The 1980’s proved to be a whole new frontier of Californian wines for me to explore. Where the 1970’s consisted of mainly Cabernet Sauvignon based reds, the new, standout wines of the 1980’s, ventured into other grape varieties such as Chardonnay & Pinot Noir.
1980 VINTAGE–The first eye opening wine from the 1980 vintage, was my first taste of a Kistler Chardonnay. I remember the 1981 was from Dutton Ranch & I am pretty sure so was the 1980. In either case, both opened a new horizon for artisan, “boutique” wine AND the Russian River Valley growing region. The 1980 Acacia Pinot Noir (I believe the 1980 was St Clair Vineyard & the 1981 was the Madonna Vineyard) was also the notable wine I had from this fledging winery. While also received a lot of clamor for their Chardonnays, their single vineyard Pinot Noirs from the 1980 & 1981 vintages were their most compelling wines for me. I was introduced to the Vichon wines by my best friend, Nunzio Alioto. His family & other Californian restaurateurs & investors founded this winery, which was spearheaded by winemaker George Vierra. Their 1980 Vichon Cabernet Sauvignon “Nathan Fay Vineyard” was their first vintage of red wine & was in my eyes a standout. This winery also produced a 1980 Cabernet Sauvignon “Volker Eislese Vineyard”, though also quite good, it just didn’t have the magic of the Fay Vineyard bottling. (As a side note they also produced a wonderfully delicious Chevrier Blanc–later changed to Chevrignon–both blends of Semillon & Sauvignon Blanc which were also stellar. Sadly, the winery was soon taken over by the Robert Mondavi family & became an after thought–it’s brilliance faded away into the sunset.
1981 VINTAGE–the 1981 Joseph Swan Pinot Noir was the first wine I had from this true artisan, old school winery. I believe 1981 was also the first vintage we were introduced to the Tepusquet Vineyard wines from the namesake vineyard down in the Santa Maria Valley. They produced a lively, crisp & refreshing Vin Blanc & a lighter, tasty Vin Rouge, which we subsequently used as the house wine for the Kahala Hilton.
1982 VINTAGE–The most prominent standout red wine from the vintage was the 1982 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon. While we had previously tasted a 1978 & a 1979 from this winery, the 1982 was its first shining moment. 1982 was also the first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon I had from Spottswoode. “Insiders” were already ear marking this winery as a “can’t miss”. The 1982 Calera Pinot Noir “Reed” was the first vintage we had from this now iconic winery. There was hints of minerality & wonderful acidity/vitality which made it standout from its peers. Winemaker/owner Robert Stemmler had his moments of brilliance with the fickle Pinot Noir grape variety, especially early on. The 1982 Robert Stemmler Pinot Noir was the first of his wines we encountered.
1983 VINTAGE–A friend, his wife & I were dining at Le Castel restaurant on Sacramento Street in San Francisco Joining us was another couple (both considered wine experts) who brought the 1983 Sonoma Cutrer Chardonnay “Les Pierres”. Knowing his taste, I found it unusual he would bring a California wine to share. The wine was so captivating, we were on the phone the very next morning hoping to get an appointment to see & meet with them. The 1983 Calera Pinot Noir “Selleck”–while I had other bottlings & vintages from this relatively new face, this particular bottling from Calera was the one that captured my fancy & imagination. It had something to do with the wine’s minerality!
1984 VINTAGE–was the first vintage I tasted of Byron Pinot Noir. This wine reiterated the potential Santa Maria Valley of the Santa Barbara appellation had. It was much lighter in weight & had more minerality than those Pinot Noirs I experienced from futher north. I believe this was also the first vintage we were able to get the Etude Pinot Noir too.
1985 VINTAGE–I was really quite mesmerized by the 1985 Mount Eden Chardonnay. It was quite the masculine, classy Chardonnay thoroughbred, which was really unique & unlike anything Californian I had previously had. Upon further investigation, I couldn’t help but think, who had the vision to plant this vineyard 1000 to 2000 feet up in this remote, desolate, rocky, mountainous terrain, back in 1943? At the time, I thought the Estate Chardonnay was far better than the Pinot Noir & Cabernet bottlings. Legendary Master Sommelier, Fred Dame introduced me to his friend named Clark, who would in turn introduce me a whole new horizon of California wines. The first was the 1985 Sarah’s Vineyard Chardonnay, which featured a very classy gold label & really upscale packaging. The Chardonnay was in turn very classy & majestic, (AND much better than their Merlot). In subsequent vintages, I recall the fruit coming from the Santa Clara appellation, a whole new scene for wines, at least for me. A gentleman by the name of Mac McKelvey, who lived on Maui where he started his own Maui based wine distributor introduced me to the 1985 Ventana Chardonnay , which reiterated to me the wonderful potential the Monterey area had for the Chardonnay grape variety. The 1985 BR Cohn Cabernet Sauvignon, although not spectacular, introduced us to the winemaking magic of then winemaker Helen Turley.
I should mention here, sometime between the mid to late 1980’s, I was introduced to the Draper & Esquin portfolio out of San Francisco. I was initially searching them out for their Italian wines–Gaja, Jermann, Ca’ Ronesca “Ipplis”, Monsecco & Ca’ Rome wines–but also grew quite fascinated with their Californian wine selections as time went on. The 1985 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon “Sonoma Mountain” was something special, as was some of the single vineyard Zinfandels from Ravenswood & the Santa Barbaran grown Syrahs from Qupe.
