Assessing vintages is the hardest part of my wine writer’s job. It’s something we have to do because the public expects us to. This old practice comes to us, I suspect, via France, where in Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne the harvest varied radically from year to year, so that buyers sorely needed expert guidance.
It used to be said, “Every year is a vintage year in California.” Then, sometime in the 1980s as I recall, there was the reverse sentiment expressed. No, the pundits said, every year is not a vintage year in California. And so we had the critics pouncing on certain years (1989) while praising others (1985). There then set in a sort of counter-reaction to the counter-reaction, with vintners especially expressing frustration that an entire statewide vintage would be painted with a single numerical brush. Thus the politics of vintage assessment, as they confront a lonely wine writer who must, yet again, venture onto rough shoals.
Concerning 2010, I have been alarmed for the last eight months, ever since our miserably cold and wet winter lasted right through spring, and then, when summer came, while the wetness went away, the cold did not. In expressing my alarm, I spoke not only for myself — for I was grouchy that day after day from June through August was chilly enough for a sweater — but also on behalf of almost every winemaker I knew from Santa Barbara to Mendocino and inland. Nothing was ripening. Everything was green. And with the coming of September, the autumn rains were just a matter of time.
But then September did come, and a very pleasant one it was. Now here we are in mid-October, and the weather has been exquisite. If it feels good to a man the grapevines like it too. Since midnight, though, we have been, here in the Bay Area, under an official Red Flag Warning, one of only a handful this entire season. The temperature today will soar to the mid-90s in Napa city, and undoubtedly will break 100 degrees in the hotter parts upvalley. Ditto for Santa Rosa. What does it all mean? Has the warmth of fall un-done the damage caused by the cold of summer? Is this sudden burst of heat good or bad for the grapes that remain on the vines?
Once again I asked my winemaker friends on Facebook, true and loyal retainers all. Here’s a sampling of what they said — and you can see that the fact there is contradictory evidence doesn’t make the wine writer’s job any easier! (I am going to omit names this time. Spelling and punctuation mistakes are as originally written.)
From a vintner familiar with Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles: “I am told…that the vines are shutting down. I was told that much of the Pinot in Russian River will not make it this year with vines shutting down and still hanging at 15 brix.”
From Paso Robles: “the heat means that Syrah, Viognier, and Marsanne all were ready at more or less the same time…I’m sure some people got caught without enough harvest crew, but if you got it off in good time, the quality looks excellent. Roussanne and Counoise (and most of the Mourvedre) still hanging, but with the excellent forecast for the next two weeks, things look good.”
From Los Olivos, in the Santa Ynez Valley: “the warm weather helps a lot, everything is ripening nicely as of this morning. Some of the Syrah is at 24 brix the cabernet is at 22.5, no sign of rot in our vineyard”
From a winemaker in Santa Barbara County: “there is the potential for some truly phenomenal wines to come out of this year…numbers and chemistry are all over the place. I believe taste and intuition are the keys. No major rot or botrytis so far… keeping our fingers crossed.”
From Santa Ynez Valley: “The valley has dried out nice and we are looking at a nice warm week.”
From the Mendocino Coast: “Pinot Noir looks great! Average crop load of about two tons per acre.”
From inland Mendocino and Lake counties: “looking good….have brought in Grenache, Syrah and Roussane….mold was not and issue….a few raisins here and there but above average quality”
From Anderson Valley: “have picked pinot and chardonnay. Hand sorted everything – limited rot. Still have another Chardonnay vineyard, might not make it”
From El Dorado: “nearly done for us. Everything came in with great flavors, high acid and low sugar.”
From Russian River Valley: “pinot was a little scary going in the tank, heavy sorting of raisins really helping, once the tanks are dry I’m actually quite impressed!”
From North Coast sparkling wines: “The sparkling harvest continues, we have Chardonnay coming in on Wednesday, from Marin, in addition we still have a little bit of Napa Carneros Chardonnay out as well as Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. it’s been a long sparking harvest, the young wines are tasting fantastic and we are extremely excited about the 2010 vintage so far!!!!!”
