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For many people, the wines made of Cabernet Sauvignon are
Its wines can be quite complex and they can be rather ordinary. The character
of Cabernet Sauvignon seems to be fairly consistent around the world, so perhaps
it expresses its "terroir," (if you will) less dramatically than Pinot
Many people view "Cabernet Sauvignon" as a lovely meal-time
California's Napa Valley is, as it turns out, a wonderful place
to cultivate, make and sell Cabernet.
During the 1950s and 1960s, when there was but a handful of wineries in the Napa
Valley, people wondered if California could produce Cabernet Sauvignon wine
worthy of comparison with the wines of France's Bordeaux region. But this
question may have been answered decades earlier.
One of California's first "fine" Cabernets was
grown in San Mateo County by a fellow named Emmett Rixford. He brought
cuttings from Château Margaux in Bordeaux and planted the La Questa vineyard in
Woodside, producing some wines which were said to challenge the best of Bordeaux
in those days.
Back through the 1950s and early 1960s, Merlot did not exist in California. Wineries in Napa such
as Inglenook, Beaulieu Vineyards, Charles Krug and Louis Martini were "the"
hot brands and any restaurant worth its salt had to have BV's Private Reserve
Cabernet Sauvignon, Inglenook's "Cask" Cabernet, Louis Martini's
Special Selection and Charles Krug's Vintage Selection (Red Stripe, as it was
Most every wine sold its wines for similar prices. If
Louis Martini's Cabernet was $3.75, Christian Brothers might be $3.50, BV was
perhaps $4 for the regular and $5.75 for the Private Reserve and Inglenook's
were within the same price range.
Souverain was a small winery near St. Helena and it was owned and operated by
former Hillsborough resident, Lee Stewart. Mayacamas was a fledgling
Cabernet maker in the western hills. Freemark Abbey was a hot, new winery
in the early 1970s as were Chappellet and Cuvaison. Stag's Leap Wine
Cellars was about to launch its first vintage (the 1972) and Chateau Montelena
was brand new as the '70s began.
Some fellow named Robert Mondavi left his family's winery
(Charles Krug) and aided by financing from a Washington State brewery, he
launched his brand with the 1966 vintage.
Mondavi's family owned a winery out in Lodi and he was working in Napa at the
Sunny St. Helena winery...when he heard the Charles Krug facility was up for
sale, he somehow convinced his conservative father to buy the place.
Disagreements with his family caused him to leave and, with help from Washington
brewing interests, he was able to set up the Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville
in time for the 1966 vintage.
Mondavi became a "must have" wine in short order. He aged his
wines in French oak, rather than neutral redwood tanks or small American oak
He was a smart marketing man and conducted numerous blind-tastings with his
Cabernet alongside the fancy wines from France's Bordeaux region. If his
wine was liked, great! It sold for far less than those $20 and $30
Bordeaux such as Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild, Latour and Margaux.
If his wine did not fare well, c'est la vie! It cost a lot less than
those famous French bottles.
So for Mondavi this was a "win-win" situation.
cult winemaker in that era was Joe Heitz, who made distinctive Napa Cabernet
Sauvignons, especially one from "Martha's Vineyard."
His wines were difficult to find and the somewhat cantankerous Heitz told my
father "I'd have time to make more wine if I didn't have to field phone
calls all day long from people such as you!" (He used a more graphic
term than people, according to my Pop.)
Years later, Mr. Heitz
was a most gracious fellow when I'd see him.
We eventually were able to purchase Heitz' wines in the mid-1970s. One of
the finest wines we've ever tasted was a 1968 Heitz Napa Cabernet...it was one
of those rare wines which was worthy of "the search." And can
you imagine? Heitz had the nerve to ask $8 for his top bottling of
In 2012 we opened my last bottle of 1968
Heitz Cellar "Napa" Cabernet Sauvignon. It was in magnificent
condition and absolutely perfect! The wine had tremendous fruit and was
silky smooth...a delightful remembrance of the past and the "early
days" of California's current "Golden Age" of wine.
One notion Heitz had in making Cabernet was to
avoid the typical secondary fermentation called a "malolactic,"
converting the tart Malic acid into smoother, rounder lactic acid. He
figured, quite astutely, that it was the acidity which gave a wine longevity,
not (solely) tannin (as thought by many).
Abbey was a leading producer of Cabernets (and Chardonnays) in the early
1970s. Their ring-leader was a fellow named Charles Carpy, who was a major
proponent of preserving Napa for agricultural uses.
They hired a winemaker named Jerry Luper, who also had a hand in the first
vintages at Al Brounstein's "Diamond Creek" winery as well as at
Chateau Montelena before packing his bags and heading to Portugal.
A Cabernet Sauvignon from the Bosché vineyard was the crown jewel in their
line-up. I can't imagine the wines they made in the early 1970s finding
much of an appreciative audience in today's world of deep-colored, high alcohol,
The winery changed hands and today it's owned by the Jackson Family, who own the
Kendall Jackson brand and a bunch of other wineries. Interestingly (or
maybe not), there is no mention of the Jackson Family on the Freemark Abbey
website as of December 2020, though they have owned the brand since
The "dean" of Napa Valley winemakers was Andre Tchelistcheff at
Beaulieu Vineyards in Rutherford.
