Napa Valley Cabernet Class of ’72

Forty years ago, the foundation of California’s modern wine industry was forged. Who is still making great wine today?

In 1972, President Richard Nixon won a landslide re-election, Senator Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) demanded that John Lennon be deported and The French Connection won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

It was also was a watershed year for California wine. In 1972, no fewer than 18 wineries, including some of the most famous in the state’s history, launched operations.

It was the apex of the boutique winery movement, which had begun, arguably, with Robert Mondavi’s namesake winery, in 1966. This was the era that wine writer Hugh Johnson, in The Story of Wine (Mitchell Beazley, 1989), called “the turning point in modern wine history.”

The proliferation of wineries was centered in Napa Valley, but it spilled over into Sonoma County and up into Mendocino.

Keep in mind, launching a winery back then was hard work, not just buying grapes or bulk wine and then bottling it, the way many do today. It usually meant developing your own vineyard from scratch, learning how to make wine and then hand-selling it.

It also meant learning the ropes from friends who had started before you. Warren Winiarski (Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars) remembers being invited into a group by Lee Stewart (Souverain).

“We’d meet to talk about business, legal stuff, winemaking, the season, bottling,” Winiarski says of the group, which included Roy Raymond (Beringer) and Brother Timothy (Christian Brothers).

A number of factors made this period so fertile for winery startups. Jet travel afforded entrepreneurial California winemakers easy access to Europe’s wine regions, where they could be inspired. Americans were discovering the joys of cooking and, by extension, wine. The country was in an economic boom, with an expanding middle class. San Francisco, the southern gateway to Northern California’s wine country, was becoming one of the world’s most cosmopolitan areas. The city and its wealthy suburbs were packed with discerning customers supportive of a local wine industry.

There was something else, less tangible: a back-to-the-land movement that was sweeping the country. It wasn’t restricted merely to hippies. Many young and not-so-young professionals, having made money elsewhere, decided to try their hand at something they saw as combining a creative career with a lifestyle of rural simplicity. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, airline pilots and builders packed up and transitioned to California.

As Boots Brounstein says of her late husband, Al, who had been a pharmaceuticals wholesaler before he founded Diamond Creek Vineyards, “He knew there was more to life.”

Here’s a nostalgic look back at that Class of ’72, with an update on where these wine industry veterans are now and how they plan to remain relevant in this age of recession and global competition.

James L. Barrett of Chateau Montelena in 1972.Chateau Montelena Winery

Then: James L. Barrett was a successful real estate attorney in Southern California when he realized he was ready for a change.

“I had 26 lawyers working for me, but I just got plain old bored,” he says, explaining how he stumbled upon the defunct Chateau Montelena property while scouring Northern California.

“I didn’t know anything about making wine,” he says. But the Valley’s hospitality brought him under its wing. “John Trefethen [Trefethen Family Vineyards] invited me to join this little group that got together informally at the old Lodi Farm Center. They’d have lunch, talk about who’s doing what, share information and have tastings.”
That stellar group included André Tchelistcheff (Beaulieu Vineyard), Joe Heitz (Heitz Wine Cellars), Chuck Carpy (Freemark Abbey) and Bob Travers (Mayacamas).
Montelena’s first release was a 1972 Johannisburg Riesling, followed by the 1973 Chardonnay that won the Judgement of Paris in 1976.

Today: Chateau Montelena remains a vital winery, its historic Calistoga location a top tourist draw. Production is around 40,000 cases of several varieties, led by the estate Cabernet.

Staying relevant: “With 550 wineries in Napa alone, you better make wine better than the other guy!” Barrett says. Montelena has kept its appeal to longtime fans, while reaching out to younger ones. Most tasting room customers, Barrett says, are between the ages of 25 and 40.

92 Chateau Montelena 2007 The Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (Calistoga).
Not a wine for drinking anytime soon. It’s so hard in tannins, it basically locks down the palate, and the astringency seems to accentuate the acidity and dryness. However, there is a deep core of blackberry essence and, after all, this is Montelena. All indications are that it will be a terrific wine in another 8 or 10 years.Cellar Selection.

abv: 14.4% Price: $135

70s-era Warren Winiarski driving the tractor at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

Then: It was a homemade wine, Nathan Fay’s 1968 Cabernet Sauvignon, that blew Warren Winiarski’s mind. “It was an epiphany!” he recalls.

