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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.


2009 Cabernets could miss the boat

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With so many important Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux blends yet to be released from the 2009 vintage, it may be premature to make pronouncements about it. Still, I’m beginning to have my doubts.

As early as December 1, 2009, I wrote (in my vintage assessment for Wine Enthusiast), “The fuller-bodied reds from the North Coast, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, could be problematic.” The main problem was a major rainstorm on Oct. 12-13 that soaked Napa. That led to the classic question, “Did you pick before or after the rains?” As one Diamond Mountain winemaker put it, in an official press release, “The rain will define the harvest depending on which side of it you were on.” She warned that fruit picked after the rain would have “slightly lower sugars,” but don’t be misled by that word “slightly.” We’re talking about the difference between perfectly ripened grapes and less [or more] than perfectly ripened grapes, which really is the key for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

My hunch, given how cool 2009 was–and it was a very cool season, the start of our notorious trio of “little ice age” vintages of 2009, 2010 and 2011–is that most Cabernet was not picked before the rains came, because it wasn’t ripe.

It is true that the rain was followed by a period of warm, sunny weather, the kind that, in theory, can dry out the vines and canopies and restore the grapes to health. But having rain followed by sun at that precarious time of the harvest is never as good as having no rain at all, which is why I used the word “problematic.” The problems include having grapes swollen with water, which would reduce their power and make them thin. This problem would be compounded by the size of the 2009 harvest, which was a large one, the biggest since 2005, and the second biggest of the decade.

And mold is also a very serious threat, especially for wineries that lack the professional staff to hand-sort out bad berries before they reach the fermentation tanks. Almost all wineries go through the motions of sorting, but few are wealthy enough to have the deep bench necessary to deal with a vintage like 2009. This is another reason why the top houses (which is to say, the most expensive wines) will have a leg up in 2009.

Still, as one North Coast vintner told me, “Big harvest + rain soaked quality isn’t a good combination.” Another winemaker, whom I respect a great deal, told me, “I just think 2009 was too cool over all. When you look at the great vintages in CA they tend to be the warmer ones.” This vintner allowed as to how 2009 might be good for coastal Pinot Noir (although he noted, and so did I, the early hype that accompanied it). But we’re not talking about Pinot Noir here.

I have now reviewed about 125 2009 Cabernet Sauvignons and, sad to say, my scores have not been impressive. Only a handful of 90-plusses. Thankfully, most of these wines aren’t terribly expensive, ranging from $18-$30. A typical one, which I won’t identify because my review has not yet been published, read: “A little sharp and aggressive in texture, giving it a rustic feel, but pretty rich in blackberries, currants and cedar, making it an easy Cab to drink now.” It is that aggressiveness that worries me. You want a nice Cabernet to feel smooth in the mouth, with gentle, warming tannins that glide like velvet across the palate. The slightest hint of coarseness can be jarring. Given how strong Cabernet’s tannins are, if the fruit doesn’t match it, the wines will taste and feel astringent. That’s my fear for 2009.


Tuesday Twaddle: weird weather, a speaking engagement

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The 2011 growing conditions are starting out eerily like notorious 2010, when “summer never came.” Winter was long, wet and cold. We had a couple of warm days in April, but nothing out of the ordinary. Since then, it’s been nothing but cool, abnormally so. And now, rain.

Significant quantities of rain and hail and even snow at higher elevations (3,000 feet) fell overnight, particularly in the North Country, with rain expected to move south today. This is really crazy for the middle of May–and it’s not over. Rain will pick up in the Central Valley today, and move into L.A. on Wednesday, as a deep trough more typical of January cuts through the West. The National Weather Service yesterday said “winter-like weather will return to Northern California later this afternoon and tonight. Periods of heavy snow will likely redevelop across the northern Sierra Nevada this evening.”

By Thursday, fortunately, it should all be over. But what will the damage be to tender young grapeshoots?

And the extent of the April 8-10 freeze, when temperatures plunged as low as 24 degrees in the Central Coast, is becoming clearer. I was in Paso Robles last Friday, and it was the main topic of conversation. Paso Robles, southern Monterey and the Santa Ynez Valley were especially hard hit. The Western Farm Press reported that “Damage is unquestionably extensive”; several people told me that the Paso Robles crop has been wiped out by 50%. A local radio station reported that, of 25,000 planted acres in Paso Robles, “about 15 to 20,000 acres of those were affected at some level by the frost.” I can scarcely believe the quantity of blasted fruit is that high; maybe it is. There are reports that some wineries in Paso’s western hills will produce no crop this year. I asked a grower about secondary crop. He replied, in effect, don’t count on it.

