Sure, it might seem far away—Carter was president, the top albums were movie soundtracks (Grease and Saturday Night Fever). But '78 is still with us. That year gave us The French Laundry, Ben & Jerry's, and the first issue of Food & Wine. For our inaugural decade, we started—where else?—with the classics.
Not long ago I was sitting in Press restaurant in St. Helena, California, in the heart of Napa Valley, drinking a bottle of wine from 1979—a William Hill Cabernet Sauvignon. It was everything you’d want in an older wine: complex aromas and flavors recalling dried currants, dry leaves, tobacco; a sustaining acidity that lengthened those notes until they finally ghosted away. It was made the year after Food & Wine was founded. I wasn’t even old enough to drink on the day that wine went into its bottle.
The thing about great older wines is that they occupy both then and now. Looking back through the lens of that wine takes you to the dawn of the American wine revolution. In the late 1970s, the reverberations of the now-famous Judgment of Paris tasting of 1976 were echoing louder and louder, building an intensifying awareness of the world-class quality of American wine.
Consider the wineries that got started in Northern California then: in 1978, Pine Ridge, Flora Springs, William Hill, Kistler; in 1979, Opus One, Iron Horse, Far Niente (originally built in 1885 but resurrected after being abandoned for years); in 1980 and ’81, Rombauer, Cain, Chimney Rock, Ferrari-Carano ... the list goes on. Nor is this profusion limited to California. In Washington in 1978, Leonetti Cellar in Walla Walla and Quilceda Creek in Snohomish both got their start, soon proving that Washington Cabernets could rival those of California. Oregon also took off, the number of wineries there doubling in the 1980s.
It’s also easy to forget how provincial the U.S. wine world was then (something the acclaimed critic Robert Parker noted in our last anniversary issue in 2008; he got his start in 1978, too). Back then, most stores and restaurants carried little more than the familiar names: Chianti (Italy represented almost 60 percent of the imported wine in the U.S. in 1980), a Rioja or two, a Sancerre, some Champagne, a smattering of California wines. Bordeaux was in the doldrums; it took the game-changing 1982 vintage to bring it back to prominence. New Zealand was negligible, Chile and Argentina mostly known for dictatorial regimes; terroir was a word that would get you a baffled glance at best.
But that was changing. Thanks to sommeliers like Kevin Zraly (Windows on the World in New York City) and restaurant owners like Narsai David (at San Francisco’s Narsai’s), wine lists soon reached unprecedented levels of depth and ambition; wine-savvy chefs like Jonathan Waxman at New York’s Jams gave respect to bottles even as they changed the face of American cooking.
Today we live in an era of wine abundance. There are 8,700 wineries in the U.S.—up from 676 in 1978. Walk into any wine shop or ambitious restaurant, and you can buy bottles from places as far-flung as Slovenia, Tasmania, and Lebanon, wines made with grapes ranging from Arinto, native to the Azores, to Sicily’s Zibibbo. And the tiny tail end of that current cornucopia starts in the year Food & Wine was born.
Wineries from the dawn of Food & Wine
Try these picks from wineries that all got their start in 1978 and 1979 and are still going strong today.
The 2014 Napa Valley Merlot ($29) from Flora Springs does justice to this sometimes-maligned variety: It’s plummy and spicy, and calls out for the accompaniment of something grilled.
Though Pine Ridge Vineyards made its name on Cabernet, current winemaker Michael Beaulac has a deft touch with whites as well, something his floral 2014 Dijon Clones Carneros Chardonnay ($38) shows clearly.
Whether the black cherry–rich 2015 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($50) from William Hill Estate Winery will last as long as the 1979 vintage I tasted recently is debatable, but it’s certainly a pleasure to drink right now.
Originally built in 1885, Far Niente was abandoned during Prohibition. In 1979, entrepreneur Gil Nickel brought it back to life and established a now-long-standing cult following for its layered, rich Chardonnay. The 2016 Estate Bottled ($70) is the current vintage.
Iron Horse, a sparkling wine producer in Sonoma, draws crowds daily to its lively outdoor tasting room, where visitors can enjoy some of the state’s best bubbles. Case in point: the creamy 2013 Classic Vintage Brut ($45).