From the Santa Lucia Highlands: “Pinot Noir in perfect condition and optimal ripeness. The heat spiked the sugars but the fruit wasn’t ripe enough at the time to be damaged. The color, pH, acids and tannins look in perfect balance. It’s a big year.”
From Sonoma Valley: “I’m concerned that the heat – especially the warm nights – and dry offshore flow forecast for the next couple of days is going to really push our Rhone varieties. It would be difficult logistics if they all come in at once, but I’ll figure it out.”
[Steve again] Like I said, conflicting testimony. Doesn’t make vintage assessments any easier. The ultimate vintage assessment is the score I give to the individual bottle of wine.
And see my exclusive…
…on “Vertical,” Rex Pickett‘s followup novel to “Sideways,” on today’s Wine Enthusiast online.
“Be careful what you wish for!” That’s what Rob Mondavi told me at lunch yesterday. He was referring, of course, to the heat — the baking, relentless heat that’s caused records to topple from the North Bay to L.A., which recorded its hottest day ever: 113.
I’d been complaining about the cold since last winter. Cold, wet Spring, cold, foggy summer, the vines weeks and weeks behind schedule. Then California had a few days of heat a month ago, and a lot of stuff got baked. Then it got chilly again. Everybody was worrying, especially in the North Coast, because just around the corner are the winter rains.
And now this!
My colleague, Joe Roberts, at 1WineDude, reported today on the heat. I had the same instinct yesterday, when I asked my winemaker friends on Facebook to report in from their regions and let me know what’s happening. Judging from some of the replies, things are looking up:
Jason Haas, Tablas Creek, Paso Robles: Things are accelerating a little, but the vineyard still looks in good shape…high temperatures at Tablas of 105 (today), 104 (yesterday), 101 (Sunday) and 97 (Saturday) aren’t really that unusual for late September. It’s cooled off nicely, into the 50s, each night. I’m more worried for places/grapes that don’t usually get hot. San Luis Obispo hit 110 yesterday (!).
Jeremy Kreck, Mill Creek, Russian River Valley: Sugars are really starting to move after stalling out for a couple weeks. We’re bringing in Sauvignon Blanc, and I expect to roll right into the Gewurz, followed by the Chard. Flavors are really starting to develop as well.
Eric Keating, Keating Wines: I think this heat helped overall. Took a berry sample of my Beckstoffer Georges III Rutherford valley floor Cabernet, 22.9 with pH of 3.40. Tasting nice, acid still high at the moment. Still a bit behind. With 1-2 days more of this heat… …followed by dry, moderate weather for a couple of weeks, it could be a great vintage. My mountain fruit (Rockpile and also Mayacamas on the Sonoma side) is a little different. Those vineyards were waaay behind and absolutely needed this heat. The previous two vintages, my Napa Cab was the last to come in, and this year it could possibly be the first. Short answer, in my opinion, this heat not only helped but was necessary in most cases.
Dan Tudor, Tudor Wines: we’ll be picking soon. The heat hasn’t been too bad in the Santa Lucia Highlands.
Karl Wente, Wente Bros., Livermore Valley: Moving things along quite nicely. Not too hot and a welcomed change from generally cooler weather. Chard all ready or close and merlot right behind.
Laura Zahtila, Zahtila Vineyards, Napa Valley: From Calistoga – it got to 107 degrees here today. We’ve been hydrating the vineyard for the past couple of days. Also walked our growers vineyard in Dry Creek this morning. The heat wave a couple of weeks ago really burned up some crop. Wish we could have some low 90′s to finish this off. Still about a week to 10 days before harvesting zinfandel.
John M. Kelly, Westwood Wines, Sonoma County: Might get young-vine Pinot up to 23 Brix by Friday. Soil profile is dry – we’re irrigating. Will be interesting to see if our earlier predictions for high natural acids pan out for the reds.
