Tasting 50 year old California Cabernets

Tasting 50 year old California Cabernets

The experts shock me with a surprising achievement in a crowded field of arguably the greatest of the older California Cabernets. Read the compelling story and see the results of our blind tasting:

25 – 50 year old California Cabernets (1973-1999)

Spoiler alert! Here is the end of the movie first. This photo is from the big reveal – after the tasting.

These 11 wines were carefully opened, decanted, bagged, numbered, and poured. These wines are mostly from my personal cellar from when I first became interested wine starting in my freshman year in college and up to my very first garage-made wine twelve years later.

Heitz Cellars, Cabernet, Napa Valley, 1982, “Martha’s Vineyard”

Stephen Zellerbach Vineyard, Cabernet, Alexander Valley, 1978 (Hanzell)

Sebastiani Winery, Cabernet, Proprietor’s Reserve, ‘North Coast Counties’, 1977

Beringer, Cabernet, Napa Valley, Estate, ‘Centennial Cask Selection’, 1973

Seven Stones, Cabernet, Estate, Napa Valley, 1999 (the very first vintage, produced by me in the estate’s garage)

Beaulieu Vineyard, Cabernet, Napa Valley, ‘Georges De Latour Private Reserve’, 1986

Beaulieu Vineyard, Cabernet, Napa Valley, ‘Georges De Latour Private Reserve’, 1991

Louis M. Martini, Cabernet, North Coast, 1982

Grgich Hills, Cabernet, Napa Valley, 1984

Firestone Vineyard, Cabernet, “Vintage Reserve”, Santa Ynez Valley, 1988

Silver Oak, Cabernet, Alexander Valley, 1984

The results

Each taster scored their top 3 and bottom 1 wine (shown here).

The top half of this page is the individual scoring, the bottom half are the actual bottle codes. After the tasting and scoring, the list of wines was provided to the panel.

As a second thought experiment, before revealing the actual bottles, tasters attempted to match the 11 wines tasted to the printed list of 13 possible wines shown. The 2 French wines (from my father’s cellar) were not included in the tasting and were simply on the printed list as decoys – to see if anyone would take the bait. A few did.

I could not believe my eyes! The clear winner? The 1999 Seven Stones! What? One of the first wines I ever produced. Not commercially either. Just made as a garage wine for our family. 

Was this for real? Indeed it was.The tasting was absolutely blind. The results completely legitimate. Tabulations were scored by a very reliable accountant.

Story: The Seven Stones, Cabernet, Napa Valley, 1999 was the very first wine produced from the Seven Stones vineyard in St. Helena, Napa Valley. Planted by me in 1996 at my parent’s estate in St Helena. We were still living in Burlingame, Ca., and I had only just started my vineyard development business above Silicon Valley. That company is still operating, see this link: La Honda Winery and Post and Trellis Vineyards in Redwood City, California. The 1999 was one of the very first wines of my career – now 25 years ago. I didn’t have any formal equipment, fermented it in the garage, no drains, no press, no filter, just raw manual labor all the way through to hand bottling and labeling the 2 barrels, about 50 cases. The 1999 vintage was never sold to the public, only consumed by our family. There might be a dozen bottles still around. But the ’99 is what lead to the eventual commercialization of Seven Stones, which now garners incredibly high critic’s scores and sells out every year.

Side note: That 1999 Seven Stones was a combination of amazing grapes and some good luck. With an undergrad degree in geology, years of field work, followed by an MBA; a decade later I took a few extension courses at Davis. And interned for a few weeks during harvest at the vaunted Staglin Winery in Rutherford, Napa. The winemaker at that time was Andy Erickson, now of Screaming Eagle and Leviathan and Favia, among others. But I was the very lowest man on the totem pole and naturally spent the entire “learning experience” dragging hoses and cleaning tanks. Those are the rudimentary skills I had to apply to the 1999 vintage.

