It was 1978 or thereabouts, and I was sampling an array of wines with two friends at Froggy's, a downtown restaurant just a couple of blocks from my offices at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. This was a regular gathering of three wine enthusiasts on a mission of enlightenment.
In those days we drank mostly French; the usual suspects from Bordeaux and Burgundy, with an occasional foray into Italian wine. California wine wasn't even on the radar. In the eastern United States, at least, California meant Gallo or Almaden from a jug.
Robert Mondavi was making some noise at the time, but there was rampant skepticism that California wine would ever rival the better wines from the Old World. I doubt I could have found the Napa Valley on a map.
Sometime over the course of the evening, the proprietor, the late Steve "Froggy" Morris, approached our table with a bottle of wine in hand. Froggy was very excited and insisted we open the wine and try it. It was a cabernet sauvignon from the Napa Valley. I don't remember the vintage, but the producer was Cakebread.
No one at the table had ever heard of it. We only learned later that Cakebread was a person's name. Jack Cakebread was the founder and one of the earliest pioneers of the Napa Valley wine boom of that era.
I took a tentative first sip. I realized at precisely that moment that Froggy was on to something. The Cakebread cabernet was sensational. It changed my life.
Though I am still fond of fine wines from France, Italy and Spain, I am equally enamored of the exceptional wines of California, and increasingly of fine wines produced throughout the United States. The huge breakthrough in perception, however, occurred in the Napa Valley more than 40 years ago.
Besides Mondavi and his globetrotting campaign to bring attention to the Mondavi Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, there was the late Joe Heitz, whose 1974 Heitz Martha's Vineyard cabernet sauvignon was considered epic.
Those early rumblings spawned a wave of winery investment. Joseph Phelps, for example, created the first proprietary Bordeaux-style blend and named it "Insignia." Freemark Abbey and Chateau Montelena were riding high, too.
On two recent trips to the Napa Valley I decided to stray from my journalistic instinct of always seeking the next big, new thing and visit a few favorite wineries from the old guard. My journey took me to Cakebread Cellars, Grgich Hills Estate and Clos du Val.
I chose Cakebread because of my early experience with the cabernet, though over the years I have acquired an appreciation for its merlot, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. I'm also impressed by the fact that it is still family owned and operated. Bruce Cakebread, at one time the winemaker, is now CEO and his brother, Dennis, heads up the sales and marketing. Jack is retired, but still very much an influence.
Julianne Laks has been the Cakebread winemaker for the past dozen years, never missing a beat in the transition that Bruce made from the cellar to the front office. In recent years, the Cakebread vineyard holdings have gown, and thus the portfolio of wines. Pinot noir from the Anderson Valley and Carneros have been added, and the Cakebread's top wine, the Dancing Bear Ranch cabernet sauvignon from Howell Mountain, was first produced in Laks' inaugural vintage as Cakebread winemaker. The Cakebread wines are better than ever.
I chose Grgich Hills because Miljenko "Mike" Grgich made some of the most profound wines I've ever cellared, with a remarkable capacity to age. That goes for both the red wines and white wines at Grgich. A native of Croatia, Mike Grgich was influenced tremendously by the legendary winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff, who was making great wines at Beaulieu Vineyard long before the Napa Valley boom.
Grgich's nephew, Ivo Jeramaz, also a Croatian immigrant, took over from Mike as winemaker in the 2000 vintage. Jeramaz pushed Grgich Hills Estate in the direction of biodynamic farming, but in the cellar he adheres to the Grgich philosophy of balance and elegance in the estate's wines. Grgich is in good hands. When I visited in December, I tasted three absolutely stunning wines: Grgich Hills 2009 cabernet sauvignon, Yountville Selection; Grgich Hills 2009 chardonnay, Carneros Selection; and Grgich Hills 2012 sauvignon blanc, Essence. They are among the finest wines I've tasted from this estate, regardless of who was making the wine.
Finally, I chose Clos du Val because it is a winery that has always expressed Old World sensibilities, emphasizing elegance and balance over power and heft, often to its detriment among certain influential wine critics. Clos du Val has installed a new winemaker, Kristy Melton, who is bringing a delicate balance between Old World austerity and New World approachability to the Clos du Val wines.
Her most recent vintages of pinot noir, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon exhibit intensity of aroma and flavor that in the past has not been as much in evidence in Clos du Val wines when young. Yet they maintain the structure and freshness that is necessary for long-term cellaring.
Over four decades, all three wineries have achieved success by clinging to core principles in an ever-changing world. They've evolved without compromising quality. And they have a track record that is impressive and undeniable. That is something to remember the next time you cruise the fine-wine department wherever you shop for wine.
Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.