On August 21, 2016, Ruth Bassin, age 89, owner of MacArthur Beverages passed away. It was in 1957 that Ruth Bassin and her late husband Addy Bassin founded MacArthur Beverages. Originally known as MacArthur Liquors, Ruth and Addy Bassin helped foster the transition of Washington, DC, to a wine loving city. The store opened with the promise of “neighborly service”. Over the past 25 years of my frequent visits, Mrs. B, as she was affectionately called, was always there.
At the passing of her husband Addy Bassin in 1986 and her son Bruce Bassin in 1998, Ruth Bassin founded two charity events. Both the California Barrel Tasting and the Hearts Delight events continue to this day and will remain her legacy. However, it is through my research into the rise of American wine journalism and the American wine boom of the 1970s, that I came across a forgotten legacy of Ruth Bassin.
Liquor sales dominated the American market in the 1960s. With a rising population of well-traveled, baby boomers, interest began to turn to wine by 1970. Washington, DC, was home to two of the wealthiest counties in America which created a customer base driving massive sales at MacArthur Beverages. Ruth and Addy Bassin met and shaped this demand by purchasing on an international basis. During purchasing trips in London, the couple would maintain a suite where they met with brokers every two hours over three day periods. Both were involved in the selection of the wines as Ruth Bassin noted, “If I don’t like them, he won’t buy them.”
Without the Bassin’s contributions, the demand for such a diverse selection of wine would not exist today.
A History of the California Barrel Tastings: Part 4 “[F]ine American wines can now hold their own with fine wines from France” The wines served at the early tastings
This is the fourth in a series of posts surveying the history behind the MacArthur Beverages California Barrel Tasting and its predecessor Gerald Asher’s California Vintners Barrel Tasting.
The title quote is taken from Frank J. Prial writing in The New York Times about two French versus Californian wine tastings held during November, 1975. The following summer William Rice in The Washington Post described the Judgement of Paris as “The latest in the continuing, if rather pointless, tasteoffs pitting American versus French wines”. He noted that the winning wines from Chateau Montelena and Stags Leap Wine Cellars were “expensive” and from “small vineyards, with limited productions”. A month after the tasting the wines were no longer available in Washington, DC.
There was a great increase in the number of new wineries in California through the 1970s and 1980s. Several hundred new wineries opened in fact. However, the number of high-quality wineries was much smaller. This is reflected in the wines chosen for the various French versus American wine tastings of 1975 and 1976 as well as Gerald Asher’s and Addy Bassins’ California Barrel Tastings. Look through the lists below and you’ll see such names repeat as Chappellet, Clos du Val, Ridge, and Stags Leap Wine Cellars. Interestingly enough, on the French side, 1970 Chateau Montrose and 1971 Chateau Leoville Las Cases appear at both the November 1975 comparative tasting and the Judgement of Paris.
The First Tasting, November 1975
1970 Chateau Margaux
1970 Chateau Haut-Brion
1971 Chateau Leoville Las Cases
1971 Chateau Greysac
1970 Chateau La Tour de By
1970 Chateau Leoville Poyferre
1971 Chateau Montrose
1971 Mouton Cadet
1970 Sterling Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon
1971 Chappellet Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon
1971 Louis Martini, Cabernet Sauvignon
1972 Clos du Val, Cabernet Sauvignon
1972 Almaden, Cabernet Sauvignon
1970 Beaulieu Vineyards, Georges de Latour Private Reserve, Cabernet Sauvignon
NV Sebastiani Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon
1970 Marques de Caceras, Rioja
The Second Tasting, Manhatten East chapter of Les Amis du Vin, November 1975
1972 David Bruce, Chardonnay
1973 Chappellet, Chardonnay
1972 Freemark Abbey, Chardonnay
1972 Heitz Cellars, Chardonnay
1972 Mayacamas, Chardonnay
1972 Robert Mondavi, Chardonnay
1973 Spring Mountain, Chardonnay
1972 Louis Latour, Pinot Chardonnay
1973 Albert Pic, Chablis Grand Cru Grenouilles
1973 Marquis de Laguiche, Chassagne-Montrachet
First Annual California Vintners Barrel Tasting Dinner, March 1976
1975 and 1974 Wente Brothers, Pinot Blanc
1975 and 1974 Chateau St Jean, Chardonnay
1975 and 1973 Freemark Abbey, Chardonnay
1975 and 1974 Parducci, Chenin Blanc
1975 and 1972 Mirassou Vineyard, Chenin Blanc
1975 and 1974 Joseph Phelps, Johannisberg Riesling
1975 and 1973 Beaulieu, Johannisberg Riesling
1975 and 1972 Simi, Gewurztraminer
1975 and 1974 Monterey Vineyards, Zinfandel
1975 and 1974 Ridge, Lytton Springs, Zinfandel
1975 and 1974 Callaway, Petite Sirah
1975 and 1973 Robert Mondavi, Pinot Noir
1975 and 1972 Sterling, Merlot
1975 and 1973 Pedroncelli, Cabernet Sauvignon
1975 and 1972 Clos du Val, Cabernet Sauvignon
1975 and 1970 Louis M. Martini, Cabernet Sauvignon
1975 and 1969 Chappellet, Cabernet Sauvignon
The Judgement of Paris, May 1976
1973 Chateau Montelena, Chardonnay
1973 Spring Mountain, Chardonnay
1974 Chalone Vineyards, Chardonnay
1972 Freemark Abbey, Chardonnay
1972 Veedercrest Vineyards, Chardonnay
1973 David Bruce, Chardnonay
1973 Roulot, Meursault Charmes
1973 Joseph Drouhin, Beaune Clos des Mouches
1973 Ramonet-Prudhon, Batard-Montrachet
1972 Domaine Leflaive, Puligny-Montrachet “Les Pucelles”
1973 Stags Leap Wine Cellars, Cabernet Sauvignon
1971 Ridge Mountain Range, Cabernet Sauvignon
1970 Heitz Cellar, Martha’s Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon,
1972 Clos du Val, Cabernet Sauvignon
1971 Mayacamas, Cabernet Sauvignon
1969 Freemark Abbey, Cabernet Sauvignon
1970 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild
