“One of the best we’ve ever made”: 1978 and 1977 Cabernet from Sunrise Winery

Since my last post of one month ago, I have spent all of the time I usually dedicate to the wine blog transcribing 18th century letters related to the Madeira trade in America.  To lend you a sense of the effort, just two of the sources I am using, one letterbook and one partial collection of letters, encompass nearly 900 pages.  While I am not transcribing every single line, I am attempting to read each one.  Sometimes an interesting statement regarding Madeira may be hidden amongst a paragraph about fish and flour prices.  It is compelling work but my tasting notes of both young and old wine are piling up.

While the name of Sunrise Arata has been stuck in my head for some time, I cannot recall having drunk a single vintage.  I resolved this issue the other week when Sudip came over.  Sunrise Winery was founded in 1976, at the old Locatelli Winery, by Eugene Lokey and Keith Holfeldt.  In 1977 the Stortz family was brought in as participants due to the unexpected startup costs of the winery.

The Locatelli Winery ceased producing wine by the 1960s.  When Sunrise Winery started up, there were only a handful of vines left but the fermentation building still stood with both redwood and concrete vats.  The concrete vats were of larger capacity than needed and too deteriorated for use.  The redwood vats were taken apart, cleaned up then installed inside the concrete vats.  Small oak barrels were also brought in.  The first vintage was produced that first year in 1976.

During the summer of 1978, the house above the wine cellar caught on fire.  It only burned one wall of the fermentation building but the debris fell down into the cellar where barrels and bottled wine was stored.  Much of the bottled wine was destroyed by the firemen entering the building.  The tops of many barrels were burned to destruction but there was salvageable wine in barrel.  With the help of Martin Ray, Ridge, Woodside, and others, pumps, hoses, and portable tanks were set up to rescue the remaining half of the wine.

They repaired what they could in time for a very small crush that fall of 1978.  A little white wine, some Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon from Arata, and the 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon from Frey Vineyard were all that was made.  Ronald Stortz called the 1978 Frey Cabernet “probably one of the best we’ve ever made” during his 1993 interview now found at the D. R Bennon Trust Fund website.

True to history, the 1978 Sunrise Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, Frey Vineyard, Mendocino is good!  At first I was underwhelmed but one hour after I double-decanted the bottle it was fully open.  No doubt there is good, clean flavor and attractive grip.  The 1977 Sunrise Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, Arata Vineyard, Saratoga, Santa Clara Valley did not fare as well.  Whether it was weak fruit to begin with or torture from the fire and salvage effort, I do not know.  It did, however, evoke old-school cooperage like the old redwood vats it was fermented in.  I find that rather cool.

Sunrise2

1978 Sunrise Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, Frey Vineyard, Mendocino
This wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon aged for 20 months in 50 gallon American oak barrels.  Bottled November 1980.  Alcohol 12.6%.  Dark black fruit in the mouth while initially firm, fleshes out with air.  After one hour, this initially firm wine shows good Cab flavor and still has structure that lends texture in the end.  What was a short finish lengthens and offers grip.  I would not have expected such good, clean flavor.  *** Now but will last.

Sunrise1

1977 Sunrise Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, Arata Vineyard, Saratoga, Santa Clara Valley
This wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon aged for 16 months in 50 gallon American oak barrels.  Bottled August 1979.  Alcohol 12.8%.  Funkier with vintage perfume and very ripe aromas on the nose.  Tart, fresh fruit greets in the mouth with both a greenhouse and old wood cooperage note.  Clearly learner than the 1978, it becomes more herbaceous and ultimately falls apart as the 1978 improves.  * Now drink up.

Sunrise3

Wente’s 1978 Centennial Reserve Petite Sirah delivers

I recently pulled out the pair of 1978 bottles from Wente Bros. for dinner after a tasting with several friends.  I thought I would write about these wines separately, as the history is a bit interesting.  Wente Bros. of Livermore, California was founded in 1883 by Carl Heinrich Wente who came over from Hanover, Germany.  His background was in husbandry but as cellar man to Charles Krug he learned to make wine.  Nearly 80 years later, his grandson Karl Wente took over the management of the winery.  In 1975, Karl Wente was named Wine Man of the year.  This was just the second award given out by the Friends of the Junior Art Center for the first went to Andre Tschelistcheff.  The distinguished company is is not surprising for historic newspaper accounts reveal the high regard held for the wines of Wente.

