Great 1950s Cabernet from California’s Big Four: Beaulieu, Charles Krug, Inglenook & Louis Martini

101511 044YOUTHFUL, DELICIOUS 1950S CALIFORNIA CABERNET & 100-YEAR-OLD RIESLING – The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards, Livermore, California (10/15/2011)

This was a delightful and inspiring gathering to be part of, celebrating not just great California Cabernet Sauvignons from the dawn of Cailfornia’s modern winemaking era, but also deep familial affection between two wine-loving brothers. This was one of several special wine-themed events organized by Richard Meinecke in honor of the week-long birthday visit of his brother Jim from Long Island. Richard provided most of the incredible wines for the evening. The Champagne and Louis Martini were provided by Fred and Eva Swan, who also made the arrangements with The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards, giving us a base in one of California’s oldest wineries for this memorable tasting of great Cabernets from California’s past. Fred is the author of one of my favorite wine blogs, NorCalWine.

Our theme was 50-plus-year-old Cabernets from the big four California Cabernet makers of the period from the end of Prohibition to the boom in wine production in the sixties and seventies: Beaulieu, Charles Krug, Inglenook and Louis M. Martini. We had one bottle from each of these producers, all of which were based in Napa, plus one from a Santa Cruz Mountains producer that gained a good reputation during the fifties and early sixties–Hallcrest.

The youthfulness and deliciousness of our California Cabernets, mainly from the decade of the fifties, capped by a 1960 Inglenook, was quite astonishing. The fill on all but the 1956 Charles Krug was quite good. The color was unbelievable. These were, of course, wines with more than 50 years on them, yet a few of them were dark ruby with virtually no bricking, color that suggested wines only ten years old or younger. All of them were in great shape, with the exception, again, of the Charles Krug, which started out with a beautiful nose and youthful palate, but began showing signs of TCA after 20 minutes or so in the glass. Most of these wines had the structure and fruit to go another 20 years yet. It was also possible to drink and enjoy them with our great meal without the sense of heaviness and high alcohol one gets from so many California Cabs of today. According to their labels, the alcohol level on all of these mature Cabs was only 12 and 1/2 percent.

I’ve written here a number of times about the delights of California Cabernets from the “good old days,” i.e., before the mid-’80s or so, when ripeness, alcohol levels and concentration started to rise significantly. Those reports, however, were on great Cabernets from the late sixties and early seventies–wines that had already established a reputation, from producers who had been at the making of serious Cabernet for a decade or two already. What made this tasting so special and astonishing was that these were great Cabs, that were appealing and well structured, from a time when a handful of pioneers in California were just starting to make serious Cabernet and Bordeaux varietals. There was still relatively little Cabernet Sauvignon planted in California in the mid-’50s. Indeed, according to Stephen Brook’s The Wines of California, even by 1961, only six per cent of Napa Valley was planted with Cabernet, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay–Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, French Colombard and Sauvignon Blanc were the dominant grapes. And there were very few serious producers operating in Napa at this time–by 1960, there was still a total of only 25 wineries present. The fact that the big four, and a new producer in the Santa Cruz Mountains, were making such balanced, excellent and ageworthy wines at this early stage puts me in awe.

We began the dinner with Champagne, and then enjoyed an appetizer with a wonderful, 100-year-old bottle of Riesling, whose origins are detailed below. The five Cabernets were then all poured out for us, to taste and ponder for about a half hour or so before our entree was served. This was a delightful and very appropriate way to enjoy them. We concluded with a California “port” from the fifties–a 1957 Ficklin Vintage Port. For more information about the big four Cabernet producers and Ficklin, along with my tasting notes, see below.

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Note the color on our Cabernets, poured in the same order as the picture at the top

Champagne starter

  • 2002 Henri Goutorbe Champagne Special Club – France, Champagne, Aÿ, Champagne
    Light yellow color with an abundance of speedy, small bubbles; bright pear, tart apple nose; very tart apple, tart Asian pear, mineral, chalk palate; medium-plus finish 91+ points

