As we wrap up another year, I find myself, like so many others, looking back over the old one, and wondering what it all meant.
I’m not going to do any sort of list, but instead want to let my mind wander free-range over the past 365 days. It’s been a year of gradual and welcome emergence from the despairs of the Great Recession. Here in California, as you may know, our economy is booming, particularly in the coastal areas, and most especially in Northern California. Fueled by the growth of Silicon Valley, NoCal is experiencing low unemployement, high salaries, and most notably a housing boom. Prices (and rents) are soaring, bringing to mind the housing bubble of the early and mid-2000s–but this time, the experts are telling us there’s no chance of a burst. I don’t know that I believe them, though.
Wineries seem to be doing all right. Like I always say, nobody can really know a winery’s bottom line unless you’re the banker or owner, so any conjectures about the industry’s health are only that: conjectures. But business seems to be back on track. I’m sure there are individual wineries that are struggling, but sales, bankruptcies and the like don’t seem to be any higher than they’ve been in the 25 years I’ve been watching the California industry.
The Holy Grail for wineries is, of course, direct-to-consumer sales. I can’t even remember when I first heard that phrase. I do recall the first time it was brought to my attention that a direct sale brings the proprietor 100 cents on the dollar, rather than the split he has to eat when dealing with the three-tiered distribution system. That was years ago, when I was touring the wineries of the Sierra Foothills, particularly those along Highway 49, in Gold Country, and also located conveniently between the population centers of the coast and the ski resorts around Tahoe. All the owners told me how much wine they were selling through their tasting rooms, up to 90% of their production. That was a good thing, for them–but a bad thing, as far as I was concerned, because too many of the wines were (in my opinion) flawed, and yet the owners had no motivation at all to clean up their acts.
Anyhow, tasting room sales obviously are a subset of direct-to-consumer. So, today, are wine clubs that are active through the Internet. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’d love to be around in, say, 20 years, to see if wineries are still at the mercy of a (fairly heartless) distribution system, or if they’ve managed to figure out how to sell direct. At this point, I don’t have a clue.
Two other aspects of the past year intrigue me: the excellence of the 2012 and 2013 vintages. After a difficult 2011 and challenging 2010, California enjoyed two of the nicest years, weather-wise, in memory. The main wines have yet to appear from either, but theoretically, both 2012 and 2013 look to have the qualities of stellar vintages. One cloud that’s hanging over the coming 2014 vintage is California’s severe drought. As I write these words, 2013 is shaping up to be the driest year in California’s history–which goes back in record-keeping to the 1850s. It’s appalling how dry conditions are. On Jan. 1, 2014 (i.e., tomorrow), if the national (which is to say, East Coast) media don’t make a big deal about this, they discredit themselves, and show their right coast bias. How the drought will impact the grapes is complicated, a story that will play itself out next summer. Of course, the weather could change on a dime: January-March could be real drenchers. We’ll just have to wait and see.
A final observation: In all my years of wine reporting I’ve never appreciated so much as I have this year the importance of a younger generation coming up. I guess this is a natural result of the fading away of the original boutique winery proprietors, who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. There are ambitious, talented young winemakers all over the place. I’ve written about this extensively in my articles about Paso Robles and Monterey, but it’s not just along the Central Coast, it’s statewide. What energy these winemakers are bringing, what innovation, what risk-taking. California is a very conservative state, wine-wise (the opposite of our political liberalism), and it’s a bold move for a young, unproven winemaker to try her hand at something new, rather than “just” another Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon (not that there’s anything wrong with either!). But I do see a cadre of vintners in their 20s and 30s tinkering with less familiar varieties–and often they’re crafting them at lower alcohols and with higher acidity than has been the case. I’m looking forward to experiencing more of these wines in 2014.
I’d like to thank my readers for sticking with steveheimoff.com for another year; I’m now going into my sixth on this blog. Thank you, too, for all of you who take the time to comment. Your feedback always is welcome and sometimes educational. I wish you all a happy, healthy New Year.
I was starting to feel like the only person on Earth who had concerns about the 2011 vintage, until I read this post from Jim Laube’s blog, in which he describes “a high presence of musty and even moldy flavors” in too many of the wines.
I’ve been telling Wine Enthusiast’s Tasting Department for the better part of a year the same thing. Of course, one is loathe to say, of any given wine, that it’s “moldy” because, unless you actually test it for, say, botrytis, you don’t actually know; that loaded word can kill the wine’s sales. But “musty” and “moldy” aromas and accompanying bad flavors are exactly what plagues so many 2011s. That, and a generalized unripeness across the board.
