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Napa Valley ranking in the world?

I was sent a Wall Street Journal article about Bill Harlan (from 2012), who is certainly a premier Napa figure and a very interesting guy. I'll insert a link below.

One statement really caught my eye. Near the beginning of the article Harlan says:

""This area has the potential to be a national treasure," he says, "of someday being recognized as one of the finest wine-growing regions in the world. That's why we're here and not somewhere else."

I realize that I've gotten into some rather dicey exchanges here when comparing old world and new world perspectives, but I'd really like some thoughts on his apparent placement of Napa Valley as NOT a national treasure YET, and SOMEDAY being recognized as "one of the finest wine-growing regions".

Have at it!


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  1. Well if like much of Burgundy and Bordeaux, it means over priced and over praised, someday is in the rearview mirror.

    1 Reply
    1. Bill was "out-of-date" when he made that statement. Napa Valley -- the region, not necessarily the AVA -- has LONG been recognized as "one of the finest wine-growing regions in the world." That said, I think something must be said re: potential. IMHO, the finest wines of the Napa Valley have yet to be produced.

      I am not speaking of wine's ever-increasing quality (e.g.: wines from Lodi are much better today than ever before; so, too, the wines from the Languedoc, Chile, and South Africa, etc., etc., etc.). Rather, Napa has been making wine for only a relatively short period of time after several "re-starts." What happened in the 19th century (the 1st Wave) was lost to Prohibition. What happened in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s (2nd Wave) was largely an attempted continuation of the 1800s. The first brand-new-from-the-ground-up winery to be built after Prohibition was Louis M. Martini in 1933-34; the second was the Robert Mondavi Winery in 1966, and with it came the 3rd Wave.

      Since the late-1960s, California in general, and Napa in particular, has experimented with varietal wines of various types, with "food wines," with proprietary wines of various types, with harvesting at "physiological maturity" rather than by-the-numbers (think "Parkerized wines," though let me quickly add that's unfair and not meant to be a blanket statement). They have experimented with different types of yeast, different types of oak, different fermentation temperatures and duration of maceration. They have experimented with different trellising systems, different yields, different pruning techniques, and pest control. The list goes on and on . . .

      My point is that the California wine "industry" -- while still based on a more industrial model rather than an agricultural one -- is still learning what to do. This is not to suggest that, one day, all experimentation will stop; far from it! Rather, we are still in a largely experimental period overall -- albeit less experimental than, say, in the 1960s or 1980s.

      For example: in 1982, there were 375 acres of White Riesling planted in Napa County; as of 2013, there were only 133 acres. In 1982, there were 17 acres of Syrah, but by 2013, it was up to 983. In 1982, there were 4,455 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon planted; by 2013, 19,812. (In 1982, the TOTAL plantings in Napa County were 19,421; in 2013, 45,990 acres.) The size of the county hasn't changed, but the acreage planted sure has! It has not only more than doubled, but the variety of grape varieties has been fine-tuned as people discover which variety does best where.

      1 Reply
      1. re: zin1953

        Certainly agree with what you have written, Jason, and thanks for posting it. Europe has quite a head start on Northern California when it comes to agriculture; but, N. California has better weather. So, as we catch up on the viticulture, watch out. I was impressed when, at the end of the artical, Harlan indicated he wanted to produce a red wine flavor that was new to the world. Hope he or his children are successful.

      2. sounds to me like Bill Harlan completely discounts the Judgment of Paris AND the follow-up in 2006.

        19 Replies
        1. re: ChefJune

          Respectfully, I disagree. One tasting doesn't prove anything; nor does two. So while I am in no way discounting the IMPACT of the "Judgement of Paris" -- which was HUGE -- neither do I believe for a moment that the results of the tasting *proved* that California is the equal of France.

          What was proved (as opposed to demonstrated) by the Judgement of Paris was that these wines were preferred over those wines by this group of tasters. Other wines would have yielded different results. So, too, would other tasters.

          What was demonstrated (as opposed to proven) by the Judgement of Paris was that the world could not afford to overlook California wines in general, and Napa wines in particular . . . though I still prefer the Santa Cruz Mountains. ;^)

          1. re: zin1953

            "What was proved (as opposed to demonstrated) by the Judgement of Paris was that these wines were preferred over those wines by this group of tasters. Other wines would have yielded different results. So, too, would other tasters."

