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How bad are things out there? Don’t ask

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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!


Early thoughts on the 2008 California Pinot Noirs

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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.


When it comes to vintage huzzahs, Bordeaux still does it best

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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.


Huge unexpected early rain storm could compromise 2009 Cabernet vintage

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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.


Tuesday Twaddle

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From beyond the grave, Julia Child shows that print still matters

The late chef’s magnum opus, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking, sold 22,000 copies in one week following release of the movie “Julie & Julia.” That is “more copies than were sold in any full year since the book’s appearance” nearly 48 years ago, according to the New York Times, citing the book’s publisher, Knopf.

The book also hit No. 1 at both Amazon and B&N.com earlier this month, and is racing up the charts at Publishers Weekly’s hardcover nonfiction best sellers.

i.e.  People still read books!

Yes, I know how Twitter can drive events. The Tehran uprisings are a classic example. But predictions of the demise of print (as well as the power of an old-fashioned Hollywood movie) have been greatly exaggerated!

Think about it. Here we have a 752-page book that’s racing off the shelves, and the publicity for it has been driven exclusively by the film, as well as (I would argue) the stellar reviews it got, mostly in print newspapers and magazines. Could social media have resurrected “Mastering”? Maybe, but the book’s amazing comeback proves that the tried-and-true way of making things famous still holds a trick or two up its sleeve.

jchild

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2009 Vintage could be great

The winter was very cold. Rainfall was low until Spring, when the skies opened up, making for near-normal precipitation. A hard frost hit statewide in mid-April, followed by a heat wave. May and June were rainy and cold, with June setting low temperature records. July was fairly average, and August has been mild. There were some excessive heat spikes in the usual hot places, like Paso Robles, but nothing that could spoil the vintage

Harvest began August 12, mainly for sparkling wine grapes and Sauvignon Blanc. Some vintners expressed concern about green flavors, due to the coolness. Monsoonal moistness in late August also raises the threat of mold, although this doesn’t appear to be a big problem. The big reds have yet to be picked, but 2009 could be a very good year for Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, provided that ripening proceeds steadily, with no major heat waves, and the rains hold off. With a weak El Nino effect in the Pacific, California, especially Southern California, could be in for higher-than-usual rains this Fall, but it’s too soon to tell. But overall, the pieces are in place for a good vintage: coolish weather, dry conditions during harvest (so far) and an absence of heat waves should enable ripeness without high alcohol.


Does vintage still matter?

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Maybe it’s the freezing cold spell we’ve been having lately, but I’ve been thinking about the weather, and how it affects grapes in these modern times, when there are so many weapons in the winemaker’s tool box to un-do any damage it might cause.

It’s so different from the old days. Prognosticators used to opine on a vintage almost before the grapes had been picked, and buyers would genuflect and base their buying decisions on the edicts of a few. I was reminded of this when I picked up my old copy of Michael Broadbent’s The Great Vintage Wine Book, which is one of the best wine books ever. Michael colors entire Bordeaux vintages with a few flourishes of his pen:

1863: mediocre quality
1864: A truly grand année
1866 and 1867: unripe vines and feeble green wines
1870: the greatest, possibly, of all time

Blog disclosure: This is not my cellar!

Of course, Michael wasn’t alive then, but resorts to reports then current from vignerons and brokers, as well as his own extensive tasting of old wines. How easy it was then to paint Bordeaux vintages with a single brush. After all, it’s a smallish region — only about 40 miles separate St. Estephe and Bordeaux — and a relatively homogenous one, weather-wise. True, it might hail on one vineyard and spare another next door, but mostly the entire district has the same weather. Also, because Bordeaux is in a damp continental (as opposed to Mediterranean) climate, yearly weather patterns can differ dramatically.

California is so different. With our Mediterranean climate, the old saying that “Every year is a vintage year” is truer than not, although it was long the fashion among critics to claim otherwise. If you live in California, you know this to be true. Summers are dependably warm and dry. Autumn is typically gorgeous. Yes, it can rain in September, particularly in the north, but not heavily, and even if it does, the next week usually will be sunny and dry, allowing the water to evaporate off the grapes instead of spoiling them.

Winter can be nasty, with floods and freezes, but the vines are dormant and don’t much care. Spring is iffy, with late rains and frosts sometimes wreaking havoc in the vineyards (as they did in 2008). But for the most part, a bad Spring will result in a short crop, but not an inferior one. California’s weather is so dependable — even with climate change — you can set your watch by it.

And then there are all the tricks vintners use to counter the effects of weather, in both the vineyard and in the winery. The sciences of viticulture and enology have salvaged crops that would have been ruined once upon a time.

I write up Wine Enthusiast’s California vintage chart every year, and I’ll praise a year like 2005, which was so kind to Pinot Noir, or 2001, when North Coast Cabernet excelled. But the truth is, everybody tends to make more of vintages than they deserve in California. The downside of a harsh vintage rating — for example, the way some critics trashed 1998 — is that consumers, buying into the anachronistic Bordeaux model, tend to shun everything from that year, including some very good wines that didn’t suffer at all. The bottom line for consumers — and for budding bloggers — is that vintage variation should be taken with a grain of salt.


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