This fellow had a remarkable influence on the California wine scene in the 1950s
and beyond and his influence is still felt today. Aside from making some
stellar wines, he was instrumental in training other winemakers and offering
consulting advice. He was a true giant, despite being less than 5
We read, once upon a time, a quotation attributed to Mr. Tchelistcheff:
"God created Cabernet Sauvignon, but the Devil created Pinot Noir."
BV Cabernets were matured in American oak and this was their
"signature." The current owners of Beaulieu have drastically
changed the wines and today they use French cooperage. Another change,
which Tchelistcheff would have vetoed, is the high octane level of the
wine. Andre routinely advised his consulting client wineries to make wines
of less than 14% alcohol. These days the BV Private Reserve is
often at, or close to, 15% alcohol.
They still get high praise from "experts" who can taste a wine
and immediately assign it a numerical point score on the mysthical Hundred Point
the young upstarts was Warren Winiarski, who founded Stag's Leap Wine
We were just about the first customer of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars.
Winiarski was from the Midwest and arrived in California, working with Lee
Stewart at Souverain in the mid-1960s and then at Robert Mondavi's new
establishment in its first years. Around 1970 he planted Cabernet in the
Stag's Leap district (after planting Cabernet on Howell Mountain years
Warren had been affiliated, too, with a winery called Ivancie...located
in Colorado! Gerald Ivancie was a dentist in real life, but fancied the
idea of making wine on a commercial scale in Colorado...and Mr. Winiarski
offered consulting services and advice, if we recall correctly.
In the early days, I think the Stag's Leap Cabernet was $3.75 a bottle. We
called to place an order and whomever answered the phone informed us that the
price had escalated to $4.25. We still ordered a couple of cases, even at that
lofty price. I quipped "I hope Warren will give me a ride in his new
Mercedes" since the price of the wine had been raised.
About a half hour later our phone rang at the shop and it was Warren Winiarski,
wanting to know how I knew he'd purchased a new car!
The Winiarski family sold the winery in 2007 to a partnership
of Italy's Piero Antinori and Washington State's Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.
new label in the 1970s was that of the Wagner family. Old Charlie Wagner and his son
Chuck were grape growers in Rutherford and they launched their brand with the
1972 vintage. That was a wet year and though it was not a highly-regarded
vintage, both Caymus and Winiarski's Stag's Leap Wine Cellars offered us really
nice wines from that vintage.
The Wagners had a fellow named Randy Dunn was their winemaker in the 1970s and
Dunn, of course, remains a producer of "old school" Cabernets under
his own banner.
Caymus made all sorts of wines in that era...Oeil de Perdrix
was a pink wine made of Pinot Noir (yes, they grew Pinot in Rutherford!).
Caymus also made Zinfandel and, once upon a time, Merlot. They bottled a
sweet Riesling they purchased on the bulk market, (from Wente Bros.) as well! Man, they sure
have lost their way these days, producing Cabernet Sauvignon with some residual
Also making some top Cabernet in the 1970s was the Conn Creek
Villa Mount Eden, with Nils Venge as their winemaker, made
exceptional 1978 and 1979 vintages...
The Franciscan winery opened in the early 1970s and after a change (or two) of
ownership, one of its winemakers, Justin Meyer, went on to found Silver Oak.
Ridge Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains has been making stellar Cabernets
They had intended to explore Cabernet from different areas, but a lack of
available fruit caused them to feature Zinfandels from numerous locales.
These days their "Monte Bello" Cabernet is considered a California
"grand cru" red.
They made a remarkable 1971 Eisele Vineyard Cabernet from Napa and this was a
powerhouse bottle of wine.
Sonoma was home to some good wineries, too, but its history was more of
producing good quality wines at reasonable prices.
wine buyers knew Pedroncelli in Sonoma's Geyserville area to be a source of good
wines along with Parducci, farther north in Mendocino's Ukiah.
Sonoma's Alexander Valley gained a measure of notoriety when a fellow named Tom
Jordan started his winemaking enterprise. The 1976 vintage was released at
an unheard of price: $6.75 (if memory serves).
The same fellow who was there in 1976 is still affiliated at Jordan
today! Rob Davis!
The Santa Clara valley was home to several notable wineries. Martin Ray,
And the afore-mentioned Ridge.
Mario Gemello made some stellar wines in
the 1960 vintage and through the early 1970s.
The late Mario Gemello in 2003, or so.
Well, today wineries such as Heitz offer entry level Cabernet for $60 and Stag's
Leap Wine Cellars costs $65. It took them 35 years to get to the fifty to
sixty dollar level. And yet, these days, the market is full of brands vying for shelf
and wine-list space which cost $100 or more for Cabernets with little history
and no track record.