            If the discussion buys "ranking" as the premise, Who is ranking is the answer all day long.

            If the parrot isn't dead, it's pining for the fjords, stunned, . . .

            1. re: zin1953

              The 1976 tasting proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the best California wines were not as easy to distinguish from great French wines as almost everyone had assumed. Mike Grgich might have been the only person who wasn't surprised.

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                Posted ca midnight 8-9July14: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/9811...

                "The 1976 tasting proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the best California wines were not as easy to distinguish from great French wines as almost everyone had assumed. Mike Grgich might have been the only person who wasn't surprised."

                The latter speculation ("might have been the only person not surprised") is latter-day mythos, already discredited in the major 1980s book on the subject of California wine as I earlier mentioned in this thread.

                It may be a lost cause to keep pointing out the following in the face of Hollywood and pop-culture, but (a) the 1976 Spurrier tasting was NOT the first clear demonstration that expert blind-tasters preferred some of the best California wines to some great French counterparts -- it was, rather, the first such demonstration to get the notice of Time magazine, and basically the last, too; that momentary interest from mainstream media led to today's disproportionate public awareness of the 1976 tasting; (b) "almost everyone" above excludes many people following the development of serious California wines in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, including people writing at the time; (c) the published record of all this is, and always has been, available to anyone interested enough to read up on it -- that's how I know about it, for instance. That record is, in fact, the standard, authoritative story of California wine history.

                Just not the decades-later Hollywood or MSNBC or Wikipedia take.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  Robert? No offense meant, but that's bull$#|+ -- for so many reasons!

                  1. It didn't "prove" anything; you know just as well as I do that a) another group of tasters with the same wines would have provided different results; and b) the same tasters with the same wines on another day would have provided different results. This variation has been demonstrated time and time again by universities across the globe, including UC Davis, CSU Fresno, and Cornell, as well as universities in France, Germany, Australia, and on and on and on. Indeed, Steven Spurrier has been quoted as saying, "The results of a blind tasting cannot be predicted and will not even be reproduced the next day by the same panel tasting the same wines." See http://www.liquidasset.com/tasting.html (among others).

                  2. No one in the California wine trade was surprised; we ALL knew CA wines could more than hold their own. Many people in the British wine trade, too, were not surprised, as California wines already had a reasonable following there. What *was* surprising was the seeming one-sidedness of the results, not the results themselves.

                  3. If you look at the raw data, Château Montrose received FIVE 1st place votes from the 11 judges; Château Haut Brion received TWO; Château Mouton Rothschild, Ridge Monte Bello, Heitz Martha's, and Stag's Leap each received only ONE vote for 1st.

                  4. As Steven Spurrier told me in August 1977 prior to a Bollinger RD vertical tasting held at his Cave Madeline, "I knew California would come out on top. I 'rigged' the tasting."


                  1. re: zin1953

                    What gets me (reading avidly about all this over the years) is how the 1976 tasting's public perception has shifted and even been exploited ever since.

                    It had its moment of popular attention at the time, then the public moved on to the next amusement (Abscam, or President Carter's "image consultant").

                    Wine professionals soon put the 1976 into perspective, even aside from the randomness issue of single tasting events.

                    It was soon overshadowed internationally by a larger, "much more informative" such comparative tasting in France, which caused even greater commotion in that country, but which US mass media ignored (the Wikipedia entry on the 1976 tasting doesn't even mention it, incredibly). In the epic 1984 California-wine overview book, Bob Thompson's chapter on critical appraisals discredited the popularly perceived "novelty" of the 1976 results and largely put the topic to rest in major writing. It was basically forgotten then for 20 years, outside of reference books.

                    Then George Taber, author of the 1976 "Time" article (who has since been accused, unjustly I think, of building his whole career on that one event) published his 2005 book expanding on the original article. The book was promoted; a 30-year reenactment was announced; and hordes of younger journalists, who'd never before heard of Spurrier or any "judgment of Paris" -- and who certainly hadn't bothered to learn anything about the history of other comparative tastings -- resuscitated the long-debunked "surprising," "first-ever comparison" myth and ran with it around 2006, achieving its current new lease on life. Despite some of us pointing out the easily verified facts to some of them.

                    1. re: zin1953

                      The California reds as a group did not come out on top. The Stag's Leap beat Mouton by 1/20 of a point. Ridge came in fifth and the other four were at the bottom.