1970’s panel “Winners” and “Worst of the Best” – details on the scores (we were stunned, and if you weren’t there you might not believe it):

Best of the best:

  1. Seven Stones, Cabernet, Napa Valley, 1999 was the clear winner overall. I alone knew that Seven Stones was the somewhere in the lineup, but I didn’t know where? No one else had a clue that a Seven Stones wine was in the tasting until after the reveal. And as proof of the ‘blind’ results, I actually chose the group’s least favorite wine as my personal favorite (ever the contrarian, as you’ll see below). One note – to be completey fair, the 1999 Seven Stones was the youngest wine in the lineup, and perhaps therefore the ‘freshest.’
  2. Louis M Martini, North Coast, 1982 – with arguably the second highest scores, we all just about fell off of our chairs as this wine sold for $3.79 at the time and had a peel-off plastic capsule. But, the cork was in superb condition. It was considered a spaghetti-red table wine at the time and likely not ever intended to go up against these more expensive titans.
  3. Sebastiani, Cabernet, Proprietor’s Reserve, North Coast Counties, 1977 and Stephen Zellerbach Vineyard, Cabernet, Alexander Valley, 1978 were also in the running for favorite, as were several other wines vying for a place in the top 3. I was pleased for Don that his family’s wine showed so well. I was a nervous wreck knowing that our host’s family’s wine was hiding somewhere in that lineup.

Worst of Best: There really and truly were no bad wines. Not a single bottle was badly oxidized. And the ullage was excellent for all bottles:

  1. Beringer, Cabernet, Napa Valley, Estate, ‘Centennial Cask Selection’, 1973 – there was near unanimity in the group of this wine being the least favorite. This surprised me as I had posted it as my favorite wine. I felt it had fantastic aromas on the nose, and a depth of flavor, but others felt it was somewhat pruny and over the hill. Still available on some re-sale sites for $350.
  2. Grgich Hills, Cabernet, Napa Valley, 1984 – this wine garnered a few votes for least favorite. And the cork was in superb shape. So who knows? Grgich was and remains a well respected Napa winery. So many things contribute to the condition of a wine after 25-50 years. Found on some re-sale sites for $160-$300.

The Players

A pause in the action for a quick photo. At this point we’ve quietly tasted and made notes on 5 of the 11 wines. In this tasting, I invited some of my favorite colleagues from the wine world – winemakers, collectors, customers, and consultants. But I forgot to ask permission this time around, so I am afraid I cannot identity most of them.

Having a laugh: Stacey Clarke, Principal owner of Treehouse (the brand development company behind the spring 2023 launch of our Sonocaia estate Sagrantino) and me, Ken Wornick (Sonocaia, Dysfunctional Family, and Hydeout)

Many of the old corks were in very fine shape, likely due to the quality of the producers, and the excellent storage history, but a few disintegrated on contact and had to be very carefully extracted and wine decanted.

11 wines lined up and quietly tasted blind. Then tasters were supplied with a list of 13 wines, out of order, and had to guess which 11 wines were which. 

Honorable mention – one of our winemaking colleagues brought a Hudson Valley Torchon Of Foie Gras (see the empty plate). It went so perfectly with our tasting. Also of note, the ducks are apparently not stuffed with feed (as with days of old). Their website says – the Moulard is a cross between the white farm duck, the Pekin, and a South American duck, the Muscovy. The Pekin has a mild flavor; the Muscovy, a gamy flavor. When the two breeds are crossed, they produce a high quality, deliciously unique flavor sought after by the finest chefs worldwide. Moulard ducks have a special ability to store fat in the liver. Like the Muscovy, they are ground-foraging ducks. Moulards don’t fly and are not fans of open water.  These  characteristics make the Moulard the ideal breed for producing foie gras.. The website says: Don’t Sweat the technique! The Torchon of Foie Gras is the ultimate cold preparation. Translating to “Towel” in French, its name is a result of the preparation method where the Foie Gras was traditionally tied in a kitchen towel, rolled, poached, and hung to chill for several days. The torchon of Foie Gras is a labor of love that we have refined for your convenience and enjoyment. Its cylindrical shape makes for an easy and impressive slice & serve that is guaranteed to delight.

