On February 24th, I had the pleasure of attending a guided tasting of wines from some of California’s most legendary producers of the modern winemaking era. Not only that, but the tasting was led by three heavyweights in the industry: Steven Spurrier, Paul Draper, and Michael Silacci. This class was held at the historic St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco, and offered by the Guild of Master Sommeliers. My good friend, a Certified Sommelier, French Wine Scholar, and Certified Specialist of Wine, went with me. The tasting got underway just as the sun was about to set over the Golden Gate Bridge in front of us. Not a bad way to go!
Just in case you don’t know much about these three men, here’s a quick bio on each:
London-based Steven Spurrier has been in the wine industry for over 50 years, but he first gained recognition as a wine merchant in Paris in the 1970s. His wine shop in Paris was highly regarded, and he subsequently started France’s first private wine academy, L’Academie du Vin. He is arguably the most instrumental person to California’s wine country success in the modern era, as he was the one who conceived and orchestrated the “Judgement of Paris” tasting in 1976, where he challenged French wine experts to rank French and California wines in a blind tasting. The results, which were astonishing to the French, put California back on the world’s map as a winegrowing region with huge potential (it must be noted that this was not the first time that new world wines beat out the French, as many people mistakenly proclaim. Wines from Livermore, California were the first new world wines to win the top prize at the Paris Exhibition of 1889, and were the first to topple French wines as being of paramount quality in the world…..but that’s a subject for another blog!). Steven is now a wine consultant and journalist (incidentally, he is consultant to Singapore Airlines).
Paul Draper, who, for decades headed the winemaking at Ridge Vineyards, was one of the people whose wines were pitted against the French in the “Judgement of Paris” tasting; his Monte Bello Meritage blend won fifth place. He has been making wine at Ridge since 1969, which has estate vineyards in Sonoma and Santa Cruz Mountains, although now he is largely retired, and holds the Chairman of the Board title. He is credited as one of the first winemakers to champion Zinfandel as a leading varietal in California and with making vineyard-designate wines popular.
Michael Silacci is currently the winemaker at Opus One, a label created by Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild in the wake of the “Judgement of Paris” tasting, designed to marry Californian and French winemaking techniques and talents to create Bordeaux-style wines of exceptional quality. Silacci has been the winemaker since 2004. I found throughout the tasting that my palate was most on-par with his.
On to the wines: we started the tasting with a 2008 Schramsberg J. Schram sparkling blanc de noirs. Some of the grapes were from Napa, and some from Sonoma. It’s always interesting to me to drink an aged sparkling wine or champagne, and this one was still quite good. It had developed red apple aromas, was creamy yet crisp on the palate, and still had lots of flavor.
The next wine was a 2011 Hanzell Sonoma Chardonnay, estate grown. 2011 was a very cool year in Northern California (as was 2010; I still remember how cool those years were), and this wine showed a hint of greenness in the nose. There was an aroma of asparagus, which may be a hallmark of some white wines from that vintage, as a lot of grapes just didn’t want to fully ripen. This wine was also put through malolactic fermentation. However, the wine also had balance in the oak treatment, still had solid acidity, a medium plus body, but tasted a little hot after swallowing.
A second Chardonnay sample was a 2014 Chateau Montelena from Napa Valley. This Chardonnay was not put through malolactic fermentation, and I think this style suits this wine very well. It had a delicate bouquet that was slightly mineral with a touch of white flowers, a balanced mouthfeel with flavors of lemon dominating, and a clean finish. My friend and I agreed that this was our favorite of the two Chardonnays.
Next, we moved on to reds: we started with a 2013 Williams Seylem Pinot Noir from the Weir Vineyard in Mendocino. This wine was unfined and unfiltered, and the bouquet was quite earthy and spicy, with cherry pie and strawberry jam peeking through. It was medium-bodied and still exhibited good fruit on the palate for its age. The structure and finish were both balanced.
