Wednesday was a special night for K&L’s Old & Rare team. Our man in the know, Gary Westby—Champagne buyer and Old & Rare wizard, put together a wine dinner that would have delighted even the most ardent of “drink it young” fans. Along with a couple of special guests, we tasted through some extraordinary back vintages of Martin Ray and Hallcrest wines, some made whilst many at the table were in diapers or just a twinkle in their parents eyes!
Held in the dimly lit environs of John Bentley’s restaurant, a block or so down from our Redwood City store on El Camino, the wines were decanted and the glasses sparkling on the table when we arrived. One of our special guests, Darrell Corti, began the evening by providing some insights into the man that was Martin Ray. To use appropriate parlance for the time, it’s probably fair to say that Ray was considered by many as somewhat of a rascal. Tasting his wines more than 50 years on, though, perhaps visionary would be more appropriate! Ray was one of the first to use French, specifically Burgundian, oak. He also had a penchant for Champagne bottles—which he used for many of his early wines—giving them an unmistakable character.
As the first course, a seared scallop, arrived we were already well into our first flight of Martin Ray whites. This included 1952 Chardonnay, 1954 Chardonnay, 1956 Pinot Noir “Blanc de Noir” and 1957 Pinot Noir “Blanc de Noir.” All were slightly pink tinged and in fine condition… which led us to ponder how many 1999 California Chardonnays would be as good after only a decade! It was the 1954 Chardonnay, though, that stole the round for many with its lovely richness, caramel, nut and butterscotch notes.
We moved quickly onto a delicious quail dish and our first reds of the evening, the Martin Ray Pinot Noirs. Well, most of them were anyway. The flight started with a ringer: a 1945 Beaulieu Beaumont Pinot Noir that, amazingly, still had great color and a touch of fruit. The Ray wines started in glass two with a 1952 Pinot Noir, then carried on with 1954 Pinot Noir, 1954 Third Crush Pinot Noir and 1956 Pinot Noir. We understood from Darrell that the “Third Crush” was likely made from Ray’s own vineyards and was promoting the fact that three good vintages had been made with these grapes, whereas the regular 1954 had probably been made with purchased fruit. All of these wines were likely made with old massal selections not reminiscent of what we know as Pinot Noir today. Favorites changed as the wines developed in the glass, but it was actually the regular 1954—with its astounding chocolate mint characters—which seemed to provoke the most conversation.
The steak brought with it a change of pace as we moved into Cabernet territory. Along with Martin Ray NV “La Montana” Woodside Cabernet we enjoyed 1947 Martin Ray Cabernet Sauvignon and our first Hallcrest wines of the evening: 1950, 1951 and 1953 Cabernet. Interestingly the 1950 Hallcrest was labeled 1948. It had been crossed through by hand and had “1950” written beside it in ink. The entire batch was the same. Chaffee Hall, it seemed, was a frugal guy, reusing labels from previous vintages to save money. Hall established the vineyard, just outside of Felton in the Santa Cruz Mountains, only five years earlier so I guess that’s understandable. His first release was in 1946, so this 1950 really was some of his early work.
Following the Hall trend we finished the last flight of reds over cheese. We started with the 1958 Hallcrest Cabernet then worked our way through the 1959, 1961 and 1964. There was no doubt at the table that these two flights of Cabernet were showing very well indeed. They had the color of a 2004 Napa Cabernet with really no discernable bricking. Unlike the many over-extracted Cabernets we know today, these savory, earthy examples were still well in the game.
As our evening drew to a close we had a mystery wine to end the meal. It was a rich, nutty color in the glass and showed apple, pear, citrus, butterscotch, caramel and slightly salty characters. Any guesses? Ok, so you cheated and looked at the photo. Yes, it was an 1880 Welsch Brothers Boal Reserve Madeira (no, that’s not a typo... 1880). Simply awesome. When this wine was made 130 years ago Richard Trevithick had just invented the steam locomotive! If there’s one thing we learnt from this evening’s tasting, it’s that wine really is history in a glass. Cheers!