Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Shocking consensus winner in 1978 comparative tasting

At harvest time in September 1978, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin signed a historic peace pact
Last month I was invited to a blind tasting in Seattle of 1978 Bordeaux-style reds. The wines had all been purchased from a man who stored them in perfect conditions in an underground cellar.

Doug Charles
Doug Charles, co-owner of the suburban wine shop Compass Wines, bought the whole collection when the owner decided quite suddenly to sell his house. Charles said the wines had been bought for drinking, not investing, and there were many one-of-a-kind bottles. He'll sell most of them at Compass but he noticed that he had 10 single bottles from 1978 and thought it would be interesting to invite some industry folks.

I'm not sure how I rated an invite. I sat next to Bob Betz, who had been an assistant winemaker at Chateau Ste Michelle at the time and worked on some of the wines in the tasting. Gary Figgins, founder of Leonetti Cellar, was also there. Leonetti's 1978 Cabernet put Washington state on the world wine map when Wine & Spirits called it the best Cabernet in the world. It's nice to be the least dignified guest.

Gary Figgins
We had two Bordeaux second-growths:
Chateau Montrose Saint-Est├Ęphe 1978 (no back label; no alcohol statement)
Grand Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases Saint-Julien 1978 (11 to 14% alcohol)

Four wines from Washington:
Chateau Ste Michelle Washington State Cabernet Sauvignon 1978 (12 1/2%)
Chateau Ste Michelle Washington State Merlot 1978 (12%)
Leonetti Cellar Washington State Cabernet Sauvignon 1978 (13%)
Ste. Michelle Chateau Reserve Cold Creek Vineyards Benton County Washington Cabernet Sauvignon 1978 (12 1/2%)

And four California wines:
Charles Krug Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1978 (12%)
Franciscan Vineyards Estate Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1978 (12.9%)
Louis M. Martini Private Reserve California Cabernet Sauvignon 1978 (12 1/2%)
Sebastiani North Coast Counties Cabernet Sauvignon 1978 (12.9%)

Nobody billed this as The Judgment of Seattle because nobody can claim that these were the very best wines from California and Bordeaux at the time. The two Bordeaux second-growths were well-regarded, as was Louis Martini Private Reserve. But they weren't carefully chosen to represent their areas: they just happened to be the one-off bottles this particular collector had left.

As for the Washington wines, Leonetti, unknown on its release, became a superstar, and Ste Michelle's "Chateau Reserve" line was its high end at the time. But the two other Chateau Ste Michelle wines were their supermarket line, which Charles believes were priced under $5. The Sebastiani was also probably in that price range; the others would have cost more.

Most of the experts, including me, tried to pinpoint which wines were which and often failed. But not always. One wine was bretty as hell, with no other flavors remaining, and we all correctly deduced that it was French.

On Nov. 18, 1978, while these wines were in tanks, 909 Americans drank Kool-Aid and cyanide in Jonestown
Another wine smelled and tasted of dried red chile skins, along with still-pretty fresh fruit, and we guessed there was some Zinfandel in it and it was thus from California. We were certainly right about the second bit; as the winery is now corporate-owned, it's unlikely we'll ever know about the Zin. It was made by Justin Meyer, founder of Silver Oak and a former monk, so I would never doubt his integrity, but you could (and still can) put up to 25% of other grapes into a varietal wine, and the bottle didn't say 100% Cabernet, so ...

The good news is that several of these wines were still excellent, 41 years later, and after the reveal I got a little '70s-era buzz on by finishing my glasses of them and even having repours when available. It seemed a shame to waste wines that, in several cases, might have been the last remaining bottles on Earth.

Compass Wines is in Washington, but it sells wines from around the world. Charles didn't have a vested interest in Washington "winning" and in the weeks since this tasting nobody has yet proclaimed as such.

But I'll cut to the chase: Washington slayed it, and in the most shocking manner possible.

If Leonetti had been the best wine in the tasting, nobody would have been surprised. And it was delicious. But the standout was the least-expected: The $4 Washington Merlot. The $4 Washington Merlot!

