Legends are tales that, because of ties to a historical event or location, are believable, though not necessarily believed.
Generally a legend may be transmitted orally, passed on person-to-person or through written text.
However, last week three dozen oenophiles had the good fortune to check out real legends of another stripe.
As part of Napa Valley’s new food and wine festival, Flavor! Napa Valley, a two-day homage both to wine industry pioneers and their successors displayed the remarkable history of Napa Valley winemaking in a glass — or, rather, 77 of them.
“The Legends of Napa Valley” was indeed “a definitive tasting” of the wines that put the nation’s premier winegrape region on the world map.
The brainchild of festival producer Herb Karlitz and renowned wine authority Paul Roberts, “Legends of Napa Valley” was something that hadn’t been tried before. Sure, there’ve been vertical tastings of wines from top-flight producers, cellar retrospectives from this sub-appellation or that, and walkarounds in huge hotel conference rooms where vintners poured their best library wines.
But this “Legends” brought together more than six dozen wines and their representatives for a look back at what made — and continues to make — this valley great.
While officially a tasting, it was also an opportunity to examine how winemaking styles have changed, how cellar and vineyard practices have evolved, how a sleepy North Bay community known mostly for prunes and its mental hospital became the wine capital of America.
Bringing their knowledge of the industry and exceptional palates to the two-day tasting event were panelists Andy Blue, author and editor of The Tasting Panel magazine; Karen MacNeil, chair of wine studies at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone; Nicholas Jackson, wine adviser at Sotheby’s New York; and Alder Yarrow, a respected wine blogger.
The program was spread over four-hour-plus blocks on successive days. The first was devoted to industry pioneers and the wines that brought consumers to their cellar doors. The next featured cult wines and tributes to individuals who’ve made important contributions to the valley’s wine industry — grower Andy Beckstoffer and winemaker Heidi Peterson Barrett.
To say that the event overwhelmed the senses is an understatement.
For example, who’d have thought that a 55-year-old pinot noir from Carneros could set the tone for what the event was all about — examining how industry pioneers set the bar for those who followed, how they broke ground with new vineyard plantings that brought us to where we are today.
That wine was a 1957 Louis M. Martini pinot noir from the Carneros region’s first sustained commitment to pinot noir. It was simply amazing — the first commercial release of a Carneros pinot noir, noted Mike Martini.
“It’s an example of what pinot noir in Carneros could do,” he told the assembled group of collectors, restaurateurs, sommeliers and wine media.
Reminiscent of a classic Burgundy, the Martini pinot noir still had noteworthy tannin structure, was vibrant and had lovely rich fruit — a truly elegant wine from more than half a century ago.
Louis M. Martini, grandfather of current winemaker Mike Martini, planted pinot noir in 1948 on what was called the Stanly Ranch, part of which he’d purchased in 1942. The valley pioneer — who with his son, Louis P., established a winery in St. Helena shortly after the repeal of Prohibition — named the vineyard site La Loma, and its first plantings were actually cabernet sauvignon. Even though Carneros was not considered an ideal spot for growing pinot noir at the time, Martini took plant material from an old block of pinot noir at Inglenook, in collaboration with UC Davis viticulturist Harold Olmo, for this experimental vineyard tract.
It’s not known how much acreage Martini eventually dedicated to pinot noir at the La Loma Vineyard, but it was apparently substantial as the Martinis made pinot noir from these plantings throughout the 1950s. Early on in the following decade, son Louis P. Martini purchased additional land in Carneros on Las Amigas Road where more than 100 acres were dedicated to pinot noir.
Those of us who recall Martini wines from the late ‘50s and ‘60s — cabs, merlots, barberas, pinot noirs and zinfandels — know how well-crafted and delicious these wines were. That glass of ‘57 pinot noir brought back lots of memories of the Martini family and their outstanding wines.
The Martini wasn’t the only outstanding wine from Napa Valley’s historical past. Using white Burgundy as a model, Mike Grgich made a number of outstanding chardonnays while he was at Chateau Montelena. The first one, from the harvest of 1973, we know about, as it was leader of the pack at the celebrated tasting in Paris in 1976. A blend of Napa and Alexander Valley fruit, the early Montelena offerings set the standard — along with another Calistoga cellar, Stony Hill — for Napa Valley chardonnay.
For this event, vintner Bo Barrett brought along a 1976 Chateau Montelena chardonnay, a rich, round chardonnay that consumers loved.
“The malolactic style (for chardonnay) hadn’t even been invented at the time,” Barrett quipped. It had lots of apple and pineapple notes, great acidity and still displayed oodles of fruit.
From the great 1968 vintage was Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour cabernet sauvignon, a wine from the celebrated Andre Tchelistcheff era. It offered a big cabernet nose, good tannin structure and bright fruit. While it was a bit short on the finish, it nevertheless was a delicious wine.
