California Wine–reminiscing–Part One–the 70’s

I was a young lad of 23 when I landed a server job at the soon to open Alioto’s Restaurant, which was then located at the corner of Kaheka & Makaloa streets across from the old Holiday Mart location.  Alioto’s was & still is an iconic, family owned San Francisco restaurant located on Fisherman’s Wharf.  This was to be their Hawaii “branch”.

By that time, I was already into wines & even had in fact taken wine courses through the Grape Escape wine school, taught by Master Sommelier Eddie Osterland & his partner Ronn Wiegand.

My first BIG wine purchase up to that point was a bottle of 1970 Chateau Lafite Rothschild ($36 a bottle at the time) & a bottle of 1971 Chateau Margaux ($25), both from Hi-Ho Liquors in Aina Haina Shopping Center.

I was quite taken back, however, when looking over the initial, opening wine list for Alioto’s, because it featured only California wineries.  Made sense–San Francisco based restaurant & Californian wines.  My only real experience with high quality Californian wines up to this point though were those from Robert Mondavi, so, I was somewhat apprehensive to say the least.

The list was put together by the on sight, owning family representative, Nunzio Alioto, who I soon discovered had incredible knowledge of Italian, French, German AND California wines.  This was to be one of the most impactful wine educational experiences for me in my entire professional life.  (Nunzio & I eventually became fast & best friends & our relationship has now spanned 40 or so years.  I will be forever grateful to him for all of the knowledge & wines he shared with me over the years.)

While, at the time, I was enamored by the Chardonnay based white wines of Meursault, France, I now had to instead understand, appreciate & learn how to recommend Californian Chardonnays, from small, then unheard of wineries such as Chateau Montelena (1973), Freemark Abbey (1975), Burgess Cellars “Winery Lake” (1975) & Cuvaison (1974 from then winemaker Philip Togni).  And, instead of Dr Thanisch Riesling Spatlese “Bernkastler Doktor”, I now had to embrace Joseph Phelps Johannisberg Riesling.  And instead of French Vouvray (Chenin Blanc), I now had to get behind Chappellet Dry Chenin Blanc.  And, instead of the red wines of Bordeaux, I now had to get used to recommending the Cabernet Sauvignons from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (1973), Clos du Val (1974), Beaulieu “Private Reserve Georges de Latour” (’73 & ’74), Sterling (1973 & ’74 “Reserve”) & Heitz Martha’s Vineyard” (1973).  Then, it was quite the challenge & transition, but today looking back, it helped provide quite the foundation for me understanding the California wine scene0 as an emerging world class wine growing region & the players which helped it get to where it is today!

Our “house” wines–listed as Alioto’s Selection–were from the little known Foppiano winery!

It is quite remarkable how back then Californian wines were a hard sell here in the Islands.   Local wine drinkers wanted European wines.  Quite the flip flop nowadays.

As time went on & my getting used to what the Californian wines had to offer, I really started to get into them.

While the Chateau Montelena Chardonnays were truly heads over heels for those in the know, I had a hankering for the 1975 & 1976 Burgess Cellars Chardonnay “Winery Lake” AND the 1972 Mayacamas Chardonnay (out of magnum).  OMG, these were epic in my eyes.

And, on the red wine side, while Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars & Heitz “Martha’s Vineyard” were the headliners, I really enjoyed the Beaulieu “Private Reserve” (1968, 1970, 1974); the Ridge “Monte Bello” (1968, 1970) & the Robert Mondavi “Reserve” (1971) bottlings.  I would also like to mention the 1974 Clos du Val & some of the early bottlings of both Mayacamas (1968 & 1970); Inglenook Cask (1967 & 1968); the 1966 Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon & some 1967, ’68, ’70 Special Selection Cabernet & Pinot Noir bottling froms Louis Martini..

As time went on, the list of notable wines grew.

From the 1970 vintage–although the 1970 Beaulieu “Private Reserve” (which legendary Beaulieu winemaker André Tchelistcheff nicknamed his “Shining Star”); the 1970 Ridge “Monte Bello” & the 1970 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon were the real stars of the vintage, I also, however, took a fancy for the 1970 Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon from what is now known as Pritchard Hill.  (I had subsequently later tasted the 1968 & 1969, but much preferred the ’70).

1972 was the first vintage I had tasted from the newest Napa Valley star–Clos du Val.  While it was wasn’t necessarily great, we loved his elegant, stylish approach.  The true star of the vintage for me, however, was the previously mentioned 1972 Mayacamas Chardonnay, which was served out of magnum on 2 different occasions.  It was a wine which truly exhibited the potential California had.

From the much ballyhoo-ed 1974 vintage–the 3 stars were–the 1974 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon; 1974 Heitz “Martha’s Vineyard” & 1974 Sterling Cabernet Sauvignon “Private Reserve”.  There was also much hoop-la about the 1974 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon “Reserve”.  It came with a new look–a tailored bottle shape AND in a wooden case–almost as to say, I am of Grand Cru in stature.  Well, it was eye catching right out of the gates, BUT turned out to be quite controversial shortly thereafter.  We were later told there were four batches made–3 had a microbial issue & 1 didn’t.  This, along with the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars “Cask 23” bottlings, really brought to the forefront discussions of brettanomyces/dekkera bruxellensis.

From the 1976 vintage–the 1976 Ridge Zinfandel “Lytton Springs” was truly something special & the most memorable Californian wine of the vintage for me.  This was also the first vintage I tasted from Jordan winery & our first real inkling of the Joseph Phelps “Insignia”, although we had tasted at least a couple of vintages prior.

From the 1977 vintage, I was especially taken by the 1977 Ridge “Monte Bello” & the 1977 Beaulieu “Private Reserve”, although it would take decades for both to show their true potential.  This was also the first vintage I had from Diamond Creek winery, the fabulous, iconic Stony Hill Chardonnay, Hanzell Pinot Noir AND was the vintage, Mike Grgich released his first wine under his own label–1977 Grgich Hills Chardonnay, which was quite a stunning, captivating wine!

From the 1978 vintage, 2 standouts upon release –1978 Clos du Val “Reserve” & the 1978 Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon “Private Reserve” come to mind.  (There were however, subsequent question marks on both since, as to whether they got any better with additional bottle age).  ZD winery, with the 1978 vintage, released 2 different Chardonnays–1 with a “Napa Valley” designation & the other with a “Santa Barbara” label designation.  I much preferred the latter & this really help open a new box of wine thought for me to explore–the Santa Barbara appellation.   (I had had an earlier experience with an “Alexander Valley” Chardonnay bottling by Chateau Montelena, which also enticed me to look out of the “Napa Valley” box, just as the Ridge “Monte Bello” bottlings previously had).

For the 1979 vintage, while we were really taken by the 1979 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon “Reserve”, we were later really enamored by two very “out of norm” red wines even more–the 1979 Chalone Pinot Noir & the 1979 Opus One.  Elegance is the first word that comes to mind for both.

I should also mention here, the workings of Francis Mahoney of Carneros Creek winery.  I went to visit him, although I can’t remember the exact year, just to check out his Pinot Noir experimental farm & listen to his take on clones & vine selections & how they fit into California.  He opened the door for me to the concept of clones, something I really didn’t think too much about, at least up to this point.

We should also mention some of the standout, “other” grape varieties which stood out in the 1970’s.  For Riesling the highlights were from Joseph Phelps & Chateau St Jean.  For Chenin Blanc–Chappellet.  For Sauvignon Blanc–Dry Creek, Robert Mondavi & Chateau St Jean “La Petite Etoile”, which in each of these cases, labeled their wines as Fume Blanc.

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