1970 Chateau Montrose
1970 Chateau Haut-Brion
1971 Chateau Leoville Las Cases
First Annual California Futures Barrel Tasting, June 1986
1984 Caymus, Cabernet Sauvignon
1984 Diamond Creek, Gravelly Meadow, Cabernet Sauvignon
1984 Diamond Creek, Red Rock Terrace, Cabernet Sauvignon
1984 Diamond Creek, Volcanic Hill, Cabernet Sauvignon
1984 Dunn, Cabernet Sauvignon
1984 Girard, Cabernet Sauvignon
1984 Johnson-Turnbull, Cabernet Sauvignon
1984 Laurel Glen, Cabernet Sauvignon
1984 Long, Cabernet Sauvignon
1984 Joseph Phelps, Backus, Cabernet Sauvignon
1984 Joseph Phelps, Eisele, Cabernet Sauvignon
1984 Joseph Phelps, Insignia
1984 Pine Ridge, Rutherford, Cabernet Sauvignon
1984 Pine Ridge, Stag’s Leap, Cabernet Sauvignon
1984 Pine Ridge, Andrus Reserve, Cabernet Sauvignon
1984 Lyeth, Cabernet Sauvignon
1984 Ridge, Monte Bello, Cabernet Sauvignon
1984 Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon
1984 Stags Leap Wine Cellars, Merlot
1984 Stags Leap Wine Cellars, Cabernet Sauvignon
1984 Stags Leap Wine Cellars, Cask 23, Cabernet Sauvignon
1984 Steltzner, Cabernet Sauvignon
1984 Johnson Turnbull, Cabernet Sauvignon
1984 William Hill, Cabernet Sauvignon
Next up: The sources
This is the third in a series of posts surveying the history behind the MacArthur Beverages California Barrel Tasting and its predecessor Gerald Asher’s California Vintners Barrel Tasting.
The California Barrel Tasting
Two months before the Judgement of Paris, Gerald Asher held his first Californian Barrel Tasting at the Four Seasons in New York City. William Rice writing for The Washington Post noted that California needed new markets for the increased production of wine. In particular the tasting was taking aim at wine lovers in New York City and Washington, DC, who were entrenched in drinking European wine in the high-end of the market.
Gerald Asher based the tasting on the Paulee de Meursault and the Paulee de Paris held at Taillevent. His idea was to combine the elegance of these tastings with an American nature. It was initially difficult to get wineries to agree to pour unfinished wines to consumers at this event. Eventually he got Karl Wente and Robert Mondavi to attend then the event took off.
By several accounts the wines tasted at the early events were not the most inviting. At the first tasting in 1976, Frank J. Prial wrote there was little agreement on the best wines. The following year William Rice certainly conveyed the wines were better than before but “in the end, then the lasting impressions were of the winemakers rather than the wines themselves.” To be fair he did gush of the 1976 Joseph Phelps, Johannesberg Riesling compared it to the “nectar” of German trockenbeerenauselese. The barrel tasting soon hit its stride. Access to the 225 tickets for the third tasting in 1978 were “bitterly contested”. By the fourth year 2,000 people were trying to gain access to a tasting where all the wines were good. The success continued and Californian wines began to take hold. Soon it was not just 2,500 people jockeying to get a ticket, it was the wineries jockeying for a spot to pour their own wine.
The barrel tasting eventually reached the gastronomic equivalence to “an appearance at the White House”. However, the event was not to continue. The 10th and final barrel tasting in New York City was held in 1985. During those 10 years Californian wine had become accepted on the east coast. One aspect remained the same and that was the difficulty in tasting young, tannic wines. Warren Winiarski, Stags Leap Wine Cellars, felt that the first time the wineries were taken seriously outside of California was when they were first invited to the barrel tasting in 1975.
The Tasting Moves to Washington, DC
When it was announced that Gerald Asher’s barrel tasting was moving to California, James Conaway did not miss a beat. He proposed in The Washington Post that the barrel tasting be moved to Washington, DC. He even wrote “Who knows, it might even become a tradition.” It was not such a far stretch. While the tastings were held in New York City a market for Californian wine was developing in Washington, DC. Event Robert Mondavi once came down from New York City to hold a simultaneous barrel tasting in Washington, DC.
Beginning in 1972, escalating French wine prices drove both importers and wholesalers to look for alternatives. This would have been a perfect opportunity for Californian wines to grab a larger share of the market but the timing was not right. Many Californian wines were highly regarded but with a unique taste that did not match traditional European wines. The attitude was that they should be judged on their own merit. Most east coast merchants were fine just leaving them on their own.
Washington, DC, was a city where wine tastes were set by resident diplomats, foreign travelers, and French restaurants. In order to satisfy a European wine palate, the major importers Kronheim and Beitzell were bringing in new imports of petit Bordeaux, Languedoc, Loire, and lesser Rhone. Others reached out to Hungary, Spain, and Yugoslavia. Only one wholesaler was looking to expand its Californian offerings. This was not in response to find lower-priced alternatives; rather it was just a new line of wines.
By 1974, just a handful of stores in both New York and Washington, DC, focused in on fine Californian wine. Merril Dunn of Morris Miller Liquors in Washington, DC, had increased his Californian selections from 10 wines in 1974 to nearly 100 by the end of 1976. In order to expand his selection, Merril Dunn was traveling to California every six months to tastes the wines ahead of release. Morris Miller was not the only store to actively stock Californian wines so too was Harry’s. In fact, their selection of wine in 1978 was suggested as “unequaled outside California itself.”