Carl Heinrich Wente brought cuttings from France to California to plant in his vineyards.  The alluvial deposits of the Livermore Valley were regarded as similar to the soils of Graves thus early plantings included Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and even Chardonnay. It was through the mid 20th century that Wente’s fame came from its Semillon.  In 1939, The Marquis de la Saluces, of Chateau d’Yquem, even visited Wente to see how his Semillon cuttings were coming along.   In the 1940s, you could purchase the “Cali Chateau Yquem” from the “famed” Wente Brothers.  Jane Nickerson commented on the various Wente white wines, noting the Semillon wines were the closest category to French Sauternes.

Second generation, Hermann Wente passed away in 1961.  Third-generation Karl Wente subsequently modernized the winery in 1964 and 1965.  This efforted included a new, large insulated and air conditioned winery, stainless steel presses and stainless steel tanks with temperature controlled jackets.  There was room for one million gallons of wine in tank and 50,000 bottles.  Of course, the old oak oval barrels still had their place in the winery.

In the late 1970s, neighboring Joe Concannon advocated for Petite Sirah from the Livermore Valley.  The Petite Sirah name was often lent to the “more vulgar” cousin Duriff which grew throughout California.  Petite Sirah and Duriff were typically used as a blending wine but Joe Concannon started to bottle Petite Sirah as a single variety.  After many years of bottle aging it would provide a wine with a “dependable bottle bouquet”.  Concannon’s Petite Sirah became a benchmark for the variety.

The fourth generation of Wente brothers took control of the winery in 1977.  Wente followed Concannon for they chose to release the 1978 vintage of Petite Sirah on their centennial anniversary.  Wente had planted Duriff in 1916, which was used in their Burgundy, but it was pulled out for Petite Sirah in 1940.

This choice paid off for 1978 Wente Bros., Petite Sirah, Centennial Reserve, Livermore Valley showed well at our dinner.  After double-decanting, it slowly improved over the course of an hour.  It is a dark flavored wine, supple and dense, yet eminanting from it is an attractive, floral quality.  There are many years of life ahead.  While I do not know if it will ever become more complex, it speaks entirely of 1970s California which I like.  Sadly, the 1978 Wente Bros., Cabernet Sauvignon, Livermore Valley has not held up.  It is dark and rich with almost no supporting acidity.

1978 Wente Bros., Petite Sirah, Centennial Reserve, Livermore Valley
This wine was aged for 6 months in small oak barrels then a further 2 years in large oak and redwood cooperage.  Alcohol 12.5%.  Perfumed on the nose, with air dark fruit with floral notes lifting it up.  Supple in the mouth but dark and dense with ripe spices and a lovely, inky nature.  It is perfumed in flavor and expansive in the mouth.  ***(*) Now – 2024.

1978 Wente Bros., Cabernet Sauvignon, Livermore Valley
Alcohol 12.5%.  Dark in color, dark in aroma and flavor.  Unfortunately, this wine is past prime, you can smell it on the nose and in the mouth it is flabby with almost no supporting acidity.  It might have been a very fruity, forward wine in youth.  Not Rated.

A lively 1964 Luigi Nervi, Spanna

I was in New York the other week for a midday tasting of some seriously fine and old Rioja.  That evening, I was to meet my friend William for dinner.  In need of some wine to help me transition from very old to young vintages, I stopped by Chambers Street Wines for a bottle. I knew from another friend that they are happy to double-decant wines for their customers which is exactly what they did with the 1964 Luigi Nervi, Spanna.

Luigi Nervi & Figlio was founded in 1920, eventually becoming the largest vineyard owner in Gattinara.  This bottle is simply named Spanna, which is the local name for Nebbiolo.  The Spanna bottlings are more generic than Gattinara so its possible for other varieties to have been blended in.  According to the Wasserman’s, the Nervi’s ranked 1964 as amongst the very best vintages.

This bottle was tasted after four to six hours of decanting.  It is a lighter flavored, greenhouse accented wine which does not have the fruit nor the depth of the 1964 Nervi, Gattinara.  What it does have is that undeniably attractive, Alto Piemonte acidity and structure.

1964 Luigi Nervi, Spanna 
Imported by T. Elenteny.  Initially dusty on the nose.  After a few hours, a bit herbaceous with greenhouse aromas on the nose.  These eventually resolve to celery.  The nose carries into the mouth where there are tart flavors with good acidity and grip.  There is some weight and old leather but any fruit has largely faded away.  There is plenty of presence in the mouth with enough flavor to hold interest.  **(*) Now but will last.