100-year-old Riesling

This was a delicious, savory 100-year-old Riesling. The producer, Schloss Rheinhartshausener, is still in existence. In their current annual report, they list 1911 as one of the estate’s “special vintages,” along with 1897 and 1921. The full title of the estate is “Administration Friedrich Prinz von Preussen Schloss Reinhartshausen,” and the capsule on our Riesling carried the legend “Administration Friedrich Prinz von Preussen.” Wine has been produced here since medieval times, and the property has passed through the hands of several different aristocratic owners. In 1800 the Counts of Westphalia purchased it and built the alte schloss, or “old palace.” In 1855, Princess Marianne von Preussen, whose father was King William I of the Netherlands, purchased the estate and added a museum building to make her art collection accessible to the public. Her son, Prince Friedrich Wilhelm Nikolaus Albrecht von Preussen (who was known as Prince Albrecht), inherited the palace and wine estate in 1883. Prince Albrecht’s oldest son, who inherited the estate, was Prince Friedrich Heinrich, who owned it up until his death in 1940. Ownership ultimately passed in 1957 to Prince Friedrich von Preussen, son of the last crown prince, who passed it to his sons in 1966. An investor group, Freunde von Reinhartshausen, bought the estate and hotel, which was formerly the palace, in 1999. The estate currently own 80 hectares, 85% of which is planted to Riesling. One of their best vineyards is Erbacher Siegelsberg, which is most likely the vineyard referred to as “Seelgass” on the label of our wine.

Prior to the German wine law of 1971, a Kabinett wine, also known as Cabinet, was a term used for a wine of superior quality, worthy of being stored away in the producer’s cabinet, or cellar. It was essentially the German version of the term reserve.
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  • 1911 Schloss Rheinhartshausener Erbacher Seelgass Riesling Cabinet – Germany, Rheingau
    Light medium orange color with 2 millimeter clear meniscus; nice, smoky, savory, dill nose; tasty, dry, savory, tart apple, smoky, sauteed onion, dill, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (opens up and goes on strong after several minutes in the glass; delicious pairing with smoked salmon bruschetta) 93 points

1955 Louis Martini

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Louis M. Martini was one of the pioneering winemakers of California, and along with Beaulieu, Charles Krug and Inglenook, a founder of California’s great Cabernet Sauvignon legacy. He emigrated to San Francisco with his father in the late 1800s, and then studied winemaking in Genoa before returning to California in 1911. He had been unsuccessful with his first wine production company, but started again in the San Joaquin Valley in 1922 under the name L.M. Martini Grape Products. He moved his operations to Napa Valley after Prohibition ended, purchasing a large vineyard lying along the Napa/Sonoma border in the Mayacamas Mountains in 1937. The Louis Martini style was distinguished from that of the other members of the big four by varietal and geographic blending aimed at producing wines ready for relatively early drinking. The Special Selection wines, however, were made in outstanding years, produced in small lots with the potential for greater quality and longer aging. Louis himself was responsible for our 1955; he retired in 1959, turning the winemaking over to son Louis Peter Martini. Our bottle had remarkable color, with very little bricking, and a mature nose, with notes of tobacco. It was complex on the palate, with secondary and tertiary flavors of tobacco, oregano and cured meat, and would probably go another seven or so years (i.e., not as long as the Cabs from the rest of the big four that we sampled).

  • 1955 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Special Selection – USA, California, Napa Valley
    Hardly bricking medium dark red violet color with clarity; mature, tart cassis, currant, tobacco nose; tasty, mature, tart currant, light tobacco, herbal, oregano, cured meat palate; will go 7-plus more years; medium-plus finish 91+ points (91 pts.)

1956 Charles Krug

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Charles Krug was originally founded by Karl Krug, who came to America from Prussia, and who married General Vallejo’s grand-niece, whose dowry included substantial landownings in St. Helena. He built the winery in 1861. Phylloxera destroyed the vineyards, and Krug died during its outbreak in 1892. Robert and Peter Mondavi’s parents, Cesare and Rosa, bought the property in 1943, with Robert functioning as general manager and Peter as winemaker. I’ve enjoyed quite a few mature Charles Krug Cabs over the years. My favorite to date has been the 1974 Vintage Selection Lot F1, which was the last Krug wine made from the Fay Vineyard before Peter Mondavi lost that source to brother Robert. The Charles Krug Cabernets were 100% Cabernet, and until 1965, when they started using French oak, the wines were aged in well-seasoned American oak vats and barrels. Our bottle showed very well at first, with youthful fruit and a touch of menthol, giving the sense that it would go another 20 or more years. Unfortunately, however, those of us sensitive to TCA started to notice it after the wine had been in our glasses for 20 minutes or so. Then the nose, which had originally been full of cassis, tart cherries and menthol, changed to a nose that Fred found a way to describe precisely as “cork and raisin bran.” My rating is based on the wine’s glorious first 20 minutes, before the TCA took over.