Right next to Fay’s vineyard was an old prune orchard. “I thought, if Nathan can make that kind of wine, this orchard should be changed to a Cabernet vineyard,” says Winiarski. “And it just happened that the orchard was for sale.”

That was the start of the winery’s estate vineyard. Its 1973 Cabernet took first place at the Paris Tasting of 1976. Ever since, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Winiarski have been stars of the wine world.

He remembers being warned that the Stags Leap area was too cold for Cabernet, and that Zinfandel and Petite Sirah were the wines of the future, not the “fancy pants” Cabernet. Raising money to plant the vineyard was also challenging.

“It was all a big gamble for me,” Winiarski says, “but remember, I had tasted that ’68 Fay Cabernet.”

Winiarski had no notion that he was part of a movement, of a historic moment in time.

“I was just keeping my head above water, working all day, reading at night,” he says. “I didn’t have the sense that this [Napa Valley] was becoming a national treasure.” Production that first year was only a few hundred cases.

Today: Winiarski sold the winery to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Piero Antinori in 2007 and has no role there, except to sell the new owners grapes from his Arcadia Vineyard. Production at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is in the 93,000-case range.

Staying relevant: “Before I left, the goal was to preside over the winemaking so it exposes the beauty of the truth [of terroir],” Winiarski says. “And that has never fundamentally changed.”

95 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 2008 Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley).
This Cabernet is a blend of estate and purchased fruit. In a successful year, it rivals Stag’s Leap’s best wines, including Cask 23, and 2008 was a very successful year. Blended with 2% Merlot and aged in lots of new French oak, the wine is, in a word, stunning. Rich, flashy blackberry and dark chocolate flavors are anchored by an earthiness suggesting cured olives and dried herbs. Delicious now, this beauty should develop additional complexities throughout the decade. Editors’ Choice.

abv: 14.5% Price: $55

Diamond Creek’s Volcanic Hill vineyard, looking toward Red Rock Terrace. Below, Boots and Al Brounstein in the ’70s.Diamond Creek Vineyards

Then: Al Brounstein was a pharmaceuticals wholesaler ready for a new life. “He’d been good friends with the Ridge [Vineyard] people, and thought winemaking would be a fabulous retirement,” says his widow, Boots. “We came up to Napa looking for land. Al knew he wanted a hillside, so when he stood on top here [on Diamond Mountain], he just had a feeling.”

Concerned that the then-undeveloped mountain site might be too cool for Cabernet, Brounstein, who died in 2006, called upon the ubiquitous André Tchelistcheff for advice. “André told him everything was perfect,” says Boots, and thus, a winery was born. Planted in 1968, the first wines were made in 1972; production that first year was 200 cases.

Today: With production averaging 2,000 cases of estate wines famously divided into the separate “vineyards within a vineyard” that Brounstein developed in homage to Burgundy, Diamond Creek remains the source of some of California’s most coveted and ageworthy Cabernet Sauvignons.

Staying relevant: “One thing we have is consistency,” Boots says. The winery has employed only two winemakers in 40 years. Her son, Philip, will take over one of these days, keeping things in the family. And the winery is reaching out to younger wine drinkers. “You cannot just sit down and rest on your laurels,” Boots observes.

93 Diamond Creek 2008 Gravelly Meadow Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley).
With hard tannins that shut down the mouth’s basic tasting function, this Cabernet feels tough and resistant now. Yet it has a fantastically intense core of blackberry and black currant fruit whose sweetness is grounded with a tug of minerals. Classic young Diamond Creek, it needs at least eight years in the cellar, and should develop well beyond that. Cellar Selection.

abv: 14.1% Price: $175

Chuck and Charlie Wagner in the mid-1980s. Charlie passed away in 2002 at the age of 89.Caymus Vineyards

Then: It was 1943 when Charlie and Lorna Wagner bought 73 acres in Rutherford. “By 1971, they wanted either to start a winery or sell the land and retire to Australia,” recalls their son, Chuck Wagner, who’s now 60. The family decided to go the winery route, even though “Dad had to risk his life savings,” says Chuck, who joined the family effort, “doing everything from cultivation and spraying to welding.”

