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An inconvenient truth about Pinot Noir



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


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


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.

Wednesday Wraparound


The 2012 Wine Star Award winners have been announced by Wine Enthusiast, and it’s a fine list indeed.

I wrote the citation articles on Joe Gallo and David Biggar that will appear in a upcoming issue of the magazine. What accomplished professionals they are, as are all of the winners. I didn’t get all of my nominations; I argued strongly for Napa Valley to be the Wine Region of the Year, because of all the fabulous wines coming from there and because the excitement factor of Napa–America’s premier wine region–is always so high. But I certainly have no problem with Ribera del Duero getting the nod, especially after the tasting I went to a few weeks ago, when I was blown away by the quality-price ratio. So congratulations to all the winners, and I’ll see you in New York in January!

* * *

Off to Fort Ross-Seaview this Friday for a comprehensive tasting of the new AVA’s wines. It’s been some time since I last visited these wild, remote coastal mountains. If you live in Annapolis or Cazadero or even Guerneville, I suppose the area isn’t that far away; but most of us don’t live in those little towns, and it is a schlep, although it’s certainly not as far as Anderson Valley. Distance from major metro areas is the limiting factor on how much a wine district can become a tourist mecca, but I suspect that for the folks in Anderson Valley and Fort Ross, that’s just fine. I do recall meeting a winemaker who worked way out in the middle of nowhere in Fort Ross, and he told me how, when he went shopping for supplies, he had to check his list three times to make sure he got everything. You don’t want to get home and discover you forgot the toilet paper–not with the nearest supermarket an hour away. Eventually that poor winemaker took a job with a winery in Forestville. He simply got tired of the loneliness and isolation, despite that fact that from his little cabin he could see down the coast all the way to the Golden Gate, on a clear day.

* * *

To lunch this afternoon at one of my (and everybody’s) favorite San Francisco restaurants, Boulevard. From the moment Nancy Oaks opened this icon in 1993, it was a star, and remains–nearly 20 years later–a destination eaterie. It’s really a default restaurant if you want total gratification and the certain knowledge that all will be well, not to mention the central location, so easy to get to for me via BART as it’s only steps from the Embarcadero station, three stops from my home in Oakland. The occasion today is a Chablis tasting. I have always loved Chablis, from my humble beginnings in the 1980s when you could get a Premier Cru for a couple bucks. While I love the rich, full-blown white Burgundy and California style of, say, Au Bon Climat, an authentic Chablis–so minerally, racy and dry–never fails to excite me. I’ll write more about Chablis tomorrow.

* * *

“Outstanding” and “ideal” are just a few of the superlatives vintners continue to use to describe the 2012 vintage. From Washington State down through the Central and South Coasts, it was as preternaturally perfect a year as I’ve ever experienced in 34 years of living in California. Read this account, from the Wine Institute, for a hint of its potential glory. Of course, every vintage has great wines and less successful wines, so the point of a fabulous vintage, as 2012 is shaping up to be, is that there are more great wines, at every price point, than usual. We’ll have to see if the hype outraces the reality; the proof is in the tasting. But I can’t think of a single reason why this shouldn’t be a memorable year. There were no problems at all, just steady as she goes. Even that rain the third week of October in retrospect did nothing except wash the dust off the Cabernet. Frosting on the cake is that yields were higher than anyone forecast. With all the doom and gloom global predictions of dire grape and wine shortages, this surely is good news for California.

Thoughts on the 2009 Cabernet vintage


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.]

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