It’s a privilege to live long enough to issue a mea culpa 35 years in the making. In the early ‘80’s I was the Special Reports editor for Vintage magazine, and the Tasting Editor for Wine & Spirits Buying Guide. In this capacity I tasted and reported on about 450 wines a month. At the time Randy Dunn was winemaker at Caymus Vineyards and made one of my favorite Napa Cabernets. So I had high hopes when Randy came out with his own Dunn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon from his property on Howell Mountain, a section of Napa Valley that had been largely ignored since Prohibition.
1982 was a very good vintage in both Bordeaux and California, and most of the Cabernets of that vintage were released in 1984 or 1985. My favorite of the Napa Cabernets that year was the Groth (see The Aged and the Decrepit), which was approachable when young and amazingly vivacious and youthful when I next tasted it 33 years later.
I also received two bottles of Dunn Vineyards 1982 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for review. I tasted one and stuck the other in my cellar. With some effort I could dig out the exact note I published regarding the Dunn, but I remember it quite well, as it was my least favorite wine of the vintage. I can paraphrase my review as follows: “An inky purple monster buried beneath a mountain of tannin. By the time the tannin resolves, the fruit will have dried up.” — or something to that effect. I wouldn’t have bothered to cellar the wine, except that it was undrinkable at the time, it was from my eldest son’s birth year, and in the back of my mind I thought it would serve as an illustration for a future article about the need for tannin management. In the early to mid ‘80’s I felt most California Cabernets were overly tannic.
Over the past ten years I’ve been opening my 1982s. Some are well and truly over-the-hill, while some are surprisingly spry. On July 30th, 2017 my eldest son, visiting from Minnesota, suggested we open a bottle from his birth year to go with a roast. I pulled out two bottles from my cellar, both just a couple months shy of 35-years-old. The first was the Dunn, with the alcohol listed as a modest 13%, which even taking into account the allowable fudge factor, means the wine was under 14%. I’d also written the retail price on the label — it was only $12.50! The second was a Firestone Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with a listed alcohol of just 12.3%. The winemaker would have been Anthony Austin or Alison Green.
You’d expect the tannins in both wines to be fully resolved, and they were. However, I expected the Dunn to have no fruit left, and the Firestone to be showing vegetal flavors, since it was picked comparatively under ripe. WRONG and WRONG.
The Dunn was stunning. Having shed its inky cloak, it now sported a brilliant ruby color, showing bright black plums on the front palate, with dark cherries on the back palate, nuances of fennel and cedar box, and fascinating scents too subtle for my powers of description. Smooth, elegant and classically balanced, it’s hard to imagine it could get any better. It’s perfect now.
The Firestone Vineyard was also quite good, with bright, tart cranberry-cherry fruit and leather notes.
We drank the wines over the next two hours. Neither deteriorated or “went off” with airing.
Few wine drinkers are collectors, and few collectors have the will or the patience to wait 35 years for the payoff. Nonetheless, the rewards can be memorable. In this case it also allows me to issue a retraction. Randy, YOU WERE RIGHT; I WAS WRONG. Your tannic monster has aged beautifully. Thanks for an enlightening experience.