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Retrospective Review


John Tilson • 2/5/13        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share


As we began 1982, Volume III, Number 3 offered the following articles: One Winedrinker’s Opinion – Wine Prices Are Coming Down, Brut Champagnes, Sparkling Wines, Distinctive New Wines featuring the great 1978 Chalone Pinot Noir, California Cabernets, Zinfandels, 1979 Red Burgundies, and 1979 Red Rhones. We are currently reproducing  Volume III, Number 3 of The Underground Wineletter in its entirity. 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 4 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 3 was a continuation of many of the themes we had focused on in earlier issues. There was a One Winedrinker’s Opinion commentary on  wine prices which had been steadily increasing. I offered the bold prediction that some wine prices would come down. We also added a new feature called Coming Attractions which listed upcoming articles including a new letters to the editor feature called Cork Poppers. Brut Champagnes continued to be a focus and  we were recommending the new small producers which were not well known and just beginning to appear in the U.S. Not to leave out other sparkling wines we also offered our first ever review of these wines. Distinctive New Wines  featured the now legendary 1978 Chalone Pinot Noir as the top pick. Many new California Cabernet Sauvignon releases and new Zinfandel releases were also featured. And, the first of the 1979 Red Burgundies and 1979 Red Rhones were starting to arrive and we offered notes on the vintage and the wines. All in all, it was a very interesting issue covering a wide range of wines.


Wine Prices Are Coming Down

The bottom line of this editorial was as follows:“As we head into 1982, the best advice I can give wine collectors and consumers is patience. We are not in a shortage situation. Be selective. The market for older wine, particularly pre-’66 Bordeaux and to a lesser extent ‘70 Bordeaux, remains strong with less and less available. If you own these fine, if not acquiring them may be increasingly expensive. However, this is not the time to be laying in large quantities of young wine (exceptions the best 78 Burgundies which are in such limited supply, the marvelous 78 and 79 Rhones and a few attractively priced Cabernets). Wait for the market to come into balance. As it does there should be lots of bargains. An old commodity, cash, is gaining a new glitter. It will probably buy more young wine for the buck in 1982 than it has in a long, long time.”

Alas, this trend did not continue for long. And, continuing to buy and cellar old Bordeaux as well as the best young California Cabernets, Red Burgundies, and Red Rhones was sound advice. But, the opportunities to buy fine wines at the existing price levels was about to disappear as we moved through the decade and into the 1990s.


This was a feature added for the first time to alert readers to upcoming articles. Here we highlighted:

Cellar Notes  •  Distinctive New Wines  •  Selected Tasting Notes  •  California Chardonnays  •  California Cabernet Sauvignons  •  Barrels and Bottles  •  More 1978 Bordeaux  •  1979 Bordeaux  •  More 1979 Red Burgundies  •  More 1979 Rhones  •  Cork Poppers  •  And More


“Seek out the Champagne from the small producers”

This article offered a commentary on the pricing of Champagne in the American market, the supply/demand situation, and the changing trends in the production of Champagne with the increasing number of small producers. It is a fascinating and very predictive view of the market. Take a look.

“Despite the fact that the French Franc has declined sharply against the dollar, West Coast prices of Champagne have escalated as much as 20% in the course of the past year. On the East Coast a more competitive market, combined with the favorable currency translation, has resulted in prices that are actually below those of a year ago. For example, Taittinger Blanc de Blancs retails in New York for as little as $38.25. The same wine on the West Coast carries a retail price of $67.95! Clearly these two markets are out of balance.

