posted by Gregory in Snooth, Wine, Wine Industry
It’s not often that one gets a second chance with wines like this. Way back when, in my early years of wine discovery I had the distinct fortune of being able to patronize a small wine shop in Watermill New York. I forget the name of the shop, Watermill Wines I would guess, but do recall the proprietor, George.
Watermill, being part of the Hamptons, had a split personality in the 1980’s. It was frenetic resort community for 90 days of the year, who can forget Danceteria in Watermill, and a lazy, farming and fishing community for the remainder of the year. A desolate and insular community with modest needs for a fine wine store at that.
Well George took full advantage of his winter doldrums and would rent a trailer and drive his truck out to California each year to stock up on exotic and rare wines. Wines that otherwise would never see the light of a summer day in the Hamptons. Wines that appeared, to the eyes of a budding aficionado, like treasures only seen in the few, out of print, books that together constituted the entire resource for exploring California wines. Wines that short of going to California, or George’s unassuming Watermill wine shop, would have to remain hidden mysteries
And so it was that I first stumbled into George’s, hidden as it was off Montauk highway, in search of something new to excite my palate. Like many shops of the times there were cases of wines artfully arrayed in the front window, albeit with an aged film of yellow plastic, no doubt applied as some magical defense mechanism to protect the inexpensive Chianti and Chablis display wines from the ruinous rays of the sun.
I was then, as I remain today, primarily interested in Italian wines, and let me tell you George’s shop was woefully deficient in that department. But I was nothing if not thorough so I began to scan the rack just beyond the register. Hmmm, this was different. 1974 Heitz Martha’s, 1971 BV Georges de la Tour, 1968 Montebello, some funky bottle of Casa de Sonoma Cabernet bottled in 1947 but just recently recorked. Wow, what was going on here?
Of course the crazy selection got me interested and George took ample time to answer my questions. To make a long story short George took very kindly to a young, enthusiastic wine geek and allowed me to exchange some organizational activities for tremendous discounts on wine. I still have bottles from George like the 1975 Gemello Mountain Cabernet, 1974 Inglenook Charbono and 1977 Montevina Special Selection Zinfandel that were glorious stepping stones on my path to full fledged wine geekdom but I never was able to get him to cut me a deal on those bottles kept close at hand by the register.
The Casa De Sonoma held a particular fascination for me. Bottled in 1947, it said so right on the label, yet recorked and released only in 1982, this would easily be the oldest California wine I would have tried but the price was a breathtaking $40. That’s in 1985 folks, like I said breathtaking. I was 20 and that $40 would have bought cases of beer, heck you could even get a case of wine for that money, and decent wine at that.
I discussed the bottle with George several times, holding it and taking a peak at the shriveled cork attacked to each bottle in a little sack. George told me the story of the wine, or at least a story of the wine. According to George the wine was made by The El Gavilan Winery in 1941 but before it could be bottled WWII broke out and operation at the winery pretty much ceased as all able bodied men were drafted. Once the war came to an end, or at least when the winemakers’ hitch was up, the proprietor of El Gavilan took advantage of the GI bill to better himself.
Well by 1947 the betterment was in full swing and the now defunct El Gavilan Winery was sold to Sebastiani with a few barrels of this 1941 still intact. It was tasted and deemed to be special enough to warrant bottling but without a reputation, or existing winery, sales of this “premium” wine were dreadfully slow. So slow in fact that in 1982, when the cork had begun to fail there was still enough wine on hand to make recorking worthwhile and during the recorking it was discovered that they had a verifiable California Classic on their hands, worthy of the exorbitant price.
Well it was a great story with a kernel or two of truth to it but as it turns out not the real deal. I was not to discover this for almost 25 years, for while I never bought a bottle of the Casa de Sonoma from George I never forgot that wine.
Imagine my surprise when I noticed a non-vintage Casa de Sonoma listing while scanning Winebid earlier this year. Clicking on the link confirmed that this was the same wine and the starting bid was $15! There were several lots available and hoping to insure that I got at least one winning bid I placed increasingly high max bids on each lot. With several days to go until the auction closed I could monitor my success and, if need be, raise my bid.
Well I guess I was the only one talking to George about this wine since Sunday came and I won all the bottles I had bid on for $15 each! Even with the buyer’s premium and shipping I was looking at less than $25 per bottle, a steal. Within a couple of weeks the bottles arrived, looking as intriguing as they had almost 25 years ago. I know one is supposed to allow wine to rest after transport, travel shock and all that, but I couldn’t wait so the weekend after they arrived I was toting along a bottle to a gathering of like-minded winegeeks.
