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Nostalgia Hits Wine Country

By Charles Olken

I suppose it is a sign of the no-longer new California wine scene that so much of what I have paid attention to and commented on in blogs around the Internet lately has to do with looking back thirty and even fifty years ago, usually by writers who were not around then but still long for the good old days. No criticism meant to the writing of good friends like Joe Roberts over on his blog 1WineDude or Steve Heimoff on his eponymously named blog, or John Bonne in the San Francisco Chronicle, but I was around during the early days of Stony Hill, of California vineyards that had all kinds of varieties growing next to each other, of Phillip Togni’s first massively tannic Cabernet Sauvignons. And frankly, I don’t get it.

People keep saying things like “the wines were better balanced then” and “it was easier to follow your own heart”. Maybe some of that is true, but the facts do not always square with a nostalgic fantasy world that never really existed. It needs to be made clear that I was an enthusiast in those days, and I still have lots of wines from that admirable past, many of which are still alive today. I like drinking them, and I have a hard time opening the last bottles of so many of the wines that fueled my transition from happy consumer to collector and thence to writer.

And I have no complaint with those who would celebrate the massive contributions of Fred McCrea at Stony Hill or Mr. Togni or David Bruce, whose winery is all but shuttered and has been the subject of several emails I have received of late from folks, who like me, remember Mr. Bruce’s big-flavor Chardonnays of the early 70s or his bold late harvest Zinfandels. In those days, late harvest meant two things. The wines, nearing 17% alcohol, were bone dry, and they were celebrated for their sheer concentration the way that concentrated wines are still revered today when their names are Amarone or Port.

Still, almost any standard, the rights and wrong of higher alcohols ignored for the moment, the very ripe Zinfandels of today are infinitely keener in varietal character, higher in fruit and able, in many cases, to be useful as table wines. Or let’s look at Stony Hill Chardonnays. Mr. McCrea and his able staff made wines that were certainly less oaky, less ripe and longer-lived than most of today’s offerings. But much of that style, which the winery happily still follows, was dictated then by the lack of small French cooperage and by the cellar practices of the day which over-protected the wines. Indeed, Stony Hill wines were known for being relatively unapproachable in their youth. Today, those wines are relatively old-fashioned, and while there will always be a market for Chardonnay that is less dramatic, it is indeed the case that Stony Hill wines, to my palate, are simply less interesting, less complete, less involving than hundreds of Chardonnays in California and anything from Burgundy with a hyphenated Montrachet or Charlemagne in their names are today.

That is the problem with the good old days. What was good then has been bypassed by newer and more interesting. I don’t long for my old Smith-Corona typewriter or my Ford Fairlane that got a whopping 14 miles to the gallon and made me feel virtuous. I don’t long for the Ham A La King that got me and my roommates through grad school, and I don’t long for a return to the wines of the past. I love their memories, and it thrills me to be able to pull out a 1970 Beaulieu Private Reserve Cab or a Freemark Abbey 1971 Petite Sirah and find them still healthy. I am delighted that my few remaining bottles of Heitz 1974 Martha’s Vineyard showed up recently on a San Francisco wine list at $2450. But to me, those wines are just a few bucks and some electricity. They remind me of where we have been. But I am at least as interested in the new Corisons and Phelps Insignias Cabs and Merry Edwards Pinots and Lewis and Ramey Chardonnays because they are today and they are simply more complete wines than most anything we made forty years ago.

There is nothing wrong with the past. At my age and the many passages, both personal and vinous I have witnessed, I am part of the past. I just do not need to relive it as if it were somehow better. I may be a student of history, but I am also of the present, and all this nostalgia is going to keep my up no longer. It’s time for my warm milk and off to bed. Tomorrow will bring another batch of wines to taste. And that will make my day.

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Trippin' Down Memory Lane
by TomHill
Posted on:4/15/2014 10:42:19 AM

Good trip down memory lane there, Charlie...for the both of us.

Those DavidBruce wines were pretty incredible. It was always a time of excitement when David had a new release. Couldn't wait to try them. I wonder how that LateHrvst Chard '73 would play out in today's wine world? Or those barrel frmtd/barrel aged/new Fr.oak Estate WhiteRieslings? I expect they'd be widely reviled by today's drinkers. But they were so much fun to try.

   But I think you're right about the nostalgia some folks look back on those wines thru rose-tinted glasses. You had to have been there. Those wines were pretty danged good...but I think the wines being made in Calif now are the best that have ever been made.Some of them even have Ribolla or StLaurent on the label!! But the old war-horses of Chard and Cab have never been better.

   And you're dead-on about the high-alcohol Zins being made these days. Back then, they ("monster Zins with...") were often marked by overripe/raisened/pruney flavors. You don't see those much anymore. It's not at all uncommon to have 16% Zins that don't display hot/fumey aromas and seem to have good balance, w/ bright zesty Zin fruit to them. I find it interesting that you seldom find a Zin wearing the LateHarvest title on its label. Yet there are plenty out there at 15% alcohol. And darned tasty they are.

   Anyway...good thoughts there, Charlie.



by Ron Washam, HMW
Posted on:4/15/2014 5:16:24 PM

As another of those guys who was there back then, you have this exactly right, Charlie. All nostalgia harkens back to times that never really existed. While there were many wonderful wines made in California in the '70's, and before, they were depressingly rare. They are abundant now.


Funny that Joe Roberts discovered Stony Hill, really one of Napa's dinosaurs. I liked their wines a lot the last time I tasted them. Wasn't Stony Hill California's first "cult" Chardonnay? A couple of decades before Marcassin and Kistler and Peter Michael. I'm glad to see them newly appreciated, though in my mind the ones from the "80's were only spotty performers. Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now.


I doubt the wines were better balanced then. They were certainly more "rustic." As you say, some held up for many, many years, but mostly because they were relatively harsh and unpleasant when they were young--like Death Row inmates. In forty years, wine bloggers will wax nostalgic for the good ol' days of fruit bombs and excess. I say, enjoy it now.


One of your best pieces, Charlie. Hats off!

A Doubleheader
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/15/2014 6:04:44 PM

Thanks to Tom and Ron both for jumping in here. 

It's funny, this writing business. I knew what I wanted to say about young people's nostalgia, and I was hoping not to come across as an old fart. 

Your kind words make me humble--for a moment at least. Those of us who have tasted the past know that things are simply better today. Different for sure, but better by my standards because we make deeper, more complete and complex wines and still manage to make the best of them with good balance.

Maybe some folks want something different, and I am all for everyone to have his or her own preferences. I am not right and neither are they.

But, there is something slightly "jonboy come lately" to this whole nastalgia trip that attempts deny the present, and that does not add up for me.

As Ron says, the new breed of writers in four decades will be worshipping the wines we make today.

by Bob Gustafson
Posted on:4/16/2014 2:45:17 PM

I'm also old enough (68) to have drunk some of the wines mentioned, but I don't like living in the past. This is one of my favorite quotes from scifi author Frank Herbert ( Dune). " Nostalgia represents an interesting illusion. Through nostalgia humans wish for things that never were. The positive memory is the one that sticks. Over several generations a positive memory tends to weed out more and more of what really existed refining it down to a distellation of haunted desires."

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