Last year we suggested laying in a supply of Champagne in anticipation of higher prices. This was based on the diminishing supply of Champagne brought about by small crops in 1978 and 1980. Now 1981 seems to have further compounded the problem. It was a difficult year and the crop was probably only about 40% of normal. Thus, in three years of the past four, supply has been less than 2/3 of demand. The higher prices may have slowed demand, but production has not kept pace with even with a flattening of consumption. As a result, the reserves of wine kept on hand by the major Champagne houses have dropped to very low levels. From nearly a 4:1 ratio of reserves to shipments the ratio has now fallen to about 2.5:1.However, for the U.S. consumer the situation is not as bleak as it might first appear. First, there is the strength of the dollar vs. the franc which has offset the increase of approximately 25% in the producer price of Champagne. Secondly, Champagne growers are increasingly keeping a larger share for themselves and producing their own wine. Moreover, not only are they making more of it, they are selling direct eliminating the middlemen who add substantially to the retail cost. Although most of the wine from these producers, called recoltants, is sold in France, a small amount is beginning to trickle into the U.S. (The J. Lassalle Champagnes in this issue are a prime example.) We expect this trend to continue. The commercial houses, called maisons, will be faced with competition. Not only is the quality of the Champagne a factor, but also the cost.  Wine from the recoltants may be of great quality because they control the vineyards and can use the best grapes in their own production. Because they sell direct to a knowledgeable market the price also may be lower. As a result, the maisons are faced with a dilemma.  Reflecting the short supplies, prices of 1980 grapes were doubled for the best vineyards. The maisons hoped this would cause less problems with the recoltants. But, higher prices could result in declining demand. Not a problem now, but conceivably a problem if there are two good vintage to increase supplies. As consumers, the key is selectivity. Seek out the Champagne from small producers. These are the greatest bargains in Champagne today.”

This was an early commentary on the trend of small Champagne producers in the U.S. market. Many were just beginning to appear here and the Underground was clearly in front of the trend.

In this article we reviewed 18 Brut Vintage Champagnes from the 1973, 1975, and 1976 vintages and 24 Brut Non-Vintage Champagnes. Of the Brut Vintage Champagnes 3 were rated Outstanding:  1976 Billecart-Salmon “Cuvée N.F. Billecart”, 1973 J. Lassalle, and 1973 J. Lassalle “Blanc de Blancs”. These Champagnes ranged in price from $18 to $20. Here are the notes on those wines:

1976 Blllecart-Salmon “Cuvee N.F. Billecart”. Last year’s 1975 vintage was an outstanding Champagne and an outstanding value at $18 per bottle. Now the good news! The 1976 is equally outstanding and the price has not increased (the 20% increase in the producer price was offset by the strength of the dollar vs. the French Franc) This is a superb wine to stock up on for the holidays The color is light yellow gold and the nose has a lovely fruity/ yeasty/ spicy/ steely/ vanilla quality – very clean and very attractive.
The wine has exquisite balance and a delicious flavor – fruity/spicy/with a hint of vanilla. Long on the palate, this is superb
Champagne (18). $18

1973 J. Lassalle. This Champagne is estate bottled. That is all grapes used to make the wine were grown by the producer. Most Champagne is made by blending grapes from different vineyards. This results in a consistent house style. By using only estate grown grapes there is a risk of more year to year variation. If it’s possible to make Champagne like this, a little year to year variation seems a small price to pay. This is wonderful. The color is a pale yellow gold and the wine has a lovely, fruity/ lemony/ steely/ yeasty nose.
The flavors literally explode with tremendous fruit and hints of vanilla and a soft steeliness. Everything one could ask in a youthful
Champagne, it is full, rich, creamy, and luscious with a long, lingering finish . Need it be said that at $20 this is a great buy (18).

1973 J. Lassalle “Blanc de Blancs. Oh my, this is another lovely Champagne. Stylistically different from the other J. Lassalle bottling, this is exactly what would be expected from Blanc de Blancs – lighter, more delicate. The color is light yellow gold and the wine has a lovely, fruity/vanilla/slightly smoky/slightly steely nose. It is very nicely balanced – creamy and very flavorful, yet delicate, soft, and lovely with endless flavor- a great success and, again, a great buy (18). $20

Eleven Brut Vintage Champagnes were rated Very Good (including 1976 Roederer Cristal) and four were rated good. Included in the latter category were 1973 Bollinger R.D. and 1975 Veuve Clicquot “Royal Celebration”. The notes on these wines are shown below. They are indicative of the problems of wine storage in those days.

