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Three decades of Napa with Freemark Abbey

October 30, 2009 | 12:00 pm

Last Tuesday at Spago in Beverly Hills, Freemark Abbey winemaker Ted Edwards brought a few bottles down from Rutherford, Napa Valley, to uncork with a few sommeliers, ostensibly to show them that the winery has had some staying power.

And how. Edwards showed a pair of 1995 vintage single-vineyard Cabernets from Bosché and Sycamore, and a pair from the same vineyards from 1987. But the pièce de resistance was a bottle of Freemark Cab from 1969, the same bottling that was served blind at the tasting that changed the world of American wine – the Judgment of Paris, in 1976.

FA bottles Freemark Abbey was founded 70 years ago, when three Southern California businessmen, Charles Freeman, Markquand Foster and Albert "Abbey" Ahern, joined resources and concatenated their names to form the winery. For their first three decades, the wines were largely a local phenomenon, sold by San Francisco retailers and in restaurants until the late 1960s, when winemaker Jerry Luper’s stellar bottlings earned the winery a broader reputation for pure, limpid expressions of valley floor fruit, inflected with the firm distinctive earth note that came to be known as “Rutherford Dust.” Certainly Stephen Spurrier was sufficiently impressed to include the wine in his Paris Tasting in 1976, when California wines bested their French counterparts, stunning the wine world in the process.

The tasting at Spago showcased three decades of consistent, focused winemaking. Each wine possessed a solid, firmly planted structure, a hallmark dusty note reflecting Rutherford, supporting a bath of cassis flavors. But there was also a curious "time capsule" quality to tasting them side by side: each decade revealed a distinctly different approach to winemaking, and clear evidence of different eras, different approaches, and a unique cultural ethos for the period.

The 1969 bottling was still showing a lot of character after 40 years, with dusty red cherry flavors, accented by tawny scents of tobacco leaf and consommé, the palate fresh and persistent, the brick-dust tannins speaking to place 40 years on. The wine was perhaps a little tired, but was in every sense classic.

Edwards, who has been with the winery since 1980 and director of winemaking since 1985, made the other wines. Both Bosché and Sycamore in 1987 clearly represented a curious "food-wine" winemaking style from the '80s, where flavors were left slightly underdeveloped and even green at times, with a formidable tannic structure that was meant to complement food – though often as not made for tight, slightly rigid wines.

After 22 years, both of these wines had loosened up considerably, however; while still reflecting olive and capsicum scents, the flavors were riper and more generous. 

By contrast, the wines from 1995 represented another era entirely. Indeed these wines clearly heralded the emergence of the Parker era – these are riper fruit, broader textures, more robust in scale and in fruit ripeness. Here too, however, the Edwards hand shown through in the wines' firm structure and tannic fortitude. All in all this was a revealing tasting, a testament to a winery that has been around to reflect many decades of Napa Valley evolution.

-- Patrick Comiskey

Photo credit: Rocky Slaughter