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Thoughts on the 2009 Cabernet vintage

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Even before the grapes were picked in 2010, there was widespread speculation that the cool vintage would result in the sorts of Cabernet Sauvignons not much seen in the previous 20 years: wines of moderate alcohol (perhaps even below 14%, in the hopes of ardent anti-alcoholists), dryness, complexity and ageability.

That may well turn out to be the case, but it’s still too early to tell, at least for me: the vast majority of high-end 2010 Cabernets have yet to be released, and barrel sampling can only tell you so much. I’ve formally reviewed only one 2010 Cabernet that cost more than $30 (Robert Mondavi’s Reserve, $135), meaning that hundreds more are waiting in the pipeline, and I can assure you I’m eagerly looking forward to tasting them.

However indeterminate the 2010s are at this point, we do have a kind of canary in the coal mine, an early detection system for cool Cabernet vintages: 2009. It wasn’t quite as cool as 2010 (which in turn wasn’t as cool as 2011), but it was cool enough. Here are some random notes from my 2009 Vintage Diary:

- June 11: “weatherman says coolest June in 25 years”
June 22 – “Spring was absent; it was cold, with lots of wind” [quoting Eric Baugher, from Ridge]
July 6 – “another protracted cooling period”
- August 9 – “coolness of the overall vintage is remarked on by everyone”
- August 12 – “2009 cooler than average” [from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat]
- Aug. 23 – “It turned radically colder today, in fact the coldest temperature in months”
Oct. 26 – - “cool harvest season with no extreme heat events”
mid-October: – “the vintage was too cool overall” [quoting Nick Goldschmidt]

Rain in mid-October didn’t help the Cabernet crop, but inbetween the chills and sprinkles, harvest time saw enough sunny warmth for Scott McLeod, then at Rubicon, to say (Sept. 10), “things taste good at lower brix. So I’m bullish!”

So how did things turn out? Based on my reviews of the 2009s, pretty good! I’ve now rated about 425 Cabernets, including many priced well over $100, and have given about 150 a score of 90 points or higher. That’s a very high average. You can interpret it one of two ways: 2009 really did result in superior Cabernets, or I just happen to have a Cabernet-centric palate that forgives the variety for a multiplicity of sins (the way a loving parent does with a child).

I suppose it’s a bit of both. I can’t say my top-scoring 2009 Cabernets are particularly low in alcohol. Most range from the mid-14s to the low 15s, which puts them right there in the sweet spot. (There are obvious exceptions: Diamond Creek, Von Strasser, Ridge, Summers, Au Sommet: look to the mountains for lower alcohol!) So it’s a bit of a myth that these cooler vintages are resulting in lower alcohol Cabernets. (This myth is easy for harried wine writers to repeat, like birds on a wire. It sounds good, it makes sense, it’s compelling. It just happens not to be true!)

But what I can say is that the better 2009 Cabernets (mostly from Napa Valley) display a balance that’s delightful, despite alcohol levels that some will consider too high. Obviously, I don’t, but this gets back to the fact that the Cabernet-phile in me not only forgives them this “sin,” but actually welcomes it. Alcohol in a great Napa Cab gives it a warmth and mellowness that Bordeaux, for example, often lacks.

I think we can safely say that the greatest threat to Cabernet (aside from freakish weather, like heavy and continuous rain during harvest) is heat, not cold. Hot years, like 2004 and to some extent 2008, saw too many Cabernets that were baked and pruny. Heat is the thing that even the best growers find challenging to deal with. “Cold,” in California, has to be taken with a grain of salt. When we say a vintage was “cool” or “cold,” we mean relative to the norm, which is quite warm to hot. “Cold” in California doesn’t mean the same as “cold” in Bordeaux. “Cold” in Bordeaux can be a catastrophe. “Cold” in California just means “not hot.” A cool California vintage can be a miserable summer for humans in San Francisco if the temperature almost never gets out of the 60s. But that means it’s in the 70s and 80s in Napa Valley, pretty ideal for Cabernet grapes.

So 2009 is looking like a very fine year! [By the way, 2012 so far is boringly normal, the first uneventful year in quite a while. No news is good news.]


2010 vintage, revisited

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The 2010 vintage was one of the most peculiar I ever saw. (2011 was too.) It was, in short, cold. Californians aren’t used to chilly summers, and neither are grapes. The resulting wines were problematic.