1973 Bollinger R.D. At $58 this can only be termed outrageous. It simply isn’t worth it – not even if one prefers old, oxidized Champagne. For if this is the case, just shop around for some non-vintage bottlings at a store that doesn’t have temperature control or much turn over! This bottling has a toasty/caramel quality in the nose and flavor. It is full and rich, but old, feeble, and showing signs of early senility (14).

 Royal What?

1975 Veuve Clicquot “Royal Celebration”. Some celebration! The NV Veuve Clicquot is better for nearly 1/3 less (see page 50). This wine has a pale yellow gold color and a toasty nose and flavor. Lacking fruit and showing signs of early senility with a short finish, hopefully the royal couple doesn’t share the same characteristics (14).  $30

Of the Non-Vintage Brut Champagnes 17 rated Very Good with prices in a range of $12 – $27 with most priced at $20 and above. So clearly the small producer Vintage Brut Champagnes that rated Outstanding were much better buys at $18 – $20. Six of the other Non-Vintage Brut Champagnes rated Good and one was rated Below Average. All of the the wines that rated Good showed obvious signs of age. Again, this was an indication of poor storage. And, the note on the one Champagne that rated Below Average tells the tale of a Champagne that was poorly made.

Nicolas Feuillatte “Reserve Particuliere”.  Reserve Particuliere?  What kind of joke is this?  How bad is the regular unparticular? This has a pale yellow gold color and a skunky nose. Slightly flat, but also syrupy with a short finish. Back to the cellar, Nicolas baby, surely you can do better than this (11) . $18


Here is the introduction to the article on California And Imported Brut Sparkling Wines. I think you could say we were underwhelmed!

Is there an alternative to Champagne? Very simply, the answer is no. In California there are many wines called Champagne which is a sacrilege. The great majority of the bulk process “Champagne” is made from inexpensive Central Valley grape varieties and most are very sweet and nearly undrinkable. After all what can you expect for $2? However, even using the more time consuming and expensive Method Champenoise such as is used in Champagne there are large quantities of sparkling wine produced in California, Italy. Spain, and France. Most are far less expensive than Champagne, except in California where some wines improperly command prices higher than the best Champagne. Ah yes, but are they Champagne? Again no. Only Champagne is Champagne. It comes from the specific Champagne district of France, is produced from specific vineyards, and under specific controls regarding production. Nothing else is Champagne. Not Sparkling Vouvray. Not Sparkling California Chenin Blanc. Not Chandon, not Schramsberg, not anything outside of Champagne. Unfortunately, these other sparkling wines generally fall into the poor-good category with very little achieving distinction .With the higher Champagne prices there is reason to be optimistic regarding sparkling wines in the future. Italy and Spain ore certain to have better and better quality wine available. Most should be at an affordable price. California sparkling wines are now starting to be produced in greater quantities and should show improvement. Here the problem might be that the first successful producer to “win” a tasting against Dom Perignon will try to price the wine at parity. However, for now,  that’s not a problem. As can be seen from the following review California has a long way to go.

The article was presented in 2 parts. The first was California Brut Sparkling Wines where 15 wines were reviewed. None were rated Outstanding or Very Good. Eleven were rated Good and 4 were rated Below Average. The 2 best wines which ranked in the middle of the Good category were Chandon “Blanc de Noirs” priced at $12 and 1977 Schramsberg “Blanc de Noirs” priced at $18.  The price for all the wines tasted ranged from $8 to $24. Here is a note on the most expensive wine in the tasting which ranked near the bottom in the Good category.

