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'74 Goes Silver
Tasting 20 of the best from
this famed California vintage

(April 28, 1999) What were you doing twenty-five years ago? In Napa and Sonoma counties, growers were getting set for the first of several claimants to "vintage of the century."

     In view of this silver anniversary, some of us hardcore wine nuts got to wondering how the 1974s are holding up. And, well, one thing led to another. Until...

     Last night, at Pennsylvania’s Inn at Historic Yellow Springs, we gathered for the ultimate celebration. By evening’s end we had opened and tasted no less than 20 of the best wines from the vintage. Including a number from magnum and one -- a fantastic performance -- from double mag.

innatyellowspringssmall.JPG (11724 bytes)
THE PERFECT PLACE for a historic tasting. Click here to see the Inn at Yellow Springs

     First we tasted through most of the wines, while nibbling crackers, pate, cheese and hors d’oeuvres. Then we sat down to a Cab-friendly dinner, to enjoy five of the vintage’s most famous bottles at leisure.

     Yes, it was nice. Here’s how the wines did, listed in the order that I tasted them. Note that we started at 6:30 p.m. and, as the sun went down, I was less able to judge the colors of the wines.

Concannon Estate (from magnum). Garnet with amber at the edge. Earth, tar and asphalt aromas, but some fruit emerges on the palate. This wine’s alive, but way past peak.

**Spring Mountain (from magnum). Medium ruby edged with garnet. Aromas of tobacco and toast. Lots of bottle bouquet. Lingering finish. Nice going! A lot better than I expected.

*Louis Martini Zinfandel Special Selection (from magnum). Medium ruby edged with garnet. You can smell oxidation, but then cassis emerges and it’s still very lively on the palate. Starts out tasting like a Cab, but strawberry flavors chime in. Very elegant and distinctive in its own right. Fascinating!

*Simi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Garnet edged by amber. Peppery, with Bordeaux-type herbs and lots of sweet fruit at the core. Yum. Hope Canandaigua doesn’t ruin this grand old winery!

*Simi Special Vintage Zinfandel. Round, ripe cherry flavors. Very fruity indeed and totally different from the Simi Cab. Younger tasting than the Martini Zin, but perhaps not as complex.

Burgess Vintage Selection. A meteor. Starts out with lovely, ripe, meaty aromas, then fades fast. In fifteen minutes, there’s not much worth tasting.

*Souverain Vintage Selection. Garnet edged with amber. Lots of cassis that then dissolves to strawberry. Then holds and fans out. Quite a graceful old gal. Good wine!

Charles Krug Vintage Selection. Starts with light berry flavors and pepper. A bit short. Hangs in for ten minutes and gradually fades.

**Mount Eden Vineyards. Still very dark. Peppery and intensely grapey. Full on the palate. Gathers cocoa overtones. Holds well throughout the evening. A winner!

Inglenook Limited Cask. Overripe. Too much so. Smoke, raisins, nuts. More raisins and pepper when you taste. Alive, but I guess age has only intensified its excesses.

Freemark Abbey. Corked. Way corked. So corked, we pass it around so that folks can understand the true meaning of TCA.

??Chateau Montelena. Tempts you with big aromas of violets and cassis. But then you taste -- and this one too is corked! This time it’s marginal, but still throws a veil over the fruit. Too bad! Might have been one of the top tier otherwise.

*+Sterling Estate. Garnet, edged with a trace of amber, but still has a lot of oomph. Plenty of ripe cassis with impressive length. Terrific showing for this "regular" bottling. (See notes on the reserve below.) Just a hint of oxidation.

Clos du Val. Still alive, but seems kind of tart and thin. Not to my taste.

***Robert Mondavi Reserve (from 750 ml). We’re opening this one now so we can compare it with the 3-Liter bottle that we’ll have over dinner. Wow! Violets, currents, cigarette, terrific! Big nose that follows through on the palate. Dances around with lots of finesse and makes a dandy finish.

Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour Private Reserve (from 375). I’ve heard tales of bottle variation concerning this wine, but personally I’ve always lucked out -- until tonight. Now I know what people were complaining about. Garnet to amber at the edge. Nothing much to taste but raisins, pepper and tar. I’ve certainly had far better bottles. What was going on when they bottled this wine?

***Heitz Martha’s Vineyard. Oh yeah! Still purple at the center of the glass and ruby at the rim. Lots and lots of floral aromas. Very deep cassis flavors, followed by vanilla. What a wine!

***+Robert Mondavi Reserve (from double magnum). At first, I wondered if this bottling was less powerful than the regular bottle. Then I realized, it still has tannins to shed on the finish! See above, and add a bit more. A great wine that’s the very model of California Cabernet Sauvignon. WINE OF THE EVENING.

***Sterling Vineyards Sterling Reserve. Pow! Tremendously deep cassis and vanilla flavors. Incredibly pure and intense! What giants walked forth from the cellars of Sterling, once upon a time. (Wayttago, Ric Forman.)

**Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. A delightfully different set of flavors. The expected blackcurrant, plus plum and cherry. Not quite as young as the Mondavi, but what could be? Those who think wines that drink well young can’t age should get a taste of this masterpiece.

     Now for a few observations.

     First, I was genuinely surprised at how well the Zinfandels performed. This was the first time I was able to compare Zins and Cabs at such an advanced age, and the Zins were surely not disgraced. They also showed perceptibly different flavors than the Cabs. All that being said, none of them were in the very top tier of wines.

     Second, it’s been said that a truly great vintage must be consistent down the line -- no dogs. I tend to agree, and by that measure, 1974 qualifies. Although some of the wines were definitely on the downslope, none were total goners. Even the weakest ones were showing some fruit. That’s pretty impressive after 25 years.

     Third, the Mondavi Reserve from double magnum did indeed seem younger than its counterpart in the regular-sized bottle. A vote for larger formats.

     Fourth, although the top 6 to 8 wines were showing just beautifully, I’m not sure I’d push any of them much further. Even the Heitz Martha’s seemed like it had faded just a bit toward the end of our meal. (On the other hand, the Mondavi Reserve from double magnum seemed positively indestructible.)

     Many thanks to The Benevolent and Viniferous Order of Convivial Sipsters for organizing this blowout. A tip of the cork also to B.V.O.C.S. member and Inn proprietor Charlie Orlando -- not only for providing many of the wines from his personal cellar, but also for laying out a magnificent dinner in this splendid setting.

     Want to get hungry? Click here to see the menu.

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