(Bloomberg) -- For Northern California wine country, 1972 was a year like no other.
That was when Denver entrepreneur Ray Duncan and winemaker Justin Meyer, who’d just left the Christian Brothers religious community, produced 1,100 cases of the first Silver Oak cabernet in Napa, bottling them in an old dairy barn.
In Sonoma, Francophiles Tom and Sally Jordan planted cabernet and merlot in Alexander Valley with plans to create a California version of a Bordeaux-style red and build the first grand European-style wine chateau there for a winery.
Former political science instructor Warren Winiarski pulled off the first vintage of his Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars cabernet in Napa. (His second, 1973, triumphed at the famous 1976 Paris Tasting, where California wine upstarts beat out French grands crus in a blind taste test judged by French wine experts.)
All three are among the 18-odd California wineries that were founded or made their first vintage 50 years ago. Many were betting on cabernet at a time when no one knew what grapes would grow best where. Known collectively as the Class of ’72, they put Napa and Sonoma on the world wine map. Their bottlings became some of the most iconic collectibles in the US.
Over the summer, I’ve been grabbing opportunities to taste their histories.
A July retrospective tasting at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in the Napa Valley, organized by Jordan Winery, featured winemakers from six Class of ’72 estates: Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Diamond Creek Vineyards, Chateau Montelena and Burgess Cellars in Napa, and Jordan Winery and Dry Creek Vineyard in Sonoma. Each poured three wines from three different decades, including a current release, and spoke of history and change.
Later, I stopped by Silver Oak and Sullivan Rutherford Estate in Napa, and in August, I sampled old vintages of several others at the TexSom conference in Irving, Texas.
Along the way, I saw again just how brilliantly California wines can age.
After the ’76 Paris Tasting, the French judges insisted that the losing Bordeaux and Burgundies would age far better than the American upstarts. But a 1972 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars cabernet (see below), was very much alive and fabulous at the CIA tasting, showing the elegant fruit and structure that have always been this wine’s hallmark and proving that California wines have serious staying power. It wasn’t just reds. A magnum of 1990 Chateau Montelena chardonnay turned out to be a silky, golden stunner.
Most of these wineries’ older vintages are top values for collectors, too. Diamond Creek cabernets from the 1980s and 1990s, for example, can be had for $200 a bottle.
A look back shows how visionary they were. A mere handful of wineries existed in the two regions 50 years ago. There were no Michelin-starred restaurants or luxury hotels there. On my first visit to Napa decades ago, I camped in the Bothe-Napa State Park, tasting at wineries by day (for free!), and drank my purchases with steaks cooked on a portable grill next to my tent.
Getting into the wine game in 1972 was risky, but not that costly. Over lunch, Silver Oak president David Duncan pointed out his father had bought land for $4,000 an acre. Today prime Napa vineyards sell for $300,000 an acre and up. In the 1970s the wines themselves were also relatively cheap. Duncan shared Justin Meyer’s handwritten list with prices per bottle of Silver Oak’s neighborhood competition to make the case that upping Silver Oak’s price to $9 for the 1974 vintage wasn’t out of line. The most expensive bottle was the 1973 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard at $13.50. (Current price: $1,465.)
One challenge today is keeping an iconic winery in the founding family. Jordan, Chateau Montelena, and Silver Oak are firmly in the hands of the second generation, but in 2020, Diamond Creek was sold to Champagne house Louis Roederer and US billionaire Gaylon Lawrence purchased Burgess Cellars; Stag’s Leap was snapped up in 2007 for $185 million by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Piero Antinori.
In the face of global warming, will current and future cabernets age equally as well?
Viticulture is changing and adapting, wineries have zeroed in on the best terroir spots, and cellar techniques are more precise. Current vintages 2018 and 2019 all seem less rustic and more elegant, their tannins smoother already. So my answer is cautious: Maybe.
Nine to Try
It's tough to find older vintages outside auctions, but these wineries regularly offer library releases to their wine clubs. The best place in Napa to sample them is Press Restaurant in St. Helena.
1972 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars SLV Vineyard ($4,250)The winery’s first cabernet, never officially released, was for me the star of the CIA tasting, with cherry and pomegranate aromas and soft, complex fruit flavors. Most winemakers say it takes vines that are at least five years old to make great wine, but this came from vines that were then two years old!
1974 Clos du Val ($325) The year was touted as a great one in Napa for cabernet. The winery’s third vintage is still vibrant, savory, and supremely balanced and elegant. I tasted it from a double magnum, which allowed the wine to age more slowly.
1978 Jordan ($865 for a magnum)Jordan’s cabernet is consistently reliable, supple, and age-worthy. This one, served with dinner after the tasting, shows the wine’s medium-bodied, herbal style and French sensibility, with a bit of spice and cocoa in the finish.
1999 Burgess Cellars Vintage Selection (N/A )Dark, intense, concentrated, and structured like a Bordeaux, this red is difficult to hunt down. But the 2021, with its lighter, fresher, more floral and red-fruited style, is coming.
2002 Chateau Montelena Estate ($180)This stellar, plush cabernet is from a cool vintage that wasn’t heralded then. It is floral-scented, plush, and concentrated, with spicy dark fruit and earth notes.
2006 Silver Oak Napa Valley ($134)From its founding, this winery’s aim was to make one 100% cabernet wine, aged in American oak. By 1979, there were two (from Napa and from Sonoma’s Alexander Valley), both beloved by fans that include Oprah and LeBron. This vintage is rich and classic, with typical herbal flavors and chocolatey notes.
2015 Sullivan James O’Neil Cabernet Sauvignon (N/A; 2016, $300) This little-known estate, founded in 1972, was acquired by a new owner in 2018. The powerful, structured top wine has that dusty, powdered cocoa and red fruit taste that defines Napa’s Rutherford district.
2018 Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace ($285) Diamond Creek is known for three famous single-vineyard cabernets based on soil type, including this one from a rocky, iron-rich plot. The fabulous 1993 and 2001 I tasted are hard to come by; right now the 1993 is available in Taiwan, where the wines have a following. Try this current vintage that tastes of wild fruit, licorice, crushed rocks, and dry herbs.
2019 Dry Creek Vineyard 50th anniversary Sparkling Chenin Blanc ($50) A gutsy 1994 Fume Blanc was impressive, but this first-ever sparkling wine to celebrate the vineyard’s founding in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley, made from chenin blanc, was downright yummy. It has floral and white peach aromas and tart apple and honeydew melon flavors.
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.