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Musings on the Napa Harvest Report

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Could you tell that a painting by Picasso from his 1950s abstract phase was painted by the same artist as an early 20th century Blue Period painting by Picasso?

This question arose during yesterday’s Napa Vintners harvest report in San Francisco. After the report, we tasted through the 2001 through 2010 vintages from four wineries: Cakebread, Corison, Far Niente and Opus One. For me the salient point of the tasting, which consisted of a total of 49 wines, was the obviousness of the house styles at the wineries.

Far Niente was consistently the biggest, most tannic, most dramatic and powerful. Opus was by contrast the most elegant, often showing a delicacy and even an herb quality. Corison was right in the middle, squaring the circle by combining elegance with power. All three displayed a consistency, an expression of terroir, and distinct profile. As for the Duckhorns, I must say that over the years, while I’ve admired the Cabernets and often given them good scores, there’s an inchoateness, a slightly generic quality that repeated itself during yesterday’s tasting.

During the discussion following the tasting there was a conversation going on among the panelists, who were the winemakers from the respective wineries, and something that someone said concerning consistency prompted me to ask this double, somewhat loaded question. Do you winemakers feel compelled to achieve consistency of style year after year, even at the expense of making a better wine? Or is your consistency of style simply a reflection of your wine as a creature of its terroir?

I’ve been aware of the importance of consistency for years, from the point of view of a critic. My own tasting director at Wine Enthusiast routinely dogs me about it. I’ve often asked winemakers what quality they most admire or require in a wine critic, and the reply most often is consistency. So transferring the parameter of consistency from critic to producer isn’t difficult. After all, you’d expect Opus One to be lighter, less dense and tannic than anything off the Oakville Bench (which includes Far Niente, Martha’s Vineyard and Harlan). A heavy, tannic Opus would be an anomoly. But then, of course, Opus’s vineyards include some closer to the Napa River, on the coarser soils east of Highway 29. So that must contribute to its lighter texture (regardless of any “French-oriented” decision Tim Mondavi made years ago).

The analogy with painting arose when Bruce Cakebread answered my question. He suggested that each winery’s terroir would always define itself, regardless of how its approach to winemaking varied. He offered the example of Dégas. A horse by Dégas would be different from a ballerina by Dégas, but they both would bear the unmistakable stamp of the Impressionist. I replied that, yes, that was true; but if you considered an artist like Picasso, who had a very long and creative life and went through multiple phases, would it be possible to testify that the artist who created a Blue Period painting was the same one who, decades later, created something unbearably abstract and wildly colorful? Yes, Bruce Cakebread affirmed, to grunts of assent from the audience. (Or maybe they were just waiting for me to shut up.)

Bruce did make the vital point that it takes a very long time for a winemaker and winery to develop her house style, particularly when crafting wine from an estate vineyard. He said, “You can’t just taste one vintage of Corison’s Kronos and state what the terroir is.” Which is absolutely true, and which is why it was and always is such a pleasure to taste the latest output of fine wineries, especially in a vertical, and have what you always thought were the house styles confirmed so strongly.

Incidentally the tasting proved once again how well Corison’s Kronos ages. Hers were the stars of the earlier flight (2001-2005), with the 2001 (which I loved last year in New York) stunning. On the other hand, Far Niente dominated the second flight (2006-2010). So potent, so refined and dramatic. The 2010s were, obviously, all barrel samples, which are nearly impossible to make sense of, for me anyway. I’d hate to have to taste wines from the barrel professionally. As for the vintages, 2004 revealed its tragic flaw, which was the blistering heat. From my 2004 Vintage Diary:

Sept. 2
Big heat wave to start tomorrow

Sept. 5 Very hot in SF (96), even hotter in wine country, and will continue

Sept. 6 Temps 100 degrees throughout wine country

Sept. 7 More record heat everywhere

Sept. 8 Hotter today than ever

Sept. 10 Heat leading to a crush rush, everything coming in at once, running out of water to rehydrate the vines, running out of fermentation space…

And so on. 2004 was a very difficult year for Napa Cabernet and this tasting proved it. Upon release, I gave the Far Niente and Corison (the only ones I reviewed) scores in the low 90s, but in this tasting, neither broke 90 points. The wines had been inherently unstable; none of the four seems to have much more useful life, although they’re all drinking well now.

  1. While I’d like to comment on the substance of your report, all such high falutin’ matters are out of my league. All I have to say is that I think there is a typo in the third paragraph. You write Duckhorn, but don’t you mean Cakebread? Was this a Freudian slip…?

  2. Yah I meant Cakebread. Got my food groups confused.

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