The vintage was the coldest ever–well, in living memory, anyway. It was the year that summer never came. Brutal for people and grapes alike. This problem wasn’t limited just to the coolest regions: it was coastal-wide, extending into Paso Robles. I’m not going to identify any particular bottlings, but here are some Moldy Hall of Fame 2011 wines; maybe you can figure out what they are.
There was a single-vineyard Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands that was filled with fungus. A Paso Robles red Rhône-blend that reeked of mushrooms, not in a good way. An expensive Russian River Valley Pinot whose asparagus smell reminded me of the Monterey veggies of long ago, as did one from Carneros. Another Pinot, with a Santa Barbara County appellation, smelled like green beans and tomatoes.
As I look over my notes, I see that the variety that was most susceptible to these defects was Pinot Noir, although I also found it in some Zinfandels, Sauvignon Blancs, Chardonnays, Viogniers, Syrahs and Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blends, including some expensive ones. I guess Pinot was most affected because of its transparency: the very thing that lets us taste the most finely-tuned aspects of Pinot’s terroir also magnifies the slightest problem.
The thing about mold, unripeness and vegetal notes is that they don’t go away. You can’t blow them off with decanting. And they won’t age out. On Wine Enthusiast’s Vintage Chart for 2011 Pinot Noir, I gave Carneros my lowest score in many years. Ditto for Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley and Santa Barbara, including Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley. Having said that, the thing to realize is that 2011 was far from being a “bad” vintage. Yes, there were a lot of mediocre wines, more than usual; but there were also some fabulous one. The problem of moldy berries is easily addressed by the winery: If their viticulture can’t prevent it (and often it can’t, because botrytis moves in really fast), then the sorting table is where bad grapes are plucked out, before they go into the fermenter. Problem is, sorting is expensive. Not every winery can afford the equipment or the staff. It must be a terrible moral quandary for a winemaker to allow moldy grapes to pass into the wine–but what can she do? It’s economics.
Here are some wineries that obviously did have the means and will power to produce magnificent 2011 Pinot Noirs: Williams Selyem, Merry Edwards, Paul Hobbs, Rochioli, Lynmar, Dutton-Goldfield, Joseph Phelps, Failla, Thomas Fogarty, Flowers, Testarossa, Tantara, Freeman, Sojourn, Siduri and Foxen. The usual suspects, you say? Exactly. The reason they’re the usual suspects is because these wine companies do what has to be done to produce great wine.
Actually, the problems of 2011 (and, to an almost equal extent, 2010) underscore two important things to keep in mind: One, not every year in California is the same! And two, just wait until the 2012s start coming out. They will be superb.
I am increasingly excited by prospects of a great vintage in California for 2013.
Longtime readers of mine know that my view of vintages is that, in general, you can’t really tell the overall quality until a number of years have passed and you’ve tasted enough wines in bottle to see how they’re actually doing, as opposed to how you thought they should be doing. It’s true that most wine periodicals, including Wine Enthusiast, ask us writers to predict the quality of a vintage almost as soon as it’s over, but I’ve always striven to let readers know that such appraisals are at best preliminary educated guesses.
The last time I felt in my bones that a vintage was great, and that predictions of its quality didn’t need to be hedged, was 2007. Even at the time, I was calling it “the vintage of the century,” and quoting winemakers who were similarly excited. Jason Drew, at Drew Family Cellars, had told me “It’s hard for me to contain myself,” he was so pleased. True, some rain came by early October, as it almost always does; but, as I noted at the time, “Luckily, once it stopped raining, warm sunshine came back and late ripeners, like Cabernet, dried out.” And indeed, 2007 has turned out to be one of those perfect California vintages where the wines were opulent right out of the bottle, but also ageworthy.
This year has been even better. Steady-as-she-goes might be the byword. There was no killer frost in the spring, no wildfires to give smoke taint to the grapes, very little in the way of heat waves, no huge production as there was last vintage, and as for that pesky rainstorm a few weeks ago, despite some concerns at the time, all it ended up doing was washing the dust off the grapes.
I always say that grapes like the same kind of weather we humans do; and we humans have been liking this summer, especially the last two months, which are the crucial ones from the harvest’s point of view. I emailed my friend, our local Channel 2’s morning meteorologist, Steve Paulson, to ask him, “I know that Sept-Oct are always described as our best weather months [in California]. But, after 35 years in the Bay Area, I can’t remember more gorgeous weather than this year. Except for that weird storm a few weeks ago (which actually was good for the grapes), the weather has been spectacular. Do you agree?” Steve replied, “I would agree! Sept/Oct. 2013 has been beautiful. Best I can remember too. Cool nights, sunny and mild to warm days. No extremes either way. The ‘weird’ rain was great in my mind. Loved it. After nearly 9 months of no rain, it was what I hope is a good sign for more ran this Winter.” So even the weatherman knows which way the wind is blowing.