We've seen the advent of "cult wines" over the past couple of
decades. Names such as Bryant, Colgin, Harlan and Bond fetch hundreds of
dollars. Seeing this trend, many people have started wine brands in hopes
of catching lightning in a bottle.
A sales rep brought in a perfectly standard bottle of Napa Cabernet, asking $75 a
bottle. I pegged it as being "worth" $20. "What makes
this worth $75?" I asked. The fellow showed me a map of famous
vineyards and since all the neighbor's wines cost big bucks, their wine had to
cost a similar small fortune.
When I asked another gentleman "Precisely what brand of crack are they
smoking at your winery to think this young vines, simple Cabernet could possibly
warrant your asking nearly $200 for a bottle?" he told me "That's a
good price for a cult Cabernet!"
Too much Kool-Aid, in my curmudgeonly view.
More recently a fellow who had purchased a famous vineyard made a name for
himself by producing some lovely wines. The price escalated from maybe $40
or $50 at the outset to $300-$350 when he sold the vineyard and winery.
The new owners of that place immediately increased the price of the wine to $500
So the fellow launched a new wine brand and I'd seen it in the catalogue of a
prominent wine distributor. I asked if we could taste the Sauvignon Blanc
and the Cabernet Sauvignon.
I pegged the white wine as being worth maybe $25-30 but it was priced at $50-$55
The Cabernet was perfectly nice, but I didn't find it to be worth anywhere near
its price tag. I thought $50 was about right for the wine and maybe $100
if consumers bought in to the story of how this guy made some famous Cabernet
I asked the sales rep to keep quiet about the pricing and allow the Weimax crew
to taste without being biased or prejudiced.
They said the Sauvignon Blanc was maybe a $25 bottle, so they were surprised to
learn it was twice that.
Then they tasted the Cabernet. All of them identified the Cabernet as a
"Well, you're close," said the sales rep. "Try
Three-Hundred & Sixty Dollars!"
So you see, sometimes it mostly about the story, the singing and dancing and the
smoke & mirrors.
in the 1960s and early 1970s, Cabernet wines were somewhere in the range of 12
to 13% alcohol.
Many wines were aged three to five years before being released.
Today, in search of greater acclaim from various wine critics, winemakers pick
grapes at ever higher levels of sugar and ripeness. You won't find many
California Cabernets with less than 14% alcohol these days.
While people may have been more patient in the 1950s and
1960s, today it's a world of instant gratification and wine drinking has
Many people used to enjoy wine as a meal-time beverage and as an accompaniment
to food. In today's world, many consumers drink wine on its own, nearly as
a cocktail beverage.
This explains, to some degree, the change in winemaking and wine styles.
The winemaking has changed with respect to Cabernet. Years ago it was normal to make
Cabernet Sauvignon without blending any other varieties. Today, many producers add
Merlot to "soften" their Cabernets. There are other winemakers who blend
in other Bordeaux varieties, such as Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.
One winemaker, years ago, told me his best wine was 100% Cabernet. "I blend
Merlot into our regular wine, but mainly to give the marketing people something to talk
about." he said.
Looking back to the wines made in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s in Napa, we find most were
aged in large wooden tanks. The notion of adding oak chips to flavor the wine was
certainly foreign to winemakers of that era. Wines were often aged in redwood tanks
or relatively neutral cooperage for a few years and then a few more years in bottle before
the wine reached the market.
Today many people give their wines 12-18 months in smaller cooperage (it matures faster in
60 gallon barrels than in a 2,000 gallon vat). Many replace a percentage of barrels
each year in order to insure a certain amount of oak is showing in the wines' bouquet and
flavor. And the wines are pushed into the market after 2 or 3 years,
whereas into the 1960s and 1970s, most Cabernets arrived in shops when they were
about 5 years old!
While many winemakers produce big, deeply-colored, aggressively tannic wines, there is not
guarantee that a wine of such style will "age well." The wine must have an
appropriate amount of fruit (grape character) to go along with the tannin. Even more
important is the level of acidity in the wine. Low acid/high tannin wines, in our
experience, often do not age particularly gracefully.
We have had the pleasure of opening old bottles of California Cabernets
which we are fairly certain we not outrageously tannic when the wines were young. I
am thinking of bottles of Louis Martini Cabernets from the mid-to-late 1940s which, at 50
years of age, were still vibrant in color and fresh in "fruit." I also
recall a Simi Cabernet of elderly stature (probably from the mid 1960s or so) which we
shared with a group of visiting Alto Adige (Italian) food and wine fanciers: the wine was
fruity, berryish and thoroughly delicious despite never having been hugely tannic or
The late Mario Gemello also made exceptional Santa Clara County Cabernet
Sauvignon. His 1960 is legendary! And still fabulous (the bottle in the photo
above was opened, and consumed with enthusiasm, in January 2001...we had one in
August of 2010 alongside 1966 Lafite and 1967 Latour...the Gemello was the best
of the three). That wine was aged
in wood for nearly a decade!!!
Yes, winemaking has changed.
