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2010 Napa Cabs and how critics might review them

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I was having breakfast at Boon Fly with Sean Foster and Michael Cruse, the winemaker and assistant winemaker at Merryvale, and I asked them about the 2010 vintage. Both said (as many other winemakers have said) that it will probably result in wines that are lower in alcohol and not as rich as previous “classic” vintages. Then I asked them if they thought the critics would be cruel to the wines if they [the critics] think the wines lack a little stuffing.

Sean spoke first. “I could see that,” he acknowledged. “I do wonder how they’ll reconcile the expectation of what Napa Valley produces — big, rich, tannic wines — compared with the expectation that Bordeaux produces wines of more elegance and finesse. How do you reward or punish Napa in a year when it’s more like Bordeaux?”

Good question. As Sean noted, it’s all about expectations. If you’re used to the kinds of wine produced in years like 2004 and 2005, with Cabernets that were stunningly lush in fruit, then a leaner year might disappoint you. You would “punish” Napa for 2010′s failure to achieve alcoholic ripeness. If, on the other hand, you prefer more structured, earthier wines, you might “reward” Napa.

Michael Cruse, a thoughtful man, had been listening, and then he jumped in swinging. “If a critic is going to punish a winery for having something atypical, but according to the vintage” he said — “atypical” meaning in this case a leaner, less opulent Napa Cabernet, but one that’s a reflection of the cool weather — “it opens up the question of how much collusion there is.”

Excuse me, collusion? Michael explained. “I mean, how much understanding does a critic have of what’s proceeding in the vintage?” I took him to mean that a critic should understand that a cooler vintage in Napa might produce a leaner, more focused wine, but one that nonetheless may be very fine. True, but I said that Michael had introduced a slippery slope into the conversation. If he’s ready to exonerate the record cold 2010 vintage as resulting in more austere, but equally wonderful, Cabernets, then where do the excuses stop? When does a vintage turn into an unripe disaster?

“That’s exactly my point,” Michael said. “You should be able to say ‘This is a disaster’ if it is a disaster. That’s everyone’s right. The broader question, I think in my heart of hearts, is that any critic worth his salt is going to [i.e. should] recognize quality, regardless of what form it takes.” He paused for a moment, then continued. “It’s to recognize the fact that, yes, maybe there’s a mintiness to this Cab, and maybe there’s an herbalness to it. But these are still quality wines. I hope,” he concluded, looking at me square in the eye, “that that recognition is occurring.”

Well, I haven’t tasted anything of the 2010s yet, so I don’t know if Napa Cabs are going to be minty and herbal or not. But I do think the vintage is going to challenge critics. If the wines are leaner, earthier, drier, less exuberant, more herbaceous, minty (take your pick), then how do you distinguish between a very fine minty/herbaceous Cabernet and one that’s merely green and underripe? That was the slippery slope I was thinking about. It’s going to take some good and experienced palates to deal with 2010, but it’s also going to require an open-mindedness, and a willingness to switch course, to embrace a style of Napa Cabernet that hasn’t been around for a while.

All this raises another question, one that was thrown around on this blog last week about tasting blind: When we taste the 2010s, should we know they’re 2010s and make allowances? I will in all likelihood know that I’m tasting 2010s when I begin reviewing them, in two or three years. But I like to think that I won’t have to make allowances for the vintage. I have a tolerant palate that can appreciate the span from superripe to earthy without bias. I’m hopeful that we’re going to get Cabernets and Bordeaux blends out of Napa Valley (and especially from the mountains and hillsides) that truly do attain the holy grail of ripeness at lower brix, with no compromise of flavor or complexity. True elegance and finesse may be the silver lining around the cloud of this bizarre and stressful vintage.

  1. “The broader question, I think in my heart of hearts, is that any critic worth his salt is going to [i.e. should] recognize quality, regardless of what form it takes.”

    OMG, I LOVE that! And I’d add “and regardless of whether or not it’s a wine that we’d prefer to drink ourselves.”

    As always, the better fruit and the better winemaking will likely surprise, beguile, and stun us even in this whacko vintage.

