Inside the Making of Napa's Most Iconic Cabernet
With a new winemaker at the helm of Beaulieu Vineyard, there’s no better time to discover (or rediscover) the iconic Georges de Latour Private Reserve, and if you’re heading to Napa, booking an appointment here is a must.
I have a theory: I’d wager that there are so many Napa Cabernets made today that if you stacked them one by one, they’d reach all the way to the moon. But if you stacked them in order of historical significance, with the most profound bottles forming the base, the number one bottle would have to be Beaulieu Vineyard’s legendary Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.
Wines have rolled off the bottling line at Beaulieu since 1900, with 1936 being the first vintage of the iconic (or flagship) Georges de Latour. But if you’re unfamiliar with the backstory on their Georges de Latour label, it’s time to get acquainted. The label is as important to Napa Valley’s history as say, Walt Disney is to Disneyland.
There’s no better time to discover (or rediscover) this wine than today, because there’s a new winemaker at the helm—Trevor Durling. At six feet two inches, he’s a towering presence; young and bursting with the energy and build of a college football or rugby player. Durling is sharp, quick-witted, and as far as I know, has never worn a Hawaiian shirt (which seemed to be pre-requisite for winemakers back in the day).
At just 35 years old, he was named the fifth winemaker in the history of BV—only the second-youngest—and that fact is a testament to Durling’s skills. As I learned the story of his journey to BV, it became clear that he is, without question, the person for this immense job.
In February, I met Durling at BV’s Georges de Latour Private Reserve Room in Rutherford, California, and we talked about what his stewardship means for the future of this iconic label.
Disguises and a Destiny to Make Georges de Latour
“You hear stories of Napa winemakers lining up for an allocation of Georges de Latour,” Durling told me. “Years ago, you had to go to the winery and literally get in line. And you’d be behind some Napa legend. Some of them would even bring disguises so that they could jump back in line to get more than one allocation!”
“It’s the wine that has inspired generations of winemakers and sommeliers, because it leaves such an impression.” Durling continued. “They tasted it and wanted to make wine or get into the wine business.”
The first vintage of Georges de Latour ever produced was the 1936. And the oldest vintage you can buy today (at auction) appears to be a 1960 bottle for $399 online. The current release is the 2014 vintage, which costs roughly $145 per bottle and received a 97-point score from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate—the highest score from that publication in all 78 vintages produced. So, the iconic brand is certainly on the up and up.
André Tchelistcheff, one of the most influential winemakers in the history of wine, first made this pillar of Napa Cabernet, and in 2017, Durling was named winemaker—only the fifth person to hold the position in 118 years.
The first time Durling sipped a Georges de Latour was in the early 2000s at a tasting hosted by a great uncle. Someone had brought a mint-condition bottle from the 1968 vintage, which with 30+ years of age, It “blew me away,” Durling said—and like so many people before him, it inspired him to become a winemaker.
Nearly two decades later, he’s living a bit of a fairy-tale story. But he didn’t just fall into the position of BV’s senior winemaker. Before getting tapped for BV, he was the head winemaker at Provenance and Hewitt Vineyard, which are located directly across Highway 29 from BV. Not only was he responsible for supplying the most pristine fruit from Hewitt for the final Georges de Latour blend, but he also often found himself regularly bolting across the street for visits.
“I’d go over to ask for a hose, and get roped into a 60-wine blind tasting for blending and inventory at BV,” he said. Eventually they asked him to sit for the final blending of their Georges de Latour. “Every vintage from 2008 on, I was at BV tasting and working closely with then-winemaker Jeffrey Stambor,” said Durling. “I was used to the vineyards and the blends and had a strong grasp on the wines and the style, which went hand in hand with what I was doing at Provenance, working with Rutherford grapes.”
When Stambor announced his retirement in 2017, Durling was pegged as his successor. In 2017, he became the fifth winemaker at BV in the winery’s 118-year history.
Georges de Latour From Grape to Bottle
Throughout all 78 vintages of Georges de Latour—even as winemakers have transitioned, and certain decades saw the wine aged in American oak, and later French oak—the constant has always been the source of the grapes. This is perhaps why it has become a benchmark Cabernet, particularly for Rutherford, from where most of the fruit comes.
Just across the street from BV’s winery in Rutherford, is BV Ranch No. 1 and nearby is BV Ranch No. 2—vineyards originally planted by Georges de Latour himself in the early 1900s. Those sites provide most of the Cabernet Sauvignon to the Georges de Latour Private Reserve, while the rest of the blend is plucked off select blocks from Hewitt Vineyard and a handful of blocks from prime Napa sites that have supplied grapes for the blend for more than four decades.
Once all the fruit is harvested, the selection process is rigorous. Only the best of the best will be selected to become the next vintage of Georges de Latour.
“We begin with 1,200 different barrel lots and it takes us six months to whittle it down to about 500 barrels,” says Durling. “If we reject any fruit, that’s because it might be the magic bullet for some 200-case blend exclusively for the tasting room.”
Eventually, Durling will scour barrels that have been aging for around 18 months, and pull samples of those he thinks might be good enough for Georges de Latour. From there, he creates micro-blends, always focused on quality over quantity. As of this writing, the 2016 vintage is being assembled.