Our shop caters more to people who "drink" wine as opposed to those
who "collect" wine. We do, of course, have many deluxe bottles
in the shop. But we appreciate having good quality and sensible
pricing. These days there's a lot of "Fool's Gold" in the wine
If you've got lots of cash, buy what you like. If you're looking for
value, come see us.
Cabernet Best Buys
- HART'S DESIRE 2018 "CLARET" $19.99
HART'S DESIRE 2015 Alexander Valley CABERNET SAUVIGNON $25.99
- John Hart
married a woman named Desiree, so he pretty much had no choice in naming the
He's been making a delightful "Claret" for us over the past few
years and the just-arrived 2014 is exceptional. It's a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. All
Sonoma fruit. The wine has a nice
touch of wood (the proverbial "kiss" of oak) and the tannin level
is such that drinking it now is a pleasure.
It's a medium-full bodied red. Not huge, over-the-top, but balanced and
refined. And sensibly-priced.
His Alexander Valley Cabernet is marvelous and decidedly "Old
World" in style. It's immediately drinkable and is a far cry from the
inky-black, fruit bomb style popular these days. We suggested this to a
customer who was hosting a dinner party...her guests went crazy for the wine and
asked her to host another meal with Hart's Desire Cabernet!
ALEXANDER VALLEY VINEYARDS
2018 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon SALE $19.99
Wetzel family has been farming in Sonoma's Alexander Valley for nearly 60 years.
Harry & Maggie Wetzel bought the old homestead property which had been
occupied by Cyrus Alexander for whom the Alexander Valley is named.
They raised cattle and had some fruit trees, along with a magnificent
Back in those days, there was a modest amount of viticultural activity in
that nearby valley called Napa. Perhaps a dozen wineries were over
yonder and just a handful in their neighborhood. A bit of land was
then planted to grapes as, why not?
We bought our first wines from them with the 1975 vintage! Young Hank
Wetzel was making the family wine and he did a damned good job.
We recall good vintages of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and, of course, Cabernet
The 2017 Cabernet has 12% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc and a drop each of Malbec
and Petit Verdot. Twenty-five percent new oak (both French and American)
gives a mildly woodsy spice note to the wine.
Young Hank Wetzel in 2017 at a little 90th Anniversary fest for the
Though many of their neighbors ask serious money for a bottle of Cabernet,
the Wetzel's still sell wine for a price which allows one to drink well,
even if you didn't part with a fifty-dollar bill.
- Here's a line up of their Cabernets with the various labels they've used
since the start...
If you're looking for a good twenty-back Cabernet and you possess the palate
of an adult wine drinker, consider getting a bottle of this.
MARIO PERELLI MINETTI
2017 Napa CABERNET (reg $30) SALE $21.99
Mario lived a few blocks from the shop and he was an amazing
character. His family ran the California wine business shortly after
Prohibition and he was a lawyer in real life. But wine was in his
blood and he always liked the business. He'd been making wine (or
hired winemakers to produce, vinify and bottle, some wine for him.
Then he'd go store to store and restaurant to restaurant, offering them a
rather good quality wine at a down-to-earth price.
- Uncle Mario was an old-timer and he was embarrassed if he had to raise the
price of his wine by even 50-cents a bottle. He was always amazed when
some brand new winery would release its first wine, unknown and relatively
un-tested and yet they'd be brazen enough to ask $50, $100, or $200 for a
"Who buys those wines?" he wondered.
Mario's wine, though, came from good Napa Valley vineyards. It never
had a lot of wood showing. "I want to taste the grapes,"
Mario lived to be well past one hundred years of age and he did pretty well
up until the last year, or so. He'd credit the wine as having bestowed
upon him some measure of youth and vitality.
For years the wine came from Napa Valley fruit. Mario's grandson,
conscious of keeping the wine associated with the words "good
value," told us he didn't think he'd be able to keep the price at a
reasonable level if he made wine from Napa fruit. One day Andrew
brought in a couple of samples of Cabernets and asked us to offer an opinion
on the wines. We had a decided preference and the best wine was,
surprisingly, from Sonoma County grapes!
The new vintage returns to the Napa appellation. Medium-bodied.
Not many Napa wineries have a "Welcome" Sign
2018 Sonoma- Napa CABERNET "Andriana's Cuvée" SALE $19.99
Cabernet at a reasonable price is not easy to find. Most Napa wineries
ask $50 for their entry level bottling.
Summers is a small estate in Calistoga and they actually have more respect
for a $50 bill than most vintners. As a result, you can almost buy two
bottles of their Andriana's Cuvee Cabernet with a fifty. It's 82%
Sonoma fruit and 18% from Napa.
This vintner has been a bit of a fixture here at the shop for the past 10 years. People appreciate paying a fair price and getting an honestly
made bottle of wine.
Jim and Beth Summers bought a vineyard in Knights Valley, north of
Calistoga, in 1987. Merlot and Muscat. They began to make their
own wine with the 1992 vintage. In 1996 they acquired a parcel near
Chateau Montelena on Tubbs Lane. That's when things got out of hand...