                      I'm quite certain any similar group of expert French tasters comparing a similar group of wines (which on the California side would have meant pretty much the same group of wines) would have had more trouble identifying the California wines than they expected.

                      That was more about the inexperience and arrogance of the French than about the California wines themselves.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        " That was more about the inexperience and arrogance of the French than about the California wines themselves."

                        Then how do you explain the similar, "much more informative," but US-media-ignored results in the Gault-Millau "Wine Olympiade" three years later, OR, that tastings in various countries had been producing similar results for years?

                        1. re: eatzalot

                          After the wake-up call of the 1976 tasting nobody was so surprised.

                          Whatever other tastings you're referring to weren't similar. The Stag's Leap and Chateau Montelena were both wineries' second vintages. Tchelistcheff, Lee Stewart, and Mondavi (the winners' mentors) had been making good wines for a while but those remained unknown internationally.


                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            "Whatever other tastings you're referring to weren't similar."

                            Robert, would you please at least learn more real history of this subject before posting characterizations like that? To start with: history of comparative tastings in the major book I keep mentioning (which you appear unfamiliar with although it is maybe the most important single source in print on California wine). Then come back and talk about what was or wasn't "similar" in tastings both before and after 1976. ("Whatever other tastings" indeed.)

                            The 1976 tasting caused a brief sensation, then it became part of a larger context well analyzed by Thompson in the 1980s, and pretty much forgotten. Other journalists periodically rehashed it to new readers, as in the Asher you linked.

                            I am trying to point out more context, for people who do not know it. The full record shows that folks only perceive the 1976 tasting again TODAY as such a unique a "wake-up call" thanks to the sensationalizing and myopic re-publicity that the event received again around 2006.

                            1. re: eatzalot

                              You have an odd habit of picking out one old and out of date book, making it out to be the preeminent authority, avoiding mentioning the title, and never quoting directly. If you think some tastings before 1976 woke the world up to the quality of California wines, stop bluffing and name them.

                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                I often cite standard sources prominent over the years and known to many well-read CA wine enthusiasts. I cited the 1984 UC-Sotheby tome explicitly earlier in this thread to anyone interested, more than once, and have even quoted wording from it explicitly. That short reference just now (the latest in this thread) is enough to easily find it, and many people who already know of the book will recognize it under the "UC-Sotheby" shorthand. Most wine writers and much of the trade (not *I*) regarded it as the major 20th-century work on California wine -- the 44 authors were most of the experts in the field. It is less "old and out-of-date" (!) than the 1976 tasting. (If you don't know about all this already, please don't blame me.)

                                The larger point: I've touched on some well-documented realities, accessible to anyone else willing (as I did) to do the WORK of reading up on them -- even, if should come to that, doing just a little more research to learn what are the major California wine books of each era (there are several such). "Proving" things to people while standing on one foot isn't what this is about.

                                1. re: eatzalot

                                  I probably do know it already, I just have a different interpretation than you do. It's impossible to tell since you don't say whatever it is you mean.

                            2. re: Robert Lauriston

                              1) Yes, that's why BV and Robert Mondavi wines were never heard of, let alone sold in Britain . . . and why I never saw a bottle of Souverain or Hanzell on European wine lists . . . .

                              2) The fact that SLWC and Montelena were only in their second vintages means nothing, Robert. Both had great grape sources and experienced winemakers . . . Are you seriously suggesting that one can only produce a great wine after 200 years?

                              1. re: zin1953

                                A wine that did not yet exist could not have been entered in the tasting. Take the Stag's Leap off the list and the results look very different.

                                The 1976 tasting came as no surprise to anyone because those French experts were all familiar with BV, Charles Krug, Hanzell, and Souverain?

                          2. re: Robert Lauriston

                            If you use rank scoring (i.e.: a 1st place vote equals 1 point, a 10th place vote equals 10 points; the wine with the fewest points is the "winner), rather than base things on a 20-point scale, the results are as follows:

                            1. Château Montrose -- 33 points
                            2. Stag's Leap Wine Cellar-- 34 points
                            3. Château Mouton-Rothschild -- 37 points
                            4. Château Haut-Brion -- 44 points
                            5. Ridge Vineyards -- 52 points
                            6. Heitz Cellars -- 67 points
                            7. Château Léoville Las Cases -- 68 points
                            8. Freemark Abbey -- 73 points
                            9. Clos du Val -- 74 points
                            10. Mayacamas -- 75 points

                            Note: the minimum possible score (i.e.: if all 11 tasters ranked the same wine their 1st choice) was 11 points; the maximum, 110.


