Age-worthy Cabs from the Sierra Foothills?
Updated: Jun 27
While vintners from Napa were winning the Judgment of Paris and proving to the world that their Cabernet Sauvignon wines can rival the great wines of Bordeaux, a small group of pioneering families in the Sierra Foothills was humbly setting out to make wines of their own. Little did they know they were making wine that would be delicious 40+ years later.
El Dorado county is nothing if not resilient. In the 19th century, the region was a hotbed of wine production as gold miners needed their vices. There were many more people that got rich off of gold miners than there were gold miners that got rich off of gold. The wine, brandy, and whiskey industry thrived here until Prohibition brought about its devastating demise. The county then turned to pears which would soon rule the landscape until that industry suffered its own devastating demise when a pear blight ravaged the county.
Most farmers pivoted to apples, but a trio of renegade families decided to try their hands at planting wine grapes instead. Greg and Sue Boeger bought a gold rush era homestead just outside of downtown Placerville. At about the same time, Dick and Leslie Bush were starting Madroña Winery just a couple of miles up the hill, and several ridges to the south, John and Barbara MacCready were purchasing and developing the land that would become Sierra Vista Winery. The three all became successful wineries and set the stage for what would slowly grow to become one of the country's most exciting wine regions.
In the 1970's, a significant portion of the early plantings was devoted to Cabernet Sauvignon. This was certainly wise with the success Napa was experiencing with the grape, even though the climate and soil are quite different than Napa's. With Napa Cabs from the 1960's and 1970's being such world-class aging wines, it begs the question: how well do these 40 and 50 year old Foothills Cabs age?
The question isn't an easy one, and it includes many factors. To properly age, a wine must be vinified with agreeability in mind to create an oxygen-protective structural backbone, it must have a closure system designed to allow for slow aging over many decades, and it must be stored under proper conditions (temperature, light, humidity, and sedentariness). As fledgeling start ups, the early Sierra Foothills wine pioneers mostly didn't have the luxury of producing a lot of wine intended to age. Often inexpensive 1 1/2 inch corks were used and seldom were signifiant numbers of bottle set aside for longterm storage. This means that most old samples of these wines come from private cellars, like this 1976 Boeger Cabernet Sauvignon that we found at auction. The quality of an old wine is always a crapshoot. The odds become even more stacked against you when the bottle's provenance is unknown. Despite the risk, for us old wine lovers, the upside is so wonderful that it is worth the gamble.
One of the first things we look for when buying or preparing to open an old wine is its level of fill. If the fill level is low, there is a large amount of evaporation which can indicate either a large amount of moisture passage through the cork or poor storage conditions. Either way, the escaped wine is replaced by air which contains oxygen which in large quantities is a killer of wine. For a 46 year old bottle, this "top shoulder" fill level is about what we would expect. So, no red flags just yet. (It should be noted that some of the best old wines I've ever tasted had abnormally low fill levels... it is but one factor.)
Next we cut or remove the capsule so we can get a look at the top of the cork. We are hoping to find a lack of complete saturation of the cork and little or no seepage or other signs of wine at the top of the cork. All of this looks great with this bottle! There is a small sign of some possible seepage at one time, but it was dry and looked insignificant. The only thing to be a little concerned about is that this cork is slightly depressed into the bottle. A depressed or an uplifted cork can be an indicator of either the lack of a good seal of the cork within the head of bottle or temperature fluctuation during storage. Cooler than ideal storage can result in the depressed cork whereas warmer than ideal conditions can result in the uplifted cork. While neither are great for aging and can lead to non-harmonious aging (aging is just a compilation of chemical reactions), cool is a little better than warm since heat itself can harm the wine aged wine and produce cabbage-like flavors. So, here we continue to be cautiously optimistic.
The cork was extracted without difficulty and was a beauty. It wasn't a long cork, but it was long enough and had done its job. It was far from being fully saturated, but with the saturation approaching the top, it probably only had a few more years remaining of being protective. A quick whiff of the cork and the bottle revealed no concerning aromas. Now we are getting excited. The next and often most revealing aspect will be the color of the wine. Let's pour.
Beautiful! There is a little brownish bricking but less than would be expected for a wine this age. There was so much color and life left, it was hard to not get really excited at this point. but, alas, it is time for patience. A wine this age needs a couple of hours of slow oxidation to wake up. This is not a decant. We do not want to bombard the wine with oxygen. Oxygen has already done its work on this wine. It just needs to stretch its legs after its slumber and get a little resuscitation.
One hour later for the poured wine and three hours later for the wine still in the bottle, it was time to taste. The wine was an absolute delight. It very much put me in the mind of an old, old Napa Cab. There was a blend of fresh and drying fruit, mostly red cherries, along with dried flowers and a little bit of caramelization. There was not a lot of degradation aromas which is surprising at this age. This bottle was certainly worthy of graphing on the Old Napa Cab chart.
All three of these founding wineries are still alive and kicking. Boeger and Madrona are still owned and operated by the Boeger and Bush families, respectively. Sierra Vista is under new and transformative ownership. All are wonderful wineries to visit, and all are making incredible wines alongside some younger neighbors. To learn more about exploring this section of the Sierra Foothills, check out our Apple Hill/Camino page and our Pleasant Valley page.
For more information about aged wine and to better understand the graphs and terminology here, see our Blog Post Understanding Aged Wine and for more information of aged Napa Cabs, see our Blog Post Old Napa, New Napa and for more information on the exciting things happening at Sierra Vista, stay tuned!