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by Fred McMillin
for September 27, 2001


"We're Number One!
We're Number One!"


Here is the winner of each of my last ten tastings. The best wine is listed last.

Rank Price Year Varietal The Winery & Appellation
10 $22 1997 Merlot Clos Pegase, Carneros, Napa Valley, Cal.
9 $40 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon
Blend (75% Cab)
"Tapestry" by Beaulieu, Napa Valley, Cal.
8 $35 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon Louis Martini, Sonoma Valley, Monte Rosso Vineyard, Cal
7 $50 1991 Petite Sirah Christopher Creek, Sonoma County, Cal. (from my cellar)
6 $7.50 1997 Zinfandel "Terra d'Oro" Zin by Montevina, Amador County, Cal.
5 $150 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon "Cask 23" by Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Napa Valley, Cal.
4 $100 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon "S.L.V." by Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Napa Valley, Cal,
3 $100 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon Georges de Latour Private Reserve by Beaulieu, Napa Valley, Cal,
2 $120 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon The RESERVE Cab by Robert Mondavi, Napa Valley, Cal.
1 $200 1985 Cabernet Sauvignon Beringer's PRIVATE RESERVE, Napa Valley, Cal. (from my cellar)

Hip, Hip Hooray For Cabernet

Wow! The top five winners are all Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons. Hardly a shock, since Napa Cabs generally are regarded as the New World's best wine. How long did it take those Napa Cabs to reach the top?

The Rise of Napa Cabs

Georges de LatourThe noble grape of the Medoc did not fire its first California shot in the Napa Valley...but it didn't take too long to get there. Here are the milestones.

1852—The first-ever "Cabrunet" vines in the Golden State arrived in San Jose. They were planted in a nursery, not a vineyard.

1858—Cab vines are imported from France and planted in a vineyard in the Santa Clara Valley.

1860s—These vines are the source of the first California wine containing Cabernet Sauvignon.

1878—Retired English army captain J.H. Drummond had married a divorced woman and consequently was ostracized by his Scottish banking family. Hence, he moved to California and immediately planted Cabernet Sauvignon in the Sonoma Valley.

1884—Critic's opinion: "The Cabernet Sauvignon is only experimentally known here at present. [However,] the sample of wine made by Mr. Drummond in 1882 was more admired at the last Viticultural Convention than any other on exhibition—not withstanding its youth."

1887—Already, Cab is California's most expensive grape. The widely-planted Mission varietal sells at $7 a ton, while the phenom from the Medoc costs over three times as much, $25!

1900—Cabernet Sauvignon had arrived in the Napa Valley, and today's winning winery was already growing it not far from its magnificent new Rhine House (see photo)... the winery was Beringer.

1900—A chemistry grad from Bordeaux, Georges de Latour (see photo) purchased four acres of land, plus a home and barn, in Rutherford, Napa Valley. He would import Bordeaux vines, and his work with Cabernet Sauvignon made the front pages of the newspapers. By 1907 his new winery was in operation... it would become the most important producer of Cal Cabs throughout the 20th century... Beaulieu.

Let's close with the words of the man who did the most for these wines, Beaulieu's late André Tchelistcheff: "Napa Cabernet has been the chief vehicle for the rise of the Valley's great reputation."

The Rhine House, completed in 1884

William Heintz, Wine Country.
Charles Sullivan, Napa Wine and his Companion to California Wine.
Research Assistant Diane Bulzomi



About the three tasting winners that were not Cabernet Sauvignon...let's see what they have to offer.

A Merlot—I was talking with Barmaster Lair Hamilton at Bradley Ogden's world-famous Lark Creek Inn in Marin County. He confirms the startling rise in popularity of Merlot in his wine-by-the-glass sales. Merlot acreage in California tells the same story:

Year     Acres of Merlot
1970     268
1980     2,667
1998     41,326

The particular Merlot that won was the 1997 Clos Pegase. Hardly a suprise, since Proprietor Jan Shrem's 1989 dazzled my panel a decade ago and his Merlots have done very well ever since. (An aside: If, in addition to wine, you are interested in mixed drinks, order Lair's The Bartenders' Pilot by faxing [ 707 ] 763-9956.)

A Petite Sirah—A highly underrated grape. Advocate Lou Foppiano (see June 7, 2000 WineDay's Sing A Song of Sirah") tells me that even French winemakers are impressed by what has been achieved in California with the grape that originated in their homeland. Lou says Petite faces a big problem in France. The grapes are so tightly packed that unwanted rain causes them to rot. Mother Nature is kinder in California.

And some Sirahs age well. Note our Christopher Creek winner from my cellar was a 1991.

A Zinfandel—Amador County in noted for great-value Zins. This winner is our Best Buy of any red wine so far this Montevina...$7.50.


About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. For information about the wine courses he teaches every month at either San Francisco State University or San Francisco City College (Fort Mason Division), please fax him at (415) 567-4468.



This page created September 2001