Also in the mid to late 1980’s–I was introduced to the Chardonnays & Pinot Noirs from Au Bon Climat, Ojai & Whitcraft & these wineries changed the game what these grape varieties could be out of California. It took us a while to get these wines to Hawaii. In the case of the Au Bon Climat wines & winemaker Jim Clendenen, because of looming governmental potential restriction on Italian wine imports, I was actually trying to get some of Clendenen’s Italian look-a-like wines which were mostly grown in the Santa Barbara appellation which he marketed under the Il Podere dell’Olivos label. As it turned out, superstar Hawaii chef, Roy Yamaguchi, worked his magic at a Los Angeles high end food event to help make the connection to get the Au Bon Climat wines first.
Around the same time or perhaps a short while later, Fred Dame also recommended I check out the wines from then youngster, Bryan Babcock, specifically his “Grand Cuvee” Chardonnay. The Babcock estate vineyard is located in what is now called the west side of the Santa Rita Hills appellation. Back then, it was considered in the middle of nowhere between the towns of Buellton & Lompoc. (I asked myself, who had the sense/vision to plant this vineyard in such an isolated, undiscovered spot which had meager soils & a continuous, gusting ocean generated wind? I guess I could ask the same question about the iconic Sanford & Benedict vineyard of the same general area.) As it turned out, I ended up first buying the Babcock Gewurztraminer, then the Riesling, then a short time later the Sauvignon Blanc “11 Oaks”. I thought each were special, especially for California, as was the Chardonnay “Grand Cuvee”.
Also in the mid to late 1980’s, I was quite taken by the Howell Mountain grown Chardonnays of Chateau Woltner–3 single parcels–“Frederique”, “Titus” & “St Thomas”–which at the time were under the direction, both in the vineyard & the winery, of Ted Lemon, freshly back from a stint as winemaker at Domaine Roulot in Meursault, France. Though quite pricey & somewhat hard to get because of limited production, these “mountain grown”, non-malolactic Chardonnays were quite special & unique.
1986 VINTAGE–the most memorable “label” we purchased from the 1986 vintage was the 1986 Bonny Doon “Les Cigare Volant”. I had previously heard all kinds of stories of this winery phenomenon from Fred Dame (who was a good friend of winemaker/owner Randall Grahm) & later was fortunate to taste a Roussanne bottling of theirs, named “Le Sophiste” & an earlier vintage of “Le Cigare Volant”. While the wines were tasty & good, the packaging & schtick/stories were incredible! Wow! What a unique niche & a fabulous cache.
1987 VINTAGE–1987 was quite the vintage for California & there were many really good wine produced. The wine I most remember, however, was the 1987 Georis Merlot from Carmel Valley. I don’t recall who recommended this winery (though probably Fred Dame). While I had thought the 1985 & 1986 were good, the 1987 was something very special! Owner Walter Georis also owned Casanova’s restaurant in Carmel & I later had to chance to meet with him & tour his estate vineyard. On the white wine side, the 1987 La Jota Viognier was really the first wine I tasted from Bill Smith & his La Jota label that caught our attention, being so lush & extravagantly tropical.
1988 VINTAGE–the most unique wines we tasted from the 1988 vintage was the 1988 Kalin Cellars Chardonnay “LD”. Owner/winemaker Terry Leighton really was far ahead of his time. His Chardonnays featured heirloom./heritage vines, from then relatively little known growing areas such as the cooler confines of the Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast & even Livermore. His Chardonnays were wild yeast fermented & bottled unfiltered & most of the time unfined too. Plus, he released them years AFTER the vintage, so they had a chance to resolve themselves & therefore be much more in harmony. In most cases the wines, especially the Chardonnays, were terrific. The 1988 Talbott Chardonnay was also quite a discovery. Again based upon the recommendation of Fred Dame, we were mesmerized by their Chardonnay’s lavish richness, decadent opulence, lushness & base note stoniness. At a Trade tasting at the Mauna Lani Resort on the Big Island, Donald Patz came up to me & asked if I wanted to taste his new 1988 Patz & Hall Chardonnay “Napa Valley”. It was a unapologetically brash, bold, “game changing” Chardonnay, to say the least. Interestingly, I stumbled upon the 1988 Justin “Isosceles” at a tasting in San Francisco. What really caught my attention was the wine’s underlying high toned minerality, a quality I did not experience from the Cabernet based red wines out of the Napa & Sonoma valleys. It was the minerality in this wine that opened my eyes to the potential the Paso Robles appellation had.
1989 VINTAGE–Although this vintage was generally maligned by the wine media, I tasted a few wines that caught our fancy. The 1989 Talbott Chardonnay “Diamond T” was from their small estate vineyard adjacent to Rob Talbott’s home on a top of a windy hill in Carmel Valley. While their other bottling of Chardonnay featured mainly decomposed granitic soils, “Diamond T” featured limestone. Because this vineyard regularly yielded a scant 1 ton per acre, the bottle cost of the “Diamond T” Chardonnay was higher, almost like being a Reserve bottling. It was a standout at the time nonetheless. I was fortunate to also taste the 1989 Williams & Selyem Pinot Noir “Rochioli Vineyard”. It was evident, even with the 1989 vintage, this vineyard had something special going on. The 1989 Viader was also quite a unique wine. The hillside vineyard was steep, spectacular & the planting scheme quite the sensation but later turned out to be quite controversial. The wine was fascinating because of its Cabernet Franc dominance in the blend, its extreme hillside home & the winemaking prowess of Tony Soter. In this less than heralded vintage, I also tasted the 1989 Alban Syrah “Reva” based upon the recommendation of Bob Lindquist of Qupe. Although Alban also produced some Viognier based white wines, it really was the provocative, surly Syrah that stood out.