The scene of the crime, the home of our very gracious host, Don Sebastiani Sr. of Sonoma. My thanks as always to Keith Casale, CFO of Landers Curry, who assisted Don (and me) in organizing this tasting.

Chicken Murder, Bobcat style

Went for the usual collection of chicken eggs at dusk, found this sad scene of feathers but no chicken – one of the most productive and peaceful of our flock – a Buff Orpington chickens was killed. Looks like it was pulled through a hole in the fence and dispatched just outside the coop door. This might be the first time a bobcat has taken a chicken. For us, it’s usually the hawks.

The likely fugitive from justice, a really gorgeous Bobcat crossing from the chicken coop to the vineyard. Note the telltale striping on the front left leg.

Sagrantino tasting panel with industry pros and collectors in Sonoma

Sagrantino tasting panel with industry pros and collectors in Sonoma

Setting up for a blind tasting of Sagrantino

Wine is to be enjoyed and everyone gets to decide exactly what they like. Wine labels, the setting, the food, the mood, everything influences how we feel about a particular wine.

But a truly blind tasting is the closest we can get to really measuring one wine against another. And even then, the order of favorites can change – if the tasting is done before lunch or at dinner time, on weeknights or weekends, even the mood of the group, or just one small whispered remark, can re-order the evaluation and the results. Still, it is educational to taste wines blind, as we did here with these Sagrantino wines:

In this windowless cave under a spectacular private estate in Sonoma, we set up a blind tasting of Sagrantino wines.

The wines were bagged and numbered for complete anonymity.

Then, to assure strict adherence, all of the wines are poured in careful numbered order into wine glasses in advance, before the tasting panel entered the room

The panel was seated. And the hard work began. We tasted the wines one by one, making scrupulous notes along the way. It takes concentration and focus to really evaluate each wine carefully. The wines were judged on the basis of color, aroma, viscosity and mouthfeel, tannin structure, and finish.

The participants: When we were done tasting and making notes, the data was collected and tallied and force-ranked. Then, we revealed all the wines and had a free-wheeling discussion over the results. The professionals were quick, efficient, and showed great certainty.

From left to right, clockwise:

  1. Liz Thatch, Master of Wine and Distinguished Professor of Wine – click: Liz Thatch
  2. Graham Smith, CEO and wine collector – click: Graham Smith
  3. Anne Mieling, French-born wine expert – click: Anne Mieling
  4. Ingrid Reyes, CEO, M&A Creative Agency – click: Ingrid Reyes on LinkedIn
  5. Jennifer Arie, Director of Customer Success, Comm7 eCommerce platform – click: https://commerce7.com/about/
  6. Ken Wornick, winemaker, Sonocaia Sagrantino and Dysfunctional Family Winery – click: https://www.dysfunctionalfamilywinery.com
  7. Don Sebastiani, Sr., our host  – click: http://donsebastianiandsons.com
  8. Steve Bush, former bio-med devices CEO, restauranteur, wine collector – click: Steve Bush
  9. Jon Curry, owner of Landers Curry, former board chair of Sonoma’s Int’l Film Festival – click: https://www.landerscurry.com/home
  10. Kelly Nice, CEO/Founder, Nice and Co. Ad Agency – click: https://www.niceandcompany.com
  11. Keith Casale, local Sonoma CFO – click: Keith Casale
  12. Cynthia Wornick, Dir. of Marketing, Sonocaia and DysfunctionalFamily Winery – click: Cynthia Wornick

Note: our host for this event was Don Sebastiani, Sr. (#7 above). A true gentleman, host extraordinaire, smoker of fine cigars, lover of fine wine and food, fluent speaker of at least five languages, a true Sonoma native, and so modest you’d never know any of this about Don unless someone else told you.

A total of eight wines were evaluated – seven pure Sagrantinos from Umbria, Italy, and our 2020 Sonocaia (just-bottled estate reserve Sagrantino from Dysfunctional Family Winery at the Hydeout Ranch here in Sonoma).

