This past Friday, Nov. 3, Burgess Cellars celebrated 45 years of Napa Valley winemaking with more than 120 guests. The event, a first of its kind for the winery, included a tasting of library wines that spanned the last four decades. Included in the offering was the inaugural 1972 vintage from Tom Burgess and his crew.
“Tom was one of the vintners instrumental in what I call the second Golden Age of Napa Valley winemaking,” said Karen MacNeil, author of “The Wine Bible” and wine educator and consultant. “The first was in the 1880s, but in the early 1970s there was a second wave.”
Class of 1972
There are others who also think of the influx of new vintners in 1972 as a critical year for thrusting the Napa Valley into the world spotlight. As Paul Franson wrote in Decanter magazine in 2001, “1972 was the year California winemaking began in earnest… The year when more important wineries were formed than during any other year in the 300 years of winemaking… Two wineries founded in that year, Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, changed the course of California winemaking in Steven Spurrier’s famous ‘Judgment of Paris’ tasting four years later…. It also saw the birth of cult favorites Burgess Cellars, Diamond Creek and Silver Oak, as well as Carneros Creek, Clos du Val and Dry Creek Vineyards.”
According to Franson’s article, in 1966, Robert Mondavi had created the first new winery in California since the end of Prohibition in 1933 and was producing world-class wines, laying the groundwork for what was to come.
The power of predictions
Another driver of a new influx of vintners seemed linked to an influential article that was first published in Wines and Vines in September 1970 by John Knechel, a Bank of America economist, that proclaimed, “Over the next 10 years, California vintners will enjoy a period of the strongest growth in wine markets ever recorded.”
The economist predicted that consumption of wine would double from roughly 1 gallon per U.S. resident to 2 gallons by 1980. And he was right. According to the Wine Institute, in 1969, 1.17 gallons of wine were consumed per resident in the United States, whereas by 1980 that had grown to 2.11 gallons.
The popular press picked up on the headline, and even the Wall Street Journal wrote glowing pieces about the rosy future for California’s wine business. That was enough for some of even the most reticent investors to take the plunge.
From war to wine
After flying hundreds of sorties in the Vietnam War, Burgess left the Air Force to become a private pilot, transporting IBM executives and sensitive data around the world. A few years later, he’d had enough of the daily grind of flying demanding clients, and he dreamed of going back to the land and becoming a vintner.
“There were Germans making wine locally when my dad was growing up, and that’s where he got his first interest in wine,” said Steven Burgess, president and co-owner with his brother James of the winery. “Later, when he was flying, he’d often get a layover at Travis Air Force Base, and he started to come over to the Napa Valley. He often talked about visiting Beaulieu Vineyard winery, where he tasted wines from as far back as the 1930s. Those wines and those experiences helped him form his vision of what Burgess Cellars could become.”
As a pilot with a pregnant wife, a winery was out of reach to Tom without help from his family.
“My dad talked his father into investing in the winery,” Burgess said. “My grandfather would have likely never invested in a winery, but because of the B of A report and because this piece of property had a history of producing award-winning wines, he eventually agreed.”
Tom purchased an old mountainside winery and vineyard in the eastern hills of St. Helena. The property had originally been planted with grapevines in the late 1800s by the Poncetta family and eventually found its way into the hands of Lee Stewart in 1943.
“The Poncetta, Rossini and Pestoni families’ vineyards and wineries were clustered up on the mountainside above St. Helena,” said Greg Pestoni, general manager at the Pestoni Family Estate Winery. “They were all immigrants and stayed close, probably because they were all from Monte Carasso in Switzerland and spoke the same language.”
“After the Poncettas sold (probably sometime during Prohibition), the winery changed hands and eventually Lee bought it and started Souverain Winery, producing some award-winning wines,” Burgess said. “At some point Warren Winiarski and Grgich worked up here, too — both winemakers of the winning wines at the Paris tasting. Lee eventually sold the winery to a holding company and moved down to Rutherford before my dad purchased it.”
Parts of the old winery remain on the site, having been added to over the years and now forming a complex of structures situated nearly 1,000 feet above the valley’s floor. Sweeping views of the Napa Valley stretch from as far south as San Pablo Bay to Calistoga in the north for those visiting the winery. However, because of parking and permit restraints, the recent 45th celebration was held at the Long Meadow Ranch’s Farmstead restaurant in St. Helena.
Most of the wine shown that night had been made by Bill Sorenson, who was the winemaker for 41 vintages until handing the reins over to Kelly Woods in 2013.
“It is a real honor to be making wines here at Burgess now,” said Woods. “The history and the quality of the vineyards allow for the best expression of this place. We are maintaining the hallmarks of this special winery by highlighting this property while looking for ways to advance elements where we can.”
Beyond the library wines, wines opened that night included their current release, the 2013 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($60 a bottle and 6,000 cases made, which is half the total yearly production). This wine highlights its steep mountain vineyard with brambly black fruit, grippy tannins, sweet herbs, smoky oak and a long finish that includes flavors of blackberry pie à la mode.
The 2013 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($120 a bottle and 400 cases made) was more refined with dried blueberry, dark cherry, stony earth and savory roasted game flavors. The finish included hints of Chinese five spice and briny black olives.
As the reputation of Burgess wines would suggest, nearly all of the wines showed well and spoke to a sense of place. But it was the older vintages that were the showstoppers.
Burgess library tasting — four decades
“The opportunity to taste Burgess right back to 1972 is a moment in history,” MacNeil said. “What I’ve found is that every decade shown here tonight is indicative of what was happening in the Napa Valley at that time. In the 1970s, there was so much massive innovation. In the 1980s, a lot of winemakers were taking direction from UC Davis, and so there’s a thread there. The 1990s was a decade of viticulture, and people were going back to the land, focusing more on vineyard than just winemaking. In the 2000s wines were heading to a bigger, bolder style.”
Drinking a moment in time
“So far, the ‘72 has been my favorite,” MacNeil said. “It’s a transformative wine — you could just not believe that a wine could start with such beauty, rise up with a crescendo, and then just keep going and going and going. That wine has molecules from 1972 — it’s like you are drinking that moment in time. It was absolutely, fantastically — to use a California word — awesome.”
Sorenson had just finished college in Fresno and started at Burgess in July of 1972.
“There was a hard frost early in the spring of 1972, followed by a very hot summer that seemed to stun the grapes, which caused ripening problems for most of the vineyards,” Sorenson said. “To top it off, the rains started early. Burgess pulled it off that year mostly because of the location. Being on the slopes above the valley floor, it avoided the worst of the frost. The cold air acted like a liquid and flowed downhill instead of settling in the vineyard. With the exposure that vineyard usually ripens earlier than the valley floor vineyards.”
Writing about wine is often writing about history, people and place — and Burgess Cellars has all these elements in droves. But this event also highlighted something unique about the 2017 vintage. When I asked MacNeil why such an event was important after the recent devastating fires, she paused for a long time, shaking her head slowly.
“It’s an emotional night,” she said. “Because you feel at the same moment the pathos of all this destruction and yet the celebration of all this continuity in the wine. There are really no words to describe this feeling.”