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Posts Tagged ‘San Luis Obispo’

Young Loire and Mature Cali

Our most recent dinner with Sudip and his family continued the tradition of tasting Californian wines from the 1977 vintage.  While I deal with the older bottles, I put out the 2014 Xavier Weisskopf, Le Rocher des Violettes, Petillant Originel, Montlouis-sur-Loire.  This refreshing bubbly offers spiced flavors in a young frame.  I would recommend cellaring it until this winter at the least.

Rutherford Hill Winery was founded in 1976, just one year before the vintage of our 1977 Rutherford Hill Winery, Pinot Noir, Napa Valley.  It became a partnership of winemakers and growers who had previously sold off their fruit to other wineries.  The roots of the winery date back even earlier and was known for a time as Souverain of Rutherford.  The original Souverain Winery was founded by Lee Stewart who ran it until 1970 when he sold it to Pillsbury Co.  Pillsbury maintained the original Souverain of Rutherford in Napa Valley as well as a new winery in the Alexander Valley of Sonoma County.  When Pillsbury sold off its wine assets in 1976, Rutherford Hill Winery was born of Souverain of Rutherford.  This is a particularly flavorful wine, I would guess some other varieties were included with the Pinot Noir.  It is savory and dark flavored but it is a bit on the simple side with a short finish.

The 1977 Estrella River Winery, Zinfandel, San Luis Obispo is only the second time I have drunk a bottle from this estate.  I do not come across many bottles so I was happy to pick this one up from Reid Wines of Bristol, England.  If this seems an odd place to find the wine, this bottle came from John Avery’s cellar.  Avery’s Wine Merchants was founded in the 18th century and became famous for importing New World wines during the 1960s and 1970s.  Estrella Rivery Winery received many awards for its wines during the 1970s but was rather under the radar.  Check out my post Three Californian Wines from the 1970s for just a tiny bit more detail.

For this particular bottle, the label was a bit beat up and the fill was just below the neck so not ideal.  Fortunately, the bottle stink rapidly blew off and over the course of half an hour, it blossomed in the decanter.  At best, it is an old-school bottle with lively, cranberry flavors and sweet wood notes.  Incredibly, it will drink at its peak for several more years.

Both bottles of 1977 were finished off.  While not exciting, they were nevertheless enjoyable which I count as a success.

2014 Xavier Weisskopf, Le Rocher des Violettes, Petillant Originel, Montlouis-sur-Loire – $25
Imported by Vintage ’59 Imports. This wine is 100% Chenin Blanc with zero dosage.  Alcohol 12.5%. Spiced flavors with a racy vein. The firm bubbles are intertwined with spices and a touch of apple. It is balanced with fresh acidity that makes it refreshing. *** Now – 2024.

1977 Rutherford Hill Winery, Pinot Noir, Napa Valley
Alcohol 12.7%. It immediately offers dark and robust flavors. This bottle is in good shape with flavors evocative of a blend. It is savory and saline with bottle age reflected by the old leather and wood box flavors. It is ultimately a little simple and fades. ** Now.

1977 Estrella River Winery, Zinfandel, San Luis Obispo
Alcohol 12.5%. This benefits from half an hour of air becoming redder with sweaty notes and a spine of acidity. Cranberry flavors mix with cedar and sweet redwood. It is a mid-weight wine with old-school flavors. Pretty good! **(*) Now but  will last.

“There is no such thing as Round Hill”: 1974 Round Hill, 1970 LMHB, and 1978 Mastantuono

January 4, 2019 3 comments


Sickness and scheduling issues meant I was never able to host any tastings this holiday break. I did manage to meet up at Lou’s house for an impromptu tasting of mature wine.  I was given several bottles of 1970 Chateau La Mission Haut Brion, Graves from that odd DC cellar years back.  With ratty labels (the 1970 is still visible though) and good fill, the cork came out in good shape.  Just a brief bit of bottle stink soon blew off to reveal deep aromas.  It is deep flavored as well, yet also lifted, quickly showing fully mature flavors.  Equally good, the 1974 Round Hill, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley lived up to my hopes.

