Truth is, these are some of the greatest wines from all of my bucket lists. Some of the fun comes from the hunt that’s involved, but let’s face it, just being expensive does not a bucket list wine make. These wines represent the golden age of California wine making, a time when a handful of grape farmers began to revolutionize the wine scene in California and almost unwittingly produced wines that competed with the greatest wines of the world.
The combination of history, great wine and the challenge of finding them makes this my favorite bucket list yet!
Photo courtesy of the_tahoe_guy via Flickr/cc
Ridge York Creek Petite Sirah
While I think Petite Sirah is potentially the greatest varietal wine produced in California, with Zinfandel a close second, it isn’t even on most people’s radar.
I’m not sure why Petite Sirah gets so little respect. For my palate, the variety is ideally suited to California’s warm climate, producing large-scaled wines that tend to have good acidity and relatively moderate alcohol levels where other varieties tend to go all flabby and jammy. Also, the wines have the potential to age spectacularly well.
Need proof? Check out a mature Ridge Vineyards York Creek Petite Sirah. These wines are becoming fairly rare, but they pop up now and again both at retail and at auction. A bottle from a less acclaimed vintage, which seems to have little effect on the actual quality of the wine, can often be had for just about $100 a bottle. This is a real steal when you think that these wines represent the pinnacle of Petite Sirah! I’m a big fan of both the 1975 and 1979, both considered to be just average vintages.
Joseph Swan Gamay
If you thought Petite Sirah was an obscure and weird choice, how about a Gamay from 1970!
Yes it’s true, one of my personal bucket list wines is the 1970 Joseph Swan Gamay. Several of my friends have had it and have marveled about it, leaving me futilely searching for a bottle of wine that nearly everybody thought should have been consumed by its second birthday.
Talk about a holy grail of wine. This isn’t actually Gamay but Valdiguie, which was misidentified as Gamay for decades in California but produces a wine that is a heck of a lot more similar to Ridge’s Petite Sirah than any Gamay I’ve ever tried.
The hunt is on, but this is one box that might never get checked. Not only would I have to find a bottle of this elusive magic juice, but it would also need to have seen great storage over the past four decades. Still, the hunt continues. I can’t even put a price on a bottle should I ever find one, though I expect that something in the $100 range will be in the ball park.
Stony Hill Chardonnay
A lot of people have noted the paucity of white wines on my bucket lists. It’s not that I don’t enjoy white wines, though my preference is for reds, it’s just that there are many more hard to find and fabulously mature red wines out there than there are whites. No where is this more applicable than in California.
That is not to say that California lacks great white wines. In fact, I would say that there were probably as many great, age-worthy whites produced decades ago as there are today. Considering the explosion of wineries in California over the years, this is a sad commentary on the direction Chardonnay in particular has moved on the West Coast.
Want a look at the potential of California Chardonnay? Check out a mature bottle of Stony Hill Chardonnay from way back in the day. I’m particularly fond of the 1978 and the 1980. Today, these wines are still full of vigor, showing wonderfully layered floral, dried citrus fruit and nutty oxidized notes while still remaining focused and crisp. On a good day, you can find these wines for under $100 a bottle, though I expect one will have to spend closer to $125 the next time bottles appear on the market.
Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon
How could one build a list of California wines and ignore Cabernet Sauvignon? Not possible, I agree. In fact, there are so many candidates for bucket list California Cabernet that they should have a list all to themselves. That will be my next project.
For now, I need to stay focused and look for the one wine that can represent the entire region. While there are many examples, Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon from the John Daniel era really represents the emergence of the modern California wine making. Today, these are super rare wines and some sell for upwards of $1000 a bottle, making them of dubious value since most of the examples I’ve been able to taste have been on their down-slope, to put it mildly. Every so often there is a spark.
When you do get that perfectly preserved bottle, the wines deliver a massive amount of pleasure. They show off the purity that Cabernet Sauvignon can achieve in Napa Valley, along with their unmistakable terroir signature. These were world class wines well before world class was associated with California. Frankly, they don’t really make them like this anymore. I am lucky to have sampled them back to 1955, though I have not tasted the mythical 1958 or 1941 Inglenook Napa Valley Cabernets.
I’m going to wrap things up here with another California specialty: jug wine! Say, what? That is correct, sort of. The generic jug wines of our past always went by names like Burgundy, Chablis and the like. In fact, many still do. Every so often, there are outstanding wines made under these generic labels.
Case in point is Beaulieu Vineyard’s Special Burgundy, produced only a few times that I can recall (1968, 1973, 1979 and 1990). I’ve tried the 1990 many times and am down to the last two or three bottles of a case purchased on release. It’s not a profound wine but it is a very good wine, one that can trace its lineage right back to the earliest days of California wine making.
Back in the day, most wines made were blends. The 1990 BV Special Burgundy was composed of 50 percent Petite Sirah, 40 percent Charbono and 5 percent each Early Burgundy (Abouriou) and Napa Gamay (Valdiguie). This is very likely to be typical of many California blends produced throughout the past century. My bucket list wine here is the 1968, probably over the hill but such a great vintage in California at such a pivotal time. This jug wine turned Special Burgundy seems to represent the era so well, mirroring California as it began its move into the upper echelons of wine regions!