 How to Pay More and Get Less

1975 Schramsberg “Reserve”. Ouch! Are you kidding? This wine costs more than the three Champagnes we rank as Outstanding. Maybe it “won” a tasting somewhere. The color is pale yellow gold with an unusual, fruity/slightly herbal nose. It has good bubbles and is clean with a fruity/floral taste and a slightly bitter finish (13).   $24

And here are notes on the 2 wines that ranked at the bottom:

Heitz Cellar “Brut”. Is this Joe Heitz’s worst wine? Maybe. It is produced and bottled by Heitz Champagne Bottling Cellars. Rumor says Hans Kornell. Who knows, but it’s not very good. The color is light yellow gold with a perfume/ floral nose. It has fruity/floral/slightly bitter flavors, good bubbles, and a touch of sweetness. Probably blended with Central Valley grapes plus Riesling, Columbard, a little Chenin Blanc. Again, we really don’t know, but there’s no real reason to care either. Why does Joe put his name on this stuff (11)?  $7.79

Hans Kornell “Sehr Trocken”. How this wine continues to sell is a mystery. At $12.75 per bottle it is absolutely baffling! The wine is a blend of various grapes, probably varying from batch to batch. What is said to be the current release has a light yellow gold color and a decidedly unattractive, chemical/muscatel nose. There are good bubbles and a musty, slightly sweet flavor that finishes bitter (10).


Here we reviewed 8 wines. This is what I said in the introduction: “Despite the large quantity of wines produced, they seem to be quite limited in California. Below are notes on a few. Perhaps at a later date we will search out more across the country and do a more intensive review.”  Of the 8 wines reviewed 2 were rated Very Good, 4 were rated Good, and 2 were rated Below Average. The prices ranged from around $4 to over $12. Here are the notes on the highest rated wines in the Sparkling Wine tasting. They were the only wines that rated Very Good and both were rated Best Buys.

 Best Buys

Cremant de Bourgogne (Cave Cooperative de Viré). If you need a low priced alternative to Champagne, this is probably as close as can be obtained. It actually tastes like Champagne. The color is light yellow and the nose has a subdued, fruity/yeasty/somehat spicy nose. The wine is crisp, yet there is fruit and depth of flavor with lovely bubbles and a clean, dry finish (15). $7

Juvé y Camps “Reserva de Ia Familia”. This is a clean, fresh, fruity wine with good flavor and bubbles. The color is light yellow and the nose has an attractive,  spicy/woodsy/ fruity quality. The fruity flavors have nuances of pineapple and spice and the wine finishes clean and dry (15).   $6

And here are the notes on the 2 Imported Brut Sparkling wines that were the worst wines in the Sparkling Wine tasting with scores in the lower range of Below Average:

Codorniu “Clasico”. Clasico? Yeah, if that means weird O.K. In fact for $4 this might evoke some “Clasico’” responses around the table for some special evening. The color is light yellow and the nose could pass for petroleum jelly. Hmmm. The wine is dry and crisp with good bubbles but it tastes like sagebrush. Maybe cowboys would like it (9).

1973 Freixenet “Brut Nature”. Nature was never like this. The color is light yellow gold, but the nose is foul, like stagnant water, and the flavors have a bitter, chemical quality. Oh yes, the bubbles are nice (8). $7


Here we featured four new wines – the now legendary 1978 Chalone Pinot Noir and 3 lovely 1980 white wines from a new winery in Sonoma by the name of Balverne that was founded in 1979.

Here is the note on the 1978 Chalone Pinot Noir:

1978 Chalone Pinot Noir. Wow! Anyone who thinks California Pinot Noir is dull should taste this wine. It absolutely overwhelms every other Pinot Noir available today. (A review of 50-60 Pinot Noirs will appear in a subsequent issue.) Available almost exclusively from the winery, early acquisition is advised since only about 500 cases were made. The color is very dark and the nose has a lovely, ripe fruit/spicy quality. It is full and rich with loads of fruit and a spicy complexity. Opulent, lush, long on the palate, great balance, this wine has everything. Seemingly destined for long life, this is a California classic (18). $18

What was left out in this note was that this wine was made from the estate grown fruit in what is now the Chalone appellation. This wine and the 1977 Chalone Pinot Noir Estate are still great today and represent two of the greatest California Pinot Noirs of this era along with those from Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard and Mount Eden.


“The consumer is well advised to be aware of the supply situation.”

