Mayacamas’ Best Aging Gracefully : Lovers of Rich, Complex Wines Will Have to Wait, Vintner Says

<i> Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills</i>

When celebrated California vintner and Mayacamas proprietor Robert Travers swirls his glass to taste his wine, he is guided by one overriding concern: Does the wine have a future? Since 1967, high atop the Mayacamas mountain ridge overlooking the Napa Valley, he has stylized his Cabernets, Zinfandels and Chardonnays so the future is always more important than the present.

It has been, to say the least, a gutsy practice since most consumers want a bottle for today and are unwilling to age and cellar wines for indeterminable periods. Nevertheless, Mayacamas has attracted many fans for red wines they may never drink and with the knowledge that Chardonnays may require aging from five to 10 years. Travers remains unconcerned since he speculates that if one generation does not drink his wines, the next will.

No doubt, the attitude stems from being a consumer first and a vintner second. As a consequence, he is willing to make long-lived wines which may not win compliments when young, but will ultimately and unerringly develop grace and charm. “Complexity is not something I can manufacture,” he said. “If wine lovers want buttery, rich lusciousness in Chardonnay and spectacular nuances in reds, they will just have to wait. I know no other way.”

Assertive Appley Nose


Mayacamas recently released its Chardonnay, 1983 (Napa Valley), which underscores Travers’ thinking. Although the wine was bottled in 1985, he contends it will be at its best in either 1988 or 1989. It has an assertive appley nose, big structure, lean texture and a well-defined style. A fine bottle at $16, it will indeed age; my notes suggest five to 10 years. Half bottles are available at $8.25.

Although Travers generally gives no quarter toward any wine-softening agents, he has in recent years dropped a dose or two of Merlot into his Cabernet. The 1981 at $18 may not be as big, harsh and robust as in earlier years, but nevertheless there is well-defined ample structure here in a silkier, intense lean style. Given 10 years of aging or more, it will be a lovely wine. Newer wine lovers are well advised to taste this wine just for the experience of observing the stuff of which big wines are made for long-term, graceful aging. Also lean and developing well is the 1982 to be released in October.

Another graceful aging candidate is Zinfandel, 1982, with a spiced nose, some hardness and a big structure, but not quite as big as in other years. Heaps of spice and berry-like flavor make it most attractive, even for today’s consumption. I asked Travers if he was softening his attitude as well as his wines, but he declined to comment, saying he would prefer to let his wines speak for themselves.

That is precisely what he did recently at a two-decade tasting of his Cabernet Sauvignon covering the years 1967 through 1985. The tasting was arranged by Edward Lazarus, a Los Angeles attorney. It was fascinating to taste Travers’ theories in the glass with wines that were originally massive and hard, but now have become supple and svelte. The 1974, which is still available at the winery at $75 per bottle, is superb. It is an exciting wine which comes from what Travers believes is his best vintage. Typically, it still has a long way to go. The 1970 rivals the 1974 for power in a eucalyptus, cherry-like flavor style that is still unyielding. It will be a beauty.


Agreeable Wine With Elegance

Travers’ initial vintage of 1967 is now a most agreeable wine with elegance, softness and charm. It actually may not survive many more years, whereas the ’68, coming from a great Cabernet year too, packs the authority and substance of wines to come.

Travers’ best wines came during the decade of the ‘70s, such as the ’71, which shows layers of meaty textures and flavors and is probably the readiest of the decade. It has luscious Cabernet flavor, unquestionably a mark of fine hillside grapes.

A factor that makes Mayacamas wines more expensive is the winery’s mountain hillside location, where a crop is likely to be reduced sometimes to one to two tons per acre. Valley floor vineyards usually yield two to three times more. In addition, Travers must battle grape-loving birds and deer for his fair share.


Most of Travers’ Cabernet grapes come from mountain vineyards, but since 1974 more than 50% are from vineyards at Mayacamas. Since 1968, all of his Cabernets spend three years in wood, two years in large American oak and one year in 60-gallon French oak. He believes the large oak does not contribute much, if any, flavor. The wines do not show an excessive wood nose or taste. They are carefully filtered, but not fined, and are racked four to six times before bottling.

Because he likes a Merlot-style aroma, suggesting a combination of hay and geraniums, he began in the ‘70s to use Merlot grapes in his Cabernets. The ’79 contains a Merlot-dominated nose with a cherry-like, full-bore Cabernet flavor that has become almost syrupy. Big-textured and round, this wine is as fine a wine as Travers has made.

Good Flavor Intensity

Cabernets not yet released are ’83, ’84 and ’85. Both ’83 and ’84 reflect the austerity that generally is found in early Mayacamas wines. Travers said his ’83 “stinks of wine,” which he defined as a Burgundian term usually meaning an intensity of too much wine. Aging here is definitely a must. Although still awkward and austere, there is more obviously developing character with good flavor intensity in the ’84. The ’85 is big, rich and clumsy and can be enjoyed today for its deep purple color, youthful, massive Cabernet smells and intense fruit character. Of the three, the ’85 is a must buy.


Making wine in the mountains has not been easy. Frequently during the winter, vineyards are blanketed with snow while Travers and his family are snowbound. As grapes ripen and become sweeter, considerable time is spent driving off the pesky visiting birds and deer. Few human visitors are willing to make the long trek from the city of Napa (an appointment is necessary). While there, a visit to the area’s 2,600-foot extinct volcano is a must, especially to view the old three-story cellar of native stone built in 1889 by John Henry Fischer of Stuttgart.

Mayacamas was first established with a debut vintage in 1889. In 1941, British-born chemist Jack Taylor reopened the abandoned winery and vineyards and operated it until he sold to Travers. To augment the wine business, Taylor, who did not make his first Cabernet until 1962, sold a line of spices under the Mayacamas name, which Mike Stone of Spring Mountain Winery helped market before acquiring his winery.

When Travers took over Mayacamas as a winery, there was little to go on as far as past reputation of fine Cabernet is concerned. While Taylor’s Cabernets, produced from grapes grown elsewhere from the vintages of ’62 to ’66, were good, in some cases elegant wines, they were not of the same bold, distinctive power and finesse as those of Travers. There is more herbaceous flavor in today’s Cabernets, but also an earthy aroma not unlike that found in the wines of Bordeaux.

No matter, Travers’ style of wines for the future is set as was clearly defined by his recent 20-vintage vertical tasting. Equally important, the tasting proved that at long last Mayacamas has a glorious past too.