It was in 1978 that French wine prices were once again rising. Aggravated by remaining inventories of the unwanted 1972 Bordeaux vintage and the extremely small 1977 vintage, prices of the 1975 vintage were trading above the 1970. The timing for California was better this time. More than 100 new Californian wineries had opened up during the wine boom. Major wholesalers like the Forman Brothers and Milton S. Kronheim and the smaller Beitzell were making purchasing trips to California for the DC region. Carrying the smaller Californian wines was not without difficulty. The wholesalers complained of small inventories, inconsistent delivery of wine, and price. They were, however, “good name droppers on a list, like classified growths from France.”
Thus Californian wine had effectively made inroads into Washington, DC, when Addy Bassin of MacArthur Beverages held the First Annual California Futures Barrel Tasting on June 7, 1986. It was the first time Californian wine was ever offered as futures.
It was not easy to convince the wineries to participate in the tasting. Al Brounstein, of Diamond Creek Vineyards, recalls that he had to push “like mad” to get people involved. Whereas Bob Long and Richard Steltzner agree to join, Warren Winiarski did not. Many wineries were already selling out of all stocks of wine so they did not see a reason to sell any of it at a discount. Al Brounstein’s solution was to first raise prices before offering them at a futures discount.
California futures were seen as a direct competition with Bordeaux futures whose prices had once again skyrocketed since the 1982 vintage. With a sinking dollar the 1985 Bordeaux futures were reaching twice the offering price of the 1982 vintage. According to the Wall Street Journal there were a lot of people who typically purchased wine futures. Unwilling to purchase Bordeaux, there was capital waiting to be spent and it was on Addy Bassins’ offering of 1984 Californian futures. This allotment was sold out within several weeks.
The offering of 1985 California wine futures were not limited to just MacArthur Beverages. There were some dozen stores doing so as well including Zachy’s in New York City. With excitement at the same level of the release of 1982 Bordeaux, MacArthur Beverages had quickly sold more than 4,000 cases as futures in advance of the barrel tasting itself. Robert Mondavi Winery reached a national audience through its own futures program with their distributors.
The pace continued the third year with the release of the 1986 Californian vintage. By this point Bordeaux first growths were priced at $740 to $960 per case. In comparison the more expensive Californian futures were a bargain with Shafer Hillside Select at $225 and Joseph Phelps Insignia at $229 per case.
The dollar began to slide in value during 1985. By the end of 1986 the French Franc was 50% more expensive which added to the escalation of French wine prices. The price of high-end Californian wines rose as well such that 1983 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Cask 23 cost $45 and 1985 Ridge, Monte Bello cost $50 as compared to 1985 Mouton-Rothschild at $55. Due to the sheer volume of Bordeaux wine you could still find bargains such as 1982 Chateau Palmer at $17. Not all Californian wines were expensive. Due to the sheer number of new wineries there were many excellent wines at affordable prices. James Conaway wrote at the end of 1987 in The Washington Post that California wines were enjoying “a huge, well deserved popularity” in filling the gap left by the “ionospheric price of bordeaux”. There was no longer a need to convince east coast wine lovers to drink California wine.
Next up: The wines served at the early tastings
This is the second in a series of posts surveying the history behind the MacArthur Beverages California Barrel Tasting and its predecessor Gerald Asher’s California Vintners Barrel Tasting.
The Wine Boom and Winegate
The wine boom began in 1969 when the annual increase in wine sales tripled to 10%. This followed the increase in an aging baby-boom population and a shift in consumer preference away from sweet wines. Sales continued to increase by at least 10% year after year. This put a strain on supply which, with the small 1972 Californian vintage, caused wine inventories to reduce.
Vineyard acreage in California increased dramatically to meet demand. It also increased due to such reports as one from the Bank of America claiming the boom would last until 1978 and that wine consumption would double from 1973 to 1980. The 1970 Bank of America report stated that Americans would consume some 400 million gallons of wine by 1980. The 1973 report stated it would be achieved six years earlier in 1974.
Beginning in 1969 the annual increase in acres of new vines planted nearly doubled as it went from 8,400 acres to 50,000 acres in 1973. The vast majority of the new vines were intended for wine production and not table grapes. It takes time for new vines to become productive so despite the new plantings grape prices were escalating as well. From 1968 to 1972 Cabernet Sauvignon grapes went from $305 to $702 per ton with Zinfandel outpacing it from $92 to $420 per ton. In 1971 alone, Californian wine prices increased by an abnormally high 10%.
Despite the massive increases in Californian vineyard planting it was estimated that the share of foreign wines sold in the American market would rise from 15% in 1973 to 20% by 1978. This meant that California’s share of the market was decreasing. The east coast markets were traditionally focused on Bordeaux and Burgundy but the boom in wine prices threatened this increase. The first sign of the increase in French wine prices occurred in 1972 when the smaller and not quite as good 1971 Bordeaux vintage opened at twice the prices of the 1970 vintage. A year later the poor 1972 vintage was released at three to four times the price of the 1970 vintage.
One reason for the price rise is due to the international currency market. However, these price increases far exceeded the effects of the revaluation of international currencies when the fixed Bretton Woods system was replaced by a free-floating system. This caused most European wines to increase in price some 10% to 20%.
By 1972, non-traditional countries were attempting to gain access to the booming American wine market. Threatened by the Argentines, Bulgarians, Greeks, Moroccans, and Yugoslavs the French “mounted a massive campaign” of “Country Wines of France”. These really were massive efforts. The Margnat Group was France’s largest producer of wine at 2 million bottles per day. It hoped to be the table wine of choice for one million Americans. The Bordeaux importer Cruse & Fils created a line of affordable, varietal labeled wines directly aimed at competing with Californian offerings.
The Cruse & Fils firm was soon in trouble. It attempted to take advantage of the tripling of prices by shipping some two million bottles of cheap wine labeled as high-end Bordeaux. Known as “Winegate” several men were found guilty in 1974 and fined $12 million dollars. Even Steven Spurrier, who received periodic coverage by Frank J. Prial in The New York Times, commented that he sent back 4,000 – 5,000 bottles of Bordeaux wine because it had been switched from what he ordered.