Here I talked about recent vintages, the supply situation, and the marketing gimmicks that were just beginning and have continued to proliferate to this day. Below is the commentary:

Many 1979 Cabernets are now coming to market. In the NorthCoast counties, production was down about 15% from the bountiful l978 crop.  Reflecting a large supply situation, grape prices trended down slightly. The vintage was quite unusual A lengthy heat wave accelerated maturity, but the harvest season was interrupted by cool, rainy weather which caused excessive mildew and rot In some vineyards. Generally speaking, the most successful wines were made from gropes punctuated by warm periods which allowed a portion of the harvest to be picked in good condition This should produce some good wine as well. Overall, 1979 con be called a successful vintage. 1980 looks even better and 1981 also seems to be quire good. California has experienced five consecutive very good to outstanding vintages in the 1977-81 period. Beginning in 1977 the majority of the vines planted in the early 1970’s reached maturity. This has resulted in a large supply of Cabernet Sauvignon.

The consumer is well advised to be aware of the supply situation. For a year (see Volume II, page 40 and subsequent Cabernet Sauvignon reviews) we have advised selectivity. A buyers market is developing. Producers are scurrying to sell more and more wine outside of California in the hopes of reducing inventories. Other marketing gimmicks are rampant. Releasing only small amounts of wine to produce the impression of scarcity and creating expensive “reserves”, “special selections”, etc. at $15-30 per bottle that are often no better than less expensive regular bottlings are two primary examples. Despite all the gimmicks the basic laws of supply and demand ultimately will prevail.  For the next several years there should be no problem acquiring an ample supply of very good-outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon in the $8-15 per bottle price range. Anything priced much higher than this is generally not worth it. The indiscriminate use of a wide variety of special labels or expensive prices without bothering to put special wine in the bottle could ultimately spell the demise of these short sighted producers. They won’t be missed.

Thirty Four current release California Cabernet Sauvignons were reviewed from the 1976, 1977, 1978, and 1979 vintages. None were rated Outstanding, but 23 were ranked Very Good. Another 9 were ranked Good and 2 were ranked Below Average.  The prices ranged from $7.50 to $40.

The top wines, in order of preference were:

1979 Diamond Creek “Volcanic Hill” and 1979 St. Clement “NapaValley.

1979 Diamond Creek “Red Rock Terrace”, 1979 Keenan “Napa Valley, 1977 Mayacamas “Napa Valley”, 1977 Ridge “Monte Bello”,and 1978 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars “Stag’s Leap Vineyards, Lot 2”.

1976 BV “Private Reserve”, 1978 Burgess Cellars “Vintage Selection”, 1979 Carneros Creek “Napa Valley”, 1977 Chateau Montelena “Napa”, 1979 Diamond Creek “Gravelly Meadow”, 1978 Lower Lake “Stromberg’s Hummel Lane Vineyard”, 1976 Robert Mondavi “Reserve”, 1978 Mt. Eden “Santa Cruz”,and 1978 Trefethen Vineyards “Napa Valley”.

1978 Robert Mondavi “NapaValleyand 1978 Stonegate “Steiner Vineyard”.

1978 BV “Rutherford”, 1978 Conn Creek “Napa Valley”, 1978 Durney Vineyard “Reserve”, 1978 MEV “Santa Clara” and 1978 Villa Mt. Eden “Reserve”.

In looking back at these ratings I would say they were very conservative. Out of this group of wines I have had many of these same wines over the years. And, of those that I have had, I would now rate 1979 Diamond Creek “Volcanic Hill”, 1977 Mayacamas “Napa Valley”, 1977 Ridge “Monte Bello”, 1978 Burgess Cellars “Vintage Selection”, and 1979 Diamond Creek “Gravelly Meadow” as being outstanding.

Here are 2 of the more interesting notes on the wines in the Very Good category.