  2. Steve,

    Having just recently drained and pressed the last lot of 2010 NV CS, I predict that 2010 will be a great vintage for many, but certainly not all in Napa. This was a year when cultural practices in the vineyard had a huge impact on fruit maturity. Vintners who were proactive in controlling vine vigor and made timely crop and canopy adjustments should have achieved full physiological ripeness in most locations throughout the Napa Valley and surrounding hills. Anybody who didn’t have their fruit ripe and off the vine by October 23rd is in for a rough year. The wines that I’m tasting in tank have great color and balance with concentrated and focused flavors and well-integrated tannings. In short, I haven’t been this stoked about a vintage in since ’05!

  3. If the “critics” simply use their “experienced palates” to describe what the wines are showing and how they are drinking, I think they have done there jobs. It should be up to the person who is going to be buying the wines and drinking them to then decide if the 2010 CA Cabs have turned out in a style that fits their personal palate preference. To give a wine a poor score because it is not what you think it should be is ridiculous. If it is balanced and well made and demonstrated quality it should not receive demerits because of the weather.

  4. Interesting post, Steve. 2010 is a vintage we should all celebrate, for its lack of sameness…looking forward to the somewhat idiosyncratic wines that are made from good sites by good winemakers that aren’t the cookie-cutter “opulent”, “big”, “jammy” wines that are made in practically every other vintage.

    What I see so far from our vineyards in Livermore, are sugar levels at 23.9-24.2, but ripe tannins, and non-green aromas and flavors…wines with mid-palate stuffing but a bit more acidity and red fruit on the finish. We still have Cabernet hanging…and merlot, and Cab Franc…and we hope to get them off in good form. Livermore Valley is a cooler growing area than Napa Valley…so we’re pushing the ripeness envelope in this challenging vintage.

  5. One thus far unspoken tangent of the 2010 Napa and Sonoma season is that due to the rain there will be a FLOOD of rose hitting the market next year from all the heavy saignee-ing (often about 20% after these types of rains) that goes on. It will be interesting to see how those work out as well.

  6. Assuming the norm equals 100 for CA’s weather stations climate data, we found the following (VEI-Index) numbers for the 2010’s growing season: Carneros – 96.0; Oakville – 85.6; Santa Rosa – 70.3; Windsor – 84.7; Petaluma – 69.2; Santa Maria – 84.9. (More data break down on my WS)
    However, if we examine the 2010 season’s data and weather profile per se, making no comparisons with CA’s historical data, we’ll come to the conclusion that it was a very favorable year for Pinot Noir and the Bordeaux varieties.

  7. One standard you can stick to is…do these wines taste good? They don’t have to taste “like they are supposed to”, or taste like the last four vintages, and they don’t have to be the biggest and highest in alcohol of red wines to be worthy. They just have to taste good.

    I don’t think there is any way to taste them blind over the next four or five years without recognizing their youth and knowing what vintage they are. It would be good, however, to compare them to a few previous vintages to get a feel for what is unique about them.

    Regarding herbaceousness many young winemakers have tailored their winemaking around raisined fruit that hasn’t a trace of herbaceousness or varietal aroma. Those techniques will not work with many 2010 grapes. Just like classic vintages in Bordeaux, some young 2010 California wines will have varietal aroma and some herbal notes. This is easy to deal with in the cellar if you know what to do and they can be turned into assets rather than defects.

    From what I have seen the vintage is not as late or wet as 1975, 1979, 1982, 1989, 1998, or 2000. We all seemed to survive those seasons and made quite a few nice wines. Most of those late vintages have held up in the bottle far better than warm years that surrounded them. Taste Napa Valley “74 against ’75′s today. It’s not even close.

    Being a contrarian (or maybe just cheap) I have made it a practice to buy wines in the years declared inferior by critics. It is in those vintages where the great vineyards shine. I think you will see some wonderful wines from the gravelly soils at the mouths of canyons like 3 Palms, Arujo, Coppola, or BV1 and certainly from the hillsides. But if we’re talking heavy, rich soils, dense, umbrella-like canopies, and a dependance on letting grapes raisin up to rid them of the veggies, maybe choosing a hot year would be good advice.