  • 1956 Charles Krug Winery (Peter Mondavi Family) Cabernet Sauvignon Vintage Selection – USA, California, Napa Valley
    Bricking medium dark red violet color with pale meniscus; rich, cassis, menthol, herbal, tart cherry nose; rich, tasty, youthful, cassis, tart cherry, herbs palate; will go 20-plus years yet; medium-plus finish 93+ points (unfortunately TCA started showing after the wine had been in the glass for about 20 minutes, so this note is based on its great first 20 minutes; eventually the nose changed to a lightly corky and raisin bran nose) 93 points

1958 Hallcrest

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Hallcrest was established in the 1940s by San Francisco corporate lawyer Chaffee Hall, who originally planted five acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and nine acres of “white Riesling” on virgin land in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The label gained a reputation for excellent Cabernet Sauvignon in the 1950s and early sixties. Hall died in 1963, and the winery was closed in 1969 and its grapes sold off to Wente and Concannon. The winery was reopened in 1967 under the name Felton Empire, before being sold in 1986. The name Hallcrest was revived in 1988, when the winery was purchased by John Schumacher, who was allowed to use the Hallcrest label.

Our 1958 was very youthful in color and still possessed a lot of tart cassis, currant and plum fruit, with firm tannins and medium acidity. It’s a wine that still has another 20 years or so ahead of it. It showed very well in comparison to the Cabs from Napa’s big four.

  • 1958 Hallcrest Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Estate – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Hardly bricking dark ruby color; focused, cassis, tart plum, currant nose; tart cassis, light menthol, tart currant, tart plum palate with firm tannins and medium acidity; will go 20+ years yet; medium-plus finish (from a group of Hallcrest Cabs 1950-1964 that came through K&L’s Rare Wine Dept.) 92 points

1958 Beaulieu Georges de Latour

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This was the wine I was most excited to taste, as the 1958 Georges de Latour has a reputation for being perhaps the greatest Cabernet that the legendary Andre Tchelistcheff ever made.

Beaulieu was founded in 1900 by Georges de Latour, who had come to America from the Perigord region of France. It was one of the few wineries to survive the Prohibition era during the 1920′s because of a national contract to provide altar wine to churches. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Beaulieu had a head start on the rest of the wine business in re-planting vineyard and re-establishing wineries. Latour took the opportunity to focus on creating a wine line that would be the best that America could produce. As part of this effort, he brought over a young winemaker from Russia, Andre Tchelistcheff in 1938. Tchelistcheff had been born in Moscow in 1901, the son of the then Chief Justice of the Russian Imperial Court. As a teenager, he was severely wounded in the Russian Civil War in a machine gun battle in Crimea in 1921. After recovering, he studied viticulture at Brno in Moravia and then winemaking in Paris at the Institut Pasteur.

As a winemaker, Tchelistcheff was credited with many of the innovations that are now basic aspects of high-end winemaking in California, including aging wines in small, new oak barrels; cold fermentation; and malolactic fermentation. In 1940, he introduced a Cabernet Sauvignon line called “Georges de Latour Private Reserve” that has continued uninterrupted. The wine was composed from a selection of the estate’s best Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in American oak barrels for two years and then a further two years in bottle. (The first vintage was 1936.) Tchelistcheff was in charge at Beaulieu until 1973, but remained on as a consultant while also consulting for dozens of other wineries. He died in 1994 at the age of 93, and was active in the wine industry until only months before his death. He was the mentor of many of the next generation of top winemakers, including Mike Grgich, Richard Peterson, Joseph Heitz, and others.

I’ve written here previously about a couple of verticals I’ve tasted of Georges de Latour, including one back to 1968 recorded here. This wine was very much in keeping with the other Georges de Latour bottlings I’ve tried from the last several years of Tchelistcheff’s tenure as winemaker. Those too were very ripe and full-bodied, with rich fruit, dominated by blackberry and black currant, and firm, sweet tannins. This was a particularly sumptuous version of the style, and I can see why it has long been held up as Tchelistcheff’s best Cabernet. I also think it may have inspired some of the bigger, riper style Cabs of the later seventies and eighties. According to Stephen Brook, 1958 was an exceptional year for Cabernet in Napa, producing very long-lived wines.