1978 Conn Creek “NapaValley. There is a Lot 1 and Lot 2 bottling of this wine. Reportedly, a different yeast was used on each.  This really is carrying separate bottlings too far. The wines are virtually identical. One bottle of the Lot 2 has a noticeable amount of SO2 that blew off with a few minutes air. The color of both wines is dark with an amber edge. They show a deep, fruity/ oaky nose and similar flavor. Both are full and tannic. At this juncture the Lot 1 seems to have more of a berry-like fruit quality. Score it 1/2 point higher (15). $12.50

1978 MEV “Santa Clara. This wine is from the Kennedy Vineyard just below the vineyards of Mt.Eden and Martin Ray. It is a huge Cabernet that will need a decade or more to develop. The color is very dark and the nose has a deep, minty/ fruity/ oaky quality. It is loaded with fruity/oaky/minty flavors. Very intense, but also very lean, and very tannic. If there’s enough fruit this could be a real winner in 1995 (15). $12

I have not tasted these wines since this initial review. It would be interesting to taste the 2 lots of Conn Creek. I doubt there is any difference. And, it would be even more interesting to taste the MEV bottling. In hindsight, wines from this area have proven to have amazing longevity and this wine could be a real winner today.

And, here are 2 of the more interesting notes on the wines in the Good category.

1978 Chateau Chevalier “Reserve”. Unbelievable! The prices this winery charges are equal to or more than the wines from the best producers, yet the wines are generally mediocre. And now comes a $25 “Reserve”. Sure. It may be the winery’s best, but $25 is ridiculous and based on the track record, $10 would be more like it. This wine is typical heavy style, yet without the off character of so many past Chateau Chevalier bottlings. The color is dark and the nose has a fruity/oaky quality. It is big, full, oaky, tannic, and slightly hot and alcoholic. Yet there is also loads of jammy fruit flavors. Only time will tell if it will ever come into balance (14 1/2).

1979 Kistler Vineyards “Veeder Hills·VeederPeak. A tiny quantity of this wine was made. At $20 per bottle the price simply ludicrous! Bearing no resemblance to Cabernet or little else for that matter, Caveat Emptor prevails here. The color is dark and the nose has a plummy/toasty/ spicy/slightly volatile quality. There are ripe fruit/toasty flavors. Not unpleasant, but not memorable either (13).

Also, rated in the Good category was the 1977 Joseph Phelps Vineyards “Eisele Vineyard”. I commented that it lacked depth and was easy to pass at $25 per bottle. That was a wrong assessment. Tasted from magnum last December the wine was Outstanding. It is yet another example of how well the older California Cabernets have aged.

Finally, one of the 2 wines rated Below Average was the 1978 Mirassou “Harvest Selection”. This long established winery in Santa Clara was one of the early producers of wines from Monterey. The early Monterey red wines were plagued with a strong vegetative quality and this wine was a poster child for that characteristic.



The commentary in the introduction to this Zinfandel article is very interesting. It speaks to the types of Zinfandel being made, the pricing, and comments on possible trends. Take a look.

Nearly every year produces some very good Zinfandels. One reason is that the grope is widely planted in almost every area of the state. The largest plantings ore in the Central Volley where it is used primarily for blending in jug wines. The different styles produced range from dry to sweet, from light, Beaujolais·style wines to heavy, impenetrable, inky, alcoholic monsters. Hopefully, we are past the peak of popularity far this latter style wine which often can be well nigh undrinkable.

Zinfandel is unique to California and the grape has a very appealing fruitiness and good flavor. However, the potential of Zinfandel as a wine to accompany meals has not yet been reached. Rather than wines that are “too much” what is needed is a balance – a balance of fruity flavor and alcohol. Rather than blend with Petite Sirah to give color and intensity why not some other variety to soften the wine? Clearly, there is room for some experimentation in this area. Eventually the marketplace will direct the style of Zinfandel. While not supported by “hard” data, many retailers seem to reflect the attitude that the popularity of Zinfandel is waning. Whether this is due to on increased supply, higher prices, or less demand is not known precisely. However, it does seem that $8·10 Zinfandels are generally of limited appeal. (Exceptions are for wineries such as Ridge where the wines have established a well earned reputation.) If it’s possible to profitably make a nice $4·6 Zinfandel using less cellar treatment and blending for early drinkability, maybe now is the time. To date when wineries have made such a wine they have usually sold it in bulk rather than release it. A prime example is a Mendocino winery which sold a large quantity of really delicious, lighter style Zinfandel to a small Southern California food chain. It is a very good, delicious Zinfandel which the chain was able to retail at a nice profit for only $1.99 per bottle! (If you happen to live in Southern California you might want to check into the 1979 Trader Joe “Mendocino” Zinfandel at Trader Joe and Pronto markets.) On a national level, it seems that at least a few wineries could produce and sell a fresher, lighter, fruitier Zinfandel. As can be seen from the following review, there are too few of this type of wine available today.