From the Mondavi family came two wines — the 1966 Charles Krug Vintage Selection cabernet sauvignon from Peter Mondavi Sr. (gorgeous nose, fruit forward, slightly pruney, lovely long finish) and the 1979 Robert Mondavi reserve cabernet sauvignon (inviting black fruit aroma, ripe black fruit on the palate, long elegant finish) from Tim Mondavi.
The term “first growth cabernet sauvignon” was bandied about as we tasted the 1979 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V., a cabernet with less than 2 percent merlot in the blend, as it is in just about every vintage. This is the “iron fist in a velvet glove” wine, one of which pioneer Stags Leap District grower Nathan Fay would have been proud. It displayed the region’s distinct silky tannins, with a dash of spice, some rosemary and lots of rich black fruit on the palate and lingering finish.
“I’d put it up against a Cheval Blanc (from St.-Emilion) any day of the week,” festival producer Herb Karlitz whispered in my ear.
Spectacular, too, was another celebrated cab from the Stags Leap District — 1983 Shafer Vineyards Hillside Select cabernet sauvignon, the first of the Hillside Select series. Rather than put another “reserve” cab on the market, John and Doug Shafer opted for a much better descriptor — one that told consumers the grapes were select lots from a hillside vineyard. Still young and vivacious, this ’83 offered lots of big, ripe black fruit, distinct minerality and a good dollop of spice on the lively finish.
The valley’s first proprietary wine, Joseph Phelps Insignia, brought cabernet from the former Eisele Vineyard in Calistoga. This offering from the 1976 harvest proved as youthful on the nose as it was on the palate — a long-lived wine with a big mouthful of blackberries and cassis.
The 1979 Opus One — the first vintage of the collaboration between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild — tasted better than I remember. Attendees learned that it took the two winemakers, Tim Mondavi and Lucien Sionneau, two days to agree on the blend — 80 percent cabernet sauvignon, 16 percent cabernet franc and 4 percent merlot, all To Kalon fruit. Lean and lovely with sweet, ripe fruit and a slightly minty note.
The second round of tasting that first day began with an exceptional chardonnay, the 2001 Trefethen from the Oak Knoll District. About 80 percent of the harvest was barrel fermented, advised winemaker Zeke Neeley, with only a small part of the production put through malolactic fermentation. The result is a wine with a lemon cream pie nose and lots of grapefruit and pineapple on the palate — so youthful and balanced. If there’s any of this on the market somewhere, grab it.
The same might be said for another wine from the same vintage, this a Kronos Vineyard cabernet sauvignon from Cathy Corison. Corison strives for power and elegance in the glass and this wine — her favorite of the decade — has both in spades. While overriding tannins are present, providing structure, there’s plenty of rich fruit to balance.
Two perfectly balanced cabs came from Mayacamas Vineyards (2007) and Frank Family Vineyards Winston Hill Vineyard in Rutherford (2005). Oodles of black fruit and long, lovely finish — the Mount Veeder wine made Old World style with great mountain fruit, the Rutherford blend displaying the elegance of the appellation.
Two of the 37 wines that stood pretty tall that morning were made with mountain fruit. The 1997 Bryant Family Vineyard cabernet sauvignon — that Wine Spectator had scored 99 on release and Robert Parker had given a rare 100 — remains a phenomenal wine. Perfumed, elegant, ripe blackberries tinged with a bit of red fruit, alcohol in check, intense, lush mouthfeel — the wine has it all. The final wine of the day, 2007 Lokoya cabernet sauvignon from the 1,600-foot elevation of Mount Veeder, is an inky-purple, big, bold, chewy cab. A wine for collectors that will surely continue to evolve for the next 25 years.
The next day
Tributes to Andy Beckstoffer and Heidi Peterson Barrett narrowed the tasting’s focus on the second day.
Of the 11 wines from vineyards owned and farmed by the respected grapegrower — who’s been working with Napa Valley grapes for more than four decades — several stood out:
• 2004 Macauley cabernet sauvignon, its first vintage using Beckstoffer To Kalon fruit, was voluptuous, polished, a complex mouthful of blackberries from winemaker Kirk Venge.
• 2009 Bacio Divino Cellars cabernet sauvignon from Beckstoffer To Kalon, opulent, elegant, intense pure expression of fruit (blackberries and cassis) from winemaker Claus Janzen.
• 2009 Tor Clone 337 cabernet sauvignon from Beckstoffer To Kalon, one of my favorite wines of the two-day experience, an exceptional bottle from Tor Kenward and winemaker Jeff Ames, well balanced, great structure, lovely ripe black fruit with such a long finish that I believe I can still taste that wine.
• 2010 Carter Cellars cabernet sauvignon from Beckstoffer To Kalon, for which winemaker Mike Smith harvested small berries from the B-2 tract, producing a wine with inner core strength and fleshiness, loads of black fruit with a velvety blueberry finish, a dark, brooding complex wine.
• 2009 Realm Cellars cabernet sauvignon from Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Vineyard in St. Helena, a dense, juicy wine displaying fleshy blackberries on the mid-palate and the long mocha-tinged finish. A superb wine from winemaker Benoit Touquette.