For those of you who don’t know, Steve’s reference to “nearly 9 months of no rain” underscores the severity of the drought that is gripping California the last two years. The Central Coast has been hard-hit; reports of not enough water for the grapes have been coming in for months. And just the other day, Western Farm Press reported on widespread “trepidation” among growers of all crops (not just grapes) due to “not know[ing] if they will have water…next season.”
At any rate, whatever late ripeners are left on the vine should be gathered in the next few weeks under fine, sunny skies. The next eight days or so will see continued warm [but not hot] days, with clear skies and breezy conditions. As for the winter of 2013-2014, Steve Paulson’s hope for more rain seems to be in the offing: AccuWeather is predicting that “From December through January, California will enter a period of heavy precipitation resulting in much-needed relief from the extreme drought.”
Nicholas Miller, of the family that owns the Bien Nacido and other vineyards in Santa Barbara County, says of 2013, “From a quality perspective, this is what people dream of!” I’ll just add that, even before tasting a single barrel sample from 2013, I predict that this vintage will be one for the history books.
Tim Mondavi presided over yesterday’s blessing of the grapes at his new Continuum winery facility yesterday, in an ancient Catholic ceremony famously practiced every year by his late father, Robert Mondavi. Robert’s first blessing was in 1966, at his eponymous Oakville winery. His younger son’s ceremony was up on Pritchard Hill, where his estate vineyard is located. The wines up to now have been made elsewhere, but the new winery building is now completed, just in time for the 2013 crush–which falls on the 100th anniversary of Robert’s birth.
Continuum is one helluva wine. I’ve scored it in the 90s every vintage since 2005, with 2007 taking top honors at 97 points. But then, I’ve always been a big fan of the 2007 Napa Cabs. Plush and delicious right out of the bottle, but ageworthy.
Could 2013 develop into a super-vintage? All the indications are positive. The weather has been steady as she goes all year. Except for last Saturday’s gullywasher, September has been a dream month. I always say that grapes like the same kind of weather we humans do: warm, dry sunny days, nights chilly enough to need a blanket. And the long-range forecast, right into the beginning of October, is for more of the same. High pressure is keeping storms well to the north.
From what I hear, the crop yield will be large, although nowhere near the size of 2012. Vintners are always predicting a successful vintage even when they know it’s not, but this time, 2013 could be one for the history books. All the grapes ought to be in the cellar by the third week of October (except, I suppose, for the most late-ripening areas). The one problem I’ve heard of concerns water, or more properly, lack of it. We are in a drought. The Central Coast, where rainfall always is lower than in the North Coast, has been hard hit, with Paso Robles bearing the brunt. A local newspaper reported last month that the area’s water table has dropped by seventy feet since 1997. The problem is exacerbated by an increasing population, as more and more people desire to live in this beautiful country of vineyards, rolling hills and warm summers.
Anyway, congratulations to Tim Mondavi, his family and the crew at Continuum. Mazel tov on the new winery. Your father would be so proud of you. And what a great year for your first crush!
This week’s forecast of warm temperatures, dry, sunny weather and above all gusty breezes is made to order for Northern California winegrowers who got a scary soaking on Saturday morning.
Precipitation records fell all over the place. Oakland Airport got nearly an inch of rain, smashing the old record. Mount St. Helena, at the head of Napa Valley, got an inch. As usual, the first rainfall of the season caught drivers unaware: there were accidents everywhere. This was the region’s first real storm since last January, and it came earlier than heavy rain usually comes.
What impact did the rain have on the grapes? As usual, I asked my Facebook friends. Here’s what they said.
While the drops were still falling, the mood was gloomy. “As a farmer/winemaker, [I am] not happy,” said a Spring Mountain vintner. “Scared to death for Petite Sirah,” replied a Sonoman, concerned about the potential for rot in that varietal’s tightly-clustered bunches. A Sonoma Coast winemaker wrote, “Glad I don’t grow Petite. Most Sonoma Coast Pinot is in the barn. All the Bordeaux always have to ride a storm before they get picked, them’s the rules, right?” Right. From down south in Paso (by which the storm had largely petered out), came this reply: “It’s not good for grapes when this happens.”
As morning rain gave way to parting clouds and even warm sun by Saturday afternoon, vintners got more perspective, and were able to put the drenching into context. “Rinse the dust over the canopy to give the vines a boost!” wrote a Sonoma vintner. A Rutherford winemaker predicted, “What we will do is leaf the cluster zone to favor air flow and dry it as fast as possible,” referring to the classic method of allowing mold-producing moisture to evaporate. A Pinot grower with vineyards in Sebastopol and the Anderson Valley must have seen the long-range forecast when he wrote, “It’s been quite windy this afternoon, and is supposed to continue to be very windy for the next couple days…that should help the situation a lot.”
