Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Kingston Trio -- "It Was a Very Good Year" (1961)

And now the days are short
I'm in the autumn of my years
And I think of my life as vintage wine
From fine old kegs
Last month, I visited the Napa wine country for the first time in 30-plus years.

Two of the wineries I had last visited in 1979 -- Heitz Cellars and V. Sattui -- were still around, although they've expanded their offerings, and built new buildings, and were barely recognizable to me.

Poppies outside the Heitz Cellars tasting room
Joseph Heitz earned a master's degree in viticulture and enology (the science of growing grapes and making wine) from the University of California at Davis shortly after World War II.  He purchased a small St. Helena vineyard -- only eight acres -- in 1961.

Joe Heitz
A few years later, Joe and Alice Heitz met Tom and Martha May, who owned a young Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard in Oakville.  In 1966, Heitz made the first single-vineyard wine in the Napa Valley from the grapes that grew in that vineyard -- his Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, which is still being made today.  The 1968 Martha's Vineyard Cabernet was considered the greatest wine made in the United States up until that time.

I read about Heitz cabernets when I was in law school, and remember seeing a few individually-numbered bottles of Martha's Vineyard Cabernet in a Harvard Square liquor store.  Here's one of the 10,000-odd bottles of Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from the 1970 vintage:

The first time I made it to San Francisco, I made it a point to visit the Heitz winery.  As I recall, the Heitz tasting room was located in a garage-like building -- perhaps it was an actual garage.  The employee who poured my samples took glasses out of garden-variety kitchen cabinets and took the white wine I tasted out of a refrigerator that looked a lot like the one in my apartment kitchen.  The Heitz tasting room was unpretentious to say the least.

The current Heitz tasting room is very nice, although relatively small and simple by current Napa Valley standards.  There was no charge for the tasting at Heitz, which included samples of the winery's 2009 cabernet (which spent three full years in oak barrels, and sold for $49 a bottle), a crisp sauvignon blanc, a well-balanced zinfandel, and a luscious port.

The Heitz tasting room is surrounded by acres of vineyards:

Here's a very artsy-fartsy photo of my glass of the '09 Heitz cabernet, with Howell Mountain in the background.

Now let's go behind the curtain for a moment.  Here's a photo of me taking the previous photo:

(Shhhh! Artist at work!)
(Wondering who took that photo?  2 or 3 lines always travels with an entourage, including some production assistants and other assorted "go-fers."  I forget the name of the PA who took this particular photo . . . they come and they go, and who can keep track?)

Next, it was time to visit the nearby V. Sattui Winery.

An Italian immigrant named Vittorio Sattui came to San Francisco from Genoa with his bride in 1882.  A few years later he began to buy grapes from Napa County and make wine from them in his North Beach winery.

Old V. Sattui truck
The winery went out of business when Prohibition became the law of the land, but Vittorio's great-grandson started a new V. Sattui winery in Napa on a shoestring in the mid-1970s.

The grandson -- Dario, by name -- was working at the winery the day I visited.  He had an uncanny resemblance to his great-grandfather.  (For a moment, I thought the 19th-century photos of Vittorio hanging on the tasting room walls were actually photos of Dario dressed up in vintage clothing.)

Dario Sattui
When I visited V. Sattui in 1979, it was a very modest operation.  As I recall, it made and sold a handful of inexpensive red wines.  What made me stop there was the on-premises cheese shop and deli.

V. Sattui's current cheese selection
I was in Napa on a beautiful fall day, and after visiting a few tasting rooms in the morning, I decided an al fresco picnic was just the ticket.  V. Sattui offered a nice selection of cheeses and some good, fresh bread and the winery's grounds sported several picnic tables overlooking its vineyards, whose leaves had turned bright yellow and red.

The one thing the Sattui winery didn't offer was half bottles of wine.  So I ordered a full bottle -- the first (and last) time I single-handedly consumed a full bottle of wine at lunch.

The V. Sattui tasting room today
As I recall, it was a spectacular experience -- some good local cheese, a jug of wine, a loaf of bread . . . and moi.

Moments after finishing my repast, I stopped at a pay phone to call Washington and check in with my office.  "I'm not coming back!" I remember shouting at my boss, who was only a couple of years older than me and wasn't averse to having a drink or two himself. "You can't make me come back!"

That afternoon, I drove on mountain roads for close to three hours before getting to my destination -- the Whale Watch Inn in Mendocino, a picturesque seaside village that was founded by New Englanders before the Civil War and which still has a New England feel.  (Mendocino stood in for a fictional Maine town in Murder, She Wrote, which was filmed there.)

I had sobered up by the time I got there, and was suffering a terrible headache as the result of all that wine and over 100 miles of driving with the afternoon sun in my eyes.

The V. Sattui Winery has had some very good years since 1979.  They sell about 60 different wines at the winery and through their mail-order clubs, and have expanded the cheese shop and deli.  The place was hopping with visitors when I visited last month.

V. Sattui today
Before we turn to our featured song, here's a photo of Lawrence Argent's 35-foot-tall stainless steel sculpture, "Bunny Foo Foo":

"Bunny Foo Foo" stands at the entrance to Hall Wines, which is just across SR 29 from V. Sattui.

"It Was a Very Good Year" was composed in 1961 by Ervin Drake.  Drake also co-wrote the very popular and oft-recorded "I Believe" ("I believe for every drop of rain that falls/A flower grows," etc.). 

The best-known recording of "It Was a Very Good Year" was Frank Sinatra's, which was released in 1965 and won a Grammy for the best male vocal performance.

But the original 1961 recording of the song was by the Kingston Trio, and it was that recording that inspired Sinatra to cover the song.

I'm really not sure what inspired the inimitable William Shatner to record the song in 1968 (along with some lines from Hamlet) and then perform it on the Mike Douglas Show:

Here's the original Kingston Trio version of "It Was a Very Good Year":

1 comment:

  1. Learn something new every day! I always associated "It Was a Very Good Year" with Frank Sinatra, not realizing he was "covering" the Kingston Trio. And one of the photos shows railroad tracks--my wife and I have ridden and dined aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train on a couple of occasions. We got VIP treatment because one of the waiters was an old railfan buddy. When dessert came, we were told that the pastry chef also worked for Linda Ronstadt when she was in the area. (Linda was my favorite lady of song before I met Evie Sands)