My friend Jeff got me an invite to the Napa Valley Wine Auction in June of 1999 so we hooked up at the Oakland Airport and drove up to Napa for the event. I wasn't really prepared for the glamor of it all, which became a bit much, and the big charity auction was ridiculously expensive, with many lots going out at over $100,000 per, of course we purchased nothing. It used to be that on the Friday evening of the function everyone dressed to the nines and gathered under a big tent on the Meadowood lawn for a formal sitdown affair prepared by a celebrity chef (I think it was Alice Waters that night) followed by music and dancing. The tables all had wine but the highlight of the evening was the march of the big bottles, with winemakers and winery representatives entering the hall with magnums of wine, one for each table. Jeff and I were randomly seated with the assistance winemaker from Groth and a couple that introduced themselves as the Caldwells, a tall attractive blond who was much younger than her 50 something husband. Oliver Caldwell, the hubbie, was visibly perturbed b/c he was supposed to be the wine guy at our table, and he had a magnum of zinfandel from his winery in Napa. Jeff and I didn't care though, more wine for us. The guy from Groth broke out a mag of the Groth 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, which needed some more time to soften its harsh tannins, I remember it tasting a bit like liquid blackberry chalk. Oliver lighted up when his 1996 Caldwell Aida Zinfandel was the clear winner at the table, so much so that he pulled out (from God knows where) a regular-sized bottle of his 1996 Caldwell Petit Sirah, which was inky and wonderful. Karen Caldwell turned out to be an engaging young woman, with an attractively low cut formal dress on (read nice cleavage) who loved to dance so dance we did.
Having had more than my share of vino, I then proceeded to procure the partially filled magnums from surrounding tables, stealing them over to ours for an impromptu wine tasting amongst the tuxedo crowd. Soon we had 20 odd folks standing around our table enjoying the my "collection" which now included Diamond Creek, Opus, Mondavi, Chimney Rock (1996 cab, elegant, lovely) and about a dozen others. Oliver Caldwell took his bottle of Petit Sirah off to meet some friends but left the Zin and his wife behind and both were well appreciated by the crowd. Let's be clear, no lewd conduct of any kind occurred just good clean socializing and guzzling, surrounding by lovely, decked out (tipsy) women. Great celebration.
Anyway, Karen told me to call her after I got back to SoCal, if I wanted to get some wine from her (nothing more). I picked up cases of the Caldwell Zin (around $30 a bottle) and Petit Sirah (around $40 a bottle) from 1996 for me and Jeff and we were quite happy with the quality of the Caldwell juice. Later I picked up the Zin and PS from the 1997 vintage too, which was a half step below the 1996 on both fronts, but still terrific. I ran into Karen Caldwell briefly at the 2001 Napa Auction (my second and last visit to that event), this time with the wife in tow, and Karen was as engaging as every, albeit 5 months pregnant. As I understand it the Caldwells got into a name dispute with another winemaker named John Caldwell and I lost track of Karen and Oliver and their wines.
So I opened a bottle of the 1996 Oliver Caldwell Cellars Aida Vineyards Napa Valley Zinfandel the other night, hoping that age hadn't caught up with this old favorite. At 14.8% alcohol it seemed light compared to the portlike fruit bombs that pass themselves off as Zin these days. The bottle sure did bring back some fond memories too.
Tasting Notes: Garnet in the glass, blueberry and graphite on the nose, medium body, smoky, refined and plums on the mid-palate, great mouthfeel, no sharp edged nor any herbal features. a smooth drinking old friend, good with a book or slice of cheddar.