Style: Past, Present, Future
The first few vintages were aged in French Oak, which wasn’t common in the early-to-mid-1900s, but because Georges de Latour was French, it seemed natural to him to use the oak of his homeland. When WWII broke out and it became impossible to import French oak, the winery started using American oak barrels — at the time marked by heavily toasted interiors, which effectively imparted lots of toasty oak and vanilla flavors to the finished wine.
It wasn’t until the late 1990s that they switched back to French, after former master blender Tchelistcheff made the suggestion to Joel Aiken, the winemaker at the time. When Aiken expressed hesitation, assuring his predecessor that the wine was being made to his specifications, Tchelistcheff famously replied, “Well I’ve changed in the last 20 years, why haven’t you?”
In 2008, an entire barrel warehouse was converted to a space solely dedicated to the production of Georges de Latour. And it comes with all the bells and whistles money can buy. “I can control the temperatures of tanks and barrels from a laptop,” said Durling, which proved a priceless advantage during the fires last October when Trevor couldn’t access the winery. He was able to keep everything going, including tanks closed and pressurized to avoid smoke taint. Talk about incredible.
“When you go back and taste the old vintages, you’ll get that aged-Cabernet character showing tobacco and cigar box. The acids were a bit higher and the alcohols a bit lower than today’s blends—a lot more like a Bordeaux red,” Durling said.
“During those decades when the wine was aged in one-year-old American oak, it would stay in barrel for three years,” Durling explained. “Today, we give it two years at most in French oak. So historically, the wine has been held longer before it was released, maybe as many as five to seven years. And even then it was robust, powerful and full, and not quite ready to drink!”
Today, I want Georges de Latour to be agreeable. My goal is to make a wine you can age 30 years if you want to, but I want the primary fruit to be the focus because I know consumers are not laying down wines as long—so I want it to be delicious now.”
So, how do you make a wine approachable now, but that will hold up 30 years in a cellar?
“We do a lot of barrel fermentation for our Cabernet grapes,” Durling explained. “We put 400 pounds of grapes and their must [juice] in the barrels and put them on special racks and ferment in the barrel. This adds tannin at an early stage and imparts non-fermentable sugars from the oak, which is like giving yourself muscle and then putting lotion all over yourself for a smoother texture and feel.”
“That’s what’s happening in the wine, it’s getting upfront generosity and a fuller, creamier mouthfeel, unlike older years where tannins were harsh and powerful and needed decades to soften.”
The results speak for themselves. We tasted the current release, a few back-vintages and some winery-only wines, and the Georges de Latour Private Reserve wines under Durling’s watch are indeed approachable now, albeit after a few hours decanting, but have the stuffing to last decades.
It’s an exciting time for this legendary label. If you’re planning a trip to Napa, booking an appointment to taste Georges de Latour is a must for any serious Cabernet lover.
2014 Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
This current release is a powerhouse of a wine boasting a deep ruby color, with cherry, sandalwood and hints of vanilla and sagebrush. Layers of red berry and dark cherry fruit give way to crushed purple florals, vanilla bean, cigar box and perfectly integrated oak notes. Tight, super-fine-grained tannins need time in the bottle to soften. The finish is long and generous a crushed stone and chalky mineral component. This is only a baby and will reveal layers of complexity over the next several decades. If you must pop a cork now, try it over two or three days.
2013 Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
From one the greatest vintages Napa has experienced in decades, this dark ruby-colored Private Reserve is packed with red berry fruit, cinnamon spice and powerful tannins, layered with nuanced pops of crushed violets, baking chocolate and toasty oak spice.
2009 Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
Food & Wine Executive Wine Editor Ray Isle wrote about the making of this legendary vintage and after tasting it myself, I am thrilled to report that Isle’s vintage is showing beautifully. Only just beginning to segue from ripe blackberry fruit into classic dark black fruit, rum raisin, molasses and cigar tobacco, with terrific spice and dried herbs emerging from oak aging. Plush tannins, nice focus, rich and supple, with a lingering dried tobacco character on the finish. Exemplary!
2007 Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
Hardly showing its age, with loads of primary red and black fruits up front, tinged with subtle hazelnut notes. Rich and round with mouthwatering acid and still plenty of tannic backbone.
2015 Beaulieu Vineyard Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon
Grapes from BV No. 1 and B No.2 vineyards along with Beckstoffer George III go into this marvelously mouthwatering Cabernet, bursting with blue fruits and violets. Terrifically mineral-driven with classic Rutherford dusty tannins, which really give off a sweet tobacco note on the nose. A sumptuous core of silky black and blue fruits is bolstered by robust tannins and a generous finish.
2014 Beaulieu Vineyard Tapestry Reserve Red Wine Napa Valley
The first vintage of this wine was produced in 1990 and it has always been a Cabernet-heavy blend. Juicy red berry fruit and powerful woody tannins give way to sweet baking spice notes and fleshy fruit. This is a sleeper and will reward with patience in the cellar.
2013 Beaulieu Vineyard Clone 4 Cabernet Sauvignon — TASTING ROOM ONLY
Offered only in the tasting room in Rutherford, this wine was crafted to highlight differences in BV’s Cabernet clones. On its own, it is really floral with savory notes of tobacco and cigar leaf, brimming with deep black cherry and blackberry flavors and aromas.
2013 Clone 6 CS — TASTING ROOM ONLY
Also only offered in the tasting room in Rutherford, this Clone 6, otherwise known as the “Jackson Clone” produces really small berries that deliver sturdy tannins and loads of black fruit on a rich, chocolaty finish.