“[A] great prejudice here against all Wine…from any of the Northern Cities”: Motivation for Higham, Fife & Co.’s concern about the adulteration of Madeira wine

Nearly once a year, the Charleston firm of Higham & Fife advertised the acceptance of orders for Madeira wine shipped direct from the house of Newton, Gordon, Murdoch, & Scott to Charleston.  These advertisements begin in 1820, just five years after the flow of Madeira into America resumed after decades of war.[1]

Higham, Fife, & Co advertisement from 18 February 1824. [1]

Madeira was the drink of choice in America but it was not always readily available.  The availability was first disrupted during the American Revolutionary War.  While the Madeira trade did resume it was increasingly restricted during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), The War of 1812 (1812-1815), and stopped altogether with the British blockade in the Atlantic Ocean.

When Madeira imports picked up again in 1815, demand was so high that even Thomas Jefferson felt Madeira had reached an “exorbitance of price”.[2]  When Jefferson did order wine that year, he requested it be double cased so as to protect against adulteration.  Two years later, in 1817, Hutchins G. Burton shipped a barrel of wine to Jefferson from North Carolina.[3]  He warned against the possibility of adulteration as “Waggonners sometimes take the liberty of playing tricks”.

Higham, Fife & Co covers to Newton, Gordon, Murdoch, & Scott of Madeira.  Image linked to Schuyler Rumsey Philatelic Auctions.

The adulteration of wine was long a problem both in transit to and within America.  One can imagine though, that the high cost of Madeira made it even more common if not simply more intolerable.  Mannie Berk, The Rare Wine Co., relayed to me that Higham, Fife, & Co. were sensitive to their clients’ views on adulteration.[4]  In 1824, the firm wrote to Newton, Gordon, Murdoch, and Scott explaining how they would prefer to wait several months for direct shipment of their Madeira to Charleston rather than having it sent through New York or any other ports.  They explained that “there is a great prejudice here against all Wine & Liquors received from any of the Northern Cities” for no one will believe they are not adulterated.


[1] Southern Patriot Wednesday, Feb 18, 1824 Charleston, SC Page: 3. GenealogyBank.

[2] “Thomas Jefferson to John F. Oliveira Fernandes, 16 December 1815,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-09-02-0163. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series, vol. 9, September 1815 to April 1816, ed. J. Jefferson Looney. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012, pp. 263–264.]

[3] “Hutchins G. Burton to Thomas Jefferson, 2 April 1817,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-11-02-0200. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series, vol. 11, 19 January to 31 August 1817, ed. J. Jefferson Looney. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014, p. 238.]

[4]  Higham, Fife, & Co. to Newton, Gordon, Murdoch, & Scott, 26 February 1824.  Transcription provided by Mannie Berk, The Rare Wine Co., who continues to surprise me, year after year, with relevant facts he has carefully accumulated.

“[A] choice parcell of Madeira Wines…&…the best Gundpower”: A Madeira advertisement from Charleston in 1735

South-Carolina Gazette Tuesday, Jun 07, 1735. [1]

In early 18th century America, merchants typically sold a variety of goods rather than specializing in one.  It is common to see their advertisements list Madeira alongside such items as beer, nails, fabrics, and paper.  My attention was caught then by a unique offering of “a choice parcell of Madeira wines & likewise a quantity of the best Gunpowder” which ran during the summer of 1735 in the South Carolina Gazette.[1]  This was just three years after the Gazette became the first newspaper to publish south of Virginia in 1732 and just five years before the fire of 1740 burned half of the city.  Madeira and gunpowder might seem an odd combination but it must be remembered that Charles Town was a walled city designed to defend against attacks from the Spanish, French, and pirates.  Development did begin to expand rapidly beyond the town walls when this advertisement ran during the 1730s.  It appears, though, that there was still a need for gunpowder.

The ichnography of Charles-Town at high water. 1739. [3]

Cleland & Wallace sold this Madeira out of their store at the Widow King’s house on Broad Street.  Broad Street originated at the half-moon battery then ran west.  Today, the foundation of the battery lies under the Old Exchange at Broad Street and East Bay Street.  The house is described as “opposite to the Market in Broad-street”[3]  The market was located at the north-east corner of Broad Street and Meeting Street since the 17th century.  It has since been replaced by Charleston City Hall. There are several possible locations for Widow King’s house located on each corner of the intersection. If the Widow King’s house was located in these areas, it would have survived the 1740 fire.  This fire destroyed homes and buildings from East Bay to the north-west corner of Broad Street and Church Street.  In other words, the Widow King’s house was one block away from the destruction.  In the wake of the fire, the city saw significant fire-proof rebuilding.  I do not know if this is when the house was rebuilt but it is no longer standing for a picture.