Fourty seven recently released Zinfandels from the 1977-1979 vintages were reviewed. They ranged in price from $3.75 to $15. Twenty Three were rated Very Good led by1979 Lytton Springs “SonomaCounty and 1979 Shafer “NapaValley. They were priced at $8 and $7, respectively. Here are the notes on those wines.

1979 Lytton Springs “SonomaCounty. First popularized by Ridge who made several fantastic Lytton Springs Zinfandels, the vineyard owners established their own winery and have been making the wine for the past few years. Although in some years subject quite a bit of bottle variation, the wines have shown the same intense style. This 1979 is true to form. The color is very dark and the nose has an intense, olallieberry perfume with a hint of spiciness There are loads of olallieberry fruit with the characteristic briary quality. The wine is big, intense, and very concentrated, but it is balanced. Tannic, but not overly so and not raisiny, if given a few years to soften this should make a really good bottle (17). $8

1979 Shafer “NapaValley. Without hitting you over the head with a 2 X 4, this is a lovely Zinfandel with lots of flavor and great style. The color is medium dark and the nose has a very perfumed, cherry-like quality with a touch of vanilla. The wine has intense, berry-like flavors showing a hint of oak and a little briariness. Nicely balanced, this is a Zinfandel style that is irresistible (17). $7

Twenty two wines were rated Good. Many of these wines suffered from over ripe fruit, lack of balance, and excessive alcohol, but most were very drinkable and not expensive. Here is the note on one of the real values in the tasting.

1977 Louis M. Martini “California. The least expensive Zinfandel of the wines reviewed in this article, this has to be considered a good buy at $3.75. Indeed, historically, the Martini red wines have always been good values. This one is medium dark with an amber edge and displays a fruity/oaky/minty/slightly medicinal nose. It has ripe, round, fruity flavor with some oakiness and an underlying soft tannin (14).

The 2 wines that were rated Below Average were badly flawed. Here is the note on the lowest scoring wine.

1979 Parducci “MendocinoCounty“. Unfortunately, even at under $4 this wine is no bargain. It has a medium dark color and it goes downhill from there – H2S nose, little fruit, dry , tannic, no style, no depth (10)


“As with most very large vintages, there is a great deal of variability…”

So began the introduction to the 1979 Red Burgundies that had just begun to arrive. Here is the rest of the introduction. Please pay particular attention to the second part of the last sentence. This was to be a great insight into the future.

The 1979 vintage was a very successful one for the growers, with extremely large amounts of wine being produced from throughout the area, except for the certain parts of Nuits-Saint-Georges, Vosne-Romanee, and Gevrey-Chambertin which suffered from hail storms in June and July . Some growers in these areas will have little or no wine. Others have produced very good-outstanding wines.

As with most very large vintages, there is a great deal of variability in the quality of the wines and so extreme care should be made in the selection of purchases. In particular, many of the shippers wines are likely to be uninspiring. However, the best of the 1979’s have good color and fruit, and are more forward and elegant than the 1978’s. Nonetheless, due to the quantity of the vintage and the less warm summer weather, even the very best 1979’s generally lack the extraordinary body, concentration, and backbone of the most successful of the 1978’s. Prices of the wines should be down a bit from the lofty levels of the 1978’s, but bargains are likely to be few and far between.

The article featured notes on 20 wines. Three were rated Outstanding led by the  Echezeaux and Vosne-Romanée “Les Brulées” from Henri Jayer and the Latricières-Chambertin from J.M. Ponsot. Here are the notes on those wines.