Stacy Vogel, Napa Valley: The heat helped our chardonnay with a nice final jump in ripeness. Bringing in all CH from Stagecoach Vineyard today and tomorrow, with most of Carneros not far behind. Finally!
Darek Trowbridge, Old World Winery, Sonoma County: First time I’ve ever picked Pinot Noir this late and the flavors are extraordinary! Zin and Chardonnay we have to remove the sunburn…
Karen Steinwachs, Buttonwood, Santa Ynez Valley: Well…we needed a little heat, but this is ridiculous. Next time you come to Santa Ynez, Steve, don’t bring 108 degrees! SRH is picking now (mine is all in), but Chard still ripening. Sauv Blanc in Happy Cyn mostly picked – I’m starting my pick in the LOD on Thursday. Sugars rising, but acids also still high. Weird. I agree with Darek – berries all taste amazing!
Richard Davis, Londer, Halleck and Calstar: ask me again in a week, trying to get stuff to ride it out and picking where it won’t
Gary Agajanian, Agajanian Vineyards, Central Valley: Temperatures in the high 80′s to low 90′s are the best. The extremes are difficult to manage. Grapes in the cool regios either got burned because of excessive leaf pulling , or benefitted if the canopy was intact. The grapes in the hot regions, said “what the f___!, you call this hot? This is normal.”. So, instead of 3 weeks behind, we are only two weeks. Overall quality will be good and clean, but you must be on top of it to get the best quality.
Mike Brown, Cantara Cellars, Lodi: Harvest has been great in Lodi. The heat is speeding up a slightly late harvest, with moderate alcohol levels and great acid.
In non-Facebook conversations, vintners also weighed in to me:
Matthias Pippig, Grassini and Sanguis wineries, Santa Ynez Valley: The recent weather has everyone a little panicked now, but after touring all of my vineyards this morning, I have to say so far so good. The numbers haven’t jumped too dramatically but development has definitely been affected positively after the long cool (non-)summer.
Genevieve Janssens, Robert Mondavi Winery, Napa Valley: We have some baked fruit, 15-20% loss on Sauvignon Blanc. Pinot Noir is dehydrated a little, not too bad, finishing this week. Petit Verdot, 70-80% dehydration, lost it bigtime. Raisins. Cabernet Sauvignon is great, like nothing happened. Chardonnay is fine, too. Malbec dehydrated like the Petit Verdot. Merlot is okay, fine.
You need look no further for proof of the transfer of wealth from West to East than the three major wine auction houses, which will have sold a record $200 million in sales by the end of this year, thanks to “Asia’s thirst for fine French vintages.”
It used to be that westerners, and particularly über-rich Americans, gobbled up all those Moutons and Lafites, but no more. Now, it’s the Chinese. That giant sucking sound you hear is a few trillion dollars fleeing across the Pacific on their way to Hong Kong.
I was talking about the dismal state of the wine industry again yesterday with a group of winemakers and some marketing guys with whom I had lunch. (Oliveto, cannelloni, mmmm…) I’m basically an optimist at heart — you have to be — but really, things are just awful out there. Vintners are slashing prices, inventory is building up, producers are trying to sell off anything they can just to pay their bills, and meanwhile, there’s another vintage in the pipeline. Can’t tell Mama Nature to hold off for a year!
Yes, there will be a vintage in California in 2010, but the question everybody’s asking is, what kind will it be, and what size? About this time of the year, “vintage reports” flood my email in-box, sent to me by wineries, regional winery associations and P.R. firms. I glance at them, but my B.S. detector usually screens out much if not most of the claims. You get the real scoop from casual (and off-the-record) conversations with people. This vintage seems to be suffering from several problems. First and foremost, obviously, is the cold weather. It is simply extraordinary and unprecedented and one of these days the meteorologists are going to have to explain it to us. I’ve been harping on this subject for the last six months. Everything is late this year, everywhere, and some things are so late, they’ll never get ripe. Does anybody seriously expect heavy rain to hold off until Nov. 21? Yet that’s how long it’s going to take some of the thick-skinned reds, like Cabernet Sauvignon, to ripen.