That the harvest was problematic is testified by numerous statements from winemakers. Hidden Ridge, a fine winery that straddles the Mayacamas on the Napa-Sonoma border, declassified the entire vintage. A Napa vintner, who did not want to be identified, called the valley’s Cabernets “weak,” the problems being “high pH, low acid and a lack of concentration,” which is not a formula for success. I had a discussion, on Nov. 5 of that year, with the winemaker and assistant winemaker at Merryvale that boiled down to this question: how disastrous was 2010? Their conclusion was that, just because the Cabernets are “minty” and “herbal” doesn’t necessarily mean the wines are not of high quality.

That’s an interesting assertion. It harkens back to the notion that a vin de terroir will display its nobility even in a poor vintage. I suppose that’s true; and for sure, a wine like Lafite generally will perform better than its neighbors in a poor vintage, all other things being equal. Still, faced with the choice of drinking a mediocre noble wine and a rich common wine, I’d probably choose the latter.

Back to 2010: In my Vintage Diary I quoted the Santa Rosa Press Democrat newspaper, in late October, with this nightmare statement: “2010 was the worst grape harvest in recent memory, with financial losses possibly setting new records in the county…Many growers are still assessing their financial losses from crop damage that began with a mid-season mold outbreak and worsened with an August heat wave that scorched grapes and ruined entire fields…Last weekend’s rain added to an already miserable season. It spawned mold…Damaged fruit was left hanging on the vine.”

This awful scenario was repeated up and down the coast. Pinot Noir in particular suffered from mold. Now, when I do reviews, I’m not supposed to use the word “mold,” because I don’t have the ability to send wines to a laboratory and have them properly tested. But I can tell you that dozens and dozens of 2010 Pinots smell moldy to me. Keep in mind, I could quote certain Pinot Noir winemakers, some of them very famous, who told me, in the Fall of 2010, how fine their Pinot grapes were; but you’d rightfully mistrust those statements as being biased, because they are. The proof is in the smell.

Having said that, the best Pinot Noir houses produced some mighty good wines. This had to have been the result of careful selection, thereby diminishing case quantities from what was already a short harvest. Some of my personal favorite 2010 Pinot Noirs include Rochioli West Block, Foxen Block UU Bien Nacido, Siduri Hirsch (that must have given Adam Lee some anxious moments), most of Lynmar’s Pinots, and an interesting Sandhi Sanford & Benedict.

And Cabernet? Not looking good. I was shocked, just now, to go over every 2010 Cab I’ve tasted so far and discover that I’ve given only one of them 90 points. Everything else was in the 80s. I don’t think that would have been true of any previous Cabernet vintage, at this point, 17 months after the harvest. Of course, most of the top tier Cabernets haven’t been released yet, so there’s hope, but I think we’ll look back at 2010 and conclude it wasn’t a good year for Cabernet, either.

That doesn’t mean the top houses won’t produce splendid Cabs. I would think the best will come from the warmer regions. East Oakville, for example, could reward; ditto for Pritchard Hill, Calistoga, and St. Helena. Yountville might be compromised, and the mountains, including Spring, Diamond and Veeder. I’ll try to resurrect this post in two years and see if my prognostications bear any resemblance to reality.


Blind tasting 3 vintages at Premier Napa Valley

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The proof that there will be little or no consensus concerning which of three vintages–2007, 2008 and 2009–was best for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is suggested by the fact that three experts interviewed for this video from Napa Valley Vintners all had different takes.

They had been, apparently, part of the team that chose which wines to taste at today’s Multi-Vintage Perspective Tasting, held blind at the Rudd Center as part of Premier Napa Valley 2012. I’ll be there, and will report.

Michael Beaulac, Pine Ridge’s winemaker, said, “I must say the ‘08 is probably my favorite vintage.”

Peter Marks MW, and an old friend of mine, said, “While it’s hard to pick a favorite, my early bet is on the 2009.”

And Bob Bath MW said,  “I was impressed by the 07s, actually, how well they’re holding up.”

So there you have it, three really smart people, each betting on a different horse.

If you–whoever you are, amateur or pro, in the wine industry or outside of it–feel challenged making vintage assessments, or if you drink a lot of Napa Cabernet and find yourself thinking that they’re always pretty good, and you couldn’t really swear on the Bible that any one vintage is better or worse than another, despair not, but take comfort in this: knowledgeable people are allowed to disagree.

Now, somebody out there is going to say, “Wait a minute, Steve. You yourself rate the vintages of Napa [and other regions] every year. You gave 2007 95 points, 2008 92 points and 2009 a lousy 89 points. So how can you say there’s no difference between vintages?”