We've routinely had their entry level Cabernet in the shop, along with
Merlot and their dynamite bottling of Charbono.
The Andriana's Cabernet comes from several vineyard sites near the winery,
including their own Andriana's Vineyard. The wine and was matured in French oak (50% new wood, too!). The
fruit takes center stage, showing dark berries and a bit of cassis.
There's a touch of wood in the back and the tannin level is such that the
wine is very drinkable right now, unless you're a fan of White Zinfandel or
sweet, fruity Muscat wines...
Famous Barolo Winemaker Luciano Sandrone
Hanging Out With the late Napa Charbono Specialist Jim Summers.
A Recent Vintage at Summers...
GOLDSCHMIDT 2018 "FIDELITY
RED" SALE $17.99
- Here's a terrific, showy "Bordeaux Blend" with Merlot,
Cabernet and Petit Verdot...nice touch of oak...ready to drink as it's
vinified to be drinkable in its youth.
RICH TABLE 2018 Columbia Valley
CABERNET SAUVIGNON $19.99
- There's a magnificent San Francisco dining spot called "Rich
Table" (we had a remarkable evening there in 2018!). This wine
is not affiliated with that restaurant, however. It's the work of
winemaker Andrew Rich in Oregon's Willamette Valley.
The grapes are from the Columbia Valley appellation and the wine is
terrific. Medium-full bodied, elegant and with dark fruit and a
touch of wood, you can easily enjoy this tonight.
Even better...it costs only twenty-bucks!
CULTIVAR 2018 Napa County CABERNET
SAUVIGNON (List $32) SALE $22.99
- The Cultivar label is a relatively new project coming from brother and
sister Jody & Gingy Harris. Their grandparents, Virginia and
Caspar Escher, owned a property in the western hills of Rutherford...They
make wines called Caspar Estate as well as this Cultivar label. And
they own a little wine bar in San Francisco's Marina District called
You might notice this carries the Napa County appellation instead of Napa
Valley. The law for Napa Valley appellation status is 85% of the
wine in the bottle must come from Napa Valley, while only 75% need come
from Napa when it carries the Napa County designation. Blending
fruit from neighboring wine regions where the grapes might cost less can
help moderate the pricing on this wine.
We found the 2018 Cabernet to be quite good in its "Under $30"
price category. The Cabernet Sauvignon is blended with a bit of
Cabernet Franc and Malbec and aged for a year and a half in French
oak. Twenty-percent of the barrels are new and this contributes a
mildly woodsy spice note to the wine. It's young and mildly tannic,
but we'll be surprised if this blossoms into something much greater than
it is presently. We view it as a short-term drinker and given its
modest price, why not pop the cork tonight?
- Other suggestions:
Consider some marvelous Spanish wines:
Pago Florentino at $23.99. Rioja can be had
for $12-$25...there are also some really good reds from the southwest part
of France...Madiran wines give these California Cabernets a run for the
money and they're $19.99.
Bordeaux is another great place to start exploring. We have reasonably
priced, delicious Bordeaux wines from $13.99 to $40.
- ALTAMURA VINEYARDS & WINERY
- This family enterprise started out in the mid-1980s with a lonely
little stone building on the Silverado Trail. Chardonnay was an early release, but
given their penchant for aging wines in oak, reds have been the highlights here.
Frank Altamura was born & raised in the Napa Valley and got a job
"toiling in the vineyards" at Sterling in the mid-to-late
1970s. He used to work at Caymus and so he's partial to oak.
The winery site they had in the 1980s was along the Silverado Trail, but
they sold it and today that place is the home of the Darioush winery. The winery makes Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon. The vineyards
are in the southeastern part of Napa Valley in an area, appropriately, called "Wooden
Valley." Production remains small and the wines have a good following thanks to
nice fruit and balance in the wines.
The current and recent vintages
show less strong oak and more Cabernet.
Our late colleague Bob Gorman was a big fan of Altamura Cabernet. Bob
"grew up" on wines from Louis Martini, BV and Inglenook back in
He wrote a book in the 1970s called Gorman on California Premium Wine, a
nice snapshot of the fledgling California wine world back then.
He would go forage for mushrooms around Northern California and he stopped
in at Altamura on his way (some years ago) and there are photos below.
The 2016 is very good...really "classic" Napa Cabernet
aromas. The wine was matured in small oak, with 70% of the barrels
being brand new. And yet the wood is rather well-integrated
here. We like the dark fruit notes and the mildly cedary tones from the
barrels. This is delicious right now, especially with grilled meats
and it will do well with another 5 to 15 years of cellaring.
The Altamura family owns a Napa Valley pizzeria...Ciccio
in Yountville, so if you're hungry, you might swing by and check
- Currently offered: 2016 Napa Cabernet
Bob Gorman's photo of Altamura's vineyards.
Bob's photo inside the Altamura Winery...
