Blast From A Cult Winemaker’s Past: Buehler Vineyards 1985 Cabernet Sauvignon

Vinted on January 16, 2012 binned in California wine, wine review

In the world of winemakers, Heidi Peterson Barrett is a household name, and not just because she shares a last name with her husband, who founded the only winery that can rightfully claim to be a full-fledged movie star.

That Heidi Barrett is a household name, a winemaker’s winemaker, can be attributed to two words: Screaming Eagle – Napa’s Cult Cab among Cult Cabs, manifest in concentrated style, produced in small quantities and regularly fetching over $1000 per bottle.

Those slugging back bottles of SE in the comfort of the temperature-controlled cellars inside their custom yachts probably don’t know that Heidi Barrett landed her first head winemaking job back in 1983, when at the young age of 25 (now that I’m nearly forty, I can call 25-year-olds “young”) she was hired by St Helena’s Buehler Vineyards (for more on Buehler, check out my interview with owner John Buehler’s daughter Helen, who now looks after their Social Media and Sales).

So when I was invited to talk shop over lunch by long-time wine biz veteran (and very nice guy) Bob Trimble, I was intrigued by the selection he picked to help us wash down our meal – Buehler’s Napa Cabernet Sauvignon from 1985 – since it was not only a glimpse into Napa Cab’s past, and into Buehler’s past, but also an opportunity to turn back the clock on Barrett’s (now storied, but then just promising) career

Given the opportunity to taste that wine (which most of you know by now is not one I’d be likely to turn down), I hope you’ll forgive the hastily-taken and relatively low-res image of the bottle from lunch!

Anyway… what does this bottled blast from a cult winemaker’s past have to tell us?

Quite a bit, actually.

The first thing you should know about this wine is that it was Bretty (by which I mean, it had the funky, Band-Aid whiff characteristic of some Brettanomyces, and while I didn’t send it to the lab for chemical analysis, I’m confident enough in ID-ing that smell to say that if it’s not actually Bretty, I’ll eat my senakers). Which makes it the umpteenth Napa Cab I’ve had from the 80s that was at least a little bit Bretty – enough of a volume that I’m now borderline frightened by Napa Cab bottles vintage-dated from the decade that brought us rolled-up jeans pant legs, the skinny tie, and oddly cubist-style haircuts; because it also brought us the Napa-Brett-that-blooms-late-in-bottle.

The second thing that you should know about this wine – and the most important thing, at that – is that it was a far, far cry from being undrinkable; it possessed an impressive amount of tangy red fruit, and after an hour and half or so opened up with secondary aromas of earth and cloves. It struck me as a wine that, while showing its age in the wrinkles near the corner of its eyes, was still full of vigor and a zest for life – or, more accurately, a zest for food.

At less than 14% alcohol, that tangy fruit stood up to fairly spicy beef chili (try that one with a 15.5% abv fruit bomb…). And that opened bottle of Buehler juice went a few hours worth of laps with food and air at the lunch table, and seemed to hardly break a sweat in the process – as time passed, it got more interesting and compelling, and showed only small touches of oxidation. In other words, it was looking pretty hot for a wine that by most measures would be considered as entering retirement age.

For those keeping score at home, that’s damn-near thirty years on, still fruity, still friendly, now also compelling, and all while probably being handicapped by a bit too much Brett. I’d call that a success story – and a finely crafted one at that. A cult wine it’s not, but after tasting it, the fact that it’s winemaker eventually went on to make coveted cult juice doesn’t seem at all far-fetched.

But then, I suppose that I can’t really tell you that for sure, since I’ve yet to try Screaming Eagle – a fact for which my daughter’s college fund has already thanked me a few times over…






  • Geracchr

    Buehler? Buehler? Buehler?

    • 1WineDude

      Geracchr – You know, I didn't go there in the post because I figured someone would go there in the comments… I just didn't expect it to be right away! :-)

  • Jerry

    Buehler has some good wine and excellent value. Especially for Napa Cab. The Papa's Knoll Cab (sorry, foget the vintage) we had last year in their tasting room was killer– and I think it was only like $35- crazy good and inexpensive for Napa Cab, yo! The Zin is pretty on point there as well. I wonder how much that 85 Cab costed upon release. 12 bones?

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Jerry – nice shout out to Buehler there. And I agree, some of their offerings are great value for money. And trust me when I tell you that fewer things are as hilariously revealing as having John drive you around the mountain property giving you an uncensored history of the winemaking area! :) Cheers!

  • Jerry

    Oh yeah, that John is something else. And as you mentioned, an excellent and very candid tour guide. Cool dude though.

    • 1WineDude

      Jerry – indeed!

  • Thomas Pellechia


    Might be worth a mention that Heidi is winemaker Dick Peterson's daughter.

    Dick was at Gallo, BV, Monterey, Taylor California Cellars, Atlas Peak; he toyed with flavors and sweet spots well before Clark Smith came on the scene.

    Sometimes, the pioneers get lost in the historical record, and the above pioneer proves that Heidi has pedigree.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Thomas!

  • TOC

    One of the true "Good-guys" in Napa – John makes great, affordable Cabernets and Zins up on the mountain! Love that guy!!

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, TOC.

  • gabe

    great article, really interesting. While Brett is the bane of many winemakers existence, it is proof that this wine went into bottle unfiltered. This does provide a great reminder of why those napa cabs are so idiotically expensive…they do last forever

    • 1WineDude

      Hey gabe – thanks. The interesting thing is that I often encounter people who tell me they doubt Napa Cab can really age long-haul; but then I keep running into older Napa Cabs that prove the opposite :).

      • gabe

        I drank an 05 Napa Cab a couple weeks ago, and it was still a baby. Its too bad that older vintage wines are so hard to find (and so pricey), because I would happily drink an 85 Napa Cab with lunch any day of the week!

        • 1WineDude

          Me too, gabe ( provided it isn't too Bretty! ;-). Cheers!

  • Wineguys TV

    Screaming Eagle and The Denver Nuggets… WOOOOHOOOO lol. Wine and Basketball, go figure

    • 1WineDude

      Wineguys TV – ha!

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