California’s Golden Oldies Reward Savvy Wine Buyers

Colorado construction magnate Joseph Phelps arrived in the Napa Valley in the late 1960s to build someone else’s winery. In 1973 he ended up founding his own.

Last month, for Joseph Phelps Vineyards’ 40th anniversary, company president Bill Phelps uncorked a dozen vintages of the winery’s flagship cabernet blend, Insignia, at New York’s NoMad hotel.

When the first vintage, 1974, debuted at $12 (then considered a whopping sum) it was one of California’s first Bordeaux-style blends with a proprietary name.

The glasses in front of me held the wine’s liquid history from 1976 to 2009, a track record of aging going much further back than the cult cabs that get more buzz.

The 1976, which originally sold for $20 a bottle, was still going strong -- deep, rich and flavorful, with a core of intense fruit and spice. The dark 1985 has minty aromas and chocolate-y, tobacco-y notes.

Both were reminders that wines from the 1970s and 1980s from classic producers are some of California’s most profound bottlings -- and they are largely unsung.

Such golden oldies are top values in today’s overheated auction market, though that may not last. Bill Phelps said he recently poured magnums of the 1985 in China to show how California wines could age.

Vintage Founders

The early 1970s were banner years for winery foundings. Joe Phelps was just one of dozens of entrepreneurs who ditched their jobs to invest in a wine dream.

Caymus, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Chateau Montelena Winery, Diamond Creek Vineyards, Jordan, and more than a dozen others opened in 1972 alone.

Back then, old-school cabernets aimed for Bordeaux elegance and harmony, and had alcohol levels way below 14 percent.

Many, like Mayacamas, stayed true to that classic style even as the 1990s ushered in ultra-ripe, oaky, high-alcohol fruit bombs. Insignia has undergone a stylistic shift, replacing cabernet franc with petit verdot and reducing the amount of merlot. Since 2002, it’s become more sumptuous, with higher alcohol, but still balanced.

Since the vast majority of wines are drunk soon after they hit retail shelves, people forget how delicious mature cabernet can be, full of complex aromas, layered flavors, and velvety tannins.

If you’re looking for California wines that will turn out that way after a decade or two in your cellar, stick with balanced classics with long track records.

Aging Gracefully

It’s an open question whether brand-new star cult wines will age gracefully or -- more likely -- end up tasting of little but oak and alcohol. I’ve had far too many pricey bottlings from flashy producers that are dead in the glass when only six years old.

Luckily, classic California wines are becoming more available as early collectors (and their heirs) begin to unload long-held stashes.

On my trip to the Napa valley in February, I found a treasure trove at Press restaurant in St. Helena.

As I snooped around the new glass-walled cellar, sommeliers Scott Brenner and Kelli White recounted tales of cajoling, bartering and trading to get old vintages from wineries and collectors, and how they even unearthed bottles stored in an underground root cellar to build a “drinkable library” of Napa wines.

Stag's Leap

“People are freaking out for these old Napa cabs,” Brenner said, pointing out rarities like 1947 Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour Private ($1,800), Inglenook bottlings back to 1960, and a 1981 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars ($195). The superb 1986 Insignia is $375.

The two sommeliers poured old vintages at a 10-course Pig & Wine dinner -- every course featured meat from a heritage Mangalitsa pig raised by Press’s owner, Leslie Rudd. While the bacon ice cream was definitely overkill, the wines were stellar.

The highlight was a 1978 Mayacamas Vineyards cabernet sauvignon ($360 on the list), with its deep bouquet, core of black cherry fruit, notes of dried herbs, and tobacco and earth hints that reminded me of Bordeaux’s Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion. Bottles of the famous 1974 vintage have sold for less than $300 in recent auctions.

The California wines that go for the biggest bucks in auctions are two cult labels first produced in the 1990s, Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate.

Screaming Eagle

While two magnums of 2007 Screaming Eagle brought $13,475 with buyers premium at a Zachys sale in New York on March 7, a bidder picked up an entire case of 2007 Insignia for just $1,838. Two days later, a case of 1975 Mayacamas sold for $4,165 at a Bonhams San Francisco sale.

On April 26, the New York spring sale by Zachys will feature some extremely rare California wines, including a two-bottle lot containing a 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars cabernet and a 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay with a presale estimate of $2,600 to $4,000. (The Montelena is a historic reference, but over the hill now.)

A case of 1970 BV Georges de Latour Private reserve has a presale estimate of $1,200 to $1,800, and a magnum of 1974 Mayacamas cabernet with a $450 to $700 estimate.

Prices for these California classics are sure to rise. But right now, they’re thankfully not yet investment grade trophies. Just buy for the pleasure of drinking them.

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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