It was in 1972 that the first wines were produced under the Caymus label, “with three redwood tanks, like hot tubs, and used barrels from Inglenook and Beaulieu,” Chuck says. Production was 2,000 cases, of a spectrum of different wines.

Today: Production averages 80,000 cases, but the number rises to 300,000 factoring in the family’s other brands: Belle Glos, Conundrum and Mer Soleil. The centerpiece of Caymus remains the Cabernet Sauvignon and, in particular, the Special Selection Cabernet. Although volume of the latter has risen considerably (to nearly 30,000 cases in 2009), the wine remains one of the best and most desirable in Napa Valley.

Staying relevant: Chuck refers to old winery families, “like Trimbach’s 12 generations,” as inspiration for Caymus’s future. “We’re serious about the wine business,” he says, stressing that “success is not so much about a person as having the winery become an entity that stands alone. Learn to make something better,” he advises, “and then go with it and stay with it.”

97 Caymus 2009 Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley).
So delicious now, you can hardly keep your hands off it. Blackberry tart, ripe blueberry, cassis, milk chocolate, licorice and sweet, smoky cedar flavors flood the mouth, dramatically huge and memorable, and lasting long into the finish. The tannins are obvious, but sweetly ripe and soft. A brilliant evocation of Napa Cabernet, despite a high production level of nearly 30,000 cases, which is about the same size as a Bordeaux first growth. Shows the class and potency this bottling has exhibited for many years, and believe it or not, the price is a relative bargain these days. Drink now–2020.

abv: 14.9%      Price: $130

Tom Burgess (seen here in the ’70s) was inspired by the food and wine culture he discovered in Europe.Burgess Cellars

Then: Tom Burgess was an Air Force pilot who frequently landed at Travis Air Force Base, near Sacramento, in the 1960s. “That gave me the opportunity to see Napa Valley,” he says. He particularly remembers the “small family wineries, probably less than half a dozen,” that then existed, including Heitz, Mayacamas and Chappellet.

“I’d been working on that ‘What do you do when you come to that fork in the road?’ scenario, and in 1971, I took it,” he says. Burgess bought the old Souverain property, on Howell Mountain, for $330,000. His first vintage, 1972, saw a few thousand cases of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah.

Did he have the sense of being involved in something magical? Yes.

“Our society was changing,” Burgess says. “A lot of people from a lot of different areas were coming to the same conclusion I did. I wanted to get in on the ground floor of the rebirth of an industry.”

But that excitement was tempered by the daily challenges, he says. “We were too damned busy to be philosophical—putting out fires and killing snakes!”
Today: Burgess’s original winemaker, Bill Sorenson, is still there in the same job. Production now averages 20,000 cases, and the winery remains in the family’s hands. Quality is good, and prices have remained fair.

Staying relevant: “I have two sons,” Burgess says. “Steve (39) works with me in marketing and sales, and Jim (37) is a vineyard manager for Beringer.” Both are part-owners of the corporation, “but I have no way of saying what will happen,” says Burgess, 72. Noting the tax implications of a succession plan, he says, “There’s nothing certain about the future, but I’d say there’s a strong possibility that [Steve and Jim] will keep the winery.”

90 Burgess 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley).
Here’s a good Cabernet for drinking now and over the next five years. It shows classically ripe, smooth Napa tannins that frame exuberant flavors of blackberries, black cherries and cassis. Give it a good, long decant before serving.

abv: 14.5% Price: $38

Reunion: More Members of the Class of ’72

Carneros Creek Winery

Francis Mahoney founded the winery in 1972, specializing in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and helped revitalize the Carneros region. Michael Mondavi bought the brand in 2006. Today, Mahoney owns Mahoney Vineyards, still in Carneros, but is growing Italian and Spanish varieties in addition to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Chateau Chevalier

The 19th-century property was revived by the Bissonette family in 1972, specializing in Cabernet from the Spring Mountain Vineyard; the first released vintage was in 1973. The winery was purchased in the early 1980s by the late Gil Nickel of Far Niente, but in 1993, reverted to the owners of Spring Mountain Vineyard, of which Chevalier wines are a sort of second label.

