On May 24, 1976, a blind tasting occurred in Paris. The tasting paired Bordeaux against California Cabernet, and matched the best white Burgundies against Chardonnay from the Golden State. The universe of fine wine was French in 1976, and California wine was not taken seriously on the world stage. In fact, the very idea that a California wine could compete with a top French producer was laughable for most of the public.
When the tallies were announced, two wines had won: the 1973 Stag’s Leap S.L.V. (Stag’s Leap Vineyard) Cabernet and the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay. The universe of wine was thrown into an uproar from which it has not yet recovered. It was, in the words of the Wall Street Journal’s Barbara Ensrud, “a vinuous shot heard round the world.”
Stag’s Leap itself has survived and prospered. The famed S.L.V. now sells for $130; Fay Vineyard, named for Napa pioneer Nathan Fay, is roughly the same price, while the Cask 23 retails for $235 (consulting winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff first isolated the superior vineyard block for this wine back in 1974). Far more interesting and affordable for the average consumer is the trio of wines in the Napa Valley Collection series: Aveta Sauvignon Blanc, Karia Chardonnay and Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon.
The 2015 Aveta Sauvignon Blanc ($25) displays flavors of grapefruit, lemon peel, earth and minerals that expand in the mid palate. The texture is rich and slightly flabby, with the alcohol dominating the acidity; notes of white pepper emerge and mingle with the fruit on the long finish. In all, this is a wine that would be more successful paired with food than sipped on its own.
The 2015 Karia Chardonnay ($30) is medium to full-bodied on the palate, with a clean, fresh texture and ripe flavors of lemon, lime, melon and pear. The acidity is mouth-watering yet balanced, and the finish is full of spicy concentration. Karia means graceful (presumably in Greek), and the wine lives up to its name. The generous texture makes it a good match for veal, poultry and pork as well as seafood.
The 2014 Stag’s Leap Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon ($55), named for the Greek goddess of the hunt, exhibits a brilliant, deeply saturated purple color and a nose of ripe black fruits, anise and toasty oak. In the mouth, it offers succulent combination of black raspberry and black cherry fruit nicely accented with minerals and herbs. The wine is beautifully balanced and composed, and the supple tannins make it drinkable tonight. It is charming, well-crafted, and a noteworthy value in California Cabernet Sauvignon.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is now available from Black Opal Books. For more information, go to amazon.com.