Twelve years ago, importer and wine writer Gerald Asher inaugurated a series of dinners to debut and showcase California's most recent vintages in New York City. Now known as the California Vintners Barrel Tasting and transplanted from New York to the Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco, this year's dinner was held recently, featuring wines from the vintage of 1986 and a variety of older vintage counterparts.
In Europe, young wine is sampled at many local wine festivals that include singing and dancing. In Germany, for instance, from May to October, more than 600 villages along the Mosel and Rhine rivers will host festivals, which include local regional staples like sausages, breads and cheese. California takes a different, more studied, approach calculated to allow the comparison of young tastes with that of the mature.
Appropriately, the dinner began with a debut Champagne, Blanc de Blanc, Late Disgorged, by Iron Horse Vineyards. This is a splendidly austere sparkler, perhaps the winery's best ever, disgorged in December, 1986, after four years en tirage , thus allowing the cuvee a longer period on the yeast, resulting in crisp complexity. A well-done sparkler.
A good omen for the 1986 vintage is that many wines showed better than did older counterparts. Callaway's, Fume Blanc, 1986, although a bit fat and viscous, was soft and generous and an improvement over its 1983. Robert Pepi also presented a fine '86 with a semi-floral nose and more assertive fruit. The '83 here, however, was the better choice, a wine which is still available, reflecting greater fruit and nicely developing complexity.
Round and Rich
Chardonnays fared well. Sterling Vineyards, Diamond Mountain, 1986, and Buena Vista Carneros Estate, 1986, were superb. Requiring additional age, the Sterling was round and rich and a great representative of its Calistoga Diamond Mountain Ranch, whereas the Buena Vista showed similar richness in a clean, round, not overdone style, easily qualifying as its best ever. Both were superior to their 1983 wines.
Two other Chardonnays, Sonoma-Cutrer, Les Pierres and Cuvaison, Carneros, 1986, exhibited well, the former with ample richness of flavor, lean texture and decidedly good balance. Age will help.
Pinot Noirs are more difficult to evaluate. It was not difficult, however, to prognosticate the future of Hanzell, 1986, an apparent best-ever candidate, showing lovely, light, jammy elegance capable of aging well, indeed better than its 1981. Robert Stemmler, 1986, reflecting a cherry jam-like taste and showing a bit of wood, is not as elegant but has obvious ability to age and improve.
Calera's Jensen Vineyard, San Benito, 1986, showed a style and taste similar to its 1983, reflecting intense, strawberry jam-like flavors, in a California style that has performed well in competition. Santa Cruz Mountain, Jarvis Vineyard, 1986, usually in a big mode, showed greater finesse and lighter structure than customary but still reflected a decisively broad taste and style for which the winery has become known. The '79 showed much too much wood and made a dramatic contrast with the '86. On the whole, the Pinot Noirs are showing the kind of steady improvement that is winning fans and support for future successes.
As a group, the Cabernets were nothing short of remarkable. Robert Mondavi's Reserve, 1986, offered a minty nose, some wood in the taste, great density and flavor depth, as well as considerable tannin for complex aging. It compared well with the 1976, perhaps the best wine of the evening, showing heaps of mint and eucalyptus flavor and the capacity to continue to age into an even greater wine.
Those who enjoy a bigger Cabernet mode should look to Silverado Vineyards, Stags Leap District, 1986, for greater intensity and viscosity but in a huge, robust style overflowing with eucalyptus flavor. As it is with all such wines, the question is how well it will age, because these kinds of wines can mislead with bigness of style.
In a leaner, yet intensely rich, style is Laurel Glen, Cabernet, 1986, of medium body and a lighter structure than the others. Elegance and finesse are the goals with this wine, which apparently will arrive early from this tiny 35-acre vineyard located on the rocky slopes of Sonoma Mountain above Glen Ellen. A true boutique operation, the winery has been making considerable noise among Cabernet circles in recent years, beginning with its first vintage, the 1981, a silky, intense prototype of its elegant style.
Fine Minty Nose
Clos du Bois, Briarcrest, Alexander Valley, 1986, is a Cabernet in a big mode with a fine minty nose and assertive cherry flavor and a bit of wood showing. With five to seven years of aging, the wine will be exquisite and as good as the winery's 1981, which is showing elegantly but with still a bit of heat and tannin. While that wine may never come to high complexity, the '86 should.
The tasting ended on an extremely high note, not with the barrel sample of table wine but rather with a luxuriant California eau de vie, Williams Pear Brandy, made by St. George Spirits. This represents a brilliantly done pear taste that compares with the best of Europe. Made without any additional flavorings or color, this is a first-class effort. To add to its luster, it was a Gold Medalist at the 1986 Los Angeles County Fair Wine Competition.
A final note. When debut wines show well, as here, it speaks well of the vintage. That is precisely what happened but, of course, it is to be hoped that the reds will develop as well as initial tastes suggest. If they do, patient and wise consumers can look forward to some splendid wine drinking experiences.