We ended the first round of wines with three barrel samples. Barrel samples can be a tough sell to people who don’t often get a chance to taste them; the aromas, textures, and flavors can be so pronounced and different from the finished product. I felt it was risky to pour these for people, especially being only about 5 months old, but I appreciate the openness that these winemakers of such iconic wines had with us:
The first was a 2017 Ridge Monte Bello, which is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. This sample had a lot of banana esters (esters are a compound that usually gives off a highly fruity aroma) and young purple fruit aromas like blueberry jam and boysenberry. It had a medium body with lots of black fruit flavors. The tannic structure was quite stiff on it, which should even out and help it age for many years. Ridge is known for harvesting their grapes a little earlier than most, which definitely contributes to more grape tannins.
The second barrel sample was a 2017 Opus One meritage blend. Michael Silacci described this sample as a “kitchen sink” blend. Basically, when he begins to work on the blend for the final product, he starts by throwing together all five of the Bordeaux varietal wines (“everything but the kitchen sink”....or maybe including the kitchen sink!), and then begins trials of removing different components at different increments to find the best blend. This is actually the opposite of my blending style, and I would guess most other winemakers, too. Sort of like a painter starting with black paint on their pallette and trying to remove colors from it until they get just the right hue, rather than starting with two colors, adding more and more until they get it just right. I found this sample to have a great nose of dust earth, leather, and cassis. The mouthfeel, however, was on the light side for me, and didn’t have much texture or finish.
The third barrel sample was a 2017 Opus One meritage blend, which Michael told us after tasting was closer to the finished blend. This one was basically the “after” and the previous blend was the “before”. I found this blend to be quite closed off in the bouquet, but the mouthfeel was much more interesting to drink. It was bigger, had more flavor, more structure, and a longer finish. This was my favorite of the two, and it just proves that focused blending is very important. The fact that the nose isn’t there yet is not concerning; by the time it goes to bottle, and especially once released, it will develop.
From the barrel samples, we moved on to the older vintage wines. The first was a 2011 Opus One. Michael brought this one to further put a point on the cool vintage and how it can age in the bottle. Although the bouquet had lots of pyrazines (green bell pepper aroma), it wasn’t off-putting. It also had dust, and raisins on the nose, an impressive body and weight for the vintage, and although the finish is beginning to wane, there was still nice fruit and earth on the palate.
The wine that he brought to compare that to was a 2007 Opus One. 2007 was a very hot year, and you could see the massive difference between the two vintages. Of course, the 2007 is 4 years older, but even so, there was more oxidative character to the older wine at a level that was more than expected. In hot years, grapes can ripen at an accelerated rate that throws ripening parameters out of whack, and you end up getting fruit that is less tannic, less acidic, and higher in sugar. The fruit may spend less time on the vine in hot years, but because sugars, acids, and tannins can spike so wildly while you’re waiting for the flavors to develop, you can end up with an “overripe” product, even so. Generally, that translates to a wine that is bigger and more lush, but has less structure and a flatter finish. This wine had more licorice, prunes, and overripe fruit than the 2011, and the finish was all but gone from it. An interesting juxtaposition.
The next vintage wine was the 2002 Ridge Monte Bello. I detected some volatile acidity on the nose of this wine, sweet prunes, and an aroma that was almost reminiscent of bubble gum, oddly enough. The tannins were still quite present, drawing out the finish even though the acidity was pretty much gone. It still had nice fruit flavors.
The final wine was a 1992 Ridge Monte Bello. This was a fascinating wine because not only was it still spectacular for its age, it was aged in 375ml bottles. If you know anything about the rate of bottle aging in different size bottles, then you know that technically, a wine in a 375ml bottle should age at about twice the rate of the same wine in a 750ml bottle. This is because the ratio of liquid to surface area exposed to the headspace in a bottle is generally twice as low. However, this was one of the best tasting wines of the night. It had an inviting delicate bouquet that was full of earth and cedar. The mouthfeel was very balanced, with flavors of dried fruit, and velvety tannins. I would love to get my hands on this in the normal sized bottles!
I was so honored to be able to taste wines made by these talented and legendary winemakers, and led by another legend in the industry. I don’t know that I would’ve ever been able to get the chance to taste such an opulent collection of some of California’s best wines on my own, and with such beautiful scenery in the background. Truly inspiring of a salute to California!