American buyers largely refrained from buying the 1971 and 1972 Bordeaux vintages. The 1973 vintage was better and larger than 1972 causing Bordeaux prices to fall in 1974. The shippers were now in trouble because their stocks of earlier vintages had run out so they purchased the 1972 vintage at any cost in anticipation of demand.
The wine boom started to fade in early 1975 as supply finally caught up with demand. The French wine industry responded to both inflated prices and Winegate by creating a Food and Wines of France organization. It promoted “French Wine Values” for appellation wines in the $2.50 to $5.00 bottle range. It was the second time in just three years that the French wine industry massively promoted their wines in America.
Nathan Chroman of The Los Angeles Times was pessimistic about the public relations method for creating wine drinkers. Instead of brand promotion he advocated encouraging people to taste wine, read books, and try good bottles. He felt the wine industry needed to go back to their “tasting rooms”.
By the Spring of 1975, the 1970 Bordeaux prices were lower than when they were first released. The shipping firm Austin Nichols had to dump the 1972 vintage at great loss. They had paid three times the amount compared to the 1970 vintage and accumulated several million dollars worth of inventory. There were management changes as a result.
Several writers recommended passing on the 1972s and only buying the 1971s at reduced price. For many merchants, they could not buy the 1973 and 1974 vintages until they freed up capital by selling through their inventory of 1972.
It was estimated that inventory in France reached 1 billion bottles mostly from Bordeaux. From this stagnant inventory of wine, another scandal soon surfaced. Merchants were re-labeling quality Bordeaux as common table wine to export to West Germany to qualify for a 10% export subsidy. The wines were then relabeled as quality Bordeaux before being shipped around the world.
Back in California, south of San Francisco, the Monterey wine region received wide coverage in the press. It appears to have exemplified the wine boom. There were just over 2,000 acres of vines in 1970 but there was soon a staggering 37,000 acres in 1975. First Paul Masson Vineyards and Mirassou Vineyards planted vines. They were soon joined by Wente. Then the Monterey Vineyard Company moved in with a significant presence involving some 10,000 acres of vines. The nearly 40,000 acres of vines meant that Monterey was larger than Napa and Sonoma combined.
Gerald Asher left the Austin Nichols importing firm in 1974, before the management shake-up, to become the president of the distribution arm of the Monterey Vineyard Company. This new company had, according to Frank J. Prial “pots full of money, huge acreage” and “almost overpowering publicity”. Dr. Richard Peterson, who was Andre Tchelistcheff’s successor at Beaulieu Vineyard, was the president and winemaker. The first 1,000 acres of vines were planted in 1971 and yielded fruit for the first batch of wines in 1974.
Promotion of the new wine occurred right away throughout the country. Gerald Asher attended a Monterey Vineyard Festival at the Four Seasons in New York City during April 1975. For this festival guests paid to taste all four wines with a dinner made from ingredients flown in from the west coast. Gerald Asher debuted the wines in Chicago later that fall.
Monterey was described as “on the verge of an explosion that will loose an ocean of wine onto the national market”. Monterey Vineyard was soon to be part of that ocean. Gerald Asher was in charge of selling the Monterey Vineyard wine through the marketing arm Monterey Bay Company. In 1975 he had some 35,000 cases of wine to sell. That number was set to increase by 100,000 cases per year until it reached 500,000 in 1980. This was surely in mind for Gerald Asher’s Monterey Vineyard was one of the 17 wineries that showcased their wines at the Barrel Tasting held at the Four Seasons in 1976.
With this boom in wine, articles on how to stage a wine tasting followed. The Los Angeles Times reflected its California locality by discussing all Chardonnay and all Zinfandel tastings in 1972. It also suggested a Californian Cabernet Sauvignon versus Bordeaux tasting as well as Californian Chardonnay versus Chablis tasting. Robert L. Balzer explored the origins of Californian Zinfandel by tasting it with Sangiovese from Tuscany. Over in New York City, Frank J. Prial wrote in 1975 that wine tasting had become a popular social event. He even attended Gerald Asher’s 1970 Bordeaux tasting which was held in an apartment.
Later in 1975, Frank J. Prial wrote of two tastings in New York that “offered rather convincing evidence that fine American wines can now hold their own…with France.” The first tasting compared eight red wines from Bordeaux, eight from California, and one from Rioja. The wines were not ranked but the NV Sebastiani, Cabernet Sauvignon was found particularly attractive by all five judges. This tasting was soon followed by one organized by Manhattan East chapter of Les Amis du Vin which pitted ten largely “rare and expensive” Chardonnay from California with Burgundy. The favorites from a different panel of five judges were the 1972 David Bruce, Chardonnay and 1972 Heitz Cellars, Chardonnay.
There was of course the most famous tasting of all, the bicentennial Judgement of Paris, held on May 24, 1976. Organized by Steven Spurrier it was first covered by George Faber in Time magazine. The coverage then spread to numerous American newspapers. However, two months before Steven Spurrier sent ripples across the Atlantic Ocean, Gerald Asher held his California Barrel Tasting. The slow acceptance of Californian wine amongst east-coast wine lovers was soon to speed up.
Up next: The California Barrel Tasting
This is the first in a series of posts surveying the history behind the MacArthur Beverages California Barrel Tasting and its predecessor Gerald Asher’s California Vintners Barrel Tasting
This spring I tasted the 2015 Ridge, Monte Bello, thus marking my seventh year tasting barrel samples of the famed Cabernet Sauvignon from the Santa Cruz Mountains. Ridge’s history with the MacArthur Beverages California Barrel Tasting runs back to the first tasting held in Washington, DC, on June 6, 1986. They were one of 15 Californian producers showcasing their 1984 vintages. This was the very first tasting where the Californian barrel samples were offered as futures. It was not, however, the first California barrel tasting held on the east coast. Some ten year earlier 17 Californian wineries each poured a pair of wines in New York City. Amongst the wines poured was the 1975 and 1974 Ridge, Lytton Springs, Cabernet Sauvignon.
