THE FIRST CALIFORNIA Wine Perspective, successor to the California Barrel Tasting dinners at the Four Seasons in New York, was held at the Pierre Hotel there last month. A media event to remind East Coasters of the developing quality of West Coast wine, it featured 28 wines and a nine-course meal prepared by four chefs. The logistics of pouring so many wines for more than 300 people proved manageable; the most interesting aspect was the comparison of older vintages to more recent ones -- an inadvertent lesson, it turned out, in the uneven aging potential of some California wine.
"The aging question" occupies considerable mental and printed space nowadays. Californians do not like the suggestion that their wines don't hold up in bottle as well as the foreign competition's, and who can blame them? The Wine Perspective tasting suggested that many do not in fact hold up, but those that do can be extraordinary. The reds triumphed over the whites, naturally, and there were some surprises in those rows of sparkling glasses.
The best older whites were chardonnays from Trefethen Vineyards and Edna Valley Vineyard. The Trefethen '76, from Napa, was buttery and full-bodied, a substantial wine that won prizes when it first appeared and has since fully matured. That year was a dry one, so the '76 was concentrated in flavor and had good balance, both necessary for good aging. A spokesman for Trefethen predicted that the '83 chardonnay would age just as well, although that is doubtful. Wine-making styles have changed in most California wineries to lighter, fruitier wines, and Trefethen is a good example of a winery making attractive but much less complex wine today.
The Edna Valley '80 tasted like an old Montrachet, with a rich burgundian nose and a lot of depth. Made from grapes grown down in San Luis Obispo County, in another good year for highly concentrated fruit, the wine was well aged in French oak and showed very well. The Edna Valley '84 had similar backbone and represents a fine value.
Acacia Winery poured two pinot noirs, including the '79 from St. Clair Vineyard in Carneros that excited a lot of people when it first appeared. Therefore it was disappointing to find that the wine had faded. Davis Bynam Winery's '75 pinot noir, however, from Sonoma County, had stood up fairly well, with fruit and tannin still showing.
Cabernets had aged the best, as one could have predicted. But there were surprises there, too. Inglenook's '59, from Napa Valley, was faded but still elegant and quite good. The '70 Simi, containing petite sirah and fermented in open oak tanks the old-fashioned way, was smooth and characterful. The Robert Mondavi Reserve '75, a full, rich wine, tasted better than the Mondavi '74, a more famous vintage, and continued to develop in the glass. All three wineries are making less concentrated cabs today, and one wonders how they will show after a decade or two in bottle.
The old and young cabernets that bore the most resemblance to one another in style were the '76 and '83 Montebellos from Ridge, made in a classic manner, packed with tannin and a peppery intensity. They are still wines for laying down, in an age when most California winemakers are favoring the shorter perspective.