04 Jul 1966
In May I was invited to a vertical tasting with Peter Mondavi Jr. at Charles Krug Winery. Unlike the usual vertical tasting where you taste consecutive vintages, this tasting was consecutive decades. We had six wines before us: 1966, 1974, 1983, 1998, 2001, and 2012. “We” consisted of wine writers with whom I had just spent the night “glamping” on the Great Lawn of Charles Krug Winery.
A tasting like this is interesting. Every wine writer gets in position, ready to spew their flowery fancy descriptors for each wine they taste. They legitimize their wine savvy language by letting everyone know just how many times they’ve tasted a 1966 (even though they are only 30 years old) and other cult-status-hard-to-come-by wines. Really, like me, they are slightly intimidated by one another and each person feels pressured to give a brilliant descriptor to justify their presence at such a historic tasting. Believe me, I felt that pressure too especially since I’m just a lowly wine professional, not an esteemed wine writer.
The older vintages are opened right before serving because they risk “falling apart” quickly after being opened. I watched with fascination as the 1966 was poured into my glass. I was giddy with excitement. I have never tasted a wine older than me before.
The first whiff there wasn’t much there. But it often takes wine a few moments for the bouquet to open up. The color was rust. At that moment I tuned all the chatter out. I really wanted to savor each minute I had with this historic wine. The bouquet slowly opened up. My first thought was that it smelled liked port. The gal next to me said, “plum.” That’s probably a more appropriate wine term…I’ll go with that.
Peter Mondavi Jr. began giving the specs of the vintage. The date it was harvested, how it was fermented, the barrel program, etc. As they gave the details my mind wandered back to 1966. The harvest was later than normal, November due to the wetter and cooler year. My mother-in-law would have been a young woman in San Mateo, 8 months pregnant. My own parents, living in South Carolina, had 4 children at the time, the youngest 2. Wine would not have been a part of either family’s life. My husband’s parents didn’t drink. My sailor dad drank Olympia Beer and Jim Beam.
What did Napa look like at that time? In 1966 there were only about a dozen wineries in Napa. Robert Mondavi had just left Krug and started Robert Mondavi Winery, the first winery to be built in Napa since prohibition. Most of Napa was covered in prune orchard and cattle rather than grapes. Who worked the fields? Who picked the grapes? Was it Mexicans, white, or both? I know my brothers, who are white, spent a few harvests in the 70’s picking grapes. But I also know people like Reynoldo Robledo and Mario Bazan arrived in the USA in the late 60’s to work in the vineyards.
The wine was fermented in open top redwood tank fermenters and aged in a mixture of French and Yugoslavian Oak. Not a lot has changed since then. Well, except for Yugoslavia no longer exists. Many wineries still use open top fermenters, except they are plastic. We still use French Oak and Hungarian Oak, which is still a Balkan country. This wine spent 26 months in barrel. Was that because it was a reserve or was it because people didn’t move wine as quickly back then as they do now so they were able to age it for longer?
These are the things I pondered while tasting that wine. I was focused on the culture and life of the people who made the wine more than I was the “plum” nose, although I thoroughly enjoyed that as well. That’s what wine has always been to me, a story in a bottle, and what stories those wines told!
In case you are curious, here are my very short and sweet thoughts about the vintages I tired:
1966: Held up well, plum nose, thin palate. It would go great with food but who wants to waste a 1966 wine with food?
1974: I did not like this wine at all. It smelled and tasted musty. It wasn’t exactly corked but it just didn’t hold any fruit quality whatsoever for me.
1983: This one had a lot of fruit and honestly, I don’t think you would ever even know it was 30+ years old.
1998: This is the year when I first got into the wine industry. The critics panned it. They were wrong. It rocked.
2001: This wine bored me and I kind of felt it belonged buried in the cellar with the 1974.
2012: Is there a 2012 out there that isn’t awesome?