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Dan Berger's On Wine: How wines change

Dan Berger's On Wine: How wines change

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Henry Fonda personified the youthful Tom Joad in the 1940 movie version of Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” notably in his poignant soliloquy with Jane Darwell.

This was the same Henry Fonda who played late-in-life Norman opposite his daughter, Jane Fonda, 41 years later in “On Golden Pond,” portraying a much older man.

Same actor, same sterling acting skills, but far apart in age from one another. No one would expect a 1981 Fonda to do what a 1940 Fonda did.

In some ways, this analogy parallels the way many red wines must be seen. In youth, they display a certain fresh persona. In later years, that image grows mature and over time can — as long as the young, raw material was carefully crafted — create wisdom and depth.

What wine lovers must be cognizant of, in reaching conclusions about revered wine names, is that as times change, so do wines. That can make for a radical shift in how wines of the same name are seen many years after various changes are imposed on earlier regimes.

Take one of the most iconic names in this history of California wine: Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

Older versions are revered as classics of the variety. I have, at various times, tasted every BV-PR (as it’s called) from the 1940s to the late 1990s, and can attest to how great almost all were at age 25 or more. When young, they were lean and sinewy and became sublime as they aged.

To this day, debates rage among BV lovers. Some argue that the 1970 vintage was the best ever. Others suggest 1968 was better. Still others say the overlooked 1969 beat them both.

As time has gone by, however, industry strategies have changed from lean aging wine to drink-now brashness that typically burns out early. The advent of scores to determine the best wines helped mute distinctiveness. By the late 1990s, it was clear that what made BV-PR the icon it had become had long past.

I sampled the most recent release, from 2013, several weeks ago. It is a nice wine.

By coincidence, it came out about the time I saw a new film from Mark Tchelistcheff, the grand-nephew of BV’s first great winemaker, André Tchelistcheff, a man widely seen as California’s greatest winemaker — and the man who made the greatest BV-PRs.

The film, “André, The Voice of Wine,” reveals Andre’s commitment to vineyards, terroir, and his belief that great red wines need time to express themselves and their regions.

I’ve tasted most BV-PRs over the decades at release. In the past they displayed neo-classical colors in a Bordeaux frame on a map of Rutherford in Napa.

The 2013, as nice as it is, is not one that Andre would have, or could have made. It has no Tchelistcheffness at all.

Every BV-PR made through the mid-1990s had an alcohol level of 13.0 percent

The most important word in André’s lexicon was “balance.” He thought higher alcohols destroyed Cabernet character.

What unnerved me most about the 2013 was that it has more than 15 percent alcohol(!), which I believe André would have disliked. The wine doesn’t differ from most other Napa Valley Cabs: Nearly everyone’s Cabernet now has 15 percent or more alcohol — a lot more in some cases.

In spite of the fact that high-alcohol wines rarely age well, today’s consumers, agog over scores in the high-90s that they think validates their good taste, seem to want the earlier approachability such wines provide.

Indeed, when we open a 30-year-old Cabernet and serve it to a younger wine lover, no matter how dedicated to fine wine they say they are, some still are surprised that older wines aren’t more explosive.

I go back to the key word in André’s arsenal: balance. Balance today doesn’t sell so it has little place in today’s Cabernet world. Brashness sells.

One of the greatest supporters of aging wine properly is John Tilson, who, decades ago, founded The Underground Wineletter and who remains committed to aging great wines.

Following a May 2011 tasting of numerous older red wines, Tilson wrote a glowing report of the event and concluded with several observations, including:

“There is no question that things have changed. Wines like this are mostly not made any more. This is a real pity… [because] many people will never be able to taste wines like this, and with few exceptions there are too many wines that are virtually the same.

“This sameness belies the source of the wine or even the type of wine. To me this is a real tragedy.”

So yes, the 2013 BV-PR (suggested retail price: $125) will appeal to many people who prefer the excitement of up-front fruit, the weight of higher alcohol, the use of new French oak barrels, and the generosity of richness.

Purists who are old enough to remember what Cabernet from Rutherford smelled like will wonder where the terroir went. And why the wine is so soft and gentle.

Wine of the Week: 2015 Dry Creek Cabernet Sauvignon, Dry Creek Valley ($28): Give this attractive Cabernet some air and the aroma shows plum, hints of tea and dried herbs, a tart entry, rich finish, and good potential to age for several years.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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Wine “experts” come in all shapes and sizes, from generalists to specialists. What constitutes expert knowledge in one area of wine may have no meaning in other areas. This is one aspect of wine that makes it such a complex and difficult subject to master.

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