                            The original scoring was based upon the (then commonplace) "modified 20-point scale." The results were as follows:

                            1. 14.14 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars
                            2. 14.09 Château Mouton-Rothschild
                            3. 13.64 Château Montrose
                            4. 13.23 Château Haut-Brion
                            5. 12.14 Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello
                            6. 11.18 Château Leoville Las Cases
                            7. 10.36 Heitz Wine Cellars Martha's Vineyard
                            8. 10.14 Clos Du Val Winery
                            9. 9.95 Mayacamas Vineyards
                            10. 9.45 Freemark Abbey Winery

                            Keep in mind, too, that according to the "powers that be" at UC Davis a score +/- 1.5 is within the margin of error (i.e.: statistically the same).

                            That said, anyone familiar with the 20-point scale knows it's virtually impossible to score below 10 -- just as with Parker's infamous 100-point scale, it's virtually impossible to score below 50. And yet, some of the judges gave wines scores of "2" and "3" out of 20 points. I have NO IDEA how they did that!

                            Here are the range of scores (lows and highs), from the 20-point scale:

                            1. Stag's Leap Wine Cellars -- 10 to 16.5
                            2. Château Mouton-Rothschild -- 11 to16
                            3. Château Montrose -- 11 to 17
                            4. Château Haut-Brion -- 8 to 17
                            5. Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello -- 7 to 15.5
                            6. Château Leoville Las Cases -- 8 to 14
                            7. Heitz Wine Cellars Martha's Vineyard -- 2 to 17 (!)
                            8. Clos Du Val Winery -- 2 to 16.5 (!)
                            9. Mayacamas Vineyards -- 3 to 14
                            10. Freemark Abbey Winery -- 5 to 15

                            One more comment in the Food for Thought Dept., from the paper I cited above:

                            >>> It is also useful to consider how successful the judges were in appraising the wines. One measure of the success of a judge is the extent to which an individual judge's ranking is a good predictor of the group's ranking (where the group's ranking excludes the particular judge in question.) By this measure the judges would be ordered as follows (from best predictor to worst): A. de Villaine (.70 correlation), J.-C. Vrinat (.65), Ch. Millau (.61), Steven Spurrier (.47), Pierre Brejoux (.46), Ch. Vanneque (.42), Odette Kahn (.29), and Raymond Oliver (.25). Ironically, the preferences of the remaining judges (Dovaz, Gallagher, and Tari), two of whom were French, are unrelated to the group preference. <<<

                            1. re: zin1953

                              Each judge was free to score however with a maximum of 20 points. They weren't using the UC Davis 20-point system or any particular system.

                          3. re: zin1953


                            I wrote above
                            >>> 3. If you look at the raw data, Château Montrose received FIVE 1st place votes from the 11 judges; Château Haut Brion received TWO; Château Mouton Rothschild, Ridge Monte Bello, Heitz Martha's, and Stag's Leap each received only ONE vote for 1st. <<<

                            That was incorrect, as well as misleading in that the judges did not vote (rank) the wines; they only scored them on a 20-point scale.

                            In terms of being incorrect, all I can say is that I was in a hurry this morning, and I failed to take into account tie scores (i.e.: one judge could have more than one 1st place wine). I apologize for the error. Here, then, is the actually number of first place rankings for each wine (i.e.: the highest point score from a judge on the 20-point scale):

                            Château Montrose -- 5
                            Château Haut-Brion -- 3
                            Stag's Leap Wine Cellars -- 3
                            Château Mouton-Rothschild -- 2
                            Ridge Vineyards -- 2
                            Freemark Abbey -- 1
                            Heitz Cellars -- 1
                            Mayacamas -- 1
                            Clos du Val -- none
                            Château Léoville Las Cases -- none

                            What about last place "votes" (i.e.: lowest point scores)? Here are those figures:

                            Château Montrose -- none
                            Château Léoville Las Cases -- none
                            Stag's Leap Wine Cellars -- none
                            Château Haut-Brion -- 1
                            Heitz Cellars -- 1
                            Château Mouton-Rothschild -- 1
                            Ridge Vineyards -- 1
                            Freemark Abbey -- 3
                            Mayacamas -- 3
                            Clos du Val -- 3