Wines revealed – here are the 8 wines revealed after the blind tasting:

I was floored that our inaugural, very young, and not-yet-released 2020 Sonocaia Estate Reserve Sagrantino earned a strong third place, especially against these world-renowned Umbrian all-stars.

First through third place were tightly bunched, the next wine was a very distant fourth.

  1. Arnoldo Caprai 2003 Collepiano Sagrantino di Montefalco (99 pts)
  2. Arnold Caprai, 2016 Montefalco Sagrantino, 25th anniversary edition (97 pts)
  3. Sonocaia, 2020, Sonoma Valley, Sagrantino, Estate Reserve (94 pts)

The full lineup of Sagrantino wines – seven from Umbria and one from Sonoma

After the tasting, the panel retired outdoors to the patio for discussion and a perfectly curated lunch hosted by Don Sebastiani Sr. and prepared and served by renowned Chef David Bush from Oso Restaurant in downtown Sonoma. If you have not yet visited OSO, please do; it is a wonderful, locally-operated delicious family-owned restaurant.

Chef David Bush has a storied track record of amazing stops on the culinary trail, but certainly his restaurant Oso in downtown Sonoma is his crowning jewel, so far! Find it here: OSO Restaurant in Sonoma

The “Sonocaia” estate Sagrantino vineyard during a particularly lovely sunset in early September. Harvest is not expected until mid-October.

But wait, there’s more, another blind wine tasting event: Hydeout Consulting client “Quail Run 2020 Estate Cabernet”, just bottled, competes with older Cabernet wine country legends and comes out a winner!

We are the consulting winemakers for the Quail Run estate Cabernet. Just a couple of weeks ago, we delivered the 2020 vintage to the client. The wine was bottled after 23 months of oak aging. The client organized an inaugural blind tasting and invited a knowledgeable group of friends and neighbors to participate. I admit I was a bit nervous knowing this newly bottled inaugural vintage (and possibly my career) was about to go head-to-head against some of the finest Cabernet’s in my client’s formidable wine cellar!

Quail Run 2020 was tasted against Stone Edge Farm 2014, Repris 2018, and Stag’s Leap 2019…

The contestants in this blind wine tasting event.

At the winery, Quail Run estate Cabernet clients Jan and Patrick (right) tasting their developing 2020 estate Cabernet in August 2022 just prior to bottling.

And fresh off the bottling line, the Quail Run estate Cabernet, Sonoma Valley.

A good friend of the client, Austin Texas expert wine educator Jim Bushee, wrote a blog post about the Quail Run blind tasting. To see the results, read here: Click here to read Jim Bushee’s blog post

The client also wrote a blog post about her version of the tasting: Quail Run estate Cabernet blind tasting blog post

Legacy of Zinfandel – a wine tasting at Don Sebastiani’s home cellar, and other Sonoma Valley events

Legacy of Zinfandel – a wine tasting at Don Sebastiani’s home cellar, and other Sonoma Valley events

Legacy of Zinfandel in California – the Sawyer/Casale tasting panel

Generously hosted by Don Sebastiani in his home cellar, and curated by 3Badge/Gehricke CFO Keith Casale and well known Sonoma Sommelier Christopher Sawyer, we tasted our way through ten carefully aged 20-30 year-old California Zinfandels. The panel participants spanned across Sonoma grape growers, winemakers, and wine industry and media experts. The entire tasting was blind which inevitably lead to informed and wild guesses about appellation, vintage, producer, style, and so on. Click HERE to see the list of wines and vintages in the lineup. 

Sommelier Chris Sawyer reveals the names, vintages, and histories of each of the ten wines. Fascinating discussion followed. These old Zins mostly showed to be very long lived and is a testament to the skill of the winemakers back in the 1990’s. Most of the wines really held up despite their age, showing soft tannins, crisp acidity, and surprisingly fresh fruit; these traits are perhaps the hallmark of long-lived Zinfandel, California’s most “native” variety. Christopher will be collating the tasting notes and will be publishing the results soon.