  • 1958 Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Georges de Latour Private Reserve – USA, California, Napa Valley
    Hardly bricking dark ruby color; very appealing, blackberry, ripe black currant, plum, stewed plum nose; silky textured, tasty, youthful, ripe, rich, black currant, blackberry, light menthol palate; will go 20 more years; medium-plus finish (exciting, youthful, ripe style older Cabernet; I can see why it is often cited as the greatest Georges de Latour Private Reserve vintage) 95 points

1960 Inglenook Cask F-9

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The Inglenook vineyard in Rutherford was initially planted with Cinsault by banker William Watson. A Finnish sea captain named Gustav Niebaum purchased the 1,000 acre estate in 1879. He had studied enology and replanted with top French and German varieties, as well as with some of the more high yielding varieties then common in California. He introduced neutral German oak ovals for aging the wines. He was also the first to bottle his wines under his own label, and aimed for a high level of sanitation–installing concrete floors and steam-cleaning devices–that was quite unusual for the time. After his death in 1908, his widow asked her niece’s husband, John Daniel, to manage the property. His son, John Daniel, Jr., and his sister inherited the property in 1936. John Daniel selected the best casks each year, releasing them separately as special cask bottlings. He continued to use the neutral oak ovals that Niebaum had introduced. And if the grapes in a particular year or from a particular vineyard weren’t up to his standard, he declassified them, which was very unusual for the times. Inglenook’s winemaker from 1935 to 1963 was the meticulous George Deuer. In 1946, Daniel purchased the Napanook Vineyard in Yountville, now the home of Dominus, adding its grapes to his top wines. Although the special cask Cabernet bottlings were originally entirely Cabernet Sauvignon, some Cabernet Franc was added in later years, which may have been true for our 1960 (part of the source of its “lift,” perhaps), and eventually some Merlot as well. In 1964, John Daniel, Jr., sold the winery to United Vintners, and the quality declined precipitously from the incredible heights of the period from 1935 to 1964.

I thought this Inglenook bottling was particularly stunning. It had the same very youthful color as the Georges de Latour, and ripe black raspberry and tart currant on the nose. The palate was luscious but poised, with a purity and elegance to the fruit, sweet tannins and that lift. This would be great winemaking in any decade, but, again, particularly impressive this early on in California, 16 years yet before the Judgment of Paris tasting. Per Stephen Brook, Napa had a hot summer in 1960 that led to an early harvest. He reports, “Concentrated wines, with delicious Cabernet Sauvignon from Krug and others.”

  • 1960 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon Cask F-9 – USA, California, Napa Valley
    Hardly bricking very dark ruby color; ripe cassis, tart currant, tart black raspberry, baked plum, lightly savory nose; rich, luscious, maturing but still full of fruit, tart currant, tart plum, black raspberry palate with sweet tannins and lift; medium-plus finish (my WOTN) 96 points

1957 California “Port”

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We closed with a California fortified wine from the fifties. Walter Ficklin planted vineyards for table grapes and raisins in the Central Valley starting in 1911. His sons obtained cuttings of Portuguese varieties in 1946, including Tinta Cao and Souzao, and planted 40 acres aiming to make “port.” They only make a vintage port in particularly good years, which have included 1951, 1953 and 1957. (Hmm, from those years, which weren’t particularly good in the world’s major appellations, it seems like the Ficklins are doing a good job of creating birth year wines for those born in poor vintage years.) They also have a solera system for making a “tawny port” that is aged 10 years in American oak.

According to the label on this vintage fortified wine, it was made from “Tinta Madeira.” I have never heard of the “Tinta Madeira” grape before, although I’ve studied Madeira wine extensively, and Port too to some extent. Could it be that they mean Tinta Negra Mole, the red grape with which the island of Madeira was extensively replanted after phylloxera, from which about 90% of Madeira today is now made? “Tinta Madeira” is not one of the 30 recommended or 82 permitted grapes for Port production in Portugal. In my research following this tasting, I see that East-Side Winery in Lodi used to produced another tawny style fortified wine made from “Tinta Madeira,” and that the Glunz family made port-style wines in the ’90s based on “Tinta Madeira” from a vineyard in Madera. As best I can tell, this is a variety attributed to Madeira and Portugal by a handful of California producers, but is a variety only grown in California. This port-style wine had some complexity, but also more heat than a good fifty-five year old Port, and the finish was not as long as on a a vintage Port of similar age.

  • 1957 Ficklin Vineyards Vintage Port – USA, California, Central Valley, Madera
    Cloudy, bricked, medium brown red color with pale meniscus; macerated cherries, raspberry, maple syrup, “rum raisin ice cream” nose; baked raspberry, macerated cherries, berries, coffee, caramel, maple sugar palate with mid-palate heat; medium-plus finish (the label calls it “Special bottling No. 4, vintage Tinta Madeira” and details that it was bottled directly from the puncheons in Feb. ’60 and re-corked at winery ’91) 89 points

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our dinner organizer, Rich Meineke

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