Saturday, March 13, 2010

One great historic tasting

I'm sorry that there are only two possible senses that I can communicate with on this blog. You can read and look at photos, and if you really want to, you could run it through a speech program and listen.

But you can't smell or taste the wines I'm about to describe, nor experience their mouthfeel, and that's a damn shame.

On Saturday morning I had the honor of co-hosting one of the best tastings I've ever been to, as a precursor to this year's induction into the Vintners Hall of Fame. David Breitstein, owner of the Duke of Bourbon store in Canoga Park, brought some historic California magnums from his collection, and was matched by a couple from some Hall of Fame winemakers. That's David in the photo, flanked by Warren Winiarski and Mike Martini.

This tasting will never be duplicated. The oldest wine -- and my favorite -- was a 1956 Louis M. Martini Pinot Noir made as an experiment by VHF member Louis P. Martini; his first commercial release was 1957. Mike Martini, Louis' son and now the master winemaker, said he last drank the wine on the day his father died because he had the blues, and after the one we drank Saturday there's only one more left. Mike took the bottle home afterward because his father personally wrote the bottling date on the upper left corner of the front label (check out the photo).

Anyone who thinks California Pinot doesn't age should have been at this tasting (note for next year -- it was only $150 for 7 irreplaceable wines and included a winery lunch afterwards.) Mike said his last bottle of it had only a 30-minute window of drinkability, but this wine was lovely: perfumey, savory after 45 minutes, with plenty of dried and fresh cherry fruit and tremendous complexity. Mike said that this was the wine for which his father developed the Martini Clone of Pinot Noir that now accounts for about 1/3 of all Pinot grown in California. Let's hope they all age that gracefully.

We also enjoyed a 1970 Louis M. Martini Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon that Mike said was one of the first wines in Napa for which a winery did a barrel-selection reserve wine. In his day, Louis P. Martini was known for soft tannins and gentle mouthfeel, and critics claimed his wines wouldn't age. Martini responded by holding some wines in the cellar and selling them for 50 cents extra for each year of bottle age. The 1970 Special Select Cab -- the top of the line wine, one of the best in Napa Valley -- was less than $3 on release. That would have been a great investment, as the wine was supple and beautiful today.

Al Brounstein was inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame this year, and unfortunately he's no longer with us, but his wife Boots Brounstein and son Phil Ross searched their collection for a special bottle for us. They settled on the 1978 Diamond Creek Vineyards Gravelly Meadow Diamond Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. After more than 30 years it still has its structure, like a war veteran with his pride, yet has softened over the years and become easily approachable for anyone. Boots said they have very few bottles of it left, so we were glad to taste it.

Brounstein was famous for making three different wines (and occasionally four) from sites on his relatively small vineyard with different soils. Ross said it took him 15 years to turn a profit, in large part because nobody understood the idea of terroir that Brounstein was trying to prove.

Winiarski, a VHF member, told us that unlike Brounstein, he preferred to blend grapes from the different soils on his site. Winiarski said that Cab grapes grown on volcanic soils brought a fire character, while Cab from clay soils brought water. Fire, water, fire, water, he repeated: for a scientific guy, Warren sounded quite metaphysical. Whatever his philosophy, his 1985 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars SLV Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon was awesome, and the first of my glasses to empty (how did that happen?) It still has punch and backbone, as well as vibrancy, yet the mature flavors give it depth. It wouldn't be cheap, but this is the perhaps the most possible of these wines to acquire today, so if you see it, go for it. Warren believed after tasting it that it will last another decade or more in the cellar. I hope to test that theory sometime.

Incidentally, the bottle is stained because it survived the Northridge earthquake in Breitstein's cellar, while the bottle beside it did not.

The 1969 Mayacamas Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon was stellar, but we didn't have a live person there to talk about it, so Warren and David shared stories about Bob Travers.

But my favorite story of the day came from Boots Brounstein. When she and Al moved to Napa Valley they didn't know anyone, so they sent invitations to all the existing wineries to come to their house one weekend for a party by their lake. Three hours after the party was supposed to start, nobody had arrived. All the food was sitting uneaten. Hostess disaster. Then they heard a car come over the hill. It was Winiarski and his family, the only people to greet the newcomers. The audience applauded Winiarski's social graces, but he demurred. "My kids wanted to swim in the lake," he said.

Only one wine was corked, the 1985 Heitz Martha's Vineyard Cabernet, and that was a disappointment, but 6 out of 7 ain't bad.

The last wine we tasted was a 1997 Joseph Phelps Insignia. Though it's only 13.8% alcohol, it was the highest of the group -- some of the others were an impossible-to-imagine-today 12 or 12.5% -- and to me, it was like following a Chopin recital with Emeril Lagasse going "Bam" in my face. Yes, it was a nice wine, but in this crowd it was a rambunctious youth.

I am sorry to tease you with these descriptions, but you know, we're going to do something like this again. Don't miss it next time.

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