I know nobody wants to hear about 2011 being as weird as last year, but why shouldn’t it be? Every vintage since 2005 has been cooler than the one before it. We thought 2008 was cool (despite the wildfires) and then came 2009. Then came 2010, the coldest year in memory. People are still freaked out by it. So far, 2011 is showing no sign of being any different.

* * *

I speak today at the International Special Events Society, which is meeting in Sonoma County. They asked me to talk about trends in the wine world. I plan on mentioning the different values and outlooks between Boomers, on the one hand, and Millennials and Gen Xers, on the other; the search for value; a movement toward lower alcohol levels in wine; new negociant models; a spate of M&As in California; social media, and a boom in the acreage of “alternative varieties.” Maybe one or two other things will occur to me. I don’t like to be too prepared when I speak to groups. I like things loosey-goosey. It’s more interesting when nobody, including me, knows what’s going to happen. I like to encourage questions and comments. Good feedback, even disagreement, from listeners inspires me; it makes me say things that surprise myself, things I didn’t even know I knew. Unfortunately, the drive up to Sonoma is likely to be a drag, with all the rain and fender benders. More tomorrow.


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.


Rethinking the 2006 Napa Valley Cabernets

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Around this time every year I go a little vintage crazy. My vintage diary, which I’ve kept annually for a long time, reaches a crescendo as the harvest draws to its inevitably dramatic close. (I strongly recommend budding wine writers to keep a vintage diary.) Then there’s my annual update on past vintages, due to my esteemed editor, Tim Moriarty, in mid-November. Once you assign a score to a vintage, you can’t just let it stand forever; rejiggering of vintage assessments is part of the wine critic’s job. Finally, I have to write my detailed analysis on the current, just-completed vintage, in this case the bizarre, memorable 2010. So I am thinking, obsessing, fixating on and about vintages.

In looking back, I see I haven’t been particularly kind to 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which I rated a respectable but not exciting 90 points. It kind of got lost between  the 2005 and 2007 vintages, both 95 points, and both of them so flashy right out of the gate. So I decided to re-review 2006 Napa Cabs, now that I’ve tasted about 750 of them. (By re-review, I mean re-review my notes, not retaste the wines.)

In my 2006 vintage diary I wrote “cool, dry and late,” the second such year in what has now become six consecutive years of cool, late harvests (although you wouldn’t describe 2010 as “dry”).

But “cool, dry and late” was a general assessment. Closer up, there was more detail. Spring had been rainy, so even though most of the growing season was dry, there was a lot of moisture in the soil that did not evaporate due to the cool temperatures. A potent July heat spell broke the pattern, the heat shutting the vines down and further pushing off the ripening process for Cabernet, in most cases well into October. But, except for light sprinkles around Oct. 1, the month finished dry; on Nov. 2 I wrote, “First real rain statewide of the season…the latest rain I can remember…”. By then, of course, the Cabernet had been picked.

As I look at my individual reviews now, four years later, they’re actually pretty good. I scored about 250 Cabernets 90 points or higher, roughly one-third of all I tasted, a high average for a vintage. By contrast, that was less than the 50% of all 2007 Pinot Noirs I scored at 90 points or higher, which is why I called 2007 the greatest Pinot Noir vintage ever. There’s no chance I’ll call 2006 the greatest Napa Cabernet vintage ever, but clearly, I underestimated it. I can see, over the course of several revisions, that I penalized the wines for not being flashy and opulent. I now realize that the ‘06s traded those qualities for elegance and, in many cases, ageworthiness — qualities that can be hard to recognize in a young Cabernet.

My highest scoring Napa Cabs came from all over the valley. They included blends (the 100-point Cardinale), single-vineyard wines (Krutz Stagecoach, Piña Buckeye), mountain wines (David Arthur Elevation 1147, Kendall-Jackson Highland Estates Napa Mountain, from Mount Veeder) and Cabs from the flats (Peju H.B. Vineyard, Lail J. Daniel). So it’s hard to generalize where in Napa Valley did best, except to say that all the vineyards were farmed as impeccably as any on earth.

Prices were high. My least expensive 95-point or higher wine was $40 for the Vinifera Cab, but costs rose quickly after that; 13 of 30 were in the triple digits, topping out at $225 for that Peju H.B. One other thing of note is the number of lesser known wineries with very high scores: Napa Angel, Krutz, Hestan, Baldacci, Pina, Parallel, Vinifera, Sabina, De Sante, Hunnicutt, Roy Estate. That’s an interesting development. Many people might not realize it, but Napa Valley is the most intensely fermentive (no pun intended) wine region in California. It has the most new brands turning up, doing exciting things and wowing more often than not.

Bottom line: I’m upgrading my rating for the Napa 2006 Cabs. It was a better vintage than I thought.


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