Not knowing what lay in store I chose to not decant this wine. The cork, being only 28 years old, was fairly easy to extract intact. Apon first pour the wine had a little too much of a bronze tone than I would have liked to see but with air it actually turned a bit redder and fresher. On the nose and palate this exhibits a very typical array of very aged notes, faded backing spices, beef bouillon, cola, and dusty earth yet it does retain a core of black fruit and has a surprising fresh and bright feel to it. It is no powerhouse but it’s not dead yet. It was a thoroughly enjoyable bottle in fact, with enough complexity to remain engaging and as it evolved in the glass one could only wonder what made it’s way into this Duraglass 4/5 quart bottle. And wonder I did.
The next day I was on the phone with Sebastiani. Vineyards. There was that informative sticker on the bottle announcing that my wine was in fact “From the personal cellars of August Sebastiani – Recorked at Sebastiani Vineyards May 1982”. If anyone knew anything it would be Sebastiani.
I spoke with people in the media department as well as the winemaker atthey could offer no information. I thought it strange that this most intriguing and unique wine, perhaps the most intriguing and unique ever from Sebastiani, was now bottiglia non grata. Could I be the keeper of the flame, the holder of the truth, the last man living who had the story? Of course not, I just needed to dig a little deeper.
And deep I dug, discovering an interview conducted in 2000 by Carole Hicke of one Doug L Davis entitled “HISTORY OF SEBASTIANI VINEYARDS, 1955-PRESENT”. It seems that Doug L Davis was the Vice President and Executive Winemaster of Sebastiani. Well, I thought, that’s the man I need to talk with.
Doug spent over 45 years with Sebastiani, choosing to leave in 2003 during the sale of the winery to constellation brands. Tracking him down was fairly easy and I was fortunate to spend about a half hour on the phone with him last month finally finding out the truth regarding this unique bottling of wine.
According to Doug the El Gavilan bottling got it’s name from a Sebastiani property that was in Santa Rosa “down by the railroad tracks.” It was selected lots of 1941 Cabernet that was bottled in 1947 along with other lots of Burgundy, Chablis and Sauternes!
Being 1947, wines labeled as Cabernet needed only to contain 51% Cabernet with the remainder being primarily Zinfandel, Carignane, Petite Sirah and Mondeuse. While these might seem an odd assortment one has to factor in the way Sebastiani weathered the storm of Prohibition: by shipping thick-skinned grapes, (Carignane, Petite Sirah, Mondeuse), throughout the country to home winemakers.
Back then Sebastiani was almost exclusively a bulk operation and the vast majority of the wines they produced were dessert wines, but there were small lots of table wine produced, though even these limited quantities failed to find a market. These earliest table wines were produced during the transitionary period as Sebastiani founder Samuele passed control of the property over to his son August Sebastiani.
Perhaps to make a name for himself, or simply for the heck of it August chose to bottle about 1000 cases of the 1941 Cabernet and chose the Casa de Sonoma label, Casa de Sonoma being the home August had built for himself in 1947. The wine was bottled in the El Gavilan winery, which was also owned by Sebastiani at that time.
These 1000 cases were then brought to Sonoma and laid down in old stable on the Sebastiani property. Doug’s first exposure to this wine occurred in his first year with Sebastiani as the flood of 1955 required all hands on deck to help move the cases to higher ground! Fortunately, or unfortunately, the wine pretty much just sat there in those stables after that. It was never actively marketed, though it was sold through the winery and given away as gifts.
August Sebastiani passed away in 1980 and when the contents of the winery were inventoried it became apparent that the corks in these bottles had begun to fail so a recorking program was undertaken. Each bottle was inspected, a few were deemed healthy enough to be left alone and were retained by the winery, but the remainder were individually opened and inspected.
The entire lot, which by this point was about half of what had originally been bottled, was sorted out, with spoiled bottles being discarded and sound bottles being topped off and recorked. Each bottle had its original cork and paper capsule placed in a bag and attached to the bottle to help maintain each bottle’s authenticity and historical significance. What was finally released in 1982 was the best of what remained of a wine that was “never great” but did represent a significant effort that was justified only by the high quality that the 1941 vintage represented.
And that’s the real story behind this bottling. It’s a lot of history for one small bottle and a testament to what California was capable of, and achieved half a century ago. I thank Samuele Sebastini for making the wine possible, August Sebastiani for making the wine, and Doug Davis for making sure the story of the wine was not lost to time.
Sometimes you do get a second chance. In this case I also have a third, and a fourth, and a fifth…
P.S. Gotta love that back label. Well chilled indeed!
Gregory Dal Piaz