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Vintage 2013: Looks like one for the books

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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.


First crush at Tim Mondavi’s new Continuum winery

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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!


After big rain, wine country dodges a bullet

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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.”


An inconvenient truth about Pinot Noir

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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.


2009 and 2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: a comparison

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I’ve been tasting a lot of Cabernet Sauvignons lately. The 2010s are entering the market in full force; meanwhile, there’s still a good quantity of 2009s also arriving. The fun is in comparing the vintages.

As a wine critic, I’m loathe to come to premature conclusions about vintages. I do it, of course, like just about everyone else; but I don’t particularly like to. My feelings about vintages change over time. My current thinking is that 2009 was the more difficult of the two. It was the first of our recent series of cool years; as Nick Goldschmidt told me at the time, “I don’t think 2009 will be well received. It was just too cool. When you look back at the great vintages in California, they tend to be warmer ones.” The year wasn’t just cool, it rained in the middle of October, just when the Cabernet grapes were entering their final push. Dawnine Dyer, at Dyer Vineyards on Diamond Mountain, told me (on Oct. 30, 2009), “The rain will define the harvest, depending on which side of it you were on.” Jeffrey Stambor, at Beaulieu, told me on the same day, “The rain set up challenging winemaking conditions.”

Some 2009 Napa Cabs just didn’t have the stuffing you expect for the prices they fetched. Not bad wines, but a little broad, lacking focus. Some were marred by high alcohol. When a Cabernet is rich in fruit, it can handle alcohol, but a thin one with lots of alcohol is a misery; and there were plenty of them in Napa Valley in 2009.

On the plus side, those wineries who always make their wines meticulously–the usual suspects–did fine. I loved Goldschmidt’s 2009 Game Ranch Single Vineyard Selection Cabernet (although the name isn’t particularly elegant). Ditto for Freemark Abbey’s 2009 Sycamore, their finest ever. Sodaro, a winery I was unfamiliar with, had an amazing ’09 Doti-Sodaro Blocks 2 and 6 Cabernet. (I later found out that Bill and Dawnine Dyer had made it, which makes this the second mention Dawnine gets in this post!) And B Cellars had a really good portfolio of 2009s (and I did not know at the time that Kirk Venge was their winemaker. He is hands down turning into one of the best in the valley). All in all, though, 2009 was a routine year.

Then we come to 2010. It blew everyone’s mind because it was so cool (before 2011 came along, which was even colder). Oddly, the late summer also was punctuated by severe heat waves. A huge one around Sept. 27 was so severe, Genevieve Janssens, at Robert Mondavi, told me that “the Petit Verdot and Malbec are largely burned out.” (That heat wave lasted for days. Sept. 29 was the hottest day ever recorded in Los Angeles.)

Following the heat, the weather was a roller coaster of picture-perfect days, rain, followed by more perfection. I made the following note in my vintage diary, on Oct. 23: “Mountain Cabernet could be fine,” because the rainwater runs off.

And in fact, when I look at my highest-scoring 2010 Napa Cabs, they’re from mountains and hillsides: Flora Springs Rutherford Hillside Reserve, everything from Von Strasser on Diamond Mountain, Terra Valentine K-Block, from Spring Mountain, Communication Block Lampyridae, from Mount Veeder (made by Aaron Pott). Beckstoffer’s To Kalon also produced some fabulous 2010s; it’s not a mountain vineyard, so it must be the super-fantastic viticulture Andrew B. and his team practice.


That record 2012 crop: Behind the numbers

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By now you’ve all heard about California’s record 2012 harvest, at 4.4 million tons the largest ever. It edged out the previous record, in 2005, and was up 11% over 2011’s harvest, which was more in line with historical averages.

I don’t think anyone foresaw how big 2012 would be. Here in California, I remember the anecdotes that started to be heard last summer about “bigger than normal.” On Sept. 18, Allied Grape Growers, a Fresno-based growers association, predicted the crop would hit 3.7 million tons, which would have made it the second largest ever. That turned out to be a serious underestimate.

By harvest time the rumors of huge crops became frantic realities. On Oct. 19, I wrote, in my Vintage Diary, “Scattered reports of WMs [winemakers] running out of fermentation vessels, having to use storage bins, etc.”

As usual, the largest crops by variety were Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, in that order. Prices, as measured by dollars per ton, hit record levels, too: Red wines averaged $879 (up nearly 25% over 2011), whites $624 (up 15%)

Another way of appreciating how huge the crop was is to look at the production of individual varieties and compare them to past vintages. Nearly three-quarters of a million tons of Chardonnay were crushed in 2012, an astonishing 31.5% spike over 2011. Cabernet Sauvignon similarly saw a 20% increase over 2011, while even shy-bearing Pinot Noir was up a dramatic 45% (247,303 tons vs. 170,450 tons). I thought this latter number was so unbelievable, I double-checked it against the Districts where Pinot was grown. District 7 (Monterey-San Benito) was the biggest producer of Pinot in the state, clocking in at more than 54,000 tons–double that of the 2011 crop! Similarly in District 3 (Sonoma-Marin)  the Pinot crop was nearly double that of 2011. And so on, all down the line.

With Cabernet Sauvignon, District 4, Napa Valley, was the top producer, as usual, with just shy of 71,000 tons produced. Compare that to 2011’s 50,846, an increase of nearly 40%.

Was the vintage a good one? After all the hype and spin, it probably was. As I wrote on Sept. 18, “It’s 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 heat wave in October sped up the picking process, while anticipated rains in the third week of October led to that crush rush. But overall, 2012 continued a string of successful harvests in California.

What will the impact be of the huge crush on prices? We’ll have to wait and see, of course, but it should have a temporizing effect. At least, growers won’t have the excuse of short crops to raise prices. And the continuing impact of the Recession also should encourage producers not to risk unreasonable spikes.


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