Of the California wineries celebrating their 50th birth year in 2022, six gathered to mark the occasion with a retrospective tasting at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena. Each dazzled us with three wines while reflecting on five decades of harvests and providing a snapshot of their current vintages.
In his 2002 Decanter story on the 30th anniversary of the Class of ’72—as the Napa Valley and Sonoma wineries that either were founded in or presented their inaugural releases that year have come to be known—Paul Franson noted that it was a glowing report about the future of the wine business by Bank of America that emboldened many to make the leap of faith required to live their dream.
And yet 1972 wasn’t an easy vintage; on its 25th anniversary in 1997, Wine Spectator’s James Laube wrote that “if you turned back the clock to 1972, you’d find one of the—if not the—worst [Napa Valley] vintages in modern history.” His observation is a testament to the passion and determination that kept these post-Prohibition winegrowers, who were known for their camaraderie, going strong.
In fact, the vintage was a dry one, with intense summer heat spikes and rain during harvest, yet quality for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars remained excellent. Stag’s Leap assistant winemaker Luis Contreras and vineyard manager Kirk Grace presented the 1972 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon. Representing the second harvest from vines planted by Warren Winiarski, the wine was showing well, having moved to fully tertiary flavors of umami, loam, clove, and black pepper, while its aromas pointed to evidence of bright red fruit and even citrus in its youth.
Made by founding winemaker Bill Sorenson, the Burgess Cellars 1989 Cabernet Sauvignon was presented by current winemaker Meghan Zobeck. With a deep ruby-garnet core and a fully garnet rim, the wine was very much alive, offering complex leathery notes courtesy of Brettanomyces, deep brown spice, earth, black tea, and, eventually, coffee. Like the mythical phoenix, Burgess has risen from the ashes after being destroyed in the Glass Fire in 2020 thanks to its new owners, Lawrence Wine Estates, and the arrival of Zobeck, now in her second vintage.
Chateau Montelena’s fame will forever be entwined with that of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, as together they conquered the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976, which succeeded in shining a spotlight on Napa Valley. Presented by winemaker Matt Crafton, Montelena’s 1990 Chardonnay was made by Bo Barrett with destemmed fruit from the Oak Knoll AVA; vinified without malolactic conversion, the wine was both fresh and lush, with delicate notes of petrol and ripe pineapple (a classic marker of the Old Wente clone) and a dusting of nutmeg.
Diamond Creek’s 1993 Red Rock Terrace, made by Al and Boots Brounstein, was the product of a cool, wet vintage. Made from dry-farmed vines planted in 1968, the deeply extracted expression showed layers of dark, spicy fruit, including blackberry and cassis, and earth with resolved, dusty tannins. The winery was acquired by Maison Louis Roederer in 2020 and is under the guidance of president Nicole Carter, who presented the wine.
Dry Creek Vineyard’s Dave Stare was one of the only winemakers in the Class of ’72 to study at the University of California, Davis, prior to founding a winery—in fact the first winery in Dry Creek Valley since Prohibition. Winemaker Tim Bell presented the 1994 Fumé Blanc, renowned for its provenance as one of the first Fumé Blancs besides Robert Mondavi’s. Bright, beautifully golden, and vibrant, the wine was redolent of toasted hazelnut, golden apple, and aromatic dried herbs.
The retrospective tasting was organized by Lisa Mattson, creative director for Jordan Vineyard & Winery, who was not about to let the 50th anniversary of the Class of ’72 go unacknowledged. Founders Tom and Sally Jordan were already Francophiles when Tom read a Wall Street Journal article citing Bank of America’s aforementioned report on the bright future of the California wine industry. He planted vines in 1972,and Jordan’s first harvest was in 1976.
In 1980, when newly elected President Ronald Reagan chose the wines that would be served at state dinners, Jordan was among them, helping to make a name for Sonoma’s Alexander Valley. The 1999 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon was presented by grower relations manager Dana Grande, who pointed out that 1999 was a “rebound” vintage after the notoriously cool 1998 and that it was the first vintage made from Jordan’s hillside estate vineyards. With a deep garnet core moving to a narrow garnet rim, the wine opened with lighter red-fruit and black olive aromas that deepened to a rich,
nuanced palate of black cherry, tobacco, and vanilla.
For tasters with an appreciation for older vintages, it will be a dream to revisit these and the spectacular 12 wines that followed them in 2044, on the 72nd anniversary of the Class of ’72.
Big boots in the field these days. Wines in the 70s were made to feature the grape and the site. Now wines feature a bottom line mandate. The great wines now are terribly expensive. But the show must go on!