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The 2010 Pinot Noirs: an assessment

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“Pinot could be excellent,” I wrote in my vintage diary on Sept. 2, 2010. At that point in the harvest–a crucial one, when a heat wave had just blasted Northern California–everything depended on two things: the weather moderating, allowing the grapes to ripen evenly and not shrivel, and the rain holding off.

In the event, the next several weeks provided some scares, but all was well. I had gone to Santa Barbara during the third week of September and found Pinot vintners there thoroughly unconcerned about the late harvest “because,” I wrote, “it’s not likely they’ll have any rain for months.” The Pinot harvest now started in earnest. I think the overall feeling among winemakers in California that year was best summed up by something Eric Hickey, who makes the wines at Laetitia, told me on Nov. 19: “The Pinot vintage actually looks pretty good considering it all.” He was referring to the merciless ups and downs of the year and, above all, the lateness.

Prognostications concerning vintages before all the grapes are even picked are dicey, especially in California, where we really don’t have disasters, but only shades of disaster. Some pundits who slammed 1989, for example, turned out to be short-sighted. I’ve always maintained that the only way you can finally pronounce on a vintage’s character is to taste a lot of wine from that year, then study your notes and arrive at the appropriate conclusions. That’s good research, but of course it often conflicts with the goal of reporting, which is to be the first one out there with the headline–and the more shocking and controversial, the better.

Well, I’ve now tasted about 110 Pinot Noirs from the 2010 vintage. That’s only a fraction of what I expect eventually to review; I reviewed about 675 Pinots in 2009. Still, 110 is enough to begin looking for trends. What have I found? So far, things are looking good. Not great; my highest scoring Pinot scored only 94 points. After that, three 93s, two 91s, seven 90s, and everything else between 89 all the way down to a miserable 80.

My top scorers came from everyplace: Russian River Valley, Santa Rita Hills, Anderson Valley, Carneros, Sonoma Coast, suggesting that there was a rather uniform quality overall to 2010 California Pinot Noir. Prices for the best Pinots were modest–at least, as modest as top Pinot can get, averaging out around $35-$40. When you think about it, Pinot Noir pricing has remained remarkably constrained compared to the unabashed gouging that top Cabernet houses are imposing on consumers. But then, that’s the law of supply and demand. There are very, very few Pinots that retail for more than $100, such as Williams Selyem’s Estate and Lynmar’s Quail Hill Old Vines, whereas there are dozens of Cabernets, mainly from Napa Valley, that sell for triple digits.

I expect there to be a lot more high scoring 2010 Pinots by the time all is said and done. Wineries hold the best ones back for two years or more, which means that the release of 2010s should start to pick up just about now, extending over the Spring and Summer into Winter, and then into 2013. There’s no reason why 2010 shouldn’t be stellar. It will also give us a glimpse into 2011, which was similar to 2010: chilly, damp and a nail biter until the bitter end.

  1. Good to hear your comments on the 2010 vintage PN. We are on the cusp of bottling the 2010s next week, and I am quite pleased with them. They are focused expressions of the Anderson Valley. For us, 2010 is a vintage that benefitted from extended barrel aging, as I saw drastic improvement between August and December in the weight and fleshiness of our wines.

  2. My personal experience with the 2010’s at Clos Pepe:

    1. This is not another 2004. These are not wines that will impress because of an early heat spike like 2004–wines that seemed ripe, but aged in a hollow way.

    2. The wines will be dark and rich. Heat waited until October, so we had a March-September, so we had 7 months of hangtime (7-10 weeks longer than a long vintage in Burgundy). Flavor and phenolics were already developed when the heat hit.

    3. Almost all the wines were watered back. I was seeing soak up numbers around 28-30 brix on pinot noir, which is around 18% potential alcohol. For the first time in my career at Clos Pepe (11 vintages at the time), I watered back. We went to around 25, because, as odd as it sems for a winemaker known for restraint, I wanted the wine to show vintage. It is not the wine I would LIKE to have made, but it is an accurate snapshot of Clos Pepe in a cool year, after a significant heat event.

    4. Harvesting at night saved the vintage. Super low VA, no spontaneous ferments, and the brix comes down a bit, as does pH. I will never pick a grape here at Clos Pepe during daylight hours if I can help it. 100% of 2010-2011 harvests have been night picks here at Clos Pepe, for all producers.

    Great article and looking forward to seeing how you like the 2010 Clos Pepe Estate!

  3. Why do you consider 80 a miserable score? According to your employer, 80 points is considered an “acceptable” wine and “can be employed in casual, less-critical circumstances.” Now, I’m not trying to state that an 80 point wine is a great wine that I am going to champion, but how can you claim there is no score inflation when what historically and supposedly still to this day is an actual decent score, you call miserable? Note: grade inflation does not mean all scores are going up, just that the meaning of scores has changed. In the not so distant past, a grade of a C in college was considered an “average” grade. Now it reflects complete and utter failure. Same thing going on with wine scores…

  4. Colorado, I would not use the word “miserable” in a formal review. But let’s face it, an 80 is interpreted as miserable by just about everyone. So when I comment on my own scores, I can be more descriptive, especially if I don’t identify the wine in question, which I would never do out of respect.

