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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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 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.

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.

Top values from Bordeaux: Marsau and Clos Marsalette

Phil at MacArthur Beverages recommends the two wines featured in this post and so must I.  The 2015 Chateau Marsau, Cotes de Francs is a highly mineral, savory wine with an attractive nose of herbs.  It is a top value at $22, offering both personality and the ability to age for several years.  For me, the 2014 Clos Marsalette, Pessac-Leognan is all about satisfyingly deep aromas and supple, dark flavors.  This may be a forward wine but it still has tension.  It is the sort of wine I want to drink glass after glass of and worth every bit of $25.

2015 Chateau Marsau, Cotes de Francs – $22
Imported by MacArthur Liquors.  This wine is 100% Merlot.  Alcohol 14.5%.  The nose of herbs evokes sage and thyme.  In the mouth there is a savory edge to this highly mineral wine.  There is a focused vein or core of ripe and dense black fruit.  There is  subtle perfume in the end with a cool, zippy finish.  The supportive structure leaves ripe, gum coating tannins and a spicy note.  It has strong personality!  ***(*) Now – 2025.

2014 Clos Marsalette, Pessac-Leognan – $25
Imported by MacArthur Liquors.  This wine is a blend of 60% Merlot, 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2% Cabernet Franc fermented in wooden and concrete vats then aged for 18 months in 40% new oak.  Alcohol 13.5%.  A good nose of deep aromas.  In the mouth this is dark with licorice and cassis, a bit gravelly with tense freshness.  With air it is decidedly dark fruited with cassis and a eucalyptus/greenhouse hint.  The tannins are present yet completely integrated.  It takes on a cooler tilt with air.  This is a very satisfying, supple wine to be drunk now.  ***(*) Now – 2023.

New selections from Day and Ojai

The pair of wines in this post were recently recommended by Andy at MacArthur Beverages.  The 2016 Day, Zinfandel, Sonoma County is a recent project of Ehren Jordan.  It is a pure style of wine which could be called elegant for Zinfandel.  I would drink it as a refresher over the next summer or two.  The 2014 The Ojai Vineyard, Grenache, John Sebastiano Vineyard, Santa Barbara County offers up a bit more complexity.  Given the age, I was a bit surprised that this is a serious wine in need of several more years in the cellar.  While it is of interest now, you will be best served by waiting.

2016 Day, Zinfandel, Sonoma County – $27
This wine is a blend of 95% Zinfandel and 5% Petite Sirah. Pure framboise (jelly!) and other red fruits with an edge of acidity. The flavors sharpen by the finish where it becomes tart, almost tense with a little spice.  A clean, fresh, almost elegant rendition of Zinfandel.  *** Now – 2021.

2014 The Ojai Vineyard, Grenache, John Sebastiano Vineyard, Santa Barbara County – $33
This wine is 100% Grenache.  Alcohol 13.5%. Dense with structure that is intertwined with the fruit. The textured, dry feeling in the mouth morphs into fine, almost bitter tannins by the finish. The wine is a touch savory with dense flavors of red and black fruits, firm acidity, and a pinon note. ***(*) 2021-2026.

Impressive Lirac from Mordoree

The 2016 Domaine de la Mordoree, La Dame Rousses, Lirac is a good wine from Lirac, a bit strong with some of the appellation’s hardness. However, Jenn and I soon moved on to and stayed with the 2016 Domaine de la Mordoree, Reine des Bois, Lirac.  I do not think I have previously tasted a Lirac this good.  The amount of flavor, depth, and balance are more akin to Chateauneuf du Pape.  You certainly will not confuse it for CdP but this wine is contemporary Lirac at a new level of quality.  I bought my two bottles at MacArthur Beverages.

2016 Domaine de la Mordoree, La Dame Rousses, Lirac – $22
Imported by Kysela Pere et Fils. This wine is a blend of 50% Grenache and 50% Syrah. Alcohol 14.5%. The good, dense ripe fruit of blue and black fruit has an intense edge. There is strength in this wine through the baking spiced and structured finish. It is best drunk in one go. *** Now – 2024.

2016 Domaine de la Mordoree, Reine des Bois, Lirac – $40
Imported by Kysela Pere et Fils. This wine is a blend of 40% Syrah, 30 Grenache, and 30% Mourvedre.  This has slow building depth with a plummy middle and finish of dark, concentrated berries. It is not intense like La Dame Rousses, rather it offers ample, balanced floral and creamy flavors. The tannins are ripe and impeccably integrated providing unintrusive support.  An impressive wine from Lirac. ****(*) Now – 2029.