California Wine Changed Forever in 1972, and It's Far From Finished

Marking the 50th anniversaries for many of California’s most renowned producers with a retrospective tasting for the ages.

Wine bottles
Photo: Tetra Images / Getty Images

It wasn't obvious back then, but 1972 shaped the world of Californian and American wine in profound and delicious ways. Given the reputation of Napa Valley and Sonoma County today, it's hard to imagine there was a time when, for most of the world, California wasn't really on the wine radar. In the early 1970s, fine wine more or less meant European wine, particularly French and perhaps Italian. Great Chardonnay was, by definition, from Burgundy, just as world-class Cabernet Sauvignon typically came from Bordeaux.

Yet if Americans have any sort of national ethos, any one thing that we've generally been able to agree upon despite our often fervent disagreements and divisions, it's a philosophy based on stubbornness: Tell us we can't do something, and we will generally work like mad to find a way to prove that naysaying wrong. Striving for the impossible has coursed through this country since the beginning. And in the early-1970s, nothing seemed more impossible than proving the old Eurocentric wine world wrong.

But that's exactly what happened. Because that year saw the launch of some of the most iconic and important wine producers in modern American history. And while they had no way of knowing it at the time, Jordan, Château Montelena, Burgess, Diamond Creek, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, and Dry Creek Vineyard would help change the world's perception of what California was capable of. In the years since, they've become known as the "Class of 1972," and this year is their 50th anniversary.

"The one word that defines the start-up wineries of the Class of 1972 is 'gutsy,'" noted Bo Barrett, CEO and former winemaker at the iconic Château Montelena. "No one really knew what varieties would grow best in Napa Valley and where to find skilled winemakers or grape-growing teams. It was so unknown, literally terra incognita, and other than wishful expectations, with no guarantee of success, the founders just took a gigantic, flying leap. The impact of these post–prohibition pioneers paved the way to success in the US wine industry. These first riders of the mighty Napa wine wave showed that the highest quality was, and remains today, the prime objective for every winery following the Class of 1972."

To mark the occasion, Lisa Mattson, creative director of Jordan, conceived of a special retrospective tasting, which brought together winemakers and grape growers from the six estates, each of which had to choose three wines from three different decades, to show at the Culinary Institute of America Greystone.

It was astounding, and the kind of tasting that showcased the larger trends that have shaped the Napa and Sonoma wine industries. It also proved, yet again, that certain stubborn assumptions just can't always be taken as accurate. For example, Sauvignon Blanc isn't generally the kind of wine that most people lay down in the cellar for any length of time, unless it's a white Bordeaux from a great château or, perhaps, one of the legendary Pouilly-Fumés from Didier Dagueneau. Likewise, it's generally agreed that California Sauvignon Blanc isn't usually meant to stand the test of time. The 1994 Dry Creek Vineyards Fumé Blanc, however — from the year before I graduated high school — was still going strong, its aromas of tarragon, thyme, blistered jalapeños, and grapefruit oils setting the stage for flavors of nougat, honey, and loads of herbs, all of it pumped through with still-vibrant acidity.

Château Montelena also brought the proverbial thunder with a magnum of their 1990 Chardonnay. Larger format bottles tend to age more slowly than standard 750ml ones — the different ratio of liquid to air in the bottle generally assures that — and this 32-year-old stunner proved just how smart an investment magnums are for aging. It was all honey-coated almonds and mashed fennel bulb on the nose, with a sappy, silky palate of mint, golden chanterelles, apricots, lemon oils, coriander, and a deep seam of minerality that rode through the long, savory finish.

But this was primarily a red wine tasting, and considering five decades of them side-by-side was eye-opening and, in a lot of ways, paradigm-shifting. Received wisdom, after all, has it that Napa and, to a lesser extent, Sonoma reds, are made in a particular style: Full-throttle, rich in fruit and alcohol, and not necessarily at their very best after decades in the cellar. Yet glass after glass at the Class of 1972 tasting proved all of that wrong. Jordan, for example, showcased the exquisite balance that can be found between ripeness and acidity with their excellent 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon, its red and black raspberries and cherries beautifully concentrated and vibrant, promising another three decades of evolution. And their 1999 was also still going strong with jasmine, wild strawberries, and candied apples on the nose plus a concentrated and still bright palate of cherries, blood oranges, thyme, green olives, tobacco, and minerals. It was gorgeous.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars showed their exquisite 2002 S.L.V. Cab, which started off on a brooding and muscular note. Its aromas of leather, cured black olives, and singed sage and mint set the stage for a dense, rich palate that's at a fantastic place of evolution right now, the cassis, figs, blueberries, and cedar lifted with hints of chamomile. Château Montelena's 2002 Cab was also stellar, albeit sappier and more floral, with violets and bluebonnets preceding green peppercorn spice, cherry pits, and hints of sarsaparilla. Side-by-side, they illustrated how two very different styles of Cabernet can be equally appealing, despite the different ways they expressed the same amount of time in the bottle.

Yet it was the 1972 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon that was most surprising: Even at 50 years of age, and produced from vines that were only two years old at harvest, this wine was positively alive. Fully mature and totally unexpected aromas of apple fritters, apricot pits, and the crispy, caramelized layer of rice cooked on the stovetop led to flavors of cherries, blood oranges, pomegranate seeds, wild strawberries, and walnuts, with a hit of jasmine shooting through the cedar and mineral-flecked finish.

Younger yet no less rewarding was the 1989 Burgess Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon, whose meaty aromas of beef bresaola were livened with fenugreek and kirsch before flavors of black cherries, warm licorice, and citrus oils. Their 2021 Sorenson's Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, from vines planted in 1983, 1984, and 1989, is the first to be produced by winemaker Meghan Zobeck, who took the reins in 2020, and shows lots of potential for the future. So does the 2018 Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace, which was wonderfully balsamic on the nose, with additional touches of coriander, cherries, and wild strawberries and flavors of blue fruits anchored by crushed rocks, black licorice, sanguine notes, and sweet tobacco.

The retrospective tasting ended with two excellent Zinfandels from Dry Creek Vineyards: The savory and generous 2019 Somers Ranch Zin (strawberry fruit roll-ups in the best possible sense, cherry coulis, and blueberries, all of it zippy with subtle spice), and the 1997 Reserve Zinfandel, whose balsamic and sweet pine notes were rounded out by strawberry coulis, sweet tannins, and vivid acidity.

After tasting through the full line-up of 18 wines, it was more than clear why the Class of 1972 has become such a touchstone. The older wines were showing beautifully, and the younger ones held tremendous promise for the future. It's a legacy that's still being written with every passing vintage.

"The Class of 1972 were visionaries and risk-takers at a time when the Napa and Sonoma regions were not on the map," noted John Jordan, proprietor of his family's eponymous winery. "Their unwavering commitment, passion, and innovation paved the way for California wine, making our region what it is today."

Marcus Notaro, winemaker for Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, agreed. "These pioneering wineries helped put Napa and Sonoma on the world wine map 50 years ago, and have been instrumental in pushing quality boundaries ever since. That's the legacy."

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