Cool California, 1976 and all that...
1976. I was a school kid in England, and I can still remember the cricket pitch going from lush green to a faded fatigue to frazzled earth colour to dust. It was the big heatwave and drought long before we’d ever nightmared over global warming. The wines were thick skinned, often over-ripe, cooked and confit, with the acidity of a raisin. Generally overlooked, though years later I tasted some top Pauillac and Burgundies all of which were wonderful aged 30-40. Not intuitive, but then I recall comments at a star estate in Burgundy reminding me that it was not just acidity and tannic structure that can preserve a wine for decades. Sunshine can too. Les vins solaires… It’s an interesting thought (hope?) given 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Anyway, funnily enough whilst I was studiously preparing for O level exams and playing cricket (badly), an old boy from my school was about to do the unthinkable and shock the world, a heinous crime straight out of a Bateman cartoon. He was about to pitch the unassailable paragons of vinous good taste, history and elegance against the vulgar parvenus of New World California. The great and the good of Bordeaux and Burgundy against the interlopers from the Gold Coast (as opposed to the infinitely more feted Cote d’Or). Mon Dieu, par bleu and all that.
Nowadays there are books and even a movie (Bottle Shock) and the whole event has been rather flogged to death, but a young budding wine merchant/restauranter in Paris, Steven Spurrier, organised a tasting of France v California. The judges apart from him and one American were the very best of the French wine and restaurant world. Little did he know what he had unwittingly unleashed. And yes, of course, the Americans outscored the French. Shock horror and high treason.
A few years later my wife began to work with Steven and I have had the great pleasure of spending time with him and his team (many of whom have become Masters of Wine and/or run the best wine bars, bistros and restaurants in Paris). So, I thought it would be fun to taste a couple of the wineries that featured way back then.
I have no interest in who and why ‘won’ in 1976 as wine really shouldn’t be a competition, but Chateau Montelena carried off the whites and Stags Leap Wine Cellars the red. Thirty years after the tasting in Paris we visited them both (& Heitz, another participant) and a lot had changed in the wine world. The French, after a pretty awful decade in the 70s with some rotten, rain-soaked vintages and cash-poor wineries often relying on chemical additions to prop up production, had turned a corner and were again producing world class wines. Of course, some wines were great in the 70s too, but a lot weren’t, and some of the vintages truly were shocking.
Across the pond, and this is a very personal opinion, I think the change was in the other direction. The US uber critics had well and truly arrived, consultant winemakers proliferated and the trend was for more oak and ever-riper fruit. Subtlety and elegance lost out to blockbuster gobs of fruit and wines on steroids. I remember on our first night in Napa, with eight hours of jet lag, our host passed me the wine list and as I neither knew enough nor had the energy to choose well, I asked the sommelier to pick a nice white aperitif. He produced his best chardonnay which came in at a head-butting 15% (on the label, probably more in reality) and I have no idea how I didn’t fall off my chair or doze off. My wife Kathy took one mouthful and gave up. It garnered super high scores (more so than most top Burgundy) and was quite undrinkable. And I use the word carefully – tasteable for one mouthful, swirl and score, but palate-numbing and aggressive by glass two.
Interestingly, our expectations on colour were somewhat reversed. At Montelena, the white is very nice, and I’ve drunk it many times since, but it’s inexpensive and I don’t think expected to play on the same field as the world’s best chardonnays. It doesn’t. The red is far more renowned, restrained and from my experience of Napa cabernets, a favourite. It needs time and has some of the aspects of its rather dark, forbidding façade, but when it’s ready and softened with age, it’s lovely. Heitz is synonymous with eucalyptus, a distinct (delicious) flavour that you pick up in its Martha’s Vineyard. I found some 85s on sale in France for a song, (Gallic patriotism and a suspicion of old wines meant nobody would buy them), and apart from one that was corked, they were top grade. Nobody would mistake them for Bordeaux and why would you want to, but they had their own flavour profile and dare I say it terroir, and were splendid. As for Stags Leap, well the reds are still up there (now headed by Cask 23) but what surprised us was their top Napa chardonnay which came in at often less alcohol than Burgundy and was a whole world away from the pre-eminent fashion for huge, cloying whites. I think these days the pendulum is swinging back, and high alcohol, late picked monster wines turning down the volume as everyone calls for cool climate, acidity, minerality, and organic or biodynamic wines, though some of the no oak, early harvest wines are austere to the point of being unpleasant. Unripe grapes and phenolics do not make good drinking.
