Friday, December 13, 2013

The Old California Wine

From the "What's old is new again" dept

Holidays are the perfect time to bring out the wines you’ve been saving for a special occasion. Food, relaxed times, friends and family; what are you saving it for? Many of us who have been drinking wine and collecting the stuff have these little time bombs waiting top go off in our glasses. Open some of them this year.

This week, after our recent trip to far North Texas, my pal Hank offered to open some of the wines we found at my pals place. It was a Petite Sirah (and Syrah) night with some of the regular guys that I taste with in a relaxed, un-academic setting. In other words we sit around, drink and eat and talk about women, not wine. The good news, I am the youngest guy in the group, the baby. Which is rare these days.

Petite Sirah has been one of my epiphany wines over the years. Two especially come to mind. This first was a 1975 Souverain Cellars Petite Sirah. Bill Bonetti, who made his fame as the white winemaker for Sonoma-Cutrer, was regarded as one of the best winemakers in California. Bill’s Italian roots drew him to red wines and Petite Sirah was a favorite among the early Italians who settled in Northern California wine country. Mendocino, Sonoma, Gilroy, Napa, all these areas had (and some still have) Petite Sirah. Bill’s ’75, jeez I had this wine back in 1980, at home, alone. I didn’t even have a proper wine glass, I had a tumbler. But the wine rose and rose and kept rising in the glass. The color, the aroma, the flavors, the length, the wine went on and on. And it was delicious; it was one of those nights a light went off inside me.

A couple of years later I opened up a wine I got from my retailer friend in North Texas, a non-vintage dated Petit Sirah from San Martin Winery in Santa Clara County. My research has me believing this was a 1968 vintage. I paid $2.99 for it. Bought two bottles. Drank one in the 1980’s.

Again, the Felice family (friends of our family) and the Italian influence. Yeah, old California was like living in Italy, but with better politics and surf. The wine, again, drew me into its velvet glove. Juicy. So Rich. And ultimately a delicious treat. 12% alcohol.

Earlier this week we opened three Petite Sirah wines; 1982 Inglenook Napa Valley Petite Sirah, 1980 Louis Foppiano Petite Sirah and 1980 Guenoc Petite Sirah.

All three wines had been stored well. All came from the same collection. The 1982 Inglenook and the 1980 Guenoc had to be decanted (cork disintegrated in both). The Foppiano came out in one piece. All three wines were heavily sedimented.

Petite Sirah, when young, can be inky and brutal. The tannins are searing and the wines, when made in the Old California style, really benefit from time. All three were very much alive, but they had reached a point when they probably weren’t going to improve.

The 1982 Inglenook was the most surprising to me. It had a little more of a “claret-style” in that the wine had developed leathery, saddle aromas and more three dimensional flavors. God, it was delicious.

The two 1980’s, a hot vintage in California, were more raisiny. That said, they were also quite tasty. The Guenoc, which was a combination of vineyards (Lake County 68%, Napa County 32%), seemed to have the edge in complexity over the Foppiano. The Foppiano, the one that had the cork come out in one piece, was fruity and still quite youthful. It was a great romp of a red wine. Made me feel 30 years younger.

Leonard Lopate, watch your back, dude
Speaking of youth, a shout out to Levi Dalton and his “I’ll drink to that” podcast series. I have been listening to lots of these interviews on my regular drives to Austin and back. Lots of flat road, not a lot of distractions and hence time to really pay attention to the words. First of all, this is a brilliant series, someone should get Levi into a publishing house and distill these interviews into a book (or series of books); they’d be a great read. But the voices, the inflection, Levi’s humor, would probably be lost. A recent interview he did with Peter Wasserman was very insightful. One thing he said really stuck with me. Peter related an early on conversation he had with Michel Lafarge, who told him, in essence, that one didn’t have enough experience with wine and wine tasting until one reached the age of 45. And then when one reached that age one realized that they really, even then, knew so little. In these years on earth, I feel that every day. When I meet with a young sommelier, the first thing I do is see how open their heart is. If they just want to load up their list with beefy Super Tuscans, we really don’t have a lot to talk about. Their palate is too raw, their spirit is sleeping. They have a brittle attitude and their wine lists reflect that. When one meets a young wine director and they are a sponge, that is a wonderful thing to see. And there are more and more of the open-heart sponges in my world than the unreachable know-it-alls. None of us know it all. Wine is constantly changing. So there. Anyway, thanks to Levi and Peter for that wonderful conversation they shared with me on the way to Austin, courtesy of the internets.

While on the subject of California wine, Jon Bonné’s book, The New California Wine is a breath of fresh air. I moved away from California on December 14, 1978. But in my heart, I will always be first a Californian. That’s just the pull that place has on me. And I cut my teeth on the Old California wines. So over the years as my tastes migrated to Italy and the Old World, I would look over my shoulder, back west and have a bittersweet nostalgia for the place and the wine. Jon Bonné has lit a fire in my heart again for California wines and his book is a must read. I have poured through a ton of books on California wines and I haven’t been as excited as I have about this one. And the new wines coming out of California are right up my alley. Bravo Jon!

Elaine is also a very talented artist
That said, one should also peruse regularly the website of Elaine Chukan Brown,, as a rolling celebration of the wines Jon Bonné had written about. Elaine has the energy of three people and her arrival to the wine world has been a welcome addition. I really like her non-linear view of things and think she is a voice that has a great future, should she decide to stick with it.

More to come. But this is December and we have two weekends before the big day arrives. So back to work, case cutter in one hand and wine opener in the other.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Marco Castagna said...

The ghost of Lillie Langtry was probably smiling at you through that 1980 Guenoc Petite Sirah. We both like them very much. Marietta, Writer's Block and Mettler being some of our fav's.

TexaCali Ali said...

I've had more than my fair share of Cali wines from the 60's and 70's this year - 100% all stored properly over the years and still showed their beauty. What a gift! And about Jon's book - I share your enthusiasm, it has stirred up a feeling that I had 15 years ago when first bitten by the wine bug. An exciting time for California wine and it's soldiers for sure. Cheers Alfonso!

Anonymous said...

My fondest wine "memory" remains drinking 1977 Burgess petit sirah from magnum with Tom Burgess at a tiny boîte In the Marina in SF
I can still remember the viscosity and lushness coupled with the power of the wine, itself.

David Berk

Anonymous said...

Nice post. I get nostalgic too about my taste in wine years ago, in the beginning. I also really enjoy aged petite sirah. If you appreciate this kind of wine... Track down some aged 100% petit verdot. Most wineries use it just for blending, because it takes so much bottle aging to make it drinkable. Hard to find, but some of my most memorable wine has been 10-20 year old 100% petit verdot.

J Rael said...

I, too, am a California transplant to Texas. And I often miss my homeland. But this article has quite sparked my interest in your writing. I will be very interested to follow it in the future.
I just bought a couple of 1981's as a Christmas gift for my dad and I; one from Columbia Valley and a Bordeaux. Quite interested in what will come from them.

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