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California’s ‘Class of 1972’ Vineyards Continue to Raise the Bar

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Fifty years ago, much of what we now consider Northern California wine country consisted of plum orchards for prunes and groves of walnut trees. They were cash crops that replaced the vines uprooted during Prohibition in the 1920s.

A renaissance was already underway. Heitz Cellars, Robert Mondavi, Schramsberg, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and other wineries opened in the 1960s and early 1970s with ambitions to restore California wine to its pre-prohibition glory and make wines rivaling the best wines of France.

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Then came the Class of 1972, with wineries now celebrating their golden anniversaries. According to the Napa Valley Vintners, at least eight wineries opened in the valley that year, nearly as many as in the entire previous decade. It was the start of a growth spurt, as more than 40 wineries opened in Napa in the 1970s.

Several of the Class of 1972 not only survive today, but have helped define California wine in the half century since. Caymus and Silver Oak, still owned by their founding families, pushed Napa towards a riper, more powerful Cabernet Sauvignon style and sparked the cult wine craze. Diamond Creek (now owned by Maison Louis Roederer) has lifted the eyes of valley-bottom winemakers to the challenges and rewards of mountain viticulture. Other wineries that were founded or produced their first vintage in 1972 in Napa Valley include Clos du Val, Burgess, Mount Veeder, Rutherford Hill, and Sullivan Rutherford Estate.

In Sonoma County, a civil engineer named Dave Stare, who caught the wine bug while working in Europe in the mid-1960s, bought a plum orchard west of Healdsburg and established Dry Creek Vineyard, the first winery to open in the Dry Creek. Valley since Prohibition.

“It was 50 acres bought on a handshake,” says Kim Stare Wallace, Stare’s daughter who now runs the winery. Stare’s inspirations were the white wines of the Loire Valley and the reds of Bordeaux. He was the first in Sonoma County to label Sauvignon Blanc as fume blanc, and the winery to this day specializes in this variety and Chenin Blanc. The winery was the first to use the word Meritage – a portmanteau of merit and heritage – on its Bordeaux-style red wines. And Dry Creek Vineyard was the first to describe its Zinfandel as “old vines,” says Stare Wallace, adding ruefully, “I wish I had put it down.”

Also in 1972, Tom and Sally Jordan purchased land in Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley to establish Jordan Vineyard and Winery. Like Stare and other budding winemakers, they had fallen in love with French food and wine while traveling in Europe and wanted to recreate that culture here at home.

“They were foodies before foodies were cool,” John Jordan, the winery’s current CEO, said of his parents. Jordan Winery produces highly regarded Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, marketed primarily to the foodservice industry. And the winery bucked the California wave of bigger is better, preferring a European style that is coming back into vogue today. “We like to let the food do the most talking,” Jordan says.

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The winery is planning anniversary dinners this summer in Denver, the Jordan family’s hometown, Dallas, where it has a large fan base, and Nashville, which Jordan says is “the country’s foodie scene in this moment”.

In Calistoga, on the other side of Mount Saint Helena from the Alexander Valley, Château Montelena was founded in 1882 by Alfred Tubbs. (Its name may be more familiar to us today due to the 2017 Tubbs Fire that started near Calistoga and quickly spread through the mountains to Santa Rosa.) The winery was in dormant from prohibition until 1972, when it was purchased by Jim Barrett and Ernie Hahn.

This year, the Barretts, led by Jim’s son, Bo, celebrate 50 years of family ownership of Château Montelena. They caused a stir at first: their 1973 chardonnay won the 1976 Paris Judgment tasting, which established California as a world-class wine region on par with France. They even recreated this winning chardonnay by blending a wine made with grapes from the same three vineyards, which Barrett says are still owned by their original families.

Montelena is replanting its vineyards for the third time, which Barrett says should allow the winery to continue producing quality Cabernet, Chardonnay and Zinfandel over the next half-century.

“The first time you plant, you pretty much guess,” he jokes. “The second time, 20 to 25 years later, you do a little better. On the third time – well, if you don’t know what you’re doing on the third time, you should probably do something else.

Other wineries are also celebrating anniversaries this year, of course. Stony Hill, on Napa’s Spring Mountain, was founded in 1952. And the Bartolucci family celebrates a century of winemaking at Madonna Estate. But it was the Class of 1972 that capitalized on a nascent revolution and propelled California wine into its modern era of greatness.

Richard Dement

The author Richard Dement