It is due to these two wines that I stayed at Lou’s for nearly five hours as we finished off both bottles.  Two years ago I mentioned Round Hill in the context of some old Ernie’s bottles I had opened.  Ernie Van Asperen ran a chain of more than 80 liquor stores in California.  He also operated a negocient business, purchasing up extra wine from wineries who bottled it for him under the Round Hill and Ernie’s labels.  Round Hill wines could be highly regarded and won medals at the Los Angeles County Fair.  Frank J. Prial, a judge at the fair, wrote in The New York Times that he found this “amusing because there is no Round Hill.”

As for what was in our bottle we do have some clues.  In 1980, the Underground Wine Journal wrote that the 1974 Ernie’s “Special Selection” Cabernet came from old Souverain stocks that were sold off in the 1970s.  In 1974, Souverain was sold by J. Leland Steward to a group of investors.  They in turn sold Souverain to Pillsbury Co. under which the new winery was constructed in Alexander Valley.  It was not a profitable deal, for Pillsbury sold off the Souverain winery and its assets in 1976.  Round Hill was founded in 1977.  That same year Frank J. Prial noted that wine from Sonoma Vineyard and Souverain were bottled under the Round Hill label.

There is a strong chance, then, that the 1974 Round Hill is actually Souverain.  Whatever it is, Ernie knew what he was doing for it is an excellent wine at the height of maturity.

I do love a good surprise and the 1978 Mastantuono, Zinfandel, Dusi Vineyard, San Luis Obispo County represents just that.  I refrained from any prior research so was quite impressed with the savory and saline profile of this full-bodied, red fruited wine.  Founded in 1976, Mastantuono is the fifth oldest winery in Paso Robles.  The Dusi Vineyard was planted in 1923 so even at the time, the Mastantuono was made from old vines.  The 1978 vintage was a hot year producing “intensely flavored” Zinfandel according to Robert Parker Jr. in The Washington Post during 1981.  This bottle is intense yet savory, lending interest as it reflects both the vintage and vineyard.  It lasted about two hours in a decanter before it started to fade.

The wines that evening were a treat!

1970 Chateau La Mission Haut Brion, Graves
Deep flavored with ripe hints and goof lift.  Additional notes of low-lying leather and minerals adds complexity.  The watering acidity weaves through the palate as the wine grips the sides of the gums, turning redder in flavor.  With air it offers up deep flavors of cranberries and other bright fruit.  **** Now but will last

1974 Round Hill Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Alcohol 12.5%.  A deep, black cherry color offers more pigment than the LMHB.  Immediately striking as medium-bodied with good fruit weight and rounded nature.  This wine is rich in flavor with no hard edges due to fully integrated structure.  It is dense and gravelly with minerals and grip by the middle.  It took half an hour to open up in the decanter, eventually offering big mouth feel and flavor for hours.  A touch of structure comes out in the end. **** Now but will last.

1978 Mastantuono, Zinfandel, Dusi Vineyard, San Luis Obispo County
Alcohol 12.5%. A fresh nose with an herbaceous hint.  A savory, salty start soon yields bright red fruit that is deep in flavor.  This is a medium to full-bodied wine with quite the weight to the fruit.  Flavors of candied berry and old leather mix with good watering acidity, actually zippy acidity.  A very solid wine.  The savory personality makes it stand out.  *** Now but will last.

Three Californian Wines from the 1970s

It took nearly one century for the wines of Mendocino County to become recognized for their quality. Grapes have grown in Mendocino County since at least 1880. The vineyards survived and perhaps even expanded during Prohibition as demand for home wine-making spread beyond San Francisco to the east coast. After Repeal grapes made their way to Napa and Sonoma Counties to be used in blends. It was not until the 1970s that the wines became recognized. This was first due to the efforts of Parducci and soon by those of the Fetzer family.

At our most recent dinner with Sudip and his wife Melanie, I brought up two bottles of Fetzer wine from the 1978 and 1979 vintages. We would first spend the afternoon tasting the wines in the living room where a fire burned for hours and a Mercury Living Presence reissue of Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 spun on the turntable. The 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon was produced from purchased fruit coming from Lake County. The 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon was sourced from the Home Vineyard originally planted by the Fetzer family in 1958.

