When Jayson Pahlmeyer left the practice of law in the mid-1980s in order to devote himself to winemaking, he said, ‘All I wanted to do was to create my own “California Mouton” — a rich, powerful Napa Valley Bordeaux blend, a wine that would drop wine lovers to their knees.”’ He did it in 1986, the first vintage of his Proprietary Red, a luscious Cabernet blend that won plaudits throughout the world of wine. Pahlmeyer’s Merlot and Chardonnay have been similarly decorated, and I may return to them in a future column.
For now, I want to focus on the Proprietary Red. It is a famous wine but, life being the imperfect enterprise that it is, I had not tasted any until recently when a beneficent providence vouchsafed me a small cache of several Pahlmeyer wines, including some of the 2016 Proprietary Red.
Two points by way of introduction: One, the wine is spectacular. It is young, yes, and at 15.1 percent alcohol it is hot. It benefits markedly from being decanted for an hour or two. Doubtless it will improve with age, but it is a precocious wine, already luscious as well as taut. I’ll be back with some more winespeak in a moment. For now, let’s just say that I agree with the consensus that with this wine Jayson Pahlmeyer realized his dream of making a wine that would ‘drop wine lovers to their knees’ (this column is not addressed to Nina Burleigh). In fact, I’d say the wine was better — fuller, richer, more seductive — than most Mouton Rothschilds that I have tasted (which is a weasely way of saying that I can’t recall a Mouton that I preferred.
But that brings me to point two: you will not find it easy, or inexpensive, to acquire the 2016 Proprietary Red. Pahlmeyer’s wines are really a boutique, small-batch production — and they go quickly. The winery has sold out of its public stock. You can find the 2016, which was bottled in 2018, at auction, online, or in some specialty shops. It will cost you from about $180 to over $200. If you believe what I say here, I suggest you track down a more recent vintage (as I write, the 2017 is still available at pahlmeyer.com).
I can’t remember who it was who spoke of something possessing a ‘je ne sais quoi — but I don’t know what it is’. Here’s a secret. Most writers about wine are regularly assailed by that feeling. The effort to analyze a complex, ever-changing, primitive set of sensations is doomed to at least partial failure. What Proust called ‘involuntary memory’ — that cascade of emotions and little currants of memory unexpectedly released by the taste of a madeleine — is a regular partner for any serious drinker of wine. The rich aromas, the blooming, succulent, lingering taste touches something deep within the limbic system of the brain (no, I do not really know that the limbic system is, but the patient, firsthand experience of wine touches something deep within us, just as Proust’s cookie did for his narrator, Marcel).
Even neophytes know that some wines are more superficial than others: simpler to the nose and taste buds, briefer on the tongue, one- or two-dimensional rather than advanced algebra. The 2016 is a deep, dark wine, a wine that bears interrogation and repays patience. It is a wine that enjoys a little back and forth (I say this candidly to readers who understand that drinking wine is not a soliloquy). It is a wine that yields itself fully and yet holds something back. If that seems paradoxical, you belong in a different class.
The winemaker for the 2016 vintage was Bibiana González Rave, the Columbian-born superstar who cut her teeth, or at least her first bunches of grapes, in a number of top vineyards in France. She was a consultant to Pahlmeyer for more than five years, leaving in 2017. I am told that Jayson Pahlmeyer has more or less retired and has done so to Hawaii. His daughter Cleo took over reins the on his retirement and has made another mark with Wayfarer Vineyards in Sonoma. I am uncertain, however, about what the future will bring. At the end of 2019, Pahlmeyer was bought by the E. & J. Gallo conglomerate. Gallo has been snapping up ‘luxury’ brands in California for years. We can hope that they will appreciate the genius of Calvin Coolidge’s remark to a busybody aide: ‘Don’t just do something,’ Coolidge remonstrated. ‘Stand there.’
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s June 2021 World edition.