Not only did the first California barrel tasting take place in 1976 but so did the Judgment of Paris. This French versus California tasting has long been held as the pivotal point in the post-Prohibition history of Californian wine. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the famous tasting held in Paris by Steven Spurrier. In celebration, a wealth of articles were published that continued the claim that this was the turning or launching point that forever changed the world of wine.
The Judgement in Paris certainly helped change the world of Californian wine on an international level. But as Steve Heimhoff notes, California had been building an “identity and momentum” for decades prior. We can be more specific than that. A particular momentum began in 1969 and was described at the time as the “wine boom”. This boom was fueled by an increasing population of coming of age baby-boomers who were interested in drinking wine. Not only were foreign wines consumed in greater quantities so were those of California. The resultant increase in California vineyard area and the creation of new wineries was only accelerated by sky-rocketing French wine prices that left consumers looking for alternatives.
The wine boom is what enabled the first California barrel tasting and the Judgment of Paris to take place in 1976. They occurred during a pivotal year in Californian history because newly planted vineyards were finally bearing fruit and new markets for the wine were needed outside of the state. Incredibly, 40 years later the barrel tasting still provide a constant platform for the general public to taste these wines.
The New York City Years
The First Annual California Vintners Barrel Tasting Dinner took place at the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City during March 1976. Nearly 200 wine enthusiasts paid $50 each to taste 34 wines over a 17 course dinner. Each winery brought both the 1975 vintage and an old vintage of the same wine. This selection resulted in 600 bottles of wine requiring 3,000 wine glasses. The glasses were used at least twice.
The dinner began at 7:30pm. Each wine was discussed by the winery owner or winemaker. These speeches overran the allotted times and table hopping guests clogged the aisles preventing timely table service. Attendees were instructed to remain sitting for the third intermission but the delays had already racked up. When Louis Martini introduced the crowd to his 1975 and 1970 vintages he began, “Good Morning.”
The tasting was organized by Gerald Asher, the English wine writer and wine distributor, who worked closely with Paul Kovi and Tom Margittai, co-owners of The Four Seasons. Seated at the high table with these three men were Joseph Baum, creator of The Four Seasons in 1959, James Beard, and Alexis Lichine. The original Four Seasons wine cellar was created by Joseph Baum, James Beard, and Alexis Lichine.
Alexis Lichine and James Beard were instrumental in the post-World War II development of the wine market in America. Together with Sam Aaron and Frank Schoonmaker, this group imported and educated the American public on European wines during the 1950s and 1960s. At the time of the Barrel Tasting the Four Seasons wine cellar reflected its classic beginnings as it was still deep on 1952 and 1953 Bordeaux vintages.
Paul Kovi loved wine, maintaining a staff of eight captains to help manage the 30,000 bottle cellar. The rise in popularity of Californian wines began in the late 1960s and Paul Kovi was one fan. American wine was a particular pride of his wine list, having stocked 80 different selections including 1968 and 1969 Heitz, Cabernet Sauvignon. It was a perfect that Gerald Asher would pair with The Four Seasons to host his Californian barrel tasting.
That the Californian barrel tasting was held in New York City was not solely the result of the natural curiosity of East Coast wine lovers. It was the result of a boom in wine consumption in America that began in 1969. This boom drove a year after year increase in Californian vineyard planting simultaneous with a run up in Bordeaux and Burgundy wine prices. When the Bordeaux market collapsed, the new Californian vineyards happened to begin yielding wine. There was battle for the American wine consumers by Californian and French interests which led to two French wine scandals.
Up next: The Wine Boom and Winegate
This May I attended the 31st California Futures Tasting organized by Andy Creemer of MacArthur Beverages. This event is sponsored by MacArthur Beverages for the benefit of The Addy and Bruce Bassin Memorial Cancer Research Fund. This year some some three dozen wineries poured 100 different wines at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Each winery generally brought a Cabernet Sauvignon based wine from the 2014 vintage, still aging in wood, and an older vintage such as 2013. There are exceptions as each year there is an increasing selection of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and other blends.
This year I attended both the afternoon and evening sessions. Despite spending a large amount of time tasting wine, it is impossible to get through everything in a meaningful fashion. I tried to balance new wineries and rotate through the veterans. The 2014 vintage was largely positive throughout California. The wines I tasted are not tannic monsters. Instead most of the wines offer plenty of flavor and supportive acidity. This made for the least palate fatiguing tasting of the last few years. You will find my tasting notes below. Please note that most wines tasted were samples. To order these and other wines please check out the California Futures page at MacArthur Beverages.
Arns Winery is located within a 160 acre estate of which only a small portion is planted with vines.
2012 Arns, Syrah
The nose is subtle with dark aromas yet leaves a fresh sensation. The creamy start moves to a core of racy, dark red and purple fruit. The wine is infused with glycerin and spice, seductive, and nice.
2012 Arns, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
A familiar seduction but with more greenhouse and more grip. In a sense the wine is lighter but well framed by fine, ripe tannic texture. It mixes in some baking spices and leaves a cool aftertaste.
2014 Arns, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
The subtle, dark nose is a touch rugged. The fruit is redder, mixing with vanilla, black tea, and a spicy finish. It is attractive but really needs time to integrate.
Banshee was started in 2009 by three friends who to make distinct wines. Katy Wilson is part of the winemaker team.
2014 Banshee, Pinot Noir, Marine Layer, Sonoma
This wine is tart with tightly rounded flavors supported by a lighter framed structure. Despite the youth there is a perfumed flavor towards the finish.
2014 Banshee, Pinot Noir, Tina Marie Vineyard, Russian River
The nose remained subtle and tight. The bright start brings dense, clean, red fruit flavors that take on a creamy edge as the wine expands. It becomes almost savory with some spice and supportive structure.