The growers tore holes in the canopies over the summer in an attempt to hasten the ripening process, but then we got two heat spikes that fried the exposed grapes. Somebody told me it was 117 in Calistoga. 117! Doesn’t take long to turn an exposed berry into a shriveled raisin at that temperature. That was Mama Nature being cynical. As you get closer to the coast, where they grow thinner-skinned varieties, the problem is mold. The cold weather, coupled with near-incessant fog and last Spring’s heavy rains, never really let the soil dry out. Botrytis and other nasty fungi are going to be a problem. There will be places and pockets and individual vineyards and wineries that do just fine; there’s no such thing as a wipeout vintage; but 2010 could be the closest California’s come in quite a while.
Then again, maybe not. Maybe we’ll have two months of dry, pleasant weather. Of course, we first have to get through this weekend, when they’re forecasting the first rains of the season in the North Coast. Nothing heavy, no reason to panic, and if it turns sunny and windy afterward, all it will do is wash the dust off the grapes. Maybe. But right now, people are chewing their fingernails. In a way, the best thing that could happen would be an extremely small crop, and that’s just what I think it will be.
It’s the damned uncertainty. I think people are traumatized by the events of the last two years. It explains the rise of the Tea Party. They’re angry and confused and they blame both parties. I personally don’t think a lurch to the right is going to help this country recover. The problem is essentially all that money heading over to China, and I can’t see a Tea Party Congress being able to do anything about that.
But I’m supposed to keep politics out of my blog, so I’ll just leave it at that. Keep your fingers crossed for good weather in California, root for the little family wineries that are struggling, and (Warning! Obscure Boomer cultural reference to follow) keep watching the skies!
Between the evident success of the ‘07 Pinots and the anticipated success of the ‘09s, the 2008 California Pinot Noirs have perhaps gotten a bit squeezed out of the limelight. It’s kind of like the 1960 Bordeaux. Not a bad vintage at all, but overshadowed by ‘59 and ‘61. (Penning-Rowsell calls the 1960s “a warning not to be put off too much by cries of ‘off-vintage.’”)
2008 was yet another coolish year along the California coast, the fourth in a row (subsequently followed by a cool 2009). Early winter was very stormy, but by February the rains pretty much stopped, as California’s drought (now apparently over) kicked into place. April saw massive frosts that reduced crop quantity and was later to prompt uneven ripening, while summer wildfires led to fears (some of them since realized) of smoke taint. Harvest was early and light. Initial vintner comments suggested that most felt 2008 was a wild and crazy year, a useful (rather than great) vintage for Pinot Noir.
I have now formally tasted only about 110 ‘08 Pinots, but the vintage’s outlines are coming into clearer focus. One has to be careful about rushing to vintage judgments. For one thing, most of the “better” wines have not yet been released (and by “better” I mean the higher-priced, vineyard-designated bottlings that vintners generally lavish most of their care on). Many of the Pinots that have been released are uncomplicated wines that are not meant to be taken seriously and cannot be seen as having anything to do with vintage quality (like the Castle Rock from Mendocino County, $12, or the Robert Mondavi Private Selection, which cost $11 and has a California appellation).
Such wines as may shed light on the vintage were, in some cases, put on the market too early, which could be due to economic pressures at the winery. When a big red wine is very young, it can be dominated by primary fruit characteristics (jammy, candied, fructosey) and unintegrated new oak, where the caramelized wood seems appliquéd, rather than an integral part of the wine. (Siduri’s 2008 Pisoni Vineyard is such a wine.) Tasting very young wines does not make assessing a vintage easy, because it can be hard for even an experienced taster to know whether the wine’s apparent simplicity is a function merely of naive youthfulness (which will develop as the wine matures) or if the wine really is simple because the vintage wouldn’t let it be complex. The only way to come to a valid and permanent conclusion is to taste a great many wines, which in 2008’s case will not be possible for another 12-18 months (as the wines come out).