  5. So is Wine Enthusiast’s rating scale a joke because when they say a wine is acceptable, the editors actually believe it is miserable? What do they mean when a wine is highly recommended, it isn’t very good buy you likely can’t afford the good stuff? And now how are people supposed to believe what you write? You write psuedo-nice things about a wine out of respect, but you really think it is miserable when you don’t have to identify the wine by name. What do you really think about wines that you give 94s to, but don’t want to offend the owners? This is not really breaking news and most people know that ratings are just a big game critics play, but I’m kind of surprised to hear you actually admit to it. Bravo!

  6. James Rego says:

    It looks like Colorado woke up on the wrong side of the bed or perhaps he just likes to nitpick?

  7. James Rego, lol!

  8. I find it interesting how people get so up in arm about wine scores. You never see Ebert having to defend the concept of his star or thumb systems so fiercely. They are probably so much reaction because money is more at stake in the few hands of reviewers.

  9. Well said Colorado!! According to Steve, a wine that gets an 80 point score is acceptable on the record, but miserable off the record. Not good for someone’s integrity.

  10. I just like to nitpick. Zack, there is more money to be made in movies. Ebert doesn’t prochain perfection in movies and when he doesn’t like a movie he doesn’t give it an average score and then bash it when he doesn’t have to name it.

  11. I really hate the idea of declaring a vintage to be good or bad, especially with pinot noir. Every vintage is unique and different, and it is the job of a winemaker to make the best of the grapes he gets. Challenging vintages often create the most interesting wines. “Good” vintages often deliver over-ripe wines that lake subtlety.

    I don’t mean for this to be a knock on Steve’s current blog…he even mentions that declaring the quality of a vintage before tasting the wines is often a mistake. But I think that an important step in really appreciating wines is learning to appreciate the unique flavors offered by a difficult vintage. And since complaining about the 100-point scale is becoming passe, allow me to be the first one to start complaining about ranking vintages.

  12. gabe, I share your aversion to vintage assessments. It’s something I do because it’s expected of wine critics, and there are certain generalizations that can be made, even in California, where vintages are more alike than not. But it’s also important to let readers know that they shouldn’t base their buying decisions entirely on simple vintage rankings.

  13. Anthony, not at all! “Acceptable” is exactly what it says: it’s not entirely crap, and I would drink it if there were nothing else. But does an 80 point wine excite me? Please me? Does it advance the cause of its region, variety or winery? No. So I choose to avoid it if possible.

  14. Steve, look up the word “Acceptable”, no where does it’s definition use, “it’s not entirely crap” or anything to suggest being avoidable. And , oh by the way, miserable is also nowhere to be found. The definition does however, use the words, suitable, adequate, and satisfactory. Remember, your integrity is at stake. I’m quite positive a wine that you deem 80 points does not excite you, but that’s not the issue here. I think you need to re-think your numbers game, because it sounds to me like those wines you gave 80 points, are more like 78 points or 75 points or anything you guys don’t review. Either way, seriously review your ratings system and try and be consistent with it, both on and off the record.

  15. I’m not necessarily opposed to vintage assessment. I think every vintage is different, and it is an important job for a wine writer to describe what makes a vintage unique. I just don’t like quantifying it in terms of “good”, “bad”, or “94-points”.

    The perfect example would be the 2007, and 2008, and 2009 vintages in the Willamette Valley. 07 was cool and rainy, 08 was warm and dry, and 09 was very hot. Most people describe 08 as a “good” vintage, whole 07 & 09 are “bad” vintages. But what does that really tell you? If you say that the 07 wines are bright and tart because of cold weather, the 08s are dark and structured because of the long autumn, and the 09s are fruit-forward and ripe from the warm weather, that seems much more informative. And doesn’t reduce vintage variation to the oversimplification of “good vs. bad”.

  16. Santo roman says:

    Im still waiting to hear steves response to colorado’s comment or we could just skip it as usual and move to the next post with unresponed comments

  17. Dear Santo roman, not sure which response you mean. I reply to every comment that I think calls for a reply–which most don’t. Thank you.

  18. Steve
    I’m jealous of everyone else who seems, miraculously, not to have suffered from the long cold summer followed by those brutal hot spells, then the rain. Sunburn and lack of ripeness gave me wines that are a nightmare in the cellar. Brutal tannins and greenness- the worst. If I make a decent wine I’ll pat myself on the back. I don’t know what planet everyone else was making wine on, but it’s clear no one wants to say anything negative about a vintage, ever. The wines may turn out, even be interesting, possibly good, given enough bottle time, it’s always a bit mysterious what they do over time, but I think it was a very difficult vintage. I’d give my own red wines an 80 at this point. My Syrah seems OK, if a bit weak,I have no idea why- give it an 85. Maybe you’ve tasted the hundred best, and the rest are in hiding. Mine are. Bunt

  19. Looking at your comments from over a year ago, I find interesting because I think the 2010 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir has been exceptional from the get go and only getting better as were are now continuously drinking them into April, 2013. In my opinion, 2010 is one of the best vintages for the past ten years and counting. The fruit is deep, concentrated and most enjoyable from first sip to last.

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