Barnett Vineyards was created by Fiona and Hal Barnet in 1983. Originally focusing on Cabernet Sauvignon wines the estate vineyards are located on steep terraces at the top of Spring Mountain located at 2,000 feet. Today they produce a variety of white and red wines with fruit sourced from estate and single-vineyard fruit.
2014 Barnett, Merlot, Spring Mountain
Ample fruit on the nose. In the mouth the savory, ripe fruit has no hard edges as it moves to a spicy middle. The weighty fruit persists through the end as does plenty of texture.
2014 Barnett, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa
The wine is rich and spiced but bears a touch more of a grapey, purple personality. The wine is rather ripe and forward with less obvious acidity. This wine is all about seduction topped off with creamy flavors.
2014 Barnett, Cabernet Sauvignon, Rattlesnake, Napa
There is a touch more red fruit mixing with the core of ripe, black fruit. Though seductive and enveloping in flavor there is tang and spiciness to keep it balanced.
Russell Bevan and Victoria de Crescenzo were inspired to produce wine after meeting Philip Togni, Bob Foley, Greg La Follette, and Kal Showket.
2014 Bevan Cellars, Chardonnay, Ritchie Vineyard, Russian River
The wine is aromatic with tart yellow fruit and toast. In the mouth is a creamy, rounded start with toast and some citrus notes. This is all about the seductive mouthfeel.
2014 Bevan Cellars, Pinot Noir, Petaluma Gap, Sonoma Coast
Rich varietal aromas. This is a very fruity wine of red then black fruit which shows grip and has a vein of acidity. The finish continues the ample fruit with baking spices and ripe tannins.
Chateau Boswell has been releasing wine since the 1979 vintage when Andre Tchelistcheff was the winemaker. Today they focus on Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
2013 Boswell, Chardonnay, Ritchie Vineyard, Russian River
The nose is slightly nutty with both yellow and white fruit aromas. The creamy, rounded, toasty start is seductive. This wine is all about the body with glycerin and fat. There is a hint of yeast and baking spices as well.
DONELAN FAMILY WINES
Donelan is a small family winery in Sonoma County which aims to express the terroir of their vineyard sites.
2014 Donelan, Two Brothers, Pinot Noir
Varietal aromas. There is a cool start of red and black fruit, a rich middle, acidity, and texture tannins. A core of tasty flavors carries through the end.
2013 Donelan, Syrah, Cuvee Christine, Sonoma County
A rounded start moves on to tart fruit then this youthful wine becomes inky and dense. The structure is supportive for aging.
2014 Donelan, Syrah, Cuvee Christine, Sonoma County
The nose is a little grapey. The rich flavors of ripe red and blue fruit have a lighter frame with less structure.
2014 Donelan, Syrah, Obsidian Vineyard, Knights Valley
There are tight flavors of blue and black fruit with fine grained tannins which make for a spicy, stone-flavored finish.
EMH Vineyards originated in 1999 when Merrill Lindquist purchased her estate. The Special Selection is produced using just a portion of the wine from the various barrels. This maintains the quality of the base wine.
2014 EMH Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Black Cat, Napa
The good aromas of cassis make way to flavors of licorice and herbs.
2014 EMH Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Special Selection, Napa
This wine stands up right away with dense flavors of tart red fruit, puckering acidity, and a touch of ink.
2012 EMH Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Black Cat, Napa
The tart red fruit takes on some black fruit in this tangy wine. I particularly like the grip. This is showing well in its youth.
2013 EMH Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Black Cat, Napa
The nose is perfumed. In the mouth are dense, lower-lying flavors of dark red fruit and black fruit. With good texture and a seductive nature, this wine is drinking well.
MARK HEROLD WINES
Mark Herold started working in the wine business as a Research Oenologist at Joseph Phelps Vineyard. After his own 1998 Merus he started a consulting business where he has worked with Kamen, Kobalt, and others. Amongst other vessels he employs concrete cubes and not eggs.
2012 Mark Herold Wines, Flux
The dense, tart red flavors of strawberry come to a tangy middle. The good fruit persists with the structure.
2012 Mark Herold Wines, Collide
A youthful, rugged nose is followed by tangy, drying berries in the mouth. The uncrushable fruit expands by the finish where the integrated structure bears out.
2013 Mark Herold Wines, Cabernet Sauvignon
The nose is pure and aromatic. With a cool profile, there is an ample core of fruit. It is showing well with the structure and acidity in balance.
2013 Mark Herold Wines, White Label
The brighter start soon makes way to some good, inky fruit, all framed by structure. Needs age.
2014 Mark Herold Wines, Flux
Young oak aromas on the nose. There are flavors of tart, red fruit and very fine tannins as the wine becomes drier towards the finish. Tight.
2014 Mark Herold Wines, Collide
The red fruit is clean and deep, standing up to the good dose of fine tannins. It takes on spices and leaves a dry, red fruit fruited finish.
2014 Mark Herold Wines, Brown Label
The nose sports herbs. This savory, herb infused wine leaves textured fruit on the tongue. It has an attractive mouthfeel.
Paul Hobbs Wines was founded in 1991 and produces small production wines from fruit sourced from the highest quality vineyards. Today he also produces wine in Argentina under the Vina Cobos label and additionally imports wines.
2014 Paul Hobbs, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Youthful fruit aromas make way to dense, similar fruit in the mouth. This savory wine has seamlessly integrated structure and the right amount of supportive acidity.
2014 Paul Hobbs, Cabernet Sauvignon, Nathan Coombs Estate
With more fruit on the nose there are flavorful, racy, purple flavors in the mouth which persist through the aftertaste. There is a slightly salty aspect. The lovely structure is firm but not overbearing as the wine wraps up with a spicy finish.
Keever Vineyards is a family winery located in Yountville.
2014 Keever, Cabernet Sauvignon Estate, Napa
Ripe fruit aromas mix with attractive, sweet greenhouse notes. In the mouth are rich, racy, mineral flavors that turn blacker towards the finish. This flavorful wine is supple at first before it firms up from the structure.