What is that long-range forecast? Here’s from yesterday’s Napa Valley Register. Nice to see all those yellow suns lined up. Warm, sunny weather for at least the next nine days.
So the rain was unusual, and caused some pulse-thumping moments, but should end up being largely meaningless. The only one of my Facebook friends I’ll quote by name here is Mitch Cosentino, at PureCru Wines, whose long reply aptly sums up the situation. “This is my 34th harvest. I was more concerned about my tomatoes in my garden. We had 0.8 in Napa city area. After the rain, it was pretty windy before sundown (which was good). There should be no effect at all on Cab Sauv or Cab Franc. In fact it could help show down and spread out the harvest a bit because everything was getting a bit jammed up. Pinots should be fine. People in Burgundy would laugh at anyone with any concern with one day of rain. If there is any really ripe Sauv Blanc still out there that could have some issues. Ripe Zinfandels could have problems but not likely with it being only one day and breezy mid 70s predicted for the next few days. We have had a beautiful growing season one day is just a day off. Everyone relax, it is going to be a great vintage.”
Critical attitudes toward California Pinot Noir have varied over the decades. When I first started paying attention to wine, the belief was just becoming entrenched that warmer regions, especially Napa Valley, were unsuitable for the great grape of Burgundy, because (it was said), the grapes got too ripe, and thus lacked the silky elegance, or one might say the dynamic tension you want in a great Pinot Noir.
I accepted that argument, because all I was, was a lowly newbie, so who was I to disagree with the experts? This was despite my having had a Napa Valley Pinot Noir, from the now defunct Louis K. Mihaly Winery, which I liked so much, I bought a half case, my first multiple-bottle purchase ever.
So everyone tore out their Pinot Noir vines from Napa (and few dared to plant the variety in warmer places like Paso Robles), and the rush was on for cool regions: starting with Carneros (which, briefly, was heralded as “California’s Burgundy” in the 1980s), then the Russian River Valley, Anderson Valley, Sonoma Coast and broad stretches of the Central Coast, most famously in the western Santa Ynez Valley we now call the Santa Rita Hills.
That was all well and good. I would say the first nine or ten years of the 21st century were the Golden Era of California Pinot Noir. Wines of majestic distinction arrived, differing in their particulars depending on where and how grown and made, but asserting their right to sit beside Cabernet Sauvignon as co-bearers of the title, “California’s Greatest Red Wine.”
Well, that was before the 2010 vintage, as stubbornly cold as anything we’d witnessed in many years. Followed by 2011, even colder, shockingly so–the year summer never came. The market now is receiving the Pinot Noirs of these two vintages (a few 2012s are trickling out, but not the important ones, which should begin arriving in the Winter-Spring of 2014). And we are learning, the hard way, one of the oldest lessons in wine: When you grow a variety at the limit of its ability to ripen, you will get great wines in a warm vintage, and mediocre wines in a cool one.
The problems I’ve encountered with rot, mold, green tannins and flavors and vegetal notes in Pinot Noirs from 2010 and 2011 are worse than anything in my previous experience. It’s been truly shocking. Erratic, too: wineries that bottle numerous vineyard-designated Pinots (as so many do nowadays) will have one that’s ripe, and another that’s green and moldy–often from the same appellation. There are some famous brands that, in my opinion, should have declassified their wines, especially the 2011s; but declassification is rare in California.
The numbers express it interestingly:
2011 Pinots I scored over 90 points: 127
2009 Pinots I score over 90 points: 489
Granted, there are some more 2011s yet to come, but the ultimate number of over-90s is not going to approach 250, much less 489. So what we gave up when we tore out that Napa Pinot was, at least, consistency of ripeness. What we gained, I suppose, is the same situation as in Burgundy: not every year is a “vintage” year.
What of 2012? As I wrote on Sept. 18 of that year, “2012 is the year nothing happened. No rain, no frosts, no damaging heat waves, no chilly temperatures, no smoke taint from wildfires, no mold, no spring shatter.” A week and a half later, something happened: we had a bigtime heat wave. I noted, “If you gathered in your Pinot Noir before the heat struck, you’re fine. If not, high alcohol will be a problem.” There were even reports of sunburn, especially in the Russian River Valley. When the harvest was over, Bob Cabral, at Williams Selyem, favorably compared the quality of his 2012 Pinots to the 1997s, when he’d been at Hartford Court. Yet, in the same conversation, he alluded to “a little bit of botrytis in some Pinot blocks,” which I took to be caused by rain that moved in after Oct. 21. So you can see that 2012 also was not a perfect vintage. But we’ll just have to see what the bottles offer.