                            So, if you just look at the number of "firsts", and subtract the number of 'lasts", you get:

                            1. Montrose (5-0=5)
                            2. Stag's Leap (3-0=3)
                            3. Haut-Brion (3-1=2)
                            4. Mouton (2-1=1)
                            4. Ridge (2-1=1)
                            6. Heitz (1-1=0)
                            6. Léoville (0-0=0)
                            8. Freemark (1-3= -2)
                            8. Mayacamas (1-3= -2)
                            10. Clos du Val (0-3= -3)

                      2. I have lived in France for 12 years now. I drink French wine every night from all corners of the country, and I am amazed at how little it costs me to drink good wine every night. For the money I don't think you can beat French wine.

                        However, I come to California for a few days every year, and I am astounded at how wonderful California wine has become. It's not cheap, but it has to be #1 in the world today.

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: collioure

                          I agree with your first paragraph; not sure I agree with the second . . .

                          1. re: zin1953

                            Jason, you have it all there now. The wines I drink in California every summer are exquisite and we usually taste at one vineyard too. It wasn't that way 30 years ago.

                            1. re: collioure

                              The wines I drink in Spain and in Portugal every time I visit are exquisite, too, and it wasn't that way 30 years ago, either . . . neither was that way in France in 1977 (for example) . . . so, I have it all on the Iberian Peninsula, or in Western Europe . . . .

                              For me, the Bottom Line (as it has ***always*** been) is that California makes the BEST California wines in the world! Spain produces the best Spanish wines in the world, and France -- well, no one makes French wines the way they do in France!

                            2. re: zin1953

                              I think it's a decent argument that Napa is *one* of the prime wine-producing regions.

                              But #1? I hope we never actually name "the best" -- because it's not all about volume...and there are too many variations -- reds, whites, varietals, vintages, terroirs -- to ever be able to choose one region over another as "the best".

                              (I'm really getting tired of the phrases "the best" and "#1" -- in everything, not just wine -- because they are arranged simply as who fits an arbitrary set of qualities chosen by a limited set of opinions)

                          2. Harlan sounds like he's quoting, nearly verbatim, Schoonmaker and Marvel's book, on the subject of the already-established promise of the Napa Valley. (The book appeared in 1941.)

                            I agree strongly with Jason in this thread, and one thing I noticed already in the 1970s and still notice today is a willingness of wine consumers to make broad comparative conclusions about "California wine," or even just "the Napa valley," based on anecdotal sampling of a few (not even necessarily representative) wines in what was already quite a _diverse_ wine-producing region in the 1970s, and is more

                            Speaking of judgments, latter-day media fixation with the 1976 Spurrier tasting obscured some history, formerly common knowledge among the wine trade and US wine enthusiasts in the years following 1976, and prominent too in the principal general book on California wines from the years following Spurrier (the UC-Sotheby compendium): Spurrier's not only was far from the first public example where blind tasters preferred some California wines to some European counterparts, but also, it wasn't even the most decisive such example to occur in the late 1970s.

                            The 1976 Spurrier tasting acquired its public importance not so much on substantive results, but because [quoting the same book] _Time_ reported it. The mainstream news media demonstrated very little interest in such tastings both before and after that one.

                            It's understandable of course that people repeat pop-culture clichés they pick up, but I think it's less understandable that more writers in recent years chose not to go beyond cliché wisdoms, and restore the 1976 tasting to something more like its historical context.

                            1. Well Napa is hardly in the same league as Texas ;-)

                              1. Harlan is only about 30 years into his 200-year plan to make Napa Valley wine that's as good as a Bordeaux first-growth. His standards may be higher than most people's.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                  Yeah. I guess there's finest and then there's FINEST.

                                2. Whether justly or not, Harlan Estate has long been publicly associated with the California cult-wine fad that developed a few years ago, and was especially conspicuous in some online forums including Parker's and WCWN. Quality (let alone ageworthiness) was peripheral in those discussions, compared with investment value, including "flipping" wines from hyper-allocated "lists," and mechanics and strategies for getting them.

                                  Wikipedia characterizes the cult-wine world:

                                  ". . . often seen as trophy wines to be collected or as investment wine to be held rather than consumed. Because price is often seen as an indicator of quality, high prices often increase the desirability of such wines. . ."