Clos du Val

In 1972, founding winemaker Bernard Portet made his first wines, from purchased grapes, while planting the estate vineyard in the Stags Leap District. Known for producing a drier, earthier, perhaps more “Frenchstyle” Cabernet Sauvignon, Clos du Val remains a trusted brand for elegant, ageworthy wines.

Dry Creek Vineyard

David Stare’s 1972 launch of the brand was the first new winery in the Dry Creek Valley region of Sonoma County since Prohibition. Production centered on Cabernet, Zinfandel and Fumé Blanc. The winery remains in the family’s hands, with quality quite high, especially considering the diverse portfolio, from Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay to Malbec and Chenin Blanc.

Edmeades Winery

Edmeades offered the wine world an early glimpse into the possibilities of Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley, after cardiologist Donald Edmeades planted grapes there in the 1960s. It wasn’t until 1972 thathis son, Deron, produced wine. The winery passed into the hands of the late Jess Jackson in 1988, and today, it specializes in bold single-vineyard Zinfandels.

Jordan Vineyard & Winery

Oilman Tom Jordan fell in love with the quiet, tranquil Alexander Valley and purchased his first acreage there in 1972, planting to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Today, in addition to Chardonnay, Jordan’s Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most popular restaurant pours in America.

Hacienda Cellars

The winery was well thought of in the 1970s, producing good Cabernet, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Gewürztraminer. In 1992, it was purchased by Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wine Co. and today is source to under-$ 10 varietals with a California appellation.

Mount Eden Vineyards

The winery’s modern era began in 1972, when a group of investors purchased part of the old Martin Ray Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Production today is centered on Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. All are highly regarded and ageworthy.

Mount Veeder Winery

The Bernstein family founded the winery, focusing on a dry, tannic Cabernet Sauvignon. The winery now is owned by Constellation Brands. The top wine remains the hefty Reserve Cabernet blend; the winery also crafts a varietal Cabernet and a Cabernet Franc.

Silver Oak Cellars

Ray Duncan co-founded the winery with Justin Meyer in 1972, focusing on Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon; a Napa Valley Cab later joined the roster. The winery was an early cult favorite. It’s still owned by the Duncan family, which also owns Twomey Cellars. The Cabernets remain restaurant favorites.

Stags’ Leap Winery

Carl Doumani resurrected the old brand in 1972, immediately becoming known for, of all things, Petite Sirah. After a series of corporate makeovers, it is now owned by Australia-based Treasury Wine Estates (formerly Foster’s), and produces several estate Cabernet Sauvignons, Chardonnays, Viogniers and more.

Veedercrest Wines

Then: The winery has indeed had its ups and downs. Beginning in the mid 80s, it was essentially defunct until one of the original owners, Ron Fenolio, decided to resurrect the brand in 2005.

“In 1972, Al Baxter [founding winemaker/owner] was making wine in his basement and André Tchelistcheff came by to taste. Somehow, he’d heard about this limited production winery,” Fenolio reminisces. [Baxter died two years ago.]

The first year, the winery only produced 500 cases, “but the wines got as far as Maxim’s [restaurant] in Paris!” says Fenolio, citing the “pioneering environment” of Napa Valley as reason for the success. “It wasn’t corporate controlled like it is today. You had family winemakers who would buy a parcel, make wine and literally hand-sell it to restaurants.”

Now: “Veedercrest is back!” according to Fenolio, producing as many as 7,000 cases annually, of which five are Cabernet Sauvignons and two are Chardonnays.

On staying relevant: “You just try to keep yourself immersed in the industry to stay current,” says Fenolio. “What’s happening with your competitors? What style of wine are people buying? Are they buying the same style in China as here?”

Fenolio’s son, Christopher, CFO of the winery, offered advice to his father: “[Christopher] told me, ‘Dad, you’ve got to modernize the label and start doing social media!’ So maybe he’ll shake things up.”

94 Veedercrest 2005 Vintner’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Rutherford), $40: A gorgeous Cabernet, and at this price, a bargain. Shows the greatness of the 2005 vintage, with perfectly ripe red and black cherry fruit, sweetly ripe tannins and a fine edge of acidity. Complex for drinking now, it should continue to develop bottle nuances over the next six years until it slowly winds down.

Published on February 1, 2012

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