The highest score I’ve been able to give to a 2008 Pinot Noir is 94 points, which I gave to 4 wines. Since these scores have not yet been published in Wine Enthusiast and won’t be before March 1, I’m not at liberty to identify the specific wines. But I can tell you that two of them were from the Santa Maria Valley, one was from the “true” Sonoma Coast, and the other was from the Green Valley. A pair of beauties I can reveal (because both were published in the Dec. 31 issue) were W.H. Smith’s Hellenthal Vineyard and Maritime Pinot Noirs, both with a Sonoma Coast appellation. I’ve always loved Smith’s Maritime bottling, a small production wine of great intricacy.
A recurrent problem with the ‘08s is sharpness, related in some cases to actual green, stalky aromas and flavors. (Some of this no doubt was due to the frosts, which caused uneven ripening.) The 2007s were uniformly pleasurable across the board, but the ‘08s are spottier and more varied. Consumers will have to pick and choose carefully; in the case of wineries that produce a range of vineyard-designated Pinot Noirs (in the Siduri, Testarossa, Loring model), there can be significant differences between bottlings. Some grapes got high in sugar (sweet) before they were physiologically ripe, resulting in imbalance; it all depended on where the vineyard was, and how it was farmed. The very coolest areas (which is where the best Pinots come from, but also where the frosts were hardest) had the highest risk of greenness.
So concerning the ’08s, I like what Peter Cargasacchi told me via Facebook: “I would argue that the lows are lower, but the highs are higher.” We’ll see. The wines will continue to be released during this year and on into 2011. There may be bottles I score in the high 90s; maybe there’s even a perfect 100 out there. But at this point, I don’t think the 2008s will be on a par with the 2007s. And, as I noted earlier, the 2009s look to be perfect, at least, on paper.
I love it. The 2009 Bordeaux vintage is “spectacular,” “brilliant,” “superb, rich, powerful, sexy beasts,” “sublime.” As a result, the wines “won’t be cheap.”
In advertising this is known as “selling the sizzle.” In modern kulturspeak it’s “creating buzz.” And no one, anywhere, is better at creating buzz than those maestros of the art, the Bordeaux wine trade.
The quotes above are taken straight from an email press release I received yesterday from Berry Bros. & Rudd, the British wine merchant. BBR knows something about creating vintage anticipation. After all, that’s their job. Can you imagine if, here in California, Gavin Newsom’s PlumpJack wine stores told customers to “turn off the heating and sell the car to save up and sign up with us for the rollercoaster ride that will be Bordeaux 2009,” only substituting “Napa Valley 2009” for “Bordeaux 2009”? Dah Mayor would be laughed out of office, chased by angry mobs with pitchforks for taunting them in their economic misery.
How does Bored Dough get away with it?
It’s not just wine merchants who are spinning 2009, it’s the Bordealais themselves. “Nature has been extremely generous, it is sumptuous,” said Denis Dubourdieu, director of the Bordeaux Institute of Vine and Wine Sciences, adding, “you have to go back to the climatology of the 40s to find, perhaps, comparable conditions.” Remarks like this are bloody chum to the sharks who swim in Wine Spectator’s online site. “…the talk is already starting. Comparing the vintage to 1947?” someone wrote.
Over at the Wall Street Journal, when their writer, Will Lyons, recently reported on the ‘09s, he wrote, “Bordeaux does hyperbole well.” Indeed, they do. Of course, few people have actually tasted the wines at this point. But who cares? When they do, they’ll be dazzled. I guarantee it.
How many times have the Bordelais trumpeted a vintage of the century? About every 4 or 5 years, if not more frequently than that. And the market continues to let them get away with it.
Well, I’m not blaming Bordeaux. They know how to brand and market themselves; nothing wrong with that. Why can’t we in California play the same game?