Good question! Glad you asked. So let me try to explain. When I make these vintage assessments [at Wine Enthusiast’s behest], I’m always a little uncomfortable in my mind. It seems so subjective to slap a number on a whole bunch of wines that have little in common, except that each was produced in that particular year. In 2007, I reviewed 1,045 Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux blends. I didn’t do the precise counting, but an awful lot of those were from Napa Valley. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, 350. Then I gave the Napa vintage 95 points. Obviously, not all of those 350 wines scored 95 points. And I’m sure that the average of all 350 scores was nowhere near 95 points. Probably someplace around 87 points is more like it. So what’s up? As the magazine’s note on our Vintage Chart explains, “Vintage ratings are only loosely related to ratings of individual wines…”. If this is so, then how do I come up with the number?

Several ways. First, as I taste through the vintage as the wines gradually come out over multiple years, I begin to form and refine conclusions in my mind. I may notice that I’m scoring individual wines that year higher than in previous years from the same wineries. I follow the weather reports extremely closely all year long (you’ve often heard me refer to my Vintage Diaries), and that helps me form a more complete picture of conditions. Almost every time I talk with a winemaker about anything, I make sure to include questions about the vintage: how’s it going? What do you think? I’ll also ask about past vintages. How’re those ‘06s coming along? So when I have to actually assign the vintage rating, I’m armed with quite a bit of information, some of it subjective, and some of it absolutely objective.

Then, too, I change my vintage ratings annually. It’s entirely conceivable I might raise my rating for 2009; in fact, I’m almost sure I will, as more and more Cabernets from that vintage come in. For instance, I’ve tasted close to 200 2009 Cabernets just since last Sept. 1, and I expect I’ll be tasting literally hundreds, perhaps as many as 700, more over the next year or two. So obviously, the vintage rating will change, as my experience is enriched and my conclusions are necessarily sharpened.

Peter Marks, despite his predilection for the 2009s, said it best when he remarked of the trio that they are “three great vintages.” So did Elizabeth Vianna, Chimney Rock’s winemaker, who said “2007, ‘08 and ‘09 are just beautiful.” These have been three glorious years, even through the vagaries of weather. Viticulture, in particular, has learned to cope with droughts, rainfall, excessive heat, frost and disease pressure–not yet as well as growers would like , but more perfectly than ever before in human history. Vintage differences are being ironed out. Vintage assessments are all right, as far as they go, and they do provide a snapshot of the year–in my case, as I have explained, one based on a lot more study than might at first be apparent. But they are, ultimately, generalizations.


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.


When will winter arrive?

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If you live in Northern California, it’s been topic #1 for the last 2 months: Cold nights, mild to warm days and barely a drop of rain. December was the second driest in modern times, and so far, January hasn’t seen a single drop of the wet stuff.

It’s been so dry that people are starting to use the “d” word, as in drought.

This comes on the heels of heavy rains last October, which had everybody fretting about the vintage, and worried about a repeat of the 2010-2011 winter, which was extraordinarily wet. No luck. In my vintage diary, I noted only two instances of precipation in December: once on the 12th (“very, very light”) and again on the 30th (“Light rain, less than 1/10th of an inch”). Other than that, nada.

This map from NOAA suggests visually how severe things have been, with all of Northern California north of the Central Coast in the red “Drought to persist or intensify” part.

It’s an increasingly important story, and scientists are starting to express something akin to alarm. The Sacramento Bee quoted California’s chief hydrologist: “It just hangs on and on and on,” he said, referring to the high pressure system that won’t budge, sending storms to the north and south of us. KQED-FM today featured a top NASA climatologist and an official from the California Department of Water Resources, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say you could hear extreme concern in their voices. The Water Resources lady reminded us that the absence of precipitation doesn’t mean only that reservoirs are under pressure; actually, they’re in pretty good shape, thanks to last year’s snowmelt from the Sierra. No, the immediate problem is in industries that rely on instant water from the sky, such as grazing. Cattle need to eat pasture grasses. With no rain, the winter grasses are drying up. Bloomberg News today reported “short-term Severe Drought” in parts of California, “as impacts to forage conditions in rangeland areas are significant.” Not only that: “Wildland fire awareness is increasing in California as well.”

Wildfires in January?

There are implications for grapes, too. “…if the warm, dry spell continues, it could cause an ‘early bloom’ on apple trees and grapevines, exposing the tender green plant tissue to possible frost damage,” the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported.