• 2009 Morlet Coeur de Vallee Beckstoffer To Kalon, from winemakers’ winemaker Luc Morlet, is a cab with substantial cabernet franc in the blend (24 percent), showing off ripe, dark fruit and a long, elegant blueberry finish.
A pair of wines from winemaker Denis Malbec also made us sit up and take notice. The 2008 Kapcsandy Family Roberta’s Reserve comes from State Lane fruit — 96 percent merlot, the rest cabernet franc — offering oodles of plums and blackberries and lavender on the nose. The 2009 Blankiet Estate Proprietary Red from Paradise Hills Vineyard showed off its minty nose and wonderful structure, as well as a long finish of ripe black fruit.
Seven wines made by Heidi Peterson Barrett launched the second half of the session, one that featured a total of 40 wines. Those that stood out include:
• A memorable 2009 Fantesca chardonnay with fruit jumping out of the glass. No malolactic fermentation allowed for tremendous acidity on the elegant finish, with pears, green apple and a little pineapple combining on the palate.
• An annual Pomerol tribute, the 2002 Amuse Bouche featured merlot with a skosh of cab franc, plums, red cherries and currants and a little mint tea on the mid-palate.
• The 2009 La Sirena cabernet sauvignon from her own winery featured small amounts of petit verdot and merlot in the blend. This is ripe, sweet fruit with a long, silky finish, a lush, complex wine.
This was the session that spotlighted today’s big guns. Here’s my personal assessment of some of them, none of which would have scored below 90 on most connoisseurs’ scales. Two were made by Philippe Melka:
• 2007 Dana Estates Helms Vineyard cabernet sauvignon, a blockbuster cab from the former Livingston Moffett property, juicy black fruit and dusty tannins from a perfect vintage.
• 2009 Vineyard 29 estate cabernet sauvignon, from a rocky slope just north of CIA Greystone comes this cab featuring very ripe black fruit and a lovely, long chocolatey finish.
With a nod to Chateau Cheval Blanc, owner Michael Polanske and winemaker Aaron Pott put together 500 cases of 2009 Blackbird Vineyards Proprietary Red, Paramour, with 61 percent cabernet franc in the blend (plus 25 percent merlot and 14 percent cabernet sauvignon), a big, ripe wine with loads of black and blue fruit.
The third vintage from a relatively new player, Raj Patel, the 2009 Patel cabernet sauvignon is a delicious blend of malbec (12 percent), merlot (11 percent) and the rest cabernet sauvignon, supple ripe black fruit with a long, lush finish.
Herb and Jennifer Lamb planted mostly cabernet sauvignon in the cool climate zone of Howell Mountain in 1988, and found their grapes were favored by a number of winemakers, particularly Colgin Cellars. The Lambs asked winemaker Mike Trujillo to make their first commercial release in 1997. The 2007 Herb Lamb Vineyards cabernet sauvignon is a pretty cab with lots of finesse, featuring a lush mid-palate of ripe black fruit.
Ann Colgin and Joe Wenders have a state-of-the-art winery and choice vineyards on Pritchard Hill. Their 2007 Colgin Cellars IX Estate from winemaker Allison Tauziet offers wild sage and mineral notes on the nose and provides a lingering cassis finish after coating the mouth with juicy ripe blackberries.
Winemakers Cory Empting and Bob Levy put together the Bond grand cru, 2001 St. Eden, from fruit grown just north of Oakville, a wine for aging, with well-balanced tannins and dark, brooding black fruit.
Now that Tim Mondavi’s relocated to Pritchard Hill, he and winemaker Kurt Niznik crafted the 2009 Continuum from grapes grown at elevations ranging from 1,300 to 1,600 feet. The gorgeous fruit matches the power of the tannins in this offering, with its wash of sweet, juicy red and black currants on the lingering finish.
Winemaker Nick Gislason, at age 29, has the job of blending one of the valley’s best-known reds, Screaming Eagle. The 2009 cabernet sauvignon includes 5 percent merlot and 8 percent cabernet franc. It’s ripe black fruit, with a little spice and mint, and a finish that goes on and on and on. An exceptional wine indeed.
How about 20 vintages in one cabernet-based wine? Well, that’s what the de Leuze family offers in the ZD Abacus. A solera-style wine, the Abacus XIV is a blend of wines from harvest 1992 through 2011. Reserve wines are added to the blend every year and, according to third-generation family member Brandon de Leuze, about 15 percent of the wine’s volume is the newest wine in the tank. Their experiment is to see how long cabernet will age by combining age and youth in the same blend. For the moment, the current release is tasting mighty good.
Of course there were a lot more wines of distinction, but just not enough time or space to chronicle them. This was something that’s not been done before and we have to praise Karlitz, Roberts, the tasting panel and all the sommeliers and volunteers who made it come off so effortlessly. “The Legends of Napa Valley,” we found out, are not only noted pioneers and icons — they also come in a glass.