  8. It’s sounding as though 2010 is going to be a vintage that gives fits to some winemakers and accolades to others; much will depend on style and how they managed their fruit during a truly unique growing season.

    It should also point out the importance of keeping an eye (or a palate) tuned to vintage variations and how they affect the resulting wines. While the ’10 wines may not be “typical” for Napa Cab, they should still have typicity for cabernet — and that is where the experienced taster/wine writer will shine through and have a teachable moment for his audience.

    And for those who criticize the Napa wineries for making big, jammy, high alcohol fruit bombs with massive tannins — well, this should be their year to stock up! Let’s praise the variations that Mama Nature gives us and celebrate the differences; it does give us more to talk about, right?

  9. Steve,

    We had the last of our fruit in house as of this past Friday morning–a couple of days ahead of a cool and rainy spell. I know some of my colleagues opted to hang some fruit out through the damp weather and very cold mornings, and I’m just not sure why. Will it really get any better?

    In so many regards this is the very best vintage we’ve had for red wines in Santa Ynez in years. I might sound kooky to say so, but it was the year of: “When you think it’s almost ready to pick, then it’s ready to pick.”

    I imagine that, judged according to the prevailing style of CA reds–and Napa Valley Cabs in particular–the year will be a non-starter, but within a broader, international context, this is really going to be a year when we can show the world that CA can make “grown up” wines in addition to the brash style we are more well know for.

    I really love the challenging years. Some wines will be under-ripe, but many will be deftly balanced, provocative and very indicative of their provenance. Favored sites will fare the best, and vineyards that should have never been designated on labels in the first place will help demonstrate that there really is such a thing as (great, good and mediocre) terroir. Vineyard Managers, winemakers, consumers and critics alike have an amazing opportunity to form a real understanding of the specific terroirs throughout the state.

    Nick

  10. Nick, I’m really looking forward to tasting these wines.

  11. Touche to Morton – “do these wines taste good?” At the end of the day, that should be all that truly matters, yes? Why won’t Parker and the point-chasers taste these wines double-blind – no previous knowledge of vintage, vineyard or varietal and judge them on the merits of how they taste?
    I find it a tremendous disservice to the many incredible wines (and vintners) who don’t “pass the test” of 90 points or better. Worse yet, all the anxiety over the diminished alcohol levels as if that’s a bad thing? I, for one, am thankful we’re below the new “minimum standard” of 14.5; I can now enjoy that second glass without fear of a DUI on the way home from the restaurant.

  12. David Vergari says:

    In the words of Dave Hickey, “Criticism is the lowest form of writing…it’s the written equivalent of air guitar.” To this observer, asking about the future reception to wines–many of which have yet to finish primary fermentation, let alone Malolactic–is a bit premature.

  13. Bill Green says:

    Who is this critic supposedly reviewing for, consumers or wineries that have product to sell? Times are tight for a lot of people, not just wineries. If it is a tough year, give it to consumers straight (wine-by-wine) and don’t sugar coat it or try to rate it with some sort of “great within the context of the vintage” hypothetical nonsense. Sorry, if I spend $30 on a bottle and even if the winemaker made the best wine he could that year, that’s not enough consolation in this economy.

  14. Bill Green, I always try to give it to the consumer straight. I am fortunate (or cursed) to have a very catholic palate, in the old sense of the word. I can appreciate many different styles of wine, as long as they’re properly made and show varietal correctness. So a “leaner” Cabernet (or whatever you want to call it) does not automatically suffer, if it offers complexity and enjoyment.

  15. David V., maybe we critics are lower than pond scum, but in my case at least, I’m a pretty good writer. I don’t just write wine reviews, I’ve got books and articles and this blog out there to prove that I know how to handle the English language.

  16. Re David V.

    It was the winemakers who are so worried, not the critic. How in the world a couple of winemakes could start apologizing for a vintage that has not yet even gone in the barrel is beyond rationality. It smacks of paranoia on the one hand and disingenuousness on the other–that is, if you are looking for a way to insult someone.