[1] South-Carolina Gazette Tuesday, Jun 07, 1735 Charleston, SC Page: 3
[2] The ichnography of Charles-Town at high water. B. Roberts and W. H. Toms. 1739. File Name: 29852-000. Image Collections, The John Carter Brown Library. URL: https://jcb.lunaimaging.com/luna/servlet/detail/JCBMAPS~1~1~2833~101286:The-ichnography-of-Charles-Town-at-
[3] South-Carolina Gazette Tuesday, May 03, 1735 Charleston, SC Page: 3

“Rich and Rare Wines”: The 19th c. Madeira advertisements of Higham Fife & Co. of Charleston

Southern Patriot, 1830, 12, 09. Charleston, SC. [1]

The firm of Higham, Fife & Co. was founded by Thomas Higham and James Fife in January 1820.[2]  They were first located at 43 East Bay in Charleston, South Carolina where they traded in a variety of goods including Madeira.  By the fall of 1820, Higham & Fife was selling old London Particular, Malmsey, and “very fine Tinto”.[3]  They soon established an agency with the Madeira house of Newton, Gordon, Murdoch, & Scott in 1822, by which time they have moved their store to 75 East Bay.[4]  They advertised as the “only authorized Agents” of Newton, Gordon, Murdoch, and Scott Madeira wines in South Carolina.[1]  Through the early 1830s, their advertisements often list not only new, old, and “extra old” Madeira but also the undoubtedly more expensive offerings of Malmsey, Sercial, and Tinto.

Charleston Courier Friday, Sep 12, 1834 Charleston, SC. [5]

The Madeira listings begin to change in 1834 with an offer of 4 pipes of an 1827 reserve which was sent on an East Indian voyage. [5]  This wine was noted “for its richness, fine flavor, and full body.”  The following year an even more detailed offering was made. [6]  This was comprised of 1825 “very OLD MADEIRA”, 1824 “rich old SERCIAL”, 1824 “old and finely flavored MALMSEY”, and 1834 “very superior BURGUNDY”.  Given the rarity of these wines, they were sold in small 13 gallon casks.  Note how the Burgundy Madeira, given that it was the current released vintage, was recommended both new and old.

Charleston Courier Thursday, Sep 10, 1835 Charleston, SC. [6]

The firm continued to operate and sell Madeira under Higham, Fife & Co. until the death of James Fife in 1846. [7]  During this period they spent more than two decades at 75 East Bay Street.

75 East Bay St, Charleston, SC.

Today, 75 East Bay is located one building south of the intersection of Tradd Street and East Bay Street.  It is not clear to me when the building was constructed, though Zillow lists it as 1816.  The address has been in use since at least 1790.  It is a two-storey stucco building with a flat roof.  When it was surveyed in 1972, the front door did not have a transom.  On the second floor, there was no central door nor porch. Instead there were three symmetrical, shuttered windows.  In a postcard image from the 1920s, the street level had the appearance of a store-front with large, plate-glass windows.  Barring the plate-glass, I imagine this is similar to the configuration when Higham and Fife were operating.


[1] Southern Patriot Dec 09, 1830 Charleston, SC. Genealogy Bank.
[2] Southern Patriot Friday, Jan 07, 1820 Charleston, SC Page: 3. Genealogy Bank.
[3] Charleston Courier Monday, Oct 30, 1820 Charleston, SC Vol: XVIII Issue: 6476 Page: 1. Genealogy Bank.
[4] Charleston Courier Tuesday, Dec 31, 1822 Charleston, SC Page: 3. Genealogy Bank.
[5] Charleston Courier Friday, Sep 12, 1834 Charleston, SC Page: 3. Genealogy Bank.
[6] Charleston Courier Thursday, Sep 10, 1835 Charleston, SC Page: 3. Genealogy Bank.
[7] Southern Patriot Tuesday, Jan 06, 1846 Charleston, SC Vol: LV Issue: 8249 Page: 3. Genealogy Bank.

A solid 2012 Pas de L’Escalette, le grand pas, Terrasses du Larzac

The 2012 Domaine du Pas de L’Escalette, le grand pas, Terrasses du Larzac is starting to come around.  The vines grow on steep, stone filled terraces which seem to be reflected in the foundation of firm black fruit and structure.  I suspect this will always be a firm wine but the structure now lends to the nature of the wine and does not dominate it.  It will drink well for several more years so it might be worth following its evolution even further.

2012 Domaine du Pas de L’Escalette, le grand pas, Terrasses du Larzac – $20
Imported by Elite Wine Imports.  This wine is a blend of 70% Grenache, 15% Carignan and 15% Syrah. Alcohol 13.5%. Low-lying aromas of mulberry and maraschino cherry. Effusive red flavors lie over firm black fruit with some supportive structure. There is watering acidity, some spicy tannins with a bit of warmth and wood polish in the end.  *** Now – 2024.