2011 Keever, Cabernet Sauvignon Blend, Inspirado
There are good aromas of mixed herbs and greenhouse. The wine is surprisingly mouthfilling with ripe and spicy flavors that are in no way heavy. The somewhat savory wine continues to expand with thick texture, ripe spices, and some softening structure.
The Jack Larkin estate is named after Sean Larkin’s son. The Cabernet Sauvignon is sourced from Pritchard Hills Melanson Vineyard which is farmed by John Arns. The Cabernet Franc is sourced from a family vineyard just north of Napa.
2014 Jack Larkin, Cabernet Franc
There is a subtle, grapey nose. In the mouth is enveloped with ripe blue fruit and strawberries. This sexy wine sports a lot of baking spices, less obvious acidity, and spicy finish of drying tannins.
2014 Jack Larkin, Larkin Red
The flavors are tautly coiled with spiced blue and black fruit, the right amount of acidity, and a black stony finish. A big wine.
MINER FAMILY WINES
Miner Family Wines was founded in 1996. They produce a wide range of wines using many vineyards. The wines are aged in underground caves.
2012 Miner, Oracle, Napa
This wine is linear, tight, and well-focused. Right now it is less forgiving and more structured.
2014 Miner, Oracle, Napa
The muted nose does not hint at the sweeter, fruity start. The spicy structure soon comes out as the wine fills the mouth with flavor and very fine tannins. There is acidity moving it along with an aftertaste of cocoa.
Pahlmeyer history begins when Jayson Pahlmeyer and his friend John Caldwell traveled to Bordeaux in 1972 where they acquired cuttings from five varietals. The Caldwell family owned a 55-acre parcel where they set about creating a vineyard. It took six years for the vineyard to be productive. The history is marked by amazing connections such as Randy Dunn’s period as winemaker, Bob Levy work with Chardonnay, and Helen Turley’s period as winemaker. Today Helen’s assistant Erin Green is now the winemaker.
2013 Pahlmeyer, Proprietary Red, Napa
The nose is subtle, not yielding much. In the mouth are tart, red fruit flavors that become puckering with a spicy, inky finish.
This wine is produced from vines on a ~6 acre vineyard located at 1,000 feet in elevation. The vineyard is west-facing so it receives the afternoon sun. There is only one tank so everything is blended in then fermented with indigenous yeasts.
2014 Peacock, Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain
This aromatic wine is accessible in the mouth with its almost inky, ripe black fruit. The fruit mixes with spices, both good acidity and structure, and an attractive herbal/spiced note. Quite approachable.
Priest Ranch wines are produced by Craig Becker of Somerstone Winery, drawing fruit from vineyards located throughout the 1,600 acre estate.
2014 Priest Ranch, Sauvignon Blanc
The nose is grassy with floral pastille aromas. The good acidity on the start brings a floral middle with tart flavor and more acidity on the sides of the tongue. There is a good mouthfeel with tart white fruit and a textured finish.
2014 Priest Ranch, Grenache Blanc
The brighter nose leads to an almost piercing start before the fruit comes out in the mouth. There are rounded edges to the wine with both weight and texture leading to peach flavors in the finish. It wraps up with some tang and tannins.
2013 Priest Ranch, Cabernet Sauvignon, Celestial Block
This tangy wine has a dense start with slowly building power and flavor through the finish. It culminates with salty, minerally, black fruit.
2014 Priest Ranch, Cabernet Sauvignon, Celestial Block
The cranberry accented nose makes way to a good tart flavors and fuzzily textured red fruit. The watering acidity moves the wine towards a finish of nice, coating ripe tannins.
2012 Priest Ranch, Coach Gun, Napa
This wine quickly builds a punch of flavor. With mouth coating tannins this young wine brings forth blacker fruit by the finish which pairs well with the cream and spiced aftertaste. This is a sense of minerality in this taut wine.
2014 Priest Ranch, Coach Gun, Napa
A more approachable wine with an herbal hint, cocoa notes, and a powerful, very fine structure. The dense black fruit is there for the structure to integrate with over time.
Ravenswood was founded in the 1970s by Joel Peterson. Though he began with Zinfandel he soon expanded to use Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Today he also produces blends reminiscent of wines from before Prohibition.
2014 Ravenswood, Icon, Sonoma
There are darkish aromas of rich fruit. In the mouth the good acidity moves the blue and red fruit flavors. The oak is supportive, coming out as fine dry tannins at the end.
2014 Ravenswood, Pickberry, Sonoma
The nose is subtle but the medium weight flavors are forward and mouthfilling. The good dark flavors exist with good acidity and gobs of tannin.
Relic began in 2001 by making a few barrels of Pinot Noir. Today they produce wine from many different varietals sourced from Napa Valley and the Sonoma Coast.
2015 Relic, Pinot Noir, Putnam Vineyard
Good nose with spices. The flavors are quick to expand in the mouth but are not heavy and supported by tart acidity. The fruit has good depth and a citric hint in the finish. Spicy aftertaste.
2014 Relic, The Prior, Cabernet Franc
Good fruit aromas mix with herbs and black tea. The dense fruit mixes with herbs before weaving in ripe texture in this savory wine. The herbs come back in the finish along with a mineral streak. It exhibits good power and eventually some creamy black notes.
2014 Relic, Artefact, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma
Savory, herbal aromas move on to low-lying, dense, sweet fruit in the mouth. This seductive wine has blacker ripe fruit with good, seductive texture. Though there is a strong dose of fine ripe tannins but the wine packs deep flavor to match it.
The Monte Bello vineyard was originally planted in 1886 in the Santa Cruz mountains. The vineyard fell into disrepair during Prohibition and was essentially abandoned in the 1940s. In 1949 eight acres of Cabernet Sauvignon were replanted with the rest of the vineyard following suit. Ridge continued the tradition of presenting two barrels samples.
