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Here come the 2008s, but does vintage matter anymore?


California borrowed or stole the concept of vintage from the French, who noticed that some years were better than others in their damp, continental climate. I don’t think the 19th century California winemakers made a big deal about vintage, which is how the old slogan “Every year is a good one in California” came into being. It wasn’t until after Prohibition, when wine writers came out of the closet in droves, with their elitist noses stuck way up in the air, that the notion of “vintage” became important.

When I became interested in wine it was at the tail end of the “Every year is a good one” era, and people were trying to distance themselves from it. Anyone who said the “Every year” mantra, we were told, didn’t know what they were talking about, because the truth was, each year was not like every other year. You only have to live along the coast to know that. Some Summers are foggier than others, some Falls are warmer and drier, some Springs can be frosty, and Winters can vary from drought to flooding. So the “Every year” thing was thought to be silly.

As a result, during the Eighties everyone swung way over to the other extreme and made too big a deal about vintage. The culmination of all this was, of course, 1989, when rain during harvest was said to have ruined the vintage, especially in the North Coast. Almost immediately, there was a counter-reaction to this claim, with many vintners and critics pointing out that, while some wines were hurt, many others were quite good. But such is the way the media shape the conventional wisdom that most wine consumers, if they paid any attention at all to vintage, avoided the ‘89s like the plague.

Now here we are on the glide-down for the 2008 vintage, of which there will be much talk over the next months. The salient facts are these: Spring saw historic frosts that severely limited crop size, but not quality. June witnessed those awful forest fires and for a while everybody was worrying that the grapes (and resulting wines) would be smoke-damaged, but this doesn’t seem to be true. Summer was steady and not too hot. Harvest so far (and there’s still a lot of Cabernet on the vine) has been very nice, with a few heat spells here and there, but nothing that good farming can’t handle. The first coastal rain fell all the way down to Santa Barbara on Oct. 3-4, but the storm passed quickly, and as I write, the forecast for the next week is sunny and dry. Sometime in the next two weeks or so the pickers will bring the Cab in and it looks like a great vintage, if a light one. Most of the Pinot has already been picked and winemakers seem happy about that, too, but we have first to experience the 2007s, which could be the greatest ever.

My conclusion about vintages in California is drifting back to “Every year is a good one.” Vintages here really are more alike than not, and with viticulture at such a high level of expertise, and enology too, the problems Mother Nature occasionally throws at the grapes can be countered as never before. That won’t stop writers (including me) from making Vintage Charts (and there’s always a possibility of a truly dismal harvest), but consumers should see vintage in California from the proper perspective, which is, it should be far from your foremost consideration.

  1. Dr. Horowitz says:

    Interesting to hear about the past of the “every year” mantra.

    What analogy best fits the vintage of a wine?

    Is it like a sports season? So that people can say “that year sucked because of the strike” or “that was the year of the earthquake in the world series?”

    Is it more like spring training? So that people can say “the Giants look good this year.”

    Is it like an album? I’ve heard people say albums don’t matter any more too, now that you can just get your favorite song for 99 cents.

    What should a consumer’s “foremost consideration” be?

  2. Dr. H., the consumer should consider what type of wine he wants (dry, sweet, sparkling, red, white, etc.) — then from where in the world — then how much money he wants to spend — then the producer’s reputation. Not necessarily in that order, but they’re all more important than vintage.

  3. Steve,

    “severely limited crop size, but not quality” is the next mantra to go in the round file. In fact, the notion of an inverse relationship between crop size and quality is a myth-turned-PR-slogan. Not only are there many rule-breakers producing very good wine at astoundingly high vineyard yields, but a crop thinned by nature is not uniform.

    Last weekend I picked grapes in a frost-affected vineyard. Canopies were irregularly developed, the berries and clusters were irregular. One would be surprised at the appearance of the some of the grapes we put in our buckets.

    Yes, you can make wine from it and in the end the better fruit will balance out the scraggly stuff. There is no denying this wine will be different from that made from a neighboring property where there was more fruit on the vine and the pickers could be more selective about what went into the bin. It’s important to remember that the vagaries of climate which truncate yields are not even-handed and delicate and they do not result in a clean and neatly thinned crop.

  4. I meant to add that I agree that there is uniformity across vintages. The immediate reasons you point to are accurate, but the motivations are more obscure. The consumer’s desire for consistency and invariability is the foremost here. I think there are vintage variations but they are subtle. Producers can absolutely allow them to show more distinctly but that is not desired by the public.

  5. Dr. Horowitz says:

    That seems like a good rule of thumb, but it’s also a simple heuristic, and most wine drinkers don’t want to seem simpleminded.

    If I showed up to a party and offered the host a bottle of dry red wine from Sonoma Valley made by Kunde, would the host be impressed?

    I think the vintage helps embellish the story of a wine, making it appeal more to our emotions, and not to just the rational part of our brain. I like how Josh described his 2008 harvest (

    Maybe I’ll save the simple wines to drink alone, I mean at home. But, if I wanted to impress someone with a bottle of wine, I’d need a good story.

  6. DR. H., you make an interesting point about why people like wine. There is a story behind it. I was only saying that I don’t think vintage itself is a very big determinant in California for wine quality. But obviously, on a psychological level, it is. Arthur: when I said “severely limited crop size, but not quality” I did not mean that low crop = high quality. I don’t believe that any more than you do.

  7. Hi Steve

    I understand. At the same time, this vintage in particular will demonstrate that low crop can also mean “lousy quality”.

    I do think that “low crop” is too often followed with “but very good quality”. It’s a myth. In following this “less=better” paradigm, we end up with the over-the-top wines which are all too common.

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