                                  All in dramatic contrast to the market for top California wines in the 1950s, as it was often described by a mentor of mine -- through whose perceptive buying in those days I and others would experience some of the period's great classic California wines at 20-40 years of aging. Serious cabernets from Inglenook, Martini, etc. (Later, he approached the fledgling Ridge Vineyards and became a silent partner -- but that was later.)

                                  As that witness described it, in the 1950s even in California, far less of the general population was interested in wine than was true already by the 1980s. Most of the industry was focused on low price and finding ways to expand the market. A small population of wine geeks was buying and appreciating the most serious California efforts from hardcore winemakers (sold at prices that astound people today, btw, even inflation-adjusted). The reference points for those consumers were wines like, indeed, First-Growth Bordeaux (ALSO far less expensive in those days, and less fashionable as trophies).

                                  By that account, senior Bordeaux were the _earlier_ standards against which the most serious California reds were judged by knowledgeable connoisseurs, 50-60 years ago. (That friend also bought many good Bordeaux.)

                                  Some years ago I mentioned to Mark Squires, host of Parker's website (and apparently squarely in the cult camp himself) that people I tasted with (which includes many very experienced fans of quality CA cabernets, tasting them since the 1960s or 70s) ran some of the major cult names in their regular blind tastings, and found them lacking in interest generally, perhaps also lacking obvious structural components for aging -- I was quoting more specifically to Squires -- and why did he think that might be? Squires could only suggest a few words like arrogance or closed-mindedness. A judgment of low merit by honest expert tasters was evidently outside his imagination. (Keep in mind, the same Mark Squires, when the US backlash against high alcohol surfaced a few years later, claimed to've never heard of Darrel Corti despite having studied California wines for years, written articles, etc. etc., and Squires implied that this ignorance reflected on _Corti._)

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: eatzalot

                                    Harlan set out to make wine of Bordeaux first-growth quality. How many people are in a position to judge how close he's gotten to that goal?

                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                      "Harlan set out to make wine of Bordeaux first-growth quality."

                                      Indeed. MY point is, so did some of his respected predecessors 60-plus years ago (though many people today don't know it) -- even if those pioneering winemakers didn't boast to national media that they were doing so. (At the time, national media worldn't have cared anyway. Winemakers didn't become fashionable -- complete with TV show http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falcon_C... -- till the 1980s, a time of massive corporate investment). And, even though they had nowhere near the investment capital or the demonstrated market (including trophy-buyer market) that exist today for high-end California wines.

                                      And further, that some US wine consumers were certainly around in the 1950s and 1960s in excellent position to judge the success of those efforts (though many people today don't know about this, either) -- because those serious consumers knew first-growth Bordeaux very well. Something vastly harder to achieve today on, say, a humanities professor's salary in California than it was back then.

                                    2. re: eatzalot

                                      Let's not forget that many California wines -- including sparkling wines, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons, and others -- won Gold Medals at international expositions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in St. Louis, Philadelphia, Paris, Brussels, and London against Champagnes, Bordeaux, and other equivalent European wines.

                                      Speaking of long ago, long before "eBob" (eRobertParker.com) took over Mark Squires' e-zine and discussion boards, Squires ran it on his own . . . independently. Once -- maybe twice? -- he "banned" me for disagreeing with him, and daring to back up my position with something as inconvenient as the facts.


                                    3. Who knows what pre-phylloxera / pre-Prohibition California wines were like, but it's doubtful any were very similar to first-growth Bordeaux. The California wines from that era that most impressed Andre Tchelistcheff were Pinot Noir and Semillon.

                                      Of course Bordeaux was one of the primary models for post-Prohibition California winemakers. I think 1961 Lafite in particular was the model for the second and third generation in the 70s through the 80s. I shared a bottle with friends around 1990 and was startled by how much it tasted like a good 1985 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

                                      5 Replies
                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        I'm not sure, Robert, if you are replying to Midlife's original post -- which is how it appears on my screen -- or to that made by eatzalot ("top California wines in the 1950s"; "senior Bordeaux were the _earlier_ standards against which the most serious California reds were judged by knowledgeable connoisseurs, 50-60 years ago"), or to one of mine ("Since the late-1960s"; "won Gold Medals at international expositions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries"). I am presuming it's me, though I'm at a loss why you would not reply to me directly -- hence, my confusion.

