1987 California Cabernets

A major horizontal tasting of 1987 California cabernets hosted by collector Michael Rockefeller at the restaurant Eleven Madison Park on a crisp, lucid winter day in New York afforded a rare opportunity to view an above-average vintage in depth 15 years on. I think of California 1987 vintage as the last good vintage of the bad old days - or perhaps I should say of the previous generation of winemaking. Nineteen eighty-eight was basically a dismal harvest for the state cabernets and '89 was a mixed bag. The decade of the '90s then brought an embarrassment of riches, meteorologically speaking. Also beginning in the early '90s, a host of talented new winemakers, most of whom went far beyond the fruit-preservation mentality preached by the UC-Davis viticulture and enology school, quickly made the world outside California regard the state cabernets and Bordeaux blends in a new light. In 1987 the wine world had not yet tasted Harlan Estate, Bryant Family Vineyard, Colgin Cellars, Screaming Eagle or Dalla Valle, much less Blankiet or Verite. It must also be pointed out that many of the wineries represented in the horizontal tasting are making far more sophisticated wines today (although numerous others seem trapped in a time warp).

The 1987 vintage. Hot weather during the flowering reduced the size of the '87 crop. A dry summer generally yielded smallish berries and concentrated flavors. A heatwave early in the harvest induced many wineries to pick their fruit before acidity levels plunged dangerously. Some growers harvested their grapes before tannins and flavors were thoroughly ripe; a distressingly high percentage of the wines at the event were distinctly herbaceous or vegetal. Many growers who waited for greater ripeness acidified their musts for fear that the wines would fall apart. But our horizontal tasting generally showed that the added acidity did not preserve the wines' fruit: flavors that were tired at the outset were not magically perked up by acid adjustment. On the contrary: these wines were just as unpleasant to drink in their maturity as in their youth. Happily, a number of the most talented winemakers got it right. Most of these wines, I'm pleased to report, did well in these pages upon their release, and some of them are still full of life.

In my coverage below, I have omitted notes on four wines that I tasted in New York but was not able to revisit subsequently: the Caymus Napa Valley cabernet was corked, and three samples - Duckhorn, Silverado Reserve and Grace Family Vineyard - were maderized. However, in a few instances I have included notes on '87s I retasted with their makers in California a couple of weeks after the New York event.