I guess it figures that I had to go to southern California – in fact, Orange County, as in the OC or behind the Orange curtain – to find the potential deal of the year.
No, I didn’t get a free ride on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at the Magic Kingdom. Rather, red wine from Thunder Mountain winery out of San Jose that I found on serious discount at Trader Joe’s in Costa Mesa last weekend on a short family trip.
The story is that Thunder Mountain founder and winemaker Milan Maximovich passed away two years ago. Wine internet junkies would know him as Milan in Santa Cruz, one of the first people I “met” in the wacky world of internet wine discussion.
Milan knew fine wine and loved the stuff, and it turns out he knew how to make fine wine too. I remember first trying his wines in the late 1990s, among them a ’95 Bates Ranch Cabernet from the venerable Santa Cruz mountains vineyard. When tasted next to Ahlgren’s 1976 model from the same source, both wines were terrific, bookends of a sort portending a nice future for Thunder Mountain.
Then there was Milan’s cult dessert wine, made from Santa Rosa plums and the finest non-grape wine I can recall tasting at a couple gatherings over the years. This I believe never made it to market, though not for lack of quality.
After Milan’s death, his family tried to carry on with the winery for a while before liquidating the inventory. Trader Joe’s bought big and passed along a bittersweet deal – they’re offering 2000 Thunder Mountain Star Ruby and Doc’s Vineyard wines for $7.99 a piece. These were originally $40-$50 wines and, while I’m not spending that kind of scratch for wine, certainly to my taste would be better deals than a lot of domestic stuff out there in the same range.
These Thunder Mountain wines come from the Cienega Valley, an obscure California area east of Salinas over the Chalone and Gavilan Mountains, south of Hollister (I know, where’s that?). I recall driving through there a few years back on my way to the Pinnacles National Monument and thinking it looked in places like a drier, much less crowded Stag’s Leap District from the Napa Valley. This is old California, off the beaten track and a place I recall Milan speaking of fondly.
The 2000 Thunder Mountain Star Ruby is an equal blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, though I don’t have exact information on the vineyard source. Prior Star Rubys came from the Bates Ranch, but this is all Cienega Valley. It’s a deep crimson with strong oak, olive, and mineral aromas hiding the fruit. In the mouth it’s tight like you’d expect from Bordeaux of the same age, all promise. A steak dinner overcomes the wine’s tannin, making a tasty match. Still this is nice wine that simply needs time to blossom. Cellar easily for ten years and then some.
The 2000 Thunder Mountain Doc’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon comes from own-rooted vines planted in the 1940s. These are some of the oldest, if not the oldest, Cabernet vines in California, ungrafted and old school in every way. The Doc’s has a similar dark color with strong cassis aromas and low oak notes with some black olive that many of Milan’s reds seemed to show. In the mouth it’s full and rich but elegant with nice structure yet still some baby fat., with the depth that I think only old vines can give. This wine is much more approachable than the tannic Star Ruby, but its balance and crisp acid structure suggests to me equal aging potential in good cellar conditions. It’s delicious now too.
Apparently Trader Joe’s has had these wines for a few months, so availability may not be so great.. And while the style isn’t for everyone – god help the ghastly labels – if you’re in California check out your local branch. For this money, you’d be crazy not to at least give these a try. As for the god of thunder on the labels, I have only one word – decant.
Farewell Milan, thanks for the memories.