I'd be surprised if there is any of this left in the world: Chateau Ste Michelle 1978 Merlot. Who saves a supermarket Merlot for 41 years? But this wine was lovely: still very fresh and complex, with vibrant red fruit and some floral notes and good structure. We all loved it and were all shocked at the reveal.

Bob Betz
The Leonetti was good as expected; possibly the second-best wine. The Chateau Ste Michelle Cab was also outstanding. (Sadly, the high-end CSM wine was corked.) And the Leoville Las Cases was excellent, with surprisingly fresh cherry fruit up front and a chocolatey note on the finish. (The Montrose was the bretty one.) The Leoville Las Cases is the only one of these wines I could find online, and because Bordeaux prices have gone crazy the 1978 is actually cheaper than a current release: buy it here.

As for the California wines, I don't want to draw any conclusions. The stars of California Cabernet in 1978 would have included Heitz, Ridge and Robert Mondavi. Duckhorn produced its first Merlot that year. All of those would have been interesting to include. The best of the California wines was the Franciscan, which is the one that tasted like it had some Zinfandel in it (I still drank up my glass of it). But you simply can't make any statements about California based on these. It's possible the owner still had these wines because he had already drunk up the California Cabs he liked better.

One other thing about this tasting: I included the alcohol percentages because you can see how much the wine world has changed, both through global warming and winemaker choice. The higher acidity of these wines preserved the five of them -- fully half the tasting -- that were still lovely 41 years after they were made. I very much doubt that a wine lover in 2060 will be able to enjoy 2019 wines like this, especially cheap supermarket wines.

It's a law of bad writing that every piece about a specific past year must include a reference to who was President at the time. Instead I'd like to note that in 1978 the Ramones released "Road to Ruin," their fourth consecutive great album, a streak of perfection unequalled in rock and roll history. Chateau Ste Michelle's supermarket wines have aged as well as the Ramones' music -- and that's saying a lot.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and Instagram @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


ABIRA said...

Great article I'm glad you didn't pull out a bottle of 1978 Two Buck Chuck LOL

W. Blake Gray said...

Call me crazy, but I'd like to taste old Charles Shaw. The brand started in 2002 so maybe the first vintage was 2000? And I'm not sure there are even vintage wines. Expectations would be so low.

There are two acronyms I used when running tasting panels for a newspaper: DPIM (Don't Put In Mouth, based on the aroma alone), which was created by somebody before me. And I created PIMR (Put In Mouth, Regretted). It's possible I would use one or both acronyms. That said, if I got the chance to taste 18-year-old Charles Shaw, I'd have to say yes.

Doug Charles said...

of course you would be invited! You are the coolest blogger out there and we only invited the cool cats to the tasting!

Washington wines are not to be taken lightly anymore!

williplantsman said...

Ive been a believer in Washington Merlot since my first Velvet Devil. The latitude means something; daylength? I really think it may be regarded the premier global region for Merlot someday. Maybe today.

Bob Henry said...

Blake wrote:

"Call me crazy, but I'd like to taste old Charles Shaw."

You should, as the Charles Shaw winery predates Trader Joe's "2-Buck Chuck" wines.

The eponymous winery founder planted Gamay using a suitcase clone from Beaujolais.

His wines were well-received in the marketplace circa the late 1980s.

From the Los Angeles Times Online
(May 15, 1988):

"A Beguiling Beaujolais: 'As Beautiful as a Vase of Fresh-Cut Flowers'"

URL: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1988-05-15-tm-3975-story.html

By Robert Lawrence Balzer
Wine Columnist

-- and see --

From the Napa Valley Register Online
(October 9, 2003):

"Meet the real 'Two Buck Chuck' — Charles Shaw"

URL: https://napavalleyregister.com/calistogan/business/meet-the-real-two-buck-chuck-charles-shaw/article_f9fc0360-7b02-5bbf-b429-0acf507e6111.html

By Alan Goldfarb
Wine Editor

["Full disclosure": I visited the original Charles Shaw winery in 1989 with Robert Lawrence Balzer and his wine appreciation course students. We did a group selfie. ~~ Bob]