2015 Ridge, Monte Bello, Santa Cruz Mountain
Aromas of cassis, florals, some greenhouse, and perhaps oak. This is a lively wine with great integration of the acidity. The textured purplish fruit builds towards the black fruited finish which then leaves persistent red fruit in the mouth. Fine drying tannins.
2014 Ridge, Monte Bello, Santa Cruz Mountain
Rather aromatic with flavors that follow the nose. The deep fruit and citric grip is a good match for the dose of tannins. The core of flavors shows good potential for the future.
2013 Ridge, Monte Bello, Santa Cruz Mountain
The dense, flavors of tart red fruit mix with some herbs. The flavors become deeper with extended air, showing fine harmony, good fruit and acidity.
La Rue was founded in 2009 by winemaker Katy Wilson. She produces Chardonnay and Pinot Noir sourced from vineyards on the Sonoma Coast. She also makes wine at Banshee.
2013 La Rue, Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Great varietal nose. The fruit weighs on the tongue with clean flavors that take on good acidity. There wine is lighter in weight with some toasty tannins. Needs time to open up.
2013 La Rue, Pinot Noir, Rice-Spivak Vineyard, Sonoma Coast
The nose bears low-lying, attractive musky red fruit. There is a more electric start of tart cranberry fruit and a creamy middle. There is a sense of lightness with more structure evident through the finish. Will certainly age.
Sanguis is the result of Matthias Pippig’s farming and winemaking efforts. His Loner series of wines are all single-varietal wines, two of which are sourced from the John Sebastiano Vineyard. This vineyard spans over 1200 feet in elevation. It is cool and always windy, so much so that rye grass is planted between the rows to control the wind. The vines were planted in 2007 and though they are only pruned 20-25% the yields are very low. For the Loner series of Chardonnay the fruit from the different vineyards is treated the same.
2013 Sanguis, Chardonnay Loner W-13a, Bien Nacido
A yeasty nose moves on to an effortless and ethereal start before roundted and subtly textured flavors drape the tongue. The acidity is there as the wine picks up interest from biking spices and lees. There is some dryness and good structure.
2013 Sanguis, Chardonnay/Roussanne Borrowed, Santa Barbara
Higher-toned aromas with a touch of rich, botrytis like influence. The dense start brings racy, complex, tropical fruit in the middle and white nuts in the end. It is gentle in a sense.
2013 Sanguis, Pinot Noir Loner R-13 Santa Barbara
The scented nose has tart aromas of berry punch. A softer start brings low-lying, complex red fruit, black tea, then blacker fruit flavors. The black tea and mixed herbs bring interest. It wraps up with drying structure for aging.
2013 Sanguis, Grenache Verve, Santa Barbara
This fruit forward wine is rounded with sweet strawberries and cream accented by spices. It is salty in the midpalate with dense textured fruit, perfumed finish, and spices galore. Very drinkable.
2013 Sanguis, Syrah Pilgrim, Santa Barbara
A good clean nose entices before the blue and black fruit. This is a rich wine with baking spices and structure packed in there. The fruit can handle it but there is a sense of heat. The spicy aftertaste climbs up the nose.
The fruit for the Esprit de Tablas is sourced from vines propagated from budwood cutting from the Chateau de Beaucastel estate in the Rhone. The 120 acre vineyard is certified organic. The fruit is fermented in open and closed stainless steel fermenters using native yeasts. The wines go into barrel then are blended and aged in 1200-gallon French oak foudres.
2014 Tablas Creek, Espirit de Beaucastel, San Luis Obispo
There is plenty of berry fruit on the nose. The rounded, tart red start is followed by pastilles and lots of strawberry flavor. There is texture, a good mouth feel, and very fine structure before the spicy aftertaste.
David Tate is the winemaker at Barnette yet produces small lots of wine under his own label using fruit from micro-vineyards.
2014 Tate, Cabernet Sauvignon, St Helena
There is a good nose of cassis and licorice. There is a ripe start but the acidity and structure are immediately supportive. This enveloping and generous wine finishes with baking spices and textured, ripe tannins.
Three Clicks is named on account of the first journalist, Harry Allen Smith, to legally drink alcohol after the repeal of Prohibition. He allegedly received a “three click” telegraph notifying him of repeal. The Grenache Blanc is sourced from Gary Branham’s vines at Rockpile. This area is known for its red wines so it took some convincing to get these vines planted. As such they were only planted several years ago and this is the first bottling from them.
2015 Three Clicks, Grenache Blanc, Rockpile Vineyard, Napa
Aromas of fruit punch on the nose. A tangy, tart start of citrus fruit comes off the tongue tip to bring a creamy, textured midpalate of tropical fruit. There is a good cut of dryness, texture, and acidity at the end.
Wayfarer Vineyard is the project of Jayson Pahlmeyer. The vineyard was planted in 2002 with the fruit originally blended under the Pahlmeyer label. It was in 2012 that the fruit was produced under the Wayfarer label.
2013 Wayfarer Vineyard, Fort Ross Seaview
The nose is aromatic with mulberries. In the mouth is a compact, darker start that soon fills the mouth with red fruit, stones, and black fruit all bound together. It takes on some cocoa, sweet tannins, and a mineral hint. This is a fruity, forward wine.
The deLeuze family have been producing wine since the first vintage of Pinot Noir in 1969. Since 1987, the winery has focused in on Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
2014 ZD Wines, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa
The acidity driven black fruit is well matched by the structure. There are hints of cocoa in the tannic finish. Quite a nice wine for aging.
2013 ZD Wines, Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Napa
The nose is a little deeper and meaty leading to a savory, dense wine. It exhibits good play between the black fruit and structure.
2013 ZD Wines, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa
This dense, black flavored wine becomes savory with great structure that is well integrated. There is a sense of electricity making this a compelling wine.
The notes are typed up and the pictures are selected. My post on the 2016 MacArthur Beverages 31st Annual California Futures Tasting will come out next week. In the meantime please enjoy this gallery of barrel sample labels.