Ever Wonder What Napa Wines Tasted Like in the 1930s?

Courtesy of Larkmead

By Carson Demmond Posted March 24, 2016

Larkmead's Dan Petroski recovered historic bottles from the winery's turn-of-the-century owners, including a cache of 1930s post-Prohibition-era vintages. We opened two, to see if they were any good… 

I knew it was the perfect day to visit Larkmead when we pulled up to the Calistoga property and saw that spring was in full force: sun shining, the vineyard awash in picture-perfect yellow mustard flowers, Cabernet buds just starting to appear, birds chirping. It was the kind of bucolic scene that makes urban dwellers go green with envy. Then Dan Petroski, winemaker, greeted us with a grin that suggested he had something even cooler in store for us.

Weeks earlier, a gentleman contacted Petroski regarding several cases of Larkmead wines dating from the 1930s. He was moving and wanted the bottles off his hands. The gentleman’s father-in-law, Elmer Salmina, had been the Larkmead winemaker back in those days, the son of Felix Salmina (the F. in F. Salmina & Co. – pictured above – that had farmed the property since 1895). And so the bottles returned to their home, and our visit was as good an excuse as any to sample a couple of them.

I had tasted wines as old before. It’s not uncommon to come across the occasional bottle of Madeira from the 19th Century, and I had been lucky enough to pull the corks on some Huet Vouvrays from the 1920s when I worked as a sommelier. But California wines from that era? From a vineyard that’s still producing to this day? Those don’t really turn up, ever. 

“What’s particularly cool about having these bottles is that that was a time when California was producing immigrant wine,” says Petroski. While much of the U.S. was still waking up from Prohibition, Italian immigrant families like the Salminas had had the benefit of being allowed to continue to produce – albeit in smaller quantities – when commercial production was banned. (There was an exception written into the Volstead Act that allowed families to make up to 200 gallons per year for home use. Another exception included sacramental wine for the church).

Of the two bottles we grabbed, one had a Larkmead label that read ‘California Burgundy’ with no vintage date. The other was a shiner bottle with a handwritten tag that said ‘July ‘39’. “California Burgundy would have been Petite Sirah, with the potential of having a little Mondeuse blended in, which is a Savoie-native Syrah-slash-Gamay kind of variety,” says Petroski. The other bottle, it was decided, was a Zinfandel—based on the fact that its bottle shape corresponded to the other Zinfandel-labeled bottles in the box. Plus, those were the two major reds the winery made at that time, the heyday of Cabernet still decades away. “It also wasn’t standard practice to vintage-date bottles until World War II when California wineries had to fulfill the need on the East Coast for wine they couldn’t get from Europe,” he adds, “so the wine bottled in July ’39 could be a ’37 or ’38, but most probably a ’36.”

An ah-so and many cork crumbles later, we had the California Burgundy in our glasses. My first impression? It was sweet! There was noticeable residual sugar in the wine – almost like a handful of Sun-Maid raisins. It was also light in body; lighter than you’d expect from young Petite Sirah, but that kind of delicacy is natural for something that’s seen 80 years of bottle age. It still had a hearty dose of acidity and was quite, well, wine-like. The Zinfandel was less approachable when first poured, and a musty note left us wondering whether it corked or was simply over-the-hill. Then, it started to open up – a kind of fruit leather palate with a metallic, coppery tang, some structure but no finish to speak of. It was wet, it was wine, and it was an educational experience – like an exciting sensorial snapshot of a period in time. It had held up impressively well, considering it was never intended to cellar or improve with age. Was it delicious? Hardly. But it had the stuffing to suggest it was once pretty good, potentially fortified or filtered multiple times during winemaking for stabilization. 

“It’s so rare to find a winery here that’s had as long a continuous history,’ says Petroski. “Of the 700 in Napa, there are less than 100 that go back more than a quarter of a century.” Larkmead, he notes, was one of the Big Four named by André Tchelistcheff (who, he says, was “like the Michel Rolland of the time”) – along with Inglenook, Beaulieu, and Beringer. 

None of the vines that produced those reds remain in the Larkmead vineyard, having since been torn out and replanted. But a small one-acre mixed planting of white grapes—Tocai Friulano, Grey Riesling, and Chenin Blanc, among others—remain as part of an old vine treasure trove. Perhaps someone somewhere has a well-preserved bottle or two.

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