Click HERE to see the list of wines and vintages in the lineup. 

After the tasting, Chef Keith Filipello of Wild Thyme Catering served lunch to the tasting panel, on the patio of Don’s home just above of the wine cellar.

SummerFest at Sonoma International Film Festival Aug 5th – 8th, 2021

A not-to-be-missed event in Sonoma, the SummerFest film festival is loaded with great films, wine, food, music, and fun. Tickets to this party are going fast. Click here to buy tickets and join the party

The SummerFest mini-festival is not to be missed. The event features 40 narratives, documentaries and short films from 15 countries screening in person at Sebastiani Theatre and Andrews Hall (at the Sonoma Community Center) all weekend, two outdoor winery screenings with live music, and SIFF Screen & Cuisine, a dinner, live music and film special events.

Sonoma Int’l Film Festival Artistic Director Kevin McNeely serves a very bountiful breakfast at his hillside home above Sonoma town to his new SIFF board V.P. (that would be me). Kevin is the man behind the curtain at the festival and a wonderful leader who expertly guides the festival staff and cheerfully greets all festival guests.

Jack London State Park – a gala donation dinner event

Another Sonoma treasure, Jack London State Park is packed with history, hiking and biking and horse trails, and historic buildings. In early June, a small group of friends gathered for a private dinner hosted by park staff. In luxury SUV’s, our group of ten was ushered to near the top of the park, just short of the summit 4.5 miles from the parking lot at 2,464 feet. We hiked the hilariously easy last 100 yards (seen here) to the top and enjoyed bubbles, rosé, and views of the Sonoma Valley. Then we walked back down to the cars where we found tables set up for a very thoughtfully prepared meal. After a couple of hours of food and fun, we drove half way back down the hill to a clearing and watched a stunning moon rise. And all for a good cause. Next up – click here for tickets to the upcoming Jack London State Park gala.

A group of Jack London Sate Park supporters arrives at the top of Sonoma Mountain after an exhausting 100 yard walk to the top.

In the wee hours well after dinner, the group settles in to watch the full moon rise from a clearing in the park. This photo was taken in complete pitch-blackness with an old iPhone and the photographer disavows any responsibility for the appearance of the participants.

A local Sonoma men’s group affectionally known as the “Choir” enjoyed a night of ‘practice’ with a tequila tasting generously hosted by one of our winemaker members. 123 Spirits founder David Ravandi presented the tequila lineup. The tasting took place in an old “Turkey Barn” just across the street from the world-wide headquarters of Dysfunctional Family Winery.

Left to right, Blanco (1), Reposado (2) , Añejo (3) – part of the 123 Spirits tequila lineup. Behind the bottles, yours truly Ken Wornick on the left (with maybe a bit too much sun), and David with the hat.

123 Spirits founder David Ravandi explaining how he manages his farming and agave fermentations.

As is standard protocol, the faces of “Choir Practice” members have been blurred to maintain an air of confidentially. The group placed a lot of orders and nearly drained his current inventory.

These delicious homemade tacos were supplied by Dani Luzzati from Bella Lu Catering.

More wine country news from Sonoma – barrel tasting, interviews, new oak barrels, etc…

In front of a stack of Hydeout Sonoma and Dysfunctional Family Winery barrels, we are barrel sampling the inaugural 2020 vintage of the Keating Family “Quail Run” Cabernet Sauvignon, scheduled for release in September 2022.

Jan Keating, artist and art educator, taking notes in discussion for the family’s “Quail Run” estate Cabernet

Preparing for the 2021 harvest, in front of +/- a hundred Hydeout Sonoma and Dysfunctional Family Winery barrels full of client wines sits a dozen new French oak barrels from Tonnellerie Bel Air.

The entire Wornick family for my dad’s 89th birthday and mom’s 85th birthday – mom and dad front center, with brothers, wives and kids; celebrated on the Bay and at the Ballpark, this group represents the completely unsuspecting inaugural members of the original dysfunctional family.

Thank you for reading another installment of the Dysfunctional Family Winery blog, sincerely, Ken