                                        Two comments:

                                        >>> Who knows what pre-phylloxera / pre-Prohibition California wines were like, but it's doubtful any were very similar to first-growth Bordeaux. <<<

                                        I have tried both pre-Prohibition Napa Cabernets and pre-Prohibition Clarets (from the Haut-Médoc and Graves) side-by-side. The wines were markedly similar -- much more so than the wines were from the 1980s, for example. Although I've had pre-Phylloxera Clarets and Cabernets, I've never had them side-by-side to do a comparison. That said, however, my comment was not meant to bring pre-Phohibition or pre-Phylloxera wines into the discussion, but rather was made to support the previous poster's (eatzalot) comments regarding those wines from the 1950s and merely to add that great California wines go back in history even further, period.

                                        >>> The California wines from that era that most impressed Andre Tchelistcheff were Pinot Noir and Semillon. <<<

                                        Robert, could you provide a cite for that? André always told me that Cabernets and Sémillons were the most impressive wines, as did -- thread drift -- Louis P. Martini. I've never heard him say anything so broad-sweeping as that, except when he said, "God made Cabernet Sauvignon; the Devil made Pinot Noir." (St. Helena High School Auditorium, St. Helena, CA, June [maybe July?] 1977.)

                                        1. re: zin1953

                                          " I have tried both pre-Prohibition Napa Cabernets and pre-Prohibition Clarets (from the Haut-Médoc and Graves) side-by-side. The wines were markedly similar -- much more so than the wines were from the 1980s, for example. "

                                          Interesting, though I'm not at all surprised. Paul Draper in his 1993 tirade about the re-emergence of phylloxera (which he ascribed basically to UC-Davis trying to re-invent viticulture, as well as enology) emphasized that PRE-Prohibition California winemaking was closely modeled on successful, traditional European methods, as in Bordeaux. (Likewise, the winemaking at Ridge, which is just in the last five decades.)

                                          1. re: zin1953

                                            That's from an oral history done at UC Berkeley. I was misremembering, he liked the Cabernet Sauvignon, too.

                                            "I tasted the first California wines during the 1937 international exposition at Paris. ... The wine that attracted me more than anything else [was a] 1932 or 1934 vintage of Wente called 'Sauternes, Valle d'Oro.' That was a beautiful wine and all the Frenchmen, colleagues of mine, were just astounded that such a wonderful type of wine can be produced in California."

                                            On tasting at Beaulieu's cellar in New York: "I was rather more impressed in the line of dessert wines than in the line of table wines, with one single exception, that I located a few barrels of very good Cabernet ... which actually was the master key to all my future career in California ..."

                                            "Pinot Noir then, outside of a few fintages that never were shipped in bulk, was very limited, and stored all in the Rutherford cellar ... there was only one block in Pinot Noir, which also created the background of my success with Beaulieu. That was the block planted by de Latour in 1905 ... right at the home estate of Beaulieu."

                                            Per Sullivan's "A Companion to California Wine," a 1918 Stanly Pinot Noir was how Tchelistcheff knew great Pinot could be made in Carneros.

                                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                              OK, thanks -- that makes much more sense to me.

                                              Yes, the Rutherford block was responsible for the truly outstanding and justifiably legendary BV Pinot Noirs from 1946 and 1947. After the '47 was harvested, André hand-selected budwood for planting down in Carneros -- following Louis Martini, who had planted there the previous year (and who had also, IIRC, acquired the Stanly vineyard). André said it wasn't until the 1968 harvest that those cuttings finally showed what they were capable of producing.

                                              Meanwhile, the Pinot Noir that BV had planted in Rutherford was ripped out and re-planted to Cabernet Sauvignon.


                                              In the FWIW mode, Alex Haley -- he of "Roots" and "Malcolm X" fame -- had a vineyard in the Napa Valley in Rutherford back in the late 1970s that was planted to Pinot Noir.

                                              1. re: zin1953

                                                Beaulieu also bought part of the Stanly Ranch.

                                                "I was a revolutionary-minded man in the field of viticulture in Napa Valley. As I came in, I said, 'There must be something wrong witb you people, because in my European mind, you can't build a reputation of Burgundy in the Bordeaux, and you can't build the reputation of Rhine in the Burgundy, and you are trying to build a reputation of Burgundy and Bordeaux and Sauternes within the same geographical area, within the same soil. There must be something wrong with you people.'