- BEAULIEU VINEYARD
- Located in Rutherford, in the heart of "Cabernet Country,"
the BV winery has made an impressive comeback in recent years. I'll bet, however,
they'd claim they never left. Yet for those looking for serious quality Napa Valley
Cabernets, this winery went into the doldrums from about 1975 or so until the 1994
Two historical figures play prominent roles here: the founder, a Frenchman
named Georges de Latour and a Russian gentleman named Andre Tchelistcheff.
Georges de Latour was from the Perigord region in France and came to California in
the 1880s in search of gold. He lost what money he had attempting to find gold in
the Sierra Foothills. He had a background in chemistry, however, and traveled from
winery to winery buying sediment and the tartrates which precipitated out during the aging
process. This he made into cream of tartar which was destined for baking powder.
His business was headquartered in Sonoma near the Dry Creek Valley. In 1899
he purchased a property located immediately north of the very prestigious (at that time)
Inglenook winery in Rutherford. He returned to his native France for vine cuttings
and opened a small winery.
In 1915 he bought the stone cellars of the Seneca Ewer winery across the road and
that remains the main home of BV.
Prohibition didn't shut down the winery, as de Latour was a producer of altar wines
for the Catholic Church. When Repeal finally came along, de Latour had stocks of
well-aged wines and was ready to supply a thirsty market.
Claude Rains portrayed Georges de Latour in a movie called "This Earth is
Mine," based on a book written by Alice Tisdale Hobart. I understand the
situations were changed somewhat to avoid legal wranglings.
De Latour and his son-in-law, the Marquis de Pins, visited the Institute National
Agronomique in Paris in search of an enologist to replace the retiring Professor Leon
Bonnet. They met a research enologist named Andre Tchelistcheff who accepted their
offer of a position in the Napa Valley.
Tchelistcheff felt Cabernet Sauvignon had the greatest potential and wanted to
concentrate on making a wine to challenge the best of Bordeaux. But the owners of BV
felt they had to have a complete "line" of wines and made everything including
Napa "Burgundy," "Chablis", "Muscat de Frontignan" and other
fortified dessert wines.
The first BV "Georges de Latour Private Reserve" Cabernet Sauvignon was
from the 1936 vintage.
I have a very old copy of Leon Adams "The Wines of America" in which he
writes of the initial Private Reserve:
"It was the 1936 vintage and was priced at a
dollar and a half. (At this writing, the ten year old Private Reserve brings
fourteen dollars a bottle in the few stores that have any in stock. The three year
old can be bought at the Beaulieu tasting room in Rutherford for $5.25 but there is a
limit of two bottles per buyer."
I think I still may have a bottle or two of that $5.25 Private
Reserve with our ancient orange price sticker on it!
The winery was sold by the Marquise de Pins in 1969 to the large Heublein company.
Tchelistcheff remained as winemaker, though he retired in 1973 or 1974. His
Dick Peterson made the 1974 vintage and left shortly thereafter to be the head honcho at
the new "The Monterey Vineyard" in Monterey County, California.
The winery, in our view, went into a tailspin through the late 1970s and all
through the 1980s. It seems, to our taste-buds, the winemaking was being hampered by
the bean counters as less-than-stellar fruit and barrels were being used to make, not
surprisingly, less-than-stellar wines.
We were shocked when a BV Private Reserve 1994 won a blind-tasting here. We
were delighted, however, to see the return of "an old friend."
This, to us, marks a renaissance at BV.
The shackles have been removed, it would seem, and BV can, once again, take its
place as a source of excellent quality wines. BV Reserve Cabernets have won
blind-tastings here with their 1995 and 1996 vintages.
The winery is also making tiny amounts of special bottlings of Cabernets and other
experimental varieties. We hope the string of successes continues!
BV makes a modest quality "Coastal" Cabernet which has yet to attract our
attention. Their regular bottling of Napa Cabernet is called "Rutherford,"
though some in Napa are amused that the wine is NOT made exclusively from Rutherford-grown
fruit. Actually, the word isn't really "amused." They're not at all
happy about this.
BV Private Reserves have been entirely Cabernet Sauvignon.
The major change
effected some years ago by their then-director of winemaking, Joel Aiken, is BV's Reserves are no longer
exclusively matured in American oak. The latest Reserves have been matured in French
oak instead of their signature American cooperage. These days
they have a famous French winemaking consultant adding his input and the
wines are big, full-throttle, fasten-your-seat-belt versions of Private
Would the legendary Andre Tchelistcheff recognize today's wine?
Possibly. But he'd likely not be thrilled with the high-octane aspect
of the current Private Reserve wines.
Another wrinkle in the BV fabric has been the introduction of a Bordeaux-styled
blend. You could call it a "Meritage" wine, but that would cost a premium,
so BV came up with their own proprietary name, "Tapestry."
This wine has been BV's "Bordeaux-styled" blend. They've
worked to market the wine at the $50 price level, a bit ambitious, in our
view. We had to discontinue the wine because, frankly, it's not worthy
of its price tag...it's a good $30 wine with a $50+ price tag.
These days the wine is high octane and no longer matured in American
oak. They're going to power and authority and, we suspect, a high
numerical score from one of those "experts" who can pick a tall
guy out of a crowd.
