 1994 started the Parker Bombs when big concentrated alcohol ‘juice’ were released onto the world. I bought many 90’s and beyond trophy wines because I had to but yet to taste one that tells me it will age gracefully. The fruit/tannin/acid balance were mostly lacking and that fruit/alcohol forwardness will not age well in my humble opinion. I do hear a chorus of new Napa winemakers attempting to made ‘purer’ wines but this business is now simply about money…and scores will continue to dictate that and most of the owners will not let that happen. I love Napa but now drinking more and more lesser Grand Cru Bordeaux in shoulder years for best drinking pleasure and value. And please don’t bid against me at those auctions where the old Napa gems are getting scarcer 🙂

    I look forward to our meeting again in a few weeks!

    George

    Posted by george chen | October 28, 2014, 8:19 pm
  20. Thanks George. Yes, it would be wonderful if Napa could get back to “it’s soul” as you so aptly put it.Your assessment parallels mine except I was exiting in the 90s and when I came back it was a new world. Many were entering as I was leaving and they were driven by the 100 point hysteria which I think is one of the biggest deceptions of all time.
    I’m afraid you are right for the near term. Now it is all about money. Before it was about people who really loved wine. And, I have a lot of stories about those great people because we shared those times with them.
    I still buy young wine even though I am old. I don’t know any better. I buy what I like. But, I don’t buy any of the “new and improved” wines. After all, wine is not laundry soap!
    And, I drink my old wines that I love – old Cabernets, Bordeaux, and Burgundy which are the same old wines I was drinking when I first started some 40 years ago except that the vintages are not quite so old now. But, trust me, we drank more than our share of the wines that were really old way back then. They were phenomenal. Back then my friends and I drank 1870s, wines from the late 1800s and early 1900s and the great wines from the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. This is what led us to the old California wines (of which there were very few – think 30s, 40s, and 50s) and the potential for those wines. We felt that we were on the right track with Napa Cabs in the 60s,70s and 80s. But, as you point out, in the 90s things got crazy with big wines and big numbers. I think it is a fad. Vamos a ver.
    No worries I don’t buy the old wines anymore. I am fortunate to have bought and cellared a large quantity which I am now drinking. And, not to worry about seeing me as a buyer or seller of old California wines at the auctions. I have lot of them. You can drink these old wines with me and we don’t have to worry about the provenance!
    See you soon!
    In Vino Veritas,
    John

    Posted by John Tilson | October 28, 2014, 10:44 pm
  21. John – Thanks for the article.

    There are a few young producers who respect old Napa and are trying to bring that style back.

    I would point out two examples for you to check out – Graeme MacDonald (MacDonald Vineyards) who is crafting wine from his family’s section of old vines in To-Kalon and Ketan Moody who is planting his own vineyard.

    Posted by Robert Dentice | November 18, 2014, 5:59 am
  22. Thanks Robert.
    I am afraid that I have been away from Napa too long to keep up. I am happy to hear that there are some new people who are not drinking the kool aid. Maybe I can catch up with them in the future. In the meantime, I appreciate your keeping me informed of the new producers who are making wines in the historical style. Maybe with help from you and others we can get a list going in the Underground!
    Thanks again for your suggestions and please stay in touch and pass the Underground on to your friends!
    In Vino Veritas,
    John

    Posted by John Tilson | November 18, 2014, 10:26 pm
  23. I really enjoyed the story. Having been a sommelier in the late 60’s and a wine salesman to the mid 70’s. I served and sold the same wines you refer to as the great wines of Napa.

    what I see happening now is as you say, wines are being homogenized to taste the same. The beauty of wines with individual characters is disappearing form our wine markets. I think in five to ten years the wine market will be nothing more then similar clones in flavor and aroma. You and I know the differences and appreciate the differences of the Grand Dame wines but those under 50 probably will never drink anything similar. Food Companies have taken much of the control of making and marketing wine in America and a bottle of wine is like a box of soda crackers. No need to respect the potential of the grape just squeeze it and bottle it. Money is certainly killing the wine trade you and I enjoyed these many years.

    Posted by Jean Laffitte | January 9, 2015, 2:12 pm
  24. Thanks Jean. Yes the 60s and 70s have turned out to be the golden days of Napa. What wonderful memories we all have of those days. And, for those of us who cellared the wines, what great wines we are now enjoying. Today there is a lot more money and commercialism as you point out. And, sadly most people in the new domestic wine producing areas (one notable exception being a lot of the producers in the Finger Lakes) have succumbed to the allure of making something for instant gratification as opposed to respecting the terroir. But, as we all know, what goes around comes around. In the US we have a small core of owner producers, mostly in the Central Coast, who are making traditionally styled wines. In France, people are sounding the warning against the new “international style” wines that are manipulated and not made in a traditional way. Burgundy, with the possible exception of some producers of White Burgundy, has maintained a traditional course and has concentrated on more care of the vineyards and selection to make wonderful wines. Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley, to varying degrees, have gone over the line to the “international style”. But, the most of the rest of France, as well as Italy and Spain have mostly retained their historical methods. The best wines are largely made by owner growers who respect the land and the wine that is specific to the terroir. Over time, I think these traditional wines will assume their rightful place as the best wines in the world. To some degree that is already happening. So, yes, I am optimistic. Novice US consumers as well as other novice consumers in China and other emerging countries will eventually turn to wines that complement their cuisine. That is what I see as the glass half full. At the end of the day the great vineyards will, hopefully, still be there. And, so long as they remain, it is only a matter of time before new ownership begins to stop manipulating and once again begins to respect the terroir. The market, as always, will dictate the change.
    In Vino Veritas,
    John

    Posted by John Tilson | January 10, 2015, 11:27 am

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