In 1936 Jesse Owens, an American classic, burst on the scene like a flash, making Hitler's racial superiority mythology look ridiculous at the Berlin Olympics.
That same year, in a rustic winery in California's Napa Valley, another American classic first took shape. It was the first vintage of Beaulieu Vineyard's Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine that more than any other would destroy the myth that European wines are inherently superior.
Some 55 years after that historic vintage, Beaulieu Vineyard has just released its 50th anniversary vintage of Private Reserve in a commemorative bottle. It's a majestic package, with an extra-heavyweight bottle and a label that reproduces the 1936 original.
In many respects, the 1986 vintage is much like the original. Still 100 percent cabernet sauvignon, grown in the benchland soils around the small town of Rutherford. It's still fermented in redwood tanks. And it's still aged in American oak barrels, disdaining the French wood fashion that has swept California.
And the quality is still exceptional.
What's notably different is the price. The 1936 B.V. Reserve -- Beaulieu is the only major winery in California known far and wide by its initials -- sold for less than $2. The 1986 is selling for $30 to $40, if you can find it at all.
(B.V. fans in the Baltimore area who want to make sure they can procure some need to act fast. The crop was about half its normal size, and it has already sold out of many stores. Do not expect to find it on store shelves. Ask if the retailer has it in the back room. In this case, the area's best wine stores have mostly sold out but some of the nearly-as-good stores still have it.)
Compared with Beaulieu Vineyard itself, B.V. Reserve cabernet is a newcomer to the wine scene. The winery was founded in 1900 by Georges de Latour, a pioneering Frenchman, and scraped through the lean years of Prohibition making sacramental wines and preserving its old vines.
Beaulieu sprang back to vibrant life after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, and in 1936, near the end of his life, de Latour launched his most ambitious project -- an effort to make a California red wine as great as the finest wines of Bordeaux.
In 1938, de Latour hired a young Russian immigrant, Andre Tchelistcheff, as enologist. Soon after, de Latour died, the incumbent winemaker retired and Mr. Tchelistcheff took over the winemaking chores.
It was Mr. Tchelistcheff, more than anyone else, who built Beaulieu into a world-renowned winery, es-
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tablished Private Reserve as a classic wine and inspired the California wine boom. Through the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, Beaulieu and its reserve cabernet grew in stature, winning praise from the world's most sophisticated wine critics at a time when most California wines were regarded as coarse.
Mr. Tchelistcheff retired from B.V. in 1972, three years after de Latour's daughter sold the winery to the giant Heublein Corp. (It's been an active retirement. He went on to become California's most famous consulting enologist and has just recently renewed his association with B.V. at the age of 89.)
The transfer to corporate control raised a lot of questions about the quality of B.V. wines, and the record of the Private Reserve wines of the early 1970s seemed to confirm those doubts. After the 1970 vintage, probably B.V.'s greatest ever, the Private Reserve went into a slump that lasted through 1974 -- a year when Beaulieu should have made a great wine but settled for mediocrity.
Whether that was just a spell of bad vintages and bad luck or whether Heublein got religion, B.V. Reserve got back on track in 1975 and since then has never looked back. The winery was sold to Grand Metropolitan, a British conglomerate, in the late 1980s, but the transition was uneventful to the outside observer.
In the modern era of California winemaking, B.V. Reserve no longer stands alone at the top of the cabernet sauvignon heap. Joseph Heitz's Martha's Vineyard, Robert Mondavi's Reserve and Ridge Montebello joined it as contenders in the 1960s. The 1970s and 1980s brought a host of new contenders -- a few of which have surpassed B.V.'s record over the past decade or so.
Still, nobody with any credibility ever assembles a list of California's greatest cabernets without including B.V. Reserve. And judging by a recent tasting of the wine's past eight vintages, including the 1986 anniversary wine, the Georges de Latour Reserve is on a roll that would make its founder proud.
There are a few caveats. Although prices for B.V. remain reasonable compared with the likes of Opus One and Caymus Special Selection, it is no longer the bargain it was back in the days when the revered 1970 went on sale for $8. With the 1986 vintage it has leapt into the $30-plus category, and according to winery spokesman Larry Challacombe, it is unlikely to return, even if subsequent vintages are more abundant than the sparse 1986.
In addition, as good as B.V. Reserve can be in fine vintages, it is not a wine that bucks the trend in poor years. Mountain vineyards such as Dunn Howell Mountain may thrive in "off" vintages such as 1981 and 1983, but the lowland B.V. vineyards suffer.
As the following notes indicate, with the exception of those two ++ weak years, the record of these B.V. Reserves has been #F exceptional in recent years. You may still be able to find many of these vintages on local store shelves at reasonable (compared with 1986) prices.
*1986: Mr. Challacombe predicts this wine will go down as one of the greatest B.V. Reserves ever, alongside the 1970. I don't quite see it that way. It's a beautiful wine -- full of fruit, classically structured but far from ready to drink. I don't imagine this wine will ever rival the more concentrated 1970 but it's not far off the pace. Don't hesitate to buy it, but give it several years to soften up.
*1985: Now this wine is a rival to the 1970. With its intense, gripping black currant fruit and uncompromising elegance, it exemplifies the classic B.V. style better than any vintage in 15 years. This wine will last for decades and gain complexity with each passing year.
*1984: This wine has come on like gangbusters since the last time I tasted it two years ago. It seemed a bit one-dimensional at first, chunky but fairly simple, but the complexity and underlying structure have come roaring out and it now ranks just below the 1985. It's atypical for a B.V. Reserve, but it's still in good supply around the area, at relatively reasonable prices (that is, just under $30).
*1983: Good wine, not great, far short of the quality its price (even three years ago) would suggest. A bit thin with only whispers of true B.V. Reserve character.
*1982: A beautiful, elegant wine that is beginning to open up but could still use a few more years. Great intensity and length, with a silky feel but plenty of backbone. Similar to 1986.
*1981: A bit raisiny on the nose and blowzy on the palate. #F Drinkable, but totally lacking in B.V.'s usual elegance.
*1980: Ripe, mature and chunky -- not a typical B.V. Reserve (too concentrated) but a real mouthful of blackberry flavor. Great cedary aroma and plenty of complexity.
*1979: For some reasons, all the red wine regions of the world had about the same vintage conditions in 1979 -- very good, but not great. And in each area there were wines that transcended the vintages and showed classic form. This was one of them. The 1979 B.V. is one of the most elegant of its kind.