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Two old Special Selection wines from California


One evening this summer, Mannie and I sat outside with our families for dinner.  The theme for the meal was old Californian wine, a favorite subject of mine, both historically and gustatory.  Our first bottle, the 1969 Louis M. Martini, Special Selection California Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon was produced by  Louis P. Martini who took over management of his father’s winery the year before.  It was that same year, in 1968, that the Californian wine boom took off and wine production began to accelerate.  In the span of one year, from 1969 to 1970 the volume of table wine produced in California increased by more than 25%.  The new interest in wine extended beyond the staggering increase in consumption, Californian wines made inroads at the White House and Heublein held their first rare wine auction conducted by Michael Broadbent.

Californian Zinfandel rode the boom during which our second bottle of 1977 Montevina, Special Selection Zinfandel, Amador County was produced.  Zinfandel was to became widely discovered after Bob Trinchero released his 1968 Sutter Home, Zinfandel from old vines in Amador County.  Amador County Zinfandel would eventually be considered “the biggest, richest, spiciest, and most intensely flavored red wines” produced in America.  As a result, the price for Amador County Zinfandel skyrocketed from $68 per ton in 1968 up to $400-$500 per ton in 1980.  During this period there was also a small scene of skyrocketing alcohol levels.

The first post-Prohibition winery in Amador County is Cary Gott’s Montevina Winery.  Founded in 1970, it was a full-fledged professional operation by 1973.  During the late 1970s the wines were being sold and favorably reviewed  both on the west coast and the east coast.  Frank J. Prial’s 1979 suggestions on which wines to select at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City include “the great Montevina zinfandel” from 1974.  He would later describe the 1976 vintage as “big, intense wine without a lot of elegance but great fun to drink.”

The Montevina fruit came from 120 acres of vines, most over 30 years of age and many over 70 years of age.  They were dry-farmed which stressed the vines in the intense heat yielding “deeply colored, more concentrated juice”.  If the regular bottlings of Zinfandel reached 15%, the more tannic and alcoholic Special Selection were higher.  The 1977 Special Selection Zinfandel reached a reported 16%.  These were the levels achieved naturally.  The 1977 vintage occurred during a second consecutive drought year which when coupled with longer hang time only compounded levels.  Mt. Veeder’s late harvest Zinfandel reached 17.2% and Sutter Home made a late harvest Zinfandel in 1977 which reached 17% alcohol.  Bob Trinchero described it as a “very, very difficult wine to drink.”

By 1980, Bob Trinchero felt the fad “for these, big monster Zinfandels” died off.  The wines were no longer bargains due to gaining respect.  That same year Terry Roberts of The New York Times published a list of “complex and robust zinfandels” made by David Bruce, Mayacamas, Montevina, Ridge Vineyard, Sonoma Vineyard, and Sutter Home.  That is quite a list of names.

As for the wines the 1969 Martini is fully mature.  The flavors are still complex but the wine is gentle and shortening up.  The 1977 Montevina is a mouth full.  It does not have the complexity of the Martini but there is an interesting inky, mineral middle.  It is almost like a dry Port and will last for decades.  Neither wine blew me away but in reflecting the beginning and middle of the California wine boom I find them fascinating.

1969 Louis M. Martini, Special Selection California Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon
This wine is made from Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from Napa and Sonoma Counties. Alcohol 12.5%. The old-school, tangy red fruit is accompanied by leather and vintage perfume. The flavors dry up towards the shorter finish.  *** Now.

1977 Montevina, Special Selection Zinfandel, Amador County
Alcohol 15%. From the mouth filling start to the mouth filling finish this wine is substantial. It is almost thick in the mouth with an interesting mineral middle, inky nature, and baking spiced finish. *** Now but will last.

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