                                                "... I moved all the Burgundy varieties from here—uprooted, just pulled out, and we bought that 160 acres in Carneros, twenty-five miles south, right in the Bay Area, and I planted there to produce the Chardonnays and Pinot Noir. I located a Burgundian climate there."

                                        2. So...... if CA's best have for so long been 'up there' with those from France (and other places), what is Bill Harlan really saying? Or is he just attempting to assert that only wines as 'good' as his are in the same neighborhood as first growths? Or....... is this one more expression of the total unpredictability of wine reviews and recommendations?

                                          I totally agree with Jason that a different group of tasters and/or a different day would have had different results in 1976. Lord knows I've seen it happen all the time with 'moderately "rated"' wines, but if the best go against the best...... who's to say which belong at a separate level?

                                          I've never quite appreciated Jason's "CA makes the best CA wines, and France makes the best French wines" until this discussion.

                                          9 Replies
                                          1. re: Midlife

                                            Harlan seems to think that California wines still have a ways to go to match first-growth Bordeaux, but since he's only 15-20% of the way through his 200-year program he might be minimizing his accomplishments to avoid becoming complacent.

                                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                              he doesn't minimize his accomplishments when it comes time to sell the wine.....I believe the artical says a bottle goes for $750.

                                              1. re: pinotho

                                                2010 Lafite and Latour are $1300 and $1550.

                                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                  yes, the Bordelaise have never minimalized their accomplishments. I shouldn't even have mentioned money, as I was enjoying this thread. My bad.

                                                  1. re: pinotho

                                                    another bad is the inability to correctly spell "article" .

                                                  2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                    And this sort of price relationship also prevailed between the best, potentially Bordeaux-compared California wines of past eras, like the 1955 Inglenook Cabernet, and the top Bordeaux counterparts.

                                                    The difference from today (I already mentioned this in an earlier post) is that the magnitudes were much lower -- a few dollars each, but again cheaper for the Californian. I forget the precise details that my old wine mentor cited, but in the late 1950s US he paid something like $3.50 for top CA cabs -- well above what a mundane CA wine cost then! -- and somewhat more for top Bordeaux. Even with circa 10:1 dollar inflation factor, that's not remotely as expensive in real terms as the wines today cited above.

                                                    That is why a moderately paid professor or pharmacist in the late 1950s could both assemble a good cellar of top CA cabs, and _also_ compare them frequently to French prototypes.

                                                    1. re: eatzalot

                                                      In California, under the Fair Trade Laws then in existence, 1961 Latour, Mouton, Haut-Brion, and Margaux were all $3.75 on the shelf (not pre-arrivals); Lafite was $4.50.

                                                      1961 Beaulieu Cabernet Sauvignon was "two-dollars-and-something," but I can't access the exact release price presently.

                                                      The 1970 BV *regular* Cabernet was released under Fair Trade at $6.00, while the Private Reserve was originally released at $8.00; the 1970 Louis M. Martini regular was $3.50, while their 1970 Special Selection was $6.00; and Robert Mondavi's regular 1970 Cab was released at $8, with his "Unfined" released at $15.

                                                      I was selling 1970 First Growth Bordeaux for $19.95 upon release at The Wine Merchant in Beverly Hills; 1970 Palmer was $12.95, while 1970 Lynch-Bages, Cos d'Estournel, Montrose, Ducru Beaucaillou, and Pichon Lalande were all under $8.

                                                      1. re: eatzalot

                                                        I recall similar stories from students in Austin back in the late sixties; they were buying Latour and Lafitte for 6 dollars a bottle. I was buying the cheapest beer in the store. I remember we once got a great deal on a case of beer, and when we got it home, we realized it was in cardboard cans instead of metal cans. However, that didn't seem to alter the taste.

                                                2. re: Midlife

                                                  I just take "This area has the potential to be a national treasure . . . of someday being recognized as one of the finest wine-growing regions in the world" as strangely anachronistic, given the number of international experts who've made similar assessments in past eras, decades before Harlan was in the business. Jason especially, and I also, mentioned examples in this thread. I have another, "standard," wine book of the 1950s that makes comparable statements. To credit Jason's comments, it started even before Prohibition.

                                                  (God forbid of course that journalists interviewing Harlan -- who, after all, are paid to write about this subject, unlike us on Chowhound -- should raise some of this vast past comparison history and challenge Harlan's statement tellingly; but I'm getting used to that with wine journalists, especially after the 2006 hoopla.)