It was a year prior, in 1957, that the lumberman Bernie Fetzer and his wife, moved their family of 11 children from Oregon to the sawmill region in Mendocino County some 120 miles north of San Francisco. Here the family purchased an abandoned 720 acre ranch where they found an old 70 acre vineyard. The family worked the land and in planting vines chose to include Cabernet Sauvignon, the first in the county.

As demand for varietal grapes reduced in the mid 1960s, the Fetzers began to sell grapes to amateur winemakers throughout the country. In 1968 the winery was bonded. The timing was impeccable. It is from this legendary 1968 vintage that Fetzer’s first Zinfandel earned a reputation which lasted for many years.

Nearly the entire family worked for the business. They constantly reinvested in the latest winemaking equipment, developed their own sales force, and sought expansion by purchasing fruit instead of land to develop vineyards on. They earned a reputation for producing pleasing, yet inexpensive premium wine. Even Robert Parker found the entire range “above average to very good” and priced below the “absurd” levels of other wineries. Eight years of nearly 20 percent annual growth in sales allowed them to avoid the cycles of the American wine boom which saw preferences oscillate between American and French wines. Fetzer went from being considered a small  winery to the 25th largest Californian winery in 1983. Volume rose from 2,500 cases in 1968 to half a million cases in 1983.

Fetzer built their reputation on red wines including Zinfandel, Petit Sirah, and Cabernet Sauvignon in part through winning medals at the Los Angeles County Fair. Bernie Fetzer planted Cabernet Sauvignon on the Home Vineyard against the recommendation of UC Davis. He did so because he valued soil and sun exposure before science.

Both bottles had fills where the neck meets the shoulder. The short corks were sound. The 1978 Fetzer, Cabernet Sauvignon, Lake County is mature and herbaceous. Despite rallying after half an hour by taking on some firmness it largely did not hold interest. The 1979 Fetzer, Cabernet Sauvignon, Home Vineyard proved different. There is both more fruit and body with integrated acidity that gave it a bit of zip in the end.

Several LPs and burning logs later we sat down to dinner. I brought out a third bottle of wine this time from the southern half of California. Like Mendocino, San Luis Obispo County has been home to the grape vine since the 1880s. It is the York Mountain Winery that was responsible for the wines of the region until the early 1970s. Zinfandel was their specialty but new money and the wine boom meant several enormous new vineyards were being planted by 1973.

These new vineyards were planted with Zinfandel but the focus appears to be on Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. Estrella River Vineyards was one of these new ventures.  It was founded in 1973 by Gary Eberle who went on to found Eberle Winery in 1979, co-found the Paso Robles Appellation, and recently return to Estrella.

Little is written about the early years of this winery but they were one of the new wineries to catch attention at the 1978 Los Angeles County Fair. Their 1977 Chardonnay won a gold medal. When one journalist visited the winery during the winter of 1979 he found the winery but no tasting room. It had not yet been built so with no wine for sale he had to purchase his bottles in town. The Estrella River Vineyard name soon made the pages of the New York Times when Frank J. Prial listed it as one of many award-winning wineries few people had heard of.

It is one of these passing references which caused me to originally pick up the 1978 Estrella River Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon. In perfect condition and again with a solid, short cork the wine first greeted me with an annoying amount of bottle stink. I moved on to find a surprising amount and quality of ripe fruit with fresh acidity. After half an hour the stink was still around, perhaps muted but unwilling to fully clean up. It is a shame as it is quite lively, sporting robust fruit in the mouth. It was ultimately Sudip’s favorite wine. I preferred the 1979 Fetzer, Cabernet Sauvignon, Home Vineyard for it is clean, balanced all around, elegant, and easy to drink.

1978 Fetzer Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Lake County
The herbaceous flavors mix with vintage perfume in this finely textured wine.  It is acidity driven, crsip and bright.  Though surviving the flavors are ultimately uninteresting before it falls apart.  Past.