But change might finally be coming. Just yesterday, the weather people are saying the pattern could break by next week, with “significant changes in flow over the Eastern Pacific” that “should allow a series of storm systems to track across the North State.” That’s great news for crops and water supplies, and I know I should be glad. But in a way, I’m sad. It’s been so great enjoying the Springlike weather. In Oakland, when you get in a sunny place out of the wind around 2 p.m. (the warmest part of the day), it actually feels hot on your skin, like summer. Gus has been loving it. He doesn’t like rain. Neither do I. But we’ll be thankful when Old Man Winter returns.


Thoughts on the 2009 Pinot Noirs

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All of the 2009 Pinot Noirs aren’t out yet. I’d say about three-quarters are, enough to stand back and look at this vintage more objectively than we were able to at the time, when there was so much hype.

It was a mild summer–some would say cool–which delayed ripening, especially of the seeds. By Fall, the grapes were increasing in sugar, but remained physiologically unripe. Vintners began to worry that the rains would arrive before they could pick their Pinot Noir, but that turned out not to be the case. The rains did arrive, bigtime, in the second week of October, but by then, nearly all of the Pinot had been picked.

I’ve now tasted about 500 2009 Pinot Noirs (from California, of course), and after reviewing my notes, I can say with certainty that 2009 was in fact a great Pinot Noir vintage. I’m talking about the top houses, of course. In general it is completely impossible to get a good Pinot Noir for less than $20, or even $30. However, that doesn’t mean that all expensive Pinot Noir is worth it. Pinot Noir of all varieties is the hardest to get right because it’s the most delicate and transparent of grapes and wines. Anything that went wrong is immediately apparent, usually in the nose. You don’t even have to taste a poorly made Pinot Noir to recognize its faults, which include unripeness (in the form of green tannins and vegetal notes), heaviness of texture or just plain thinness of fruit. Fortunately, residual sugar, of the kind sometimes seen in fuller bodied red wines like Zinfandel and Merlot, is rarely a problem in Pinot Noir.

It’s more difficult to say which region prevailed in 2009 because the numbers are so lopsided. There’s reason to believe Anderson Valley did well, but there are so few wines from there compared to, say, the Russian River Valley that it’s apples and oranges. Most of my top-scoring Pinots are from Sonoma County, and specifically from the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast appellations, although a clutch of Copains from the Anderson Valley blew me away. They clocked in at 13.7% of alcohol by volume, which is another key to the success of the vintage: alcohol levels were down by as much as a half percent in many wines. The Williams Selyems hovered around 14%. Merry Edwards ranged from 13.9% to 14.5%, while a stunning Failla Keefer Ranch was 13.9% and Dutton-Goldfield’s Freestone Hill Vineyard was just 13.5%. Yes, there were outliers, such as Roessler’s Hein Family Vineyard, from Anderson Valley, that measured a full 15%. But these high alcohol wines were the exception rather than the rule in 2009.

It goes without saying that acidity in these 2009s also was beautiful. One never knows if the acidity in a California wine is entirely natural or whether it has been added, but this is of little importance to consumers, unless the acidity has been clumsily handled. That is sometimes the case when a Pinot Noir tastes overly sharp or tart.

Making predictions concerning the ageability of the top Pinot Noirs is always risky, for several reasons. Many of the wineries, or vineyards, are so new that they have no historical records to rely on. Six years seems a safe bet for most California Pinot Noir, but vertical tastings at, for example, Hanzell and Williams Selyem suggest that a balanced Pinot will last and improve in the bottle for twice as long as that, if not a full 15 years. I doubt, however, if more than a handful of people who buy these wines has the slightest intention of cellaring them for that long, which is why winemakers are making their Pinot Noirs to be approachable when young.

Juicy is a word I used over and over to describe the ‘09 Pinots. From the Santa Rita Hills to the North Coast, they exhibit a ripe, fat, fleshy texture and overt fruit flavors, mainly of black and red cherries, sometimes tart like cranberries, sometimes sweet like cola, depending on vineyard and other variables. The color of the wines was paler than I’ve seen in prior years, suggesting the delicacy that comes from a cool vintage and lower alcohol. It’s hard to pick out one wine and say it’s the quintessential 2009 Pinot Noir, but I’ll go out on that limb and choose the Lioco Hirsch Vneyard (94 points, $60, 13.5%, 335 cases). A lovely wine that lends the lie to the allegation that California is unable to produce delicate, delicious, ageworthy Pinot Noir.


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