To some extent, we have. I’ve written about the great 2005 Cabernets and the 2007 Pinot Noirs. So have other wine writers. But for some reason, California’s vintage assessments don’t have the weight or importance that Bordeaux’s have. Why is that? Is California somehow a victim of its once-proclaimed boast that “Every year is a vintage year”? Yes, once upon a time that was California’s mantra, its proud declaration to the world that shoppers need not fear buying a California wine from any year, because they’re all great. Of course, that’s not exactly true — especially since California’s winegrowing areas have spread far beyond Napa Valley, and even within Napa itself viticulture has crept up off the valley floor into the mountains. But maybe there’s still a residue of that “every year a vintage year” mantra, which robs proclamations of vintage greatness of their power.
But I think it’s more than that. Bordeaux has bragged about vintages of the century for so long, and so implausibly, that we kind of expect it of them. It’s part of the Bordeaux personality: oversized, glitzy, shamelessly self-promoting, egotistical, supremely confident if not arrogant. (California by contrast is self-doubting, introspective, ironic.) If Bordeaux did not boast, it wouldn’t be Bored Dough. And we — collectors, consumers, just-plain vanilla wine folks — wouldn’t line up to taste the sublime 2009s, if somebody just gives us the opportunity.
Up until three days ago the conventional wisdom across California was “2009, fantastic vintage.” The season was cool and dry. A few heat spikes here and there, but nothing out of the ordinary. Some vintners, like Scott McLeod, at Rubicon, even told me, in early September, he was experiencing the Holy Grail: “Things taste better at lower brix.”
A freaky rainstorm caught everybody by surprise on Sept. 12-13, but it was quickly replaced by a big, fat high pressure ridge that brought warm weather and sunshine back. Mild breezes, too, which for most quality vineyards eliminated any danger of mold or mildew caused by the storm’s residual moisture in the vines.
A major heat wave developed a week later and lasted the better part of a week. That made growers uncomfortable, but the better ones were able to manage it through proper trellising and irrigation regimes. Fortunately, at the end of the month a huge cool-down occurred, just what the vines needed to recover. As October arrived, the cool pattern continued — there was even record cold by Oct. 9. But it remained dry. By then, most of the Pinot Noir had been picked, so the 2009 vintage for that variety could indeed be spectacular. But Cabernet, as well as Syrah, might not fare as well.
Indeed, on Oct. 9, which was a Friday, the Napa Valley Grapegrowers announced, in the most hopeful terms, that “the 2009 harvest is in full swing and the grapes being harvested are of superior quality. Growers are predicting an incredible vintage and are hoping for a continuation of the mild weather pattern, minus the heat wave that was experienced in recent weeks.” It’s true, their press released admitted, that “We’re keeping a close eye on the rain forecast for Tuesday (Oct. 13).” But, it added, “on the positive, Cab is very tough & could handle some rain.”
Well, here it is Wednesday Oct. 14, and as it turns out, the storm wasn’t “some rain,” it was a real gullywasher, the powerful remnant of a Japanese typhoon carried into California by the jet stream. Never, it’s being said, has California experienced a storm this big, this early in the rainy season. According to the T.V. weatherman, rain totals as of this morning in wine country ranged between 6 and 9 inches, in less than 24 hours. That is spectacular.
My guess is that most of the Pinot has been picked, although there could be far Sonoma Coast Pinot and even Chardonnay that hasn’t been. The big problem is Cabernet and coastal Syrah. If the vines are on a steep slope, it’s probably okay. The flatlands, though, could suffer from mold and rot. Those vintners who rushed to pick over this past weekend in advance of the storm may well have done so out of fear, before the grapes were ripe. And those who decided to brave the storm in hopes it would be manageable may be finding out, in coming days, that it wasn’t. The rain will lower brix, requiring even longer hang time to make up the deficit, which pushes harvest further out into October and even November. The end result could be a classic case of “Who picked before the rains and who didn’t?” What looked like a fabulous Cabernet (and Syrah) vintage could be the most challenging in years.