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When it comes to vintage huzzahs, Bordeaux still does it best

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I love it. The 2009 Bordeaux vintage is “spectacular,” “brilliant,” “superb, rich, powerful, sexy beasts,” “sublime.” As a result, the wines “won’t be cheap.”

In advertising this is known as “selling the sizzle.” In modern kulturspeak it’s “creating buzz.” And no one, anywhere, is better at creating buzz than those maestros of the art, the Bordeaux wine trade.

The quotes above are taken straight from an email press release I received yesterday from Berry Bros. & Rudd, the British wine merchant. BBR knows something about creating vintage anticipation. After all, that’s their job. Can you imagine if, here in California, Gavin Newsom’s PlumpJack wine stores told customers to “turn off the heating and sell the car to save up and sign up with us for the rollercoaster ride that will be Bordeaux 2009,” only substituting “Napa Valley 2009” for “Bordeaux 2009”? Dah Mayor would be laughed out of office, chased by angry mobs with pitchforks for taunting them in their economic misery.

How does Bored Dough get away with it?

It’s not just wine merchants who are spinning 2009, it’s the Bordealais themselves. “Nature has been extremely generous, it is sumptuous,” said Denis Dubourdieu, director of the Bordeaux Institute of Vine and Wine Sciences, adding, “you have to go back to the climatology of the 40s to find, perhaps, comparable conditions.” Remarks like this are bloody chum to the sharks who swim in Wine Spectator’s online site. “…the talk is already starting. Comparing the vintage to 1947?” someone wrote.

Over at the Wall Street Journal, when their writer, Will Lyons, recently reported on the ‘09s, he wrote, “Bordeaux does hyperbole well.” Indeed, they do. Of course, few people have actually tasted the wines at this point. But who cares? When they do, they’ll be dazzled. I guarantee it.

How many times have the Bordelais trumpeted a vintage of the century? About every 4 or 5 years, if not more frequently than that. And the market continues to let them get away with it.

Well, I’m not blaming Bordeaux. They know how to brand and market themselves; nothing wrong with that. Why can’t we in California play the same game?

To some extent, we have. I’ve written about the great 2005 Cabernets and the 2007 Pinot Noirs. So have other wine writers. But for some reason, California’s vintage assessments don’t have the weight or importance that Bordeaux’s have. Why is that? Is California somehow a victim of its once-proclaimed boast that “Every year is a vintage year”? Yes, once upon a time that was California’s mantra, its proud declaration to the world that shoppers need not fear buying a California wine from any year, because they’re all great. Of course, that’s not exactly true — especially since California’s winegrowing areas have spread far beyond Napa Valley, and even within Napa itself viticulture has crept up off the valley floor into the mountains. But maybe there’s still a residue of that “every year a vintage year” mantra, which robs proclamations of vintage greatness of their power.

But I think it’s more than that. Bordeaux has bragged about vintages of the century for so long, and so implausibly, that we kind of expect it of them. It’s part of the Bordeaux personality: oversized, glitzy, shamelessly self-promoting, egotistical, supremely confident if not arrogant. (California by contrast is self-doubting, introspective, ironic.) If Bordeaux did not boast, it wouldn’t be Bored Dough. And we — collectors, consumers, just-plain vanilla wine folks — wouldn’t line up to taste the sublime 2009s, if somebody just gives us the opportunity.

  1. Someone call me when Bord’x **doesn’t** declare a vintage of the century…

  2. Steve,
    Perhaps the hyperbole is forgivable; after two disastrous vintages (2007-2008) the “2009” came as a reliever. But you’re absolutely right when you say that “California’s vintage assessments don’t have the weight or importance that Bordeaux’s have”. And, possibly, “California [is] somehow a victim of its once-proclaimed boast that “Every year is a vintage year””.
    California’s climate (temperature, precipitation and solar radiation) variability is exceedingly lower than in France; and if measured by the standard deviation of the last seven years (2003-2008), we get the following results:

    Oakville – 3.52%
    Carneros – 3.41%
    Santa Rosa – 8.35%
    Paso Robles – 3.09%

    Bordeaux (Merignac) – 15.36%
    Bourgogne (Dijon) – 17.57%
    Rhône (Orange) – 11.86%

    Meaning that, growing wine grapes in California is a much-less-risky business than in France.

  3. Peter, this is a bit off topic, but looking at your index, both 2007 and 2008 are above the baseline score of 100. While they’re weaker than other recent vintages, doesn’t that suggest in historical context they are still above average? IIRC, your baseline is based on climatic data over a 30 year period.

    Steve, it seems Napa employs a policy of pricing wines identically every year. Or at least price only goes in one direction–up! (That’s also mostly true of Bordeaux, though.) Maybe if vintners would price according to vintage, hype would make more sense. Hot years with high alcohol wines would be priced lower, and years of structure and balance would be priced higher. Price drops only seem to hit on the back end as closeouts when a vintage doesn’t sell through.

  4. Great post! I’ve been thinking about how the French love to hype up what they think is a fabulous and classic vintage. Seems they do it the best. What’s great though is that if they try to boost the prices they won’t sell any of their wine in these times. That’s why I think it’s a great time to cash in on the lower prices of the vintages they don’t call classic. Perhaps 04′, 06′, vintages that don’t have the crazy tags put on them. Cheers Steve~

  5. Let’s not forget that Bourdeaux has been a recognized world-class wine region for something like 500+ years; California has been recognized as such since the 1970s. Not only have the folks in France had much more practice at embedding themselves in the psyche of generations of wine drinkers, the wine acolytes have also been promoting them for almost as long. Give California another 400 or so years at marketing — they’ll get there!

  6. Greg, good point. The 100 score baseline is based on the 1961-1990 temperature and precipitation averages, the so-called climatological normals. And this specific period (1961-1990) is somewhat colder than the longer term historical record (1842-1990).
    I have non-official (unpublished) 1971-2000 climate data for the Bordeaux area, and it is indeed a bit warmer; making the 2008 VEI index fall slightly below the 100 baseline.
    However, statistical indicators have best results, as you correctly observed, when viewed in relative terms; in this case being compared to recent known vintages.

  7. curious: what’s the poke behind “bored dough”?

  8. Stephanie, just a play on words suggesting (a) un-affordable prices and (b) another over-hyped vintage.

  9. in our tasting room we never dwell on vintages.

    YES, they do matter

    However I (and hopefully others), still try to share the thoughts that:

    the vineyard is most important
    the winemaker second-most important
    and the vintage is third….

    heresy? lunacy?

  10. David: Agree! Vineyard and winemaking more important than vintage. Of course, if the vintage gives bad grapes (for whatever reason), then
    there’s little the winemaker can do except excessive sorting out, which can dangerously lower the crop’s value.

  11. Well, Steve, ’09 really was a beautiful vintage season. No, I haven’t tasted it yet except at my biodynamic friend’s house (after all, I helped pick the grapes). Will see what pours at the UGC tastings. ’07 was a mess. ’08 has pockets of very good. Sorta like the pockets you talk about even in Napa.

    California has a hype that everyone in the world believes: it never rains in California. It’s always beautiful. Same with San Francisco (ha). This may come as a shock but most people outside of wine haven’t heard of Napa Valley. And even wine lovers from Europe, Australia, New Zealand mostly haven’t tasted it. But pretty much everybody who likes wine has tasted Bordeaux.

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