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Tuesday Tributes
Is Twenty Years “Old” In Wine Or “Young”?

By Charles Olken

I ask that question because the topic of ageworthiness in California Cabernet keeps being raised with negative connotations. And I respectfully but strongly disagree with those who contend that today’s Napa Valley Cabernets will not last and will instead turn into soft, mushy, ripe but unfruity, unbalanced glop in little more than a decade.

Let me start with this thesis: A Cabernet that has aged for twenty years and is still alive, vital and can go further, and which during that time has acquired the rich patina of which older Cabs are capable, has proven that it is ageworthy. We do not need to wait another twenty years to judge it a success.

If you care to suggest a longer standard, please by all means do—and then tell me if you will live long enough to enjoy the wines in your cellar. I could go on and on about my own cellar because I am of an age that have a forty year-old cellar with some wines older than that. And to be sure, some of my older Cabs have not survived forty years with great glory. Many have, however, and the wines that were the stars of my cellar when I bought them back in my salad days are still the stars of my cellar today. Great wines can do that.

All of this reminiscing and pontificating is brought about by an inquiry I received from a respected fellow writer, Evan Dawson, back in New York. He wanted to find out more about the aging of Napa Valley Cabs, and, in particular, he was interested in my views about two related topics:

--Do hillside wines age longer than valley floor wines?
--Are the current batch of valley floor wines no longer as capable of aging well as their predecessors minted before the 1990s?

Below is my rather long email response to him plus a further exchange of views that occurred as he was in the midst of writing his article. Excerpted parts of my comments appeared yesterday in his article in Palate Press, the online wine journal. You can read his entire article at:

=== === === ===

Hi Evan--

I think you are onto something here, but I would caution against taking it too far. Let me explain.

There are plenty of examples of hillside wines that age quite well. Ridge is the most obvious example, and it is followed closely by Diamond Creek, Chappellet, Pride and plenty of others.

But the problem is that there are also examples of hillside wines that go too far and have somewhat shorter aging curves. Big, ripe, tannic wines like Kuleto do age, and they do improve but they are never as graceful as less bombastic wines. So, the first caveat in any set of conclusions about wines from elevated sites is construction. It may be an overused term, but balance is still a useful concept.

As for wines from lower sites, there are also plenty of examples of those wines aging well. I have a cellar full of 1970s era Cabs that have held up for forty years. Heitz, Beaulieu, Mondavi being at the top of that list from 1968 to 1970 and Stag's Leap Wine Cellar, Caymus and Montelena for the newcomers in the mid-70s. The Dunn Napa Valley wines have also held up well although perhaps not quite as long as the Howell Mountain.

Among newer wineries whose flatland wines age well, please consider Corison, Spottswoode, Dominus, Rubicon.

There is a tendency among some wine evaluators to equate early accessibility with a lack of ageworthiness. Dan Berger is my number one example here. Dan is a friend, but his views that wines have to be hard and unapproachable to be ageworthy are simply disproven by the wines in my cellar.

One final comment. Back when CA wines did so well in the 1976 Paris tasting, the French and their fans tried to dismiss the results as CA early drinkability and thus they argued that the French wines would be better, more complex in two decades.

A number of "retastings" have been conducted by various groups as the wines aged, but with inconsistent results as to which wines aged better. Sometimes, it was the French wines; sometimes it was the CA wines. There was never any reason to doubt the performance of the flatland CA wines in those tastings.

I guess that the bottom line for me is this: While there may be reasons why hillside wines age well, including austerity of structure, there is no a priori reason to conclude that well-made, balanced, well-structured flatland wines from the makers I have mentioned above do not age well. In fact, the opposite is true. We know that they age well because we have the empirical evidence that they do.

=== === === ===

AND, also, together with a response from Evan Dawson.


Any wine with fruit, acid, tannin and proportion that used to age well will continue to age well. Regardless of what Randy says, he is so set in his belief that alcohol is a determinant that I think he misses the point. The wines of today are not all that much changed. One per cent alcohol has not destroyed them.

Shafer continues to age well. Fifteen year old Shafer Cabs are full of life and they run around 15% alcohol. On the other hand, I think some Caymus wines have been pushed too far into softness and ripeness. But Chappellet Cabs age, Spottswoode ages, etc. Diamond Creek. Obviously, I don't have forty years of experience with the riper wines, but the argument forty years ago was that the riper CA wines would not age. But if Shafer and Pride and Staglin age well for fifteen years, and are not soft, toothless and empty shells at that age, there is no reason not to expect them to age well for another decade.

And once we get past 25 years, it is all a crapshoot anyhow—no matter where the wine is grown.


In a message dated 10/1/2012 2:09:08 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time, writes:

Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I just had a nice chat with Randy Dunn, and mentioned your comments. He said he agrees, with one exception: He says the valley floor wine you mention are from an era when they were made much differently. "We were doing that at Caymus in the old days. Things have changed."

Do you agree that some of the wines you reference are not good candidates today for aging? Or do you contend that the current vintages are likely to thrive as well?



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by TomHill
Posted on:10/9/2012 4:34:35 PM did Ridge get up into the NapaVlly???  :-)

Just giving you a hard time.

A week ago, we had a selection of MonteBellos from '66-'79 with Paul. Nine of those suckers. And every one of them was in wonderful/amazing condition.

   One of the things about MonteBello is they don't so much peak as they have this plateau that just keeps going on & on. I think some of the bigger/more "bombastic" NapaVlly Cabs will not show that prolonged plateau.

Nice thread and nice response to which I tend to agree.



20 Years and Counting
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/9/2012 6:45:50 PM


You may well be right that the most concentrated Napa Valley Cabs do not have a forty year window that includes the long plateau of the Ridge wines.

But, that is not really the point I was trying to make. It is my strong contention that 20 years is enough to qualify for having aged successfully. And as a corollary, I doubt that you or I are now buying boxes of forty year agewworthy wines. So, while you and I love to luxuriate in those wines, they are not practical for most people and thus forty years should not, in my opinion be an expected standard.

I do wonder about some of the very ripest wines, but when those wines are Shafer and Staglin and have shown that they are not fading at 15-20 yesrs, I do not worry about their new vintages.

It has been shown time and time again that CA Cabs age very well, yet there is Randy Dunn saying that they don't. How much more evidence do we need before this anti-California nonsense stops?

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