My Letter From Andre.
- Currently in stock:
2016 BV Private Reserve SALE $124.99
- This winery was founded by the German-born Beringer brothers, who came to
the U.S. in the 1870s from Mainz. Jacob and Frederick built the
"Rhine House" and had a cave or two excavated for wine
production. Jacob went to work for Charles Krug across the street
until their own digs were dug and ready for wine-making.
The family ran the place until about 1970 when it sold the winery and
tremendous acreage to a Swiss firm called Nestlé. Back in the late
1960s and early 1970s, Beringer was probably most famed for a rather modest
red wine called "Barenblut" (Bear's Blood!) which was a curious
blend of Grignolino and Pinot Noir. Bears must have thin blood!
The winery also put out a fortified wine of Malvasia Bianca for which they
were rather well-regarded...
Nestlé set about improving the winery and hired a guy named Robert Pecota
as a 'big wig' along with a fellow named Myron Nightingale as its
winemaker. They made all sorts of wines, from Grey Riesling to Fumé Blanc to Cabernet Sauvignon. A second label was created called
"Los Hermanos," the nickname given the Beringer brothers by their
Spanish neighbor, Señor Tiburcio Parrott. The Los Hermanos label featured jug wines and
single-serving bottles which came complete with plastic cup!
The winery plodded along for many years, never really competing seriously in
the realm of connoisseur wines until about the early 1980s. We recall
being stunned to taste a 1984 Reserve Cabernet that was seriously better
than the ordinary plonk Beringer had been known for making. The winery
continued on an upward spiral with winemaker Ed Sbragia at the
The Nestlé folks, with a seller's market easily in view, surprised many
industry folks by divesting itself of the Beringer winery and its various
brands (Chateau Souverain was the Sonoma "sister" and "Napa
Ridge" was a secondary label). Today Beringer is part of the old "Beringer Blass" empire
which morphed into Treasury Wine Estates. This enterprise owns
Penfolds, Beaulieu Vineyards, Chateau St. Jean, Etude, Stags' Leap and
This property makes a range of wines, from marginal "plonk" to
deluxe, top-drawer Cabernets.
Owning substantial property in neighboring Sonoma County, Beringer's
standard bottling of Cabernet wears the Knights Valley designation.
It's been a number of years since we've had a current vintage of
Beringer's Reserve Cabernet in the shop. The basic wines are
perfectly standard and the Reserves are wines which seem to have fallen by
the wayside. As the winery is apparently run by the accounting and
marketing gangs, the focus seems to be on cheaper wines and more
They're using the Beringer name on all sorts of products, including
fruit-flavored wine spritzers along with Sangria.
As a result, the brand is one more geared to be found in large chain
stores which may, or may not, feature wine.
We wish them well.
Currently in stock: Sold Out
Buehler family had resided in Hillsborough a few decades ago and John
Senior bought a little get-away place up in the Napa Valley.
John Junior took a liking to the Napa Valley lifestyle, such as it was in
(Napa was far more 'rural' then than it is today...not as many wineries in
those days and people were making and selling "wine," while
today many think they're art dealers or trophy vendors.)
Buehler made some nice wines, but they mostly sold fruit to other
vintners. At one point they hired a young fledgling winemaker named
Heidi Peterson to make the Buehler wines.
Heidi's daddy was a guy named Richard Peterson, the right hand
man to BV's famed Andre Tchelistcheff. She was Buehler's winemaker until
1988, or so. The winery had become well-known for good, solid wines and
they sold them at reasonable prices.
Over the years they've built this little enterprise into a nice family business
and today John Junior's kids are involved, too. The whole place is
close to Lake Hennessey, a bit south of Howell Mountain...six miles of winding
roads east of St. Helena.
We've periodically featured a Cabernet from Buehler...the distribution company
they are with has more important fish to fry so they don't often show us the
wines. In fact, in late 2020 we purchased a bottle of Buehler's 2017
"Napa Valley" Cabernet to include in a blind tasting and, lo and
behold, the wine was terrific!
It's 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and the wine was matured in both
French and American oak cooperage. It's quite enjoyable in its youth
and may cellar nicely for a few years. The wine is medium+ bodied and the
tannins are modest.
We're offering this at a special price, too, so stop by and grab a bottle to put
on tonight's diner table...or you'll be hearing Ben Stein droning on and
on: "Buehler? Buehler??"
Currently in stock: 2017 BUEHLER Napa Valley CABERNET SAUVIGNON
An old Buehler label.
2011 Burgess Cabernet Sold
modest winery is located in an old stone cellar on the road towards Angwin and Pope Valley
in the eastern hills of the Napa Valley. It was the original Souverain winery when
Souverain was a small, artisan producer back in the 1960s. Lee Stewart sold
the Souverain name to Pillsbury (I don't think they made that much dough in the wine biz) and
the facility was acquired by former airline pilot Tom Burgess.
