I recently wrote an article including tasting notes on a trade tasting of California Pinot Noirs “In Pursuit Of Balance.” It was held at RN74 in San Francisco. The purpose was to showcase California Pinot Noirs that are balanced and not overly extracted and alcoholic. It was a great success. And, if you did not see my article, please take a look at it under Trade Tastings. After the tasting we had a lovely dinner at the restaurant. It is relatively new and serves very good food. The restaurant is very wine friendly and features an extensive wine list highlighting Burgundy from A to Z. The restaurant is named for the famous road that runs through the heart of Burgundy. Every one had brought wines and people were buying wines off the wine list. Many of the wines were being circulated around. In this respect, it was sort of like a mini “La Paulee” which is the famous traditional Burgundy celebration in honor of the grape harvest. “La Paulee” has now been commercialized and is being repeated in various locations each year. These events are attended by large numbers of people with great Burgundies passed around and flowing like water. Our little function was nothing like that. It was more restrained, but we did have some terrific wines.
For me the most impressive white wine I tasted was a 1978 Louis Jadot Chevalier-Montrachet Les Demoiselles. In my book, this wine is a legend. I wrote it up with a glowing, near perfect review in the October-November 1980 issue of The Underground Wineletter (The original image from the cover of this issue is shown on the left) . We loved the 1978 Burgundy vintage, both red and white, and this wine was one of the best White Burgundies of the vintage. I had quite a few bottles which I drank over many years into the late 1990s. They were all great. Alas, I have no more. Apparently, more than 1 bottle of this wine had been opened and someone said that the bottle I tasted was not quite as good as another one. Perhaps. But, then that always seems to be the case at group tastings with different people. For me, this wine was terrific. Not the very best bottle of the wine that I have ever tasted, but still extraordinary. Below is my tasting note:
1978 Louis Jadot Chevalier-Montrachet Les Demoiselles. Light gold in color, the wine has a stunning perfume with honeyed, citrus, spice, and hazelnut nuances. Balanced with gorgeous flavor and finesse, it has balance and complexity with a long lingering finish. Maybe there’s a better bottle, but this works for me. It is really sad that so many of the recent White Burgundies from this venerable estate have succumbed to the malady of premature oxidation or Pre-Mox as it is unaffectionately known. White Burgundies like this great 1978 are to be savored and enjoyed after many years in the bottle –- Extraordinary.
There were quite a few Red Burgundies that were opened. But the stars of the show, for me, were the two old California Pinot Noirs that I brought. They both had been in my cellar since release. The wines were 1978 Chalone Vineyard Pinot Noir Estate and 1979 Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noir Estate. The wines were tasted by quite a few people including several of the winemakers who were there. Everyone who tasted them was blown away. They raved about the complexity, depth, and balance of the wines and how they had evolved so beautifully over the 30 plus years. All marveled about the still youthful freshness of the wines. And, several said things like “Wow. We’ve really got our work cut out for us.” We started with the 1978 Chalone Vineyard Pinot Noir Estate. People were simply amazed. I related the story of how, after tasting hundreds of 1978 Red Burgundies for The Underground Wineletter in the early 1980s, my friends and I decided to do a tasting of the best ones including wines from DRC, Leroy, Jayer, etc. And in this tasting of some 100 different bottles of the best 1978 Red Burgundies, we decided to put the 1978 Chalone in the tasting as a “ringer.” The tasting was done in three sessions over two days. There were many really good tasters and Burgundy aficionados from all over the world at the tasting and no one identified the Chalone as a “ringer.” However, it was included as one of the top wines of the tasting on nearly everyone’s list! It continues today, as evidenced by this bottle, to be one of the greatest Pinot Noirs ever made in California. Later we poured the 1979 Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noir Estate. Everyone too was raving about it. And, soon Larry Stone appeared at our table. (Larry is a Master Sommelier and renowned for his wine knowledge and tasting abilities. I have known Larry for over 30 years. I first met him in the 1970s when he was the Sommelier at the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel in Seattle. Later we tasted wine together as he moved to Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago and then Rubicon in San Francisco. Currently, Larry is President of Evening Land Vineyards. I was delighted to see him earlier at the tasting after being out of touch for many years.) “John,” he exclaimed, “this wine is fabulous. It is one of my all time favorite California Pinot Noirs.” He went on to say how he had visited Ken Burnap, the founder and winemaker, at the winery on Jarvis Road and tasted the 1979 out of barrel. At that point, he was mesmerized by the wine, feeling it was the best young Pinot Noir he had ever tasted. And, later he purchased some which he drank with great pleasure over many years, but regretted that he had not saved a few. He continued to rhapsodize about the complexity and balance of the wine and how fantastic it had become with age. Need I say he was impressed? And, like Larry, I too was very impressed with Ken’s wines. Starting with the first vintage in 1975, I tasted wines from barrel at Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard every year for many, many years. I wrote many glowing reviews on these wines in the early issues of The Underground Wineletter. Today, there are some really fabulous Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noirs like this 1979. They include the 1975 and the 1977, to mention a few of the oldest ones, which are also absolutely great today.
Below are my notes on these two legendary California Pinot Noirs:
1978 Chalone Vineyard Pinot Noir Estate. Deep in color with a faint amber edge, this Pinot Noir has a knock-out perfume of plums and berries with a faint hint of exotic spice and green olive. With gorgeous fruit and great complexity, the wine is supple and rounded with a long lingering finish. Impeccably balanced and like velvet on the palate, this is a true legend in the history of California Pinot Noir with a long life ahead –- Extraordinary.
1979 Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noir Estate. Dark in color with a faint amber edge, this wine has a stunningly complex perfume of dried leaves, vanilla, plum, and exotic spice. It is rich with layers of complex flavors. Lots of fruit and forest-like flavor components accented by faint hints of vanilla and spice all are melded together in a seamless fashion and follow through on a long finish. Underneath there is a brightness from the acidity, that holds the promise of a very long life for the wine ahead. Sadly, the old Jarvis vineyard that was the basis for this wine was pulled out and replanted in 2005 after the property was sold. But wines from this vineyard, like this 1979, and others like the 1975 and 1977, are lasting evidence of the great potential for California Pinot Noir and Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir in particular –- Extraordinary.
So there you have it. A tasting starting with an objective of finding balance in California Pinot Noir and ending with two great California Pinot Noirs that are over 30 years old. Based on the greatness of these wines, I’d say we never completely lost balance in California Pinot Noir. But the beauty of the wine has certainly been debased by those who practice over-extraction, high alcohol, and manipulative wine making in the name of pleasing the big numbers gods. Fortunately, there are many others who have chosen to not drink the kool aid. And to those who follow in the footsteps of some of the early pioneers who have produced great Pinot Noir for the ages, the future is indeed bright for California Pinot Noir. That is as it should be and just as I predicted in the first issue of The Underground Wineletter in August of 1979!