1979 Fetzer Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Home Vineyard, Mendocino County
This wine was aged for 13 months in American oak barrels. Alcohol 12.3%.  There is good fruit and body with better integration of acidity.  It remains lively in the middle as polished wood notes come through in the finish.  It even has a little zip in the end.   It is more in the vein of elegant, clean fruit with good overall balance.  It did not fade over two hours.  *** Now.

1978 Estrella River Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, San Luis Obispo County
Alcohol 13.5%.  The bottle stink is strong at first but does lessen with air.  Some of that stink follows through in the mouth but there is also a surprising amount of mature, ripe fruit with quite the youthful grip.  The acidity keeps it lively throughout when it finishes with coffee and sweet cocoa flavors.  ** Now – 2020.


1) WINE: STATUS QUO 20 YEARS LATER, THE FETZER FAMILY Balzer, Robert Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Oct 30, 1988;
ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times pg. N38

2) Santa Barbara? It’s Part of Wine Country Now: Even Actors Get Into Grape Binge on Central Coast Cannon, Carl Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Jul 10, 1977; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times pg. E1

3) SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY: STATE HAS NEW GRAPE-GROWING REGION GRAPES CHROMAN, NATHAN Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Oct 18, 1973; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times pg. F18

4) VINTAGE YEARS TO COME: THE PURPLING OF MENDOCINO CHROMAN, NATHAN Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Nov 8, 1973;
ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times pg. F18

5) Coast Winery Bucks Trends: A Rapid Ascent For Fetzer Winery By THOMAS C. HAYESSpecial to The New York Times New York Times (1923-Current file); Dec 23, 1983; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times pg. D1

6) The Fetzer Line By Robert M. Parker Jr. The Washington Post (1974-Current file); Sep 20, 1981; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post pg. L1

7) Wine Talk: Little-known California wineries winners of many top awards. Prial, Frank J New York Times (1923-Current file); Aug 22, 1979; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times pg. C14

8) Bernie Fetzer: ‘Nonconformist’ With an Award- Winning Vineyard: Wine Notes By William Rice The Washington Post (1974-Current file); Sep 30, 1976; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post pg. E19

9) A Watch on the Wine Smith, Jack Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Feb 13, 1979; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times pg. E1

Two Californian Wines From 1999

I do not believe in only posting tasting notes about good wines.  By omitting any tasting note there is less information about that particular wine and an incomplete profile of my tasting preferences.  If I cannot find a review about a wine then I do not know if it was awful, strange, or so good that people are being secretive.  The Washington, DC area has a tremendous selection of wines and this exciting variety means that the various wine merchants may not have up to date knowledge or any knowledge about a particular selection.  Even quick internet searches may be unfruitful.  As a result the tasting notes in this blog will cover all of the wines that I drink, both good, awful, and past prime. 

These two wines were purchased last month from MacArthur’s.  The Philippe-Lorraine cost $20 and the Lane Tanner cost $18.  The Philippe-Lorraine is a decent buy for a fully mature Napa Cab but the lack of acidity distracted me a bit.  Avoid the Lane Tanner.

1999 Philippe-Lorraine, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
This wine is produced at Baxter Winery by Phil Senior and Phil Junior.  The wines are a tribute to maternal grandparents Philippe and Lorraine.  This wine started with a meaty nose combined with roast earth.  There were initial flavors of black fruits in this medium-bodied wine.  The flavors bordered on savory with chewy, ripe tannins.  There was not enough acidity so the flavors became soft as hints of stone came out.  The mouthfilling aftertaste revealed cedar, a bit of green blackcurrant, and some spice.  The flavors did grow with air.  I would venture that this bottle is just past its peak and is in gentle decline so drink up.


1999 Lane Tanner, Syrah, French Camp Vineyard, San Luis Obispo
This wine is 100% Syrah from the French Camp Vineyard which is located on a high-plateau in the mid-eastern portion of the county.  The grapes are aged for 12 months in 30% new French and American oak barrels.  One or two barrels were heavy char to give a “smoky-bacon fat smell” to the wine.  The goal is to produce an elegant, accessible wine.  This wine had volatile aromas on the nose that acted as a warning sign.  In the mouth there were flavors of sour fruits.  This wine was clearly over the hill and not pleasant to taste.  I corked the bottle and dumped the rest of my glass.