Echezeaux (H. Jayer). The only fault of this wine is youth! The color is dark and the nose has a deep perfume of raspberries and spice – really extraordinary. The wine has great intensity and tannin and acid to lose. Presently, rather tight and locked-up, but my what a Burgundy this will be in 5-6 years (18) . $43

Latricieres-Chambertin (J. M. Ponsot). This is a superb Burgundy. Better than the 1978?  Maybe. At this point the intensity and flavors of this 1979 are impressive.

The color is medium dark and the nose has a deep, fruity/oriental spice/slightly smoky quality. In this respect the wine bears an uncanny resemblance to the wines of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. There are deep, fruity/oriental spice flavors and firm acidity. Just now the wine is a bit hard, but there is great depth and the promise of elegance in 6-7 years (18). $27

Vosne-Romanee “Les Brulees” (H. Jayer). If one could call a wine pretty, this would be it. It is irresistible, seductive, charming, elegant, yet voluptuous. The color is dark and the nose shows a deeply perfumed quality – berries, spice, and a lovely smokiness. The flavors are deeply imbedded with an abundance of fruit and spice with the underlying smokiness. Long on the palate and balanced, this should improve for many years if you can resist drinking it (18). $36

Sixteen wines were rated Very Good including the very backward Richebourg from Henri Jayer and the Monthélie from J.F. Coche-Dury which was rated a best buy at $12.50. Here was the bottom line on the Jayer Richebourg: Way too young to drink, but it seems to be all there. An almost infinitesimal production of this nectar is made each year. If you can find it, go ahead and hock the ranch to buy it (17)! $83

And 1 wine was rated Good. It was the Vosne-Romanée (G. Mugneret) which sold for $22 or only slightly less than the Ponsot Latricières-Chambertin!


“Every winelover should lay some of these wines away”

This first article on the 1979 Red Rhones was very positive and featured the comment “…Every winelover should lay some of these wines away….” The wines ranged in price from $8-19. And there was a note that the wines would mature earlier than the 1978s. In fact, the 1979s were really delicious early on.

Four wines were rated Outstanding: Côte Rôtie “Les Jumelles” (Jaboulet), Crozes-Hermitage “Thlabert” (Jaboulet), Hermitage (Chave), and Hermitage “La Chapelle” (Jaboulet). At $9, the note on the Crozes-Hermitage said “This wine is one of the best buys of the year. In today’s inflated wine market this may be the best bottle of red wine available for under $10…”

Six wines rated Very Good. They included a gorgeous Saint-Joseph from Trollat that cost $8. This wine and the Jaboulet Crozes-Hermitage were wines I bought a lot of and drank them all in the first few years that I had them. They were balanced, complex and delicious wines. And, they are the kind of wines that I wish we had more of in the Rhone Valley today. Alas, today wines such as these are very difficult to find as so many of the  current Red Rhone wines are massive, extracted, and alcoholic.

So that was Volume III, Number 3 of the Underground Wineletter. We covered a lot of ground. There were lots of wines to buy. I have consumed a lot of the wines reviewed here over the years and still have several in my cellar. After all, I believe in eating my own cooking, so to speak! Volume III, Number 4 is next. Highlights are: More California Chardonnays, Cabernet Sauvignons, and Pinot Noirs. And, more 1978 Red Burgundies and 1978 Red Rhones. Also, 1976 Sauternes as well as an early report on the 1979 Bordeaux’s based on tastings done in Bordeaux. This latter tasting was quite interesting as it was only a preliminary report on the wines. There were no scores. We would wait to get the wines here so we could do blind tastings before doing our evaluations. This was part of the Underground view of maintaining objectivity. Quite a contrast with what has evolved today!


In Vino Veritas,Sig

John Tilson


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  • John,

    Great to read about the old Pinot Noirs. Reminds me that I still have bottles of the Joseph Swan, Chalone, Mt. Eden, and Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards from those years. And, yes, they are all still wonderful. Maybe we should do a tasting. What do you think?

    Don Baumhefner

    • John Tilson says:

      Thanks Don,
      Yes, I too have been drinking them and they are amazingly good. A tasting of a small number of the wines would be fun. What do you have in mind?
      In Vino Veritas,

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