OJ, Nixon, Cobain…The Great 1994 Vintage
One of beauties of an old wine is that it takes you back. As you taste and drink a wine of some age you inevitably begin to think, "what was happening back then."
This weekend I had a chance to procure and taste two wines from my favorite California vintage of the decade of the nineties: 1994.
There seems to be a general consensus that while a very good vintage, 1994 has been eclipsed by 1997 as the best of the decade. 1997 produced very big, opulent, fat wines. 1994 was different. The red wines, particularly Cabernet from North Coast vineyards, had a more elegant, balanced, yet concentrated quality to them. The very best Cabs are ready to drink now, while most are past their prime. But 1994 was interesting on a number of levels, personally and historically.
As I sat and tasted the 1994 Chateau St. Jean "Belle Terra Vineyard" Late Harvest Riesling I had to make a real effort to pull myself away from the remarkable aroma of this pungent, sweet monster of a dessert wine to think about what was happening in the world in 1994. I was 31 years old, had just opened my own PR Firm, had only three clients, but was as excited as I could be to be sporting my own business and not failing at it. I was living in Tiburon, California.
There was very little rain in the winter months. However, media coverage rained down upon two ice skaters that January and after. On January 6 America’s favorite to win the Olympic Freestyle Ice Skating championship was attacked after a practice in Detroit. Nancy Kerrigan and her enemy, Tanya Harding, became household names in a way that winning at the Olympics would never have matched.
Spring in the vineyards was very cool, and windy, slowing the progress of the grapes. It would be the first hint that the 1994 vintage would be prolonged. I wonder now how many vintners in April 1994, was they watched for the spring flowering to commence, were affected by the news that Nirvana lead singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain died from a self inflicted gun shot. That was on April 8. It is far more likely that vintners’ thoughts were distracted by the death of Richard Nixon, which occurred 19 days later.
The flowering was delayed only slightly when rain hit in May. Oftentimes rain will cause a reduction in the crop. There was only a slight reduction in the Pinot Noir and the Merlot crop as a result. The rain in fact was so insignificant that it is unlikely that attention was diverted from a truly world changing event: The election of Nelson Mandela to the presidency of South Africa, effectively ending decades of apartheid.
June and July 1994 in the North Coast vineyards were equally uneventful. In fact weather was quite mild, another sign that 1994 might turn out to be an extended ripening year. However, it’s unlikely that anything would have prevented vintners and non vintners from paying attention to what would be come the biggest media event of the decade. June 17th began the long, dreadful saga of OJ Simpson rise to infamy. I recall being in One Market Restaurant in San Francisco for a meeting with a journalists. Everyone was crowded in the bar watching Simpson’s Bronco fly down the LA highways with helicopters and police in pursuit. We would be exposed to this Simpson Saga for what seemed like ages.
While August turned out to be fairly warm, the rest of the growing season remained consistently moderate. Many Cabernet grapes were harvest at the end of October and early November. Many vintners were proclaiming 1994 "the best of the decade." I know….every year is the best until the next years. However, this time they were right.
The 1994 Chateau St. Jean Late Harvest Riesling is remarkable wine. It was harvest at 37 degrees brix, has 9% alcohol and 21% residual sugar. Today is is brownish with hits of amber. The aromas are showy. Caramel, dried apricot, some sherry notes, roasted fig, cloves. In its youth it would have been much more spritely from the fresh acidity it would have sported. Today, the wine smacks of intense sweetness, brown sugar, cinnamon, more apricot, butterscotch and orange blossom. At 11 years of age, it is drinking amazingly and will continue to drink well for another decade at least.
The other 1994 I procured this weekend was the 1994 Laurel Glen "Counterpoint" Cabernet Sauvignon from the winery’s estate vineyards on Sonoma Mountain. Patrick Campbell’s Laurel Glen made it’s mark in the 1980s with a series of Cabernets from his mountain vineyards that possessed magnificent elegance, balance and richness without the hardness associated with mountain-grown fruit. By the mid 1990s these wines were counted among the best of California’s Cabs. The Counterpoint series is the kind of wine everyone seeks. It is a second label wine that would make any vintner proud to call their "first label". And, it’s less expensive than the "Laurel Glen" line of estate Caberents.
Wines from the 1994 vintage are hard to find now. I picked these up at an auction. Currently Winebid.com has over 120 lots that offer American reds from the 1994 vintage. While many of these wines will set you back hundreds of dollars, you can still find many in the $30 to $60 range.
I’m tempted to suggest that if you are the type of person who has no interest in considering what was happening in the world at the moment a wine was maturing on the vine you really shouldn’t seek out older wines to try and enjoy. It’s just that this call to the past that a wine delivers is much of the experience. However, I really can’t suggest that in all honesty. Simply, when you come across a wine that has sat in bottle for 10, 11, 15, 20 years and offers the kind of sensual experience that these two wines do, you really should take advantage of it without any other strings attached.
But, for those of you who do allow a journey back to occupy your mind, you can find more information on the great 1994 vintage HERE.