Monday, February 28, 2005

California: The Pioneers and Perfectionists

Although California today is, without a doubt, considered by wine aficionados everywhere to be one of the world’s premier wine growing and producing regions, it hasn’t always been that way. It has only been in the past 40 or so years that California, and Napa Valley in particular, has established ascendancy. It is due to the efforts of a few key wineries, and the effects of a few key wines, that we are able to enjoy the breadth, scope, and outstanding quality of wines that we take for granted today.

Some of the biggest players in California’s climb to the top have a 100+ year history and have set the foundation for, and helped, the blossoming of the industry in the middle part of the last century. Of these, the efforts of Beringer, Beaulieu Vineyards, and Charles Krug wineries have been extremely influential. Others have histories reaching back less than fifty years yet have created now legendary wines that have set the standard for the region’s winemaking. These wine prodigies include the likes of Silver Oak, Joseph Phelps, Montelena, Heitz Cellars, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Caymus, and Opus One, to name a few, and should receive special attention for their outstanding wines that helped change the world’s palate and perception. Finally, Robert Mondavi Family Vineyards stands alone among all these as the winery that has perhaps had the most influence in the creation and shaping of California’s wine industry into what it is today.

The Wineries

Beringer Vineyards

Beringer is the oldest continuously operating winery in Napa Valley. Founded by Jacob Beringer in 1876 on the volcanic soils ideal for growing the great varietals of Europe, Beringer Vineyards has produced wines for the casual drinker and connoisseur alike. Beringer’s most notable wines include Beringer Sbragia Chardonnay, Beringer Third Century Cabernet Franc, Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay, Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, and Beringer Knight’s Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Many of these wines are still stored in the caves laboriously dug out by Chinese workers more than a century ago providing perfect temperature control. Also of note are Beringer's Founder’s Estate wines produced as affordable, quality everyday wines.

Best vintages: Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet: 1991,1992,1994,1997, 2001

Beringer Sbragia Chardonnay: 1992,1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2002

Beaulieu Vineyards

Beaulieu Vineyards, or BV as it is known, was founded in 1900 with the purchase of land in Napa Valley by George de Latour. Ever since then, the accomplishments of this winery have been a prodigious string of firsts. Of note, BV was the first to bring Bordeaux grapes to Rutherford, the first to build a cold room to maintain freshness of white wines, and the first to age wines in French oak barrels – all practices standard today. In the 1930’s BV hired Andre Tchelistcheff who not only produced beautiful wines but also became the teacher and mentor to winemaking legends Joe Heitz, Robert Mondavi, and Mike Grigich. Their premier wine today is without a doubt the BV Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Other wines of note include the BV Clone 4, BV Clone 6, and BV Tapestry wines. Their extensive wine lines include the BV Signet Collection and BV Coastal estate wines that are affordable and of high quality.

Best Vintages: BV Georges de Latour Cabernet Sauvignon: 1951, 1985, 1994, 1997

Charles Krug Winery

Charles Krug Winery was founded in Napa Valley in 1861 making it one of the oldest wineries in the state. Like BV, its history is marked by a string of firsts in the California wine industry. As the first winery in Napa Valley itself, Krug introduced the cider press for more efficient wine making, was among the first to carefully select rootstocks, and pioneered the use of cold filtered sterilization of off-dry wines and the use of glass-lined fermentation tanks. The Mondavi family purchased the winery in 1943 and it is still being run by Peter Mondavi today. Some Charles Krug wines of particular note are the Vintage Select Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Family Reserve Generations, Merlot, and Chardonnay.

Best Vintages: Charles Krug Vintage Select Cabernet: 1981, 1986, 1991, 1997

Charles Krug Reserve Merlot: 1996, 1997, 1998

Charles Krug Reserve Chardonnay: 1990, 1991, 1992

Robert Mondavi

After a legendary falling out with his brother Peter, Robert Mondavi left Charles Krug and went on to become one of the best known and most instrumental winemakers in California. His establishment in 1966 of the first large winery in the Oakville area after prohibition was the true start of the modern-day California wine business. Today, Mondavi brands are global in scope. Some of Mondavi’s most well known and higher end wines are his reserve series consisting of Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Mondavi Pinot Noir Reserve, Mondavi Chardonnay Reserve, and Mondavi Fume Blanc Reserve. On the lower end are his easy-drinking everyday Woodbridge wines.

Best vintages: Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve: 1987,1991,1994,2001

Mondavi Pinot Noir Reserve: 1992, 1995, 1997

Mondavi Chardonnay Reserve: 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997

Mondavi Fume Blanc Reserve: 1992,1993,1994,1996

The Wines

Opus One

Opus One, the winery and the wine, is the result of a brilliant collaboration between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Chateau Mouton Rothschild. Opus One became America’s first ultra-premium wine priced at $50 a bottle and above reaching an auction price of $250 in 1995. It established the category for the California wine industry.

Best vintages: Opus One: 1990,1991,1992,1994 and 1996

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars gained the respect of the wine world for California wine by winning the historic 1976 wine tasting event in Paris. The tasters of this event were world renowned and famously disdainful of California wines. The results of the blind tasting shocked them, and the world, thereby setting the stage for California’s rising star. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars continues to craft great wines to this day.

Best vintages: Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars SLV: 1990, 1993, 1992, 1994

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Fay Vineyard: 1990,1991,1992,1994

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23: 1978, 1984,1985,1991,1992

Joseph Phelps Insignia

Joseph Phelps made a name for himself by introducing some of the first Bordeaux style wines to California in the 1970’s with his flagship “Insignia” wine.

Best vintages: Joseph Phelps Insignia: 1976, 1992, 1994,1995,1997,2001

Chateau Montelena Chardonnay

In 1976 Chateau Montelena joined Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars on the center stage in Paris and came away with the top prize for its chardonnay – another shock to the esteemed judges. This winery produces fantastic wines to this day.

Best vintages: Chateau Montelena Chardonnay: 1992, 1993, 1996, 2001, 2002

Montelena Estate Cabernet: 1986, 1987, 1992, 1997, 2001

Heitz Cellars “Martha’s Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon

Joe Heitz, the founder Heitz Cellars, is a Napa Valley legend and the wine that catapulted him to this fame is his Martha’s Vineyard designate cabernet sauvignon.

Best vintages: Heitz Martha’s Vineyard: 1974, 1976, 1984, 1985, 1997

Heitz Bella Oak’s Vineyard: 1976, 1982, 1985, 1996

Heitz Trailside Vineyard: 1990, 1992, 1993, 1997

Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon

Silver Oak deserves recognition for its unprecedented decision to not only to focus on just making cabernet sauvignon, but also to create a cabernet that is smooth and drinkable immediately upon release. They succeeded where many thought they would fail.

Best vintages: Silver Oak Napa Cabernet Sauvignon: 1981, 1985,1991,1995,1997

Caymus Special Select

Caymus Vineyards was instrumental in putting California cabernets on the map with its extraordinary run in the early 1970’s. Robert Parker, one of the world’s premier wine critics has this to say about Caymus wines: “Few wineries in the world can boast such an enviable record of consistent excellence as that of Caymus.” It was this time, and this winery, that marks the beginnings of California cabernet fame.

Best Vintages: Caymus Special Select Cabernet: 1975, 1976,1978,1992,1994

Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon: 1984, 1987, 1992, 1993

Caymus Conundrum: 1991, 1992, 1994