    As for your catholic palate, Steve, that may be open to question in that the whole megillah, from front to back, might be mutually exclusive.

  17. Great post and interesting conversation. As an industry, sometimes we start talking about a vintage perhaps way before we should. But consider there are few industries where critics have such influence on whether someone may try your product. Movies, restaurants, wine…. But for most other industries, the “critic” is the “consumer” and until only recently with the advent of blogs and online user reviews, had no *global* voice to express like or dislike with the product purchased. So unless you’re in one of these industries, you may not know what it feels like to have someone (I’ll use Laube here as an example) pronounce an entire vintage (as with the 2000 vintage) as not worth purchasing. Honestly, could he have possibly tasted every wine from Napa to even make such a sweeping pronouncement? But it had an impact on sales.

    We are making products from a crop – and we are, after all, just farmers. Since crops taste differently year-to-year based on weather, shouldn’t it be logical that a review of any wine be based on whether its a good wine?

  18. Steve
    First, one should hesitate to pronounce definitive opinions on a vintage this soon. There will be some fine wines made in 2010. The question is- which varieties will rise above the rest in this very difficult vintage? What I know is this; my Russian River Chard seems to be good. My Russian River Pinot was cooked, but seems OK. My Napa Pinot is anomalous, but promising. Old Vine Calistoga Zin is very earthy (botyritis?), and problematic. Napa Syrah I picked in three passes: good, decent, and pathetic. Santa Cruz pinot: the most promising of all, unfortunately I didn’t get any; there was so much sunburn there wasn’t enough to fill my contract. My neighbor’s Coombsville Cab, picked last week; I tasted the grapes in the bin, they were thin, watery, and ,flavorless, and didn’t even have good acid. This is NOT a year of lower sugar and higher acid for Cab. Herbaceousness isn’t the problem. High pH, low acid, and lack of concentration are the problem. My assessment: this vintage sucks, and it will be only clairvoyant and lucky vineyard managers and hard-working winemakers that make decent reds. the whites will fare better. I could be wrong. There is so much money involved these days that no one will speak their mind about this vintage. It sucks. Napa Cab is THE wine, and it’s weak. Welcome to global warming, folks. Yours, Mark

  19. Bunt, thanks for the report. Sounds like you have your hands full!

  20. 1. Wine critics and the wine press need something to write about and in the big wine writers race, the first to trash or laud a vintage is the winner. Congratulations Steve-hows 2011 lookin’? Some people will already be predicting yields and quality for 2011 based on the yield and quality of 2010.

    2. It will be 2013 before we taste most of these wines as the winemaker intends. How about we give the wines at least 6 months before we write off this vintage. Remember how 1998 was universally panned , then some of the wines actually tasted pretty good?

    3. Aww never mind-lets just take the year off from drinking Napa cabs in 2013.

    4. So much for global climate change-lets plant Pinot in Lake County!

    I for one am excited to see what wine makers can do with this year’s fruit. To pan (or laud) and entire vintage at this point is unprofessional and completely ignores a given winery’s viticulture and winemaking programs. Since the reviewers that ‘anoint’ or condemn California vintages generally seem to prefer the big gooey extracted blockbusters, those winemakers whose bonuses are tied to scores may be understandably a bit concerned.

    But hey, again it will be 3 years off-We’ll have the Palin-Beck administration and then we’ll all be drinking cheap fake French Pinot.

  21. Great post, Steve. I find that more and more often, I find myself impressed by wineries and winemakers, less than by the vintage. In short, I’m a producer whore, not a vintage whore. I’ll routinely buy from wineries I’ve come to rely on. If I like their wines in stellar vintages like ’07, then chances are I’ll also appreciate their style in more trying vintages like 2010.

    That said, I think 2010 could be a blessing for the CA industry as a whole, coming at the perfect time, as a trend towards lower ABV is just beginning to brew.

  22. Jon, 2010 is going to be a troublesome year. I don’t think at this point it will be the magic bullet for lower alc wines that some people are predicting.

  23. John, 2011 in my opinion is the greatest vintage of the last 5 centuries.

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