March 23, 2007
A Revealing Look Back

IMGP0903_edited.jpgChik Brenneman, winemaker and cellarmaster with the department of viticulture and enology at UC Davis, has been taking an inventory of the campus's vast research wine cellar to prepare for a move to new quarters. While assembling his catalog not long ago, he discovered in the cellar a long-overlooked cache of commercial wines given to the department for activities related to the department's 75th anniversary in 1984. All the wines were California cabernet sauvignons from the 1980 vintage.

Last night, Brenneman and department officials oversaw a tasting of 24 of the wines to see how they have developed over the past quarter century. (Most of the approximately 100 participants each paid $125, to be used to help defray student expenses, including a field trip to South American vineyards and wineries this summer. Students participated in the tasting by decanting the wines, which is what student Jonas Mueller is seen doing here, pouring them and cleaning up.)

The wines, which represented a wide mix of California appellations, such as Napa Valley, Calaveras County and Paso Robles, were tasted blind in four flights of six each. As a group, they showed well. The color of several had thinned and dulled, but most were bright and clear. A few basically were dead, yet several revealed surprising freshness, vitality and length.

I was impressed by how many showed the aromas and flavors that I most appreciate in cabernet sauvignon, an herbal characteristic that suggests mint, green olives and, most of all, eucalyptus. My favorite wines of the night had this trait, which winemakers today generally try to suppress in favor of flavors more suggestive of cassis, black cherries, cola and chocolate, not all of which necessarily are from the grape.

Something else different about these wines is that by today's standards they almost invariably were low in alcohol. For the most part, their alcohol was right around 12.5 percent. Only one exceeded 14 percent, a common level today as vintners seek to make ever more powerfully concentrated cabernets. Whether they will age as gracefully as last night's wines remains to be seen, but as Napa Valley winemaker Michael Martini remarked during the tasting, the attributes of a wine that stand out in its youth also tend to stand out as it ages.

As the results were unveiled, I was struck by how my favorites tended to be made by producers who still make some of my favorite cabernet sauvignons, most notably Joseph Phelps Winery and Mt. Veeder Winery. I also liked very much the Stonegate Winery cabernet sauvignon, but haven't tasted any of its more recent cabernets. Unfortunately, Devlin Wine Cellars of Santa Cruz, which used Sonoma County fruit for one of last night's favorites, no longer is making wine. The winemaker, however, Chuck Devlin, who joined last night's tasting, still is making wine, now for Ste. Chapelle Winery in Idaho. He's making cabernet there, too, and it just might be worth checking out.

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