When we were at SLWC, they had a party for over a hundred guests that evening, so apologised profusely but gave us a fabulous picnic lunch in their private garden overlooking
the Fay Vineyard, with a bottle of their chardonnay and the 3 top reds sitting on a table, all opened. Fabulous hospitality. 15 years later I can’t afford Cask 23, but the Arcadia Vineyard chardonnay is still a model of restraint, picked at lower Brix levels to retain tension and cut, and they’ve been doing this long before the Sonoma Coast became cool and trendy. It can be minty, with light green fruit and citrus, with none of the tropical fruit, buttery texture and weight of more oaked and ripe chardonnays. The vineyard is situated on the site of an ancient inland lake, under Mount George in southern Napa (coincidentally Chablis was once a marine environment, hence all the oyster shells today). Nice.
But if the 1973 Stags Leap took the red wine prize back in the ’76 Judgement of Paris, in at number five (beating only Leoville-Lascases from the French contingent) came a wine that I really do believe is well up there with the best. I’ve not drunk Screaming Eagle and the super cult Napas, but from my limited experience the one California cabernet blend that can compete with any in the world and has a real sense of place doesn’t come from Napa at all.
It also comes with quite a lot of history, first planted in 1886 by an Italian who terraced the mountain slopes and built a winery from native limestone, with the first vintage in 1892. It was then abandoned after prohibition, revived in the 40s and really put on the map by a bunch of Stanford Research Institute engineers in the 60s. And in 1969 a young Stanford philosophy graduate joined, a man who’d already made wine in Chile, Paul Draper. He was to make the next 47 vintages until he retired in 2016 at a youthful 80.
Montebello in the Santa Cruz mountains. Not in Napa, but south of San Francisco, with the cooling Pacific just 15 miles away to the west with its rolling fogs, and to the north east San Francisco Bay. A specific cool microclimate and mountain slopes that feature decomposing limestone, not something you find up north. The vineyards rise from 400 to 800 metres, looking down on the modern digital barons of Silicon Valley. Yes, times have changed.
The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is indeed a wine region of real geography, not just wineries trying to promote terroir and marketing advantage. If Ridge is the icon, Mount Eden also produces refined pinot and chardonnay and really good cabernet that bears more than a passing resemblance to its neighbour Ridge. They too have a story as it was in the 1890s that Emmett Rixford planted cuttings from Chateau Margaux in his La Questa Vineyard. In the 40’s Martin Ray took cuttings and their descendants are what you taste in the Mount Eden cabernet. Serious pedigree and mountain upbringing.
The 2012 here (& 2008) have an inky flavour, with earth, cedar and ripe dark fruits. The style nods more to the Gironde than the Napa Valley, though perhaps California brings a welcome core of ripeness without any excess. Its cousin at Ridge, the Santa Crux Mountains bottling, is again ripe but balanced, with that inky-iodine flavour, earth and cedar, a lovely mix somewhere in mid Atlantic, taking some of the best of both sides. And these are wines that can come in around the 13% level, wines that because of their balance age super well. Nor do they carry cult price tags and waiting lists. Late picked over-ripe grapes give sweet alcohol and silky-smooth mouth feel and doubtless show up well in tastings when dozens of young wines are inflicted upon poor so called expert judges, but they are for show and if you cellar them and actually try to drink one with dinner, the make up has often fallen off leaving a much less attractive face.
Ridge does not go in for over extraction or over ripeness. Montebello is for me the pinnacle of California cabernet blends (and old vine zinfandel if that’s your grape) and definitely has some flavour similarities with Pessac-Leognan and my favourite Bordeaux of all, Haut Brion. As said, I see no point in comparing them (or others) and trying to define which is best, as taste is subjective and who cares anyway? All I can say is that the Santa Cruz mountains produce some of the most elegant wines in California and that Ridge Montebello looks down regally from its mountain perch. These two from the late 90s show impeccable balance, ripe California fruit, layers of secondaries and maturity, and an ability to age for two (or three) decades with ease and benefit. That, to me, is what you expect from a great wine. Oh, and they came in at what, 12.9% and 13%. And cost a lot less than the peer group ‘competitors’ from the Old World do nowadays. I haven’t bought a top Bordeaux since 2004, (the prices tripled in 2005), but I do have a few more recent Montebellos. Thank you Ridge and thank you Steven.