Bill Sorensen was the winemaker for Burgess' first vintage and he was still
there as winemaker into the 2010s! Today the winemaker is a young lady
named Kelly Woods and she's been affiliated with Bryant, Seavey and Sequoia
They've made good wines over the years, but have never really managed to
capture the attention of wine critics or wine geeks. They don't sing
and dance and so marketing has not been a major strength. Further,
Burgess is not one of those wineries which ask astronomical prices so
customers "will know they're getting a good bottle of wine."
Over the years, we've found their wines to be good, solid Cabernets.
Every so often, we've had one of their "library" releases as the
winery holds back a portion of each vintage for additional aging.
It had been a few years since I've bought a bottle and, on a lark, I
purchased a bottle of Burgess' 2004 Napa Cabernet in early 2009.
Wow! What a pleasant surprise! We've been avid fans ever since.
The wine comes from their Howell Mountain area vineyards, but the elevation
is actually below that of the "official" Howell Mountain
appellation, so it's "merely" Napa Valley on the
label. We understand this comes from two vineyard sites.
The 2011 vintage is regarded as "challenging" in Napa.
That's a polite way of saying "poor" or "bad."
But, in fact, we've tasted quite a few good 2011s from Napa. So, as we
have long said "Burn your vintage chart."
Parenthetically, we opened a few different 1998s recently, another
supposedly awful vintage.
Those bottles were brilliant.
Burn your vintage chart.
The Burgess 2011 demonstrates good grape growing and savvy winemaking.
It's 98% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Petit Verdot. You'll find it to be
below 14% alcohol, too, another plus in our view. The wine is
medium-full bodied, not a big, ponderous fruit bomb. You can easily
enjoy it now or stash a few bottles to open in a few years.
Given what some vintners ask for a bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet, this is a
gem! It's a real pleasure to get to know, once again, some "old
- You might not be able to discern this, but "Carneros"
was not, in 1972, much of a wine region. On this map, it's rather an
afterthought...and it's spelled "Caneros" as it was called
And, as you can see, there were not many wineries in the Napa Valley back
in those days.
Stag's Leap and Stags Leap were not on the map yet, though 1972 was the
first vintage for both. It was also the first harvest for Clos du
Tasting at Burgess in December of 2015.
2017 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon SALE
- Jack Cakebread was running his family's automobile repair shop in
Oakland in the 1960s and early 1970s. He had a mild interest in
photography and his wife Dolores presented him with a gift certificate for
a class with the famed photographer, Ansel Adams.
Mr. Adams had been slated to shoot photos for a wine book to be written by
Los Angeles lawyer and wine geek, Nathan Chroman. But Adams asked
young Jack Cakebread to take the assignment.
The book, The Treasury of American Wines, is a marvelous 1970s look at the
world of California wines, though a few other wineries from other areas
are also profiled. We found the book to be a terrific guide at the
time and it's still interesting to read and reminisce about the wines of
Chroman, by the way, had been a free-lance writer for the LA Times,
posting a weekly wine column. He was paid to consult with the
Southern California restaurant called Scandia, as well as running the Los
Angeles County Fair Wine Judging. Chroman was prominently featured
in a Los Angeles Times article about wine journalism and ethics. The
article was even handed but mentioned how some of Chroman's conduct might
be viewed as him having a conflict of interest and being unethical.
The Times management, reading about this fellow in the printed pages of
their own journal, ended up severing ties with their then-powerful wine
Jack Cakebread, while in Napa taking pictures for the Chroman book,
stopped by the ranch of some friends before heading home to Oakland.
He told the ranchers to call him if they ever wanted to sell their
property. Some hours later when he arrived home, he got a call from
his friends saying they would sell him their property as long as they
could live there as long as they wanted.
We understand Cakebread used the money he had been paid for Chroman's book
to come up with a down payment on the ranch.
And that property is where the Cakebread winery is situated today!
Parenthetically, Cakebread's neighbors at the Turnbull winery, have a
large collection of photography, many pieces hanging in their gallery are
by Ansel Adams!
- For years the Cabernets
from this property have been merely big and burly. We've seen a definite (in our
opinion: improvement) refinement in the wines in the last vintages and today they're
making wines even fussy folks such as ourselves even consider to drink!
just don't like paying so much for them...but a lot of people find the wines
to be priced fairly and pop for a bottle.
The 2017 is
a fairly-full bodied wine, typical of Cakebread's work. Lots of dark,
purple fruit notes. A touch of a cocoa tone. Oak is not a major component, though
a bit more than half of the barrels are new. French oak only. About
4% Cab Franc are used and about
Merlot makes its way into the blend, along with 4% Petit Verdot. The vineyards range from the cool
Carneros in southern Napa up to the warm climes of Calistoga in the northern
part of the valley.
The wine shows a bit more complexity than you'd find in a Cakebread Cabernet
of a decade ago, or so. The Cakebread team, it seems, has an improved
protocol for making this wine. Another factor is their use of a wider
variety of clones, grape varieties and vineyard sources.
The 2017 is young now, but a few more years in bottle will repay your being
HERE TO SEE MORE CABERNETS.