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Taste History: 60 Years of BV

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Victorian brick-lined vault filled with the fragrance of old claret as 20 tasters sat down to face 60 vintages of California’s most celebrated wine. Ordinarily, tasting so many wines at once would be a daunting task, especially with jet lag factored in.

But these weren’t just any wines. Most of them sang in the glass, each with a slightly different voice, and the harmony was sweet music indeed.

No California winery (for that matter, no New World winery) can offer a vertical tasting to match this one: Beaulieu Vineyards “Georges de Latour Private Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon from 1936 and 1938 to 1998 (the wine was not produced in 1937). The tasting was held recently in London as part of the opening celebrations for Vinopolis, a new wine museum on the south bank of the Thames.

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A palpable air of importance attended the event. Among the tasters were most of the leading lights of the British wine world, including Michael Broadbent (the world’s reigning authority on old wines and great vintages), Hugh Johnson, Stephen Spurrier and the irrepressible Oz Clarke.

Virtually every major wine magazine, including the Wine Spectator, was represented among the tasters. Legendary BV winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff’s widow, Dorothy, was also present.

Flight after flight, the wines rebuked the outdated but lingering misconception that California wines don’t age well. Each glass in the vintage parade told its own story, and the glasses added up to a whole lot of history.

Georges de Latour was an itinerant chemist from southwest France who arrived in California during the economically wild 1880s. He came from a French wine family and evidently intended from the start to found his own winery, but he bided his time.

De Latour’s first business, collecting tartaric acid residue from wineries to make cream of tartar, gave him a good look at Northern California’s emerging wine areas. Deciding that the Napa Valley was the place to produce wine, he founded Beaulieu Vineyards in 1900 with the purchase of a small ranch near Rutherford, in the center of Napa Valley. The first BV wines didn’t appear in the marketplace until 1910. Meanwhile, de Latour financed the estate with other ventures.

As a savvy businessman, he turned a good profit supplying phylloxera-resistant rootstock to California grape growers after the wine louse infestation of the late 19th century, in the process almost single-handedly revitalizing the North Coast wine industry. As Prohibition approached, he contracted to produce altar wines for the Catholic Church--another clever and well-timed move that allowed him not only to keep BV operating throughout Prohibition but also to triple its size at a time when virtually every other winery closed its doors.

By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, BV was the dominant California winery. Its continued preeminence was assured a few years later when de Latour hired the French-trained Russian winemaker who would become the dean of California winemaking.

Andre Tchelistcheff arrived at BV in 1938. At that time, the Cabernet (made by his predecessor, Leon Bonnet) was still in barrel. It probably would have been used to improve various blends, but Tchelistcheff recognized what it was: the fine essence of the family’s superbly located Rutherford vineyards. Wines from those vineyards, he said, had a distinct smack of the earth, which he called “Rutherford dust.” He urged his new employer to bottle it separately.

The wine had not yet been released when Georges de Latour died in 1940. His widow, Fernande de Latour, assumed control of the company and released the ’36 in her husband’s honor as the first George de Latour Private Reserve (most of the older bottles in the London tasting came from the cellars of the de Latours’ granddaughter, Dagmar Sullivan).

Tchelistcheff made the wine until his retirement from BV in 1973, 35 years later. The nine subsequent vintages were made by a rotation of interim winemakers according to the methods he had established. Current BV winemaker Joel Aiken, whom Tchelistcheff regarded as his successor, joined the winery in 1982 and was named head winemaker in ’86.

Under Aiken’s direction (influenced by Tchelistcheff’s brief return to the winery as a consultant in the early ‘90s), the Private Reserve winemaking program has evolved toward the new California style of plumper, richer wines intended to be luscious when young (whether they age as well should be obvious to everyone in, oh, two decades or so).

The much-anticipated ’36, alas, was a rather muddy ghost of its former glory, but it proved to be one of the few wines that didn’t show well. The ’42 was elegant and delicious, with a juicy Cabernet nose and a real tang of Rutherford dust in the finish. It set the tone for the rest of the tasting. The ’45 and ’46 were slightly different versions of luxuriant silkiness and fine weight, with still-vibrant Cabernet fruit and that sharp whiff of clean dirt, like the fragrance of the ground at the beginning of a summer rain.

The ‘50s flight delivered more extraordinary wines: the velvet-textured ’51 and the powerfully focused ’52, the luscious ’55 and the amazingly youthful ’56. They all had a gracious quality that seemed to speak of a golden time in the Napa Valley.

By that time Fernande de Latour had conquered Paris with BV’s wines, which had also been served to a constellation of kings, queens and heroes at various grand events around the world. The future held extensive replanting of vineyards and BV’s 1969 sale to Heublein Inc. (which owns it today). But such big changes were unanticipated in the charmed dream-time of the ‘50s and the innocent splendor of those wines.

The early ‘60s vintages showed poorly, probably because of a combination of disruption in the vineyards and numerous weather challenges (it’s conjectured that those were El Nino years, though the phenomenon hadn’t been identified at that time). By the late ‘60s, however, the Private Reserve program was back on track. The ’67, ’68 and ’69 astonished the group with their combination of fresh fruit and bottle-aged complexity, power and elegance.

Throughout the afternoon, there were lively exchanges among the tasters, especially on the Brit side. Discussing the ’75, Broadbent complained, “I thought it had a sort of grubby finish.”

To which Clarke replied, “‘Well, I thought it had a crabby finish.”

The ‘70s flight contained my favorite BV Private Reserve, the fabulous 1970. It seems to embody an autumn afternoon in Napa Valley. Such beauty was hard-won: That spring saw the longest frost period in California history. For 29 straight days an army of men and women stayed up all night burning smudge pots in the vineyards. Old-timers describe the ordeal as a war.

As if to compensate, Mother Nature presented a hot summer and fall, which produced some of the best wines in modern California history (the Ridge Montebello and ’70 Freemark Abbey Bosche also come to mind).

The ’70 was also among the legendary wines served the following evening at the gala Decanter Magazine millennium dinner, honoring Jancis Robinson as 1999 Woman of the Year.

It was in good company with an array of outstanding wines from Bordeaux and Tuscany. Yet at the end of the evening, I couldn’t help noticing that though plenty of glasses remained half full of Margaux ’83 and Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande ’84, every glass of Beaulieu Vineyard Private Reserve ’70 had been drained to the dregs.


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