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Blind tasting 3 vintages at Premier Napa Valley


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.

  1. “I was impressed by the 07s, actually, how well they’re holding up.” I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry.

  2. John, you mean because they’re only 4-1/4 years old?

  3. I thought that was an odd statement as well…

  4. Wine evaluation seems a poor proxy for vintage assessment in California, IMHO, for two reasons: 1) although the last two years were huge exceptions to the norm, CA’s weather patterns during the growing season are, normally, highly predictable, with extremely low year-to-year variability, especially when compared to other important wine regions and, therefore, exert minimal or no influence/pressure on the targeted wine styles 2) the mainstream winemaking approaches do not show much respect for the forces of nature, and favor intervention whenever necessary to attain a preconceived, idealized, formula.
    Thus, vintage evaluation in California seems to make more sense via quantitative/statistical analysis (i.e., the process of knowledge discovery in databases) of seasonal factors; such as monthly mean & extreme temperatures, precipitation volume and solar radiation levels. These results should then be compared with the historical averages, and with specific, well understood, vintages.
    This method will allow for more nuanced detection and can effectively support the decision process.
    Incidentally, we have been using this approach to vintage assessment, for all wine regions, for more than a decade; mostly through a proprietary indicator called “Vintage Evaluator Index” (VEI), which is displayed on our website.

  5. “Vintage differences are being ironed out.” I couldn’t agree more. Between the vineyard and the winery, winegrowers have so many weapons in the arsenal, but let’s not hope they they totally succeed.

  6. i’m surprised to hear you ask wine makers how the vintage is going. who is going to tell you, a wine critic, the truth? c’mon! of *course* every vintage is a “great” one! anyway, what difference does a vintage make when there’s so much manipulation in the winery so that every year wine might taste similar, year in and year out?

  7. Stephanie, it’s not always true that winemakers spin. Sometimes they do try to put their best foot forward, but a good reporter can usually tell when something’s true and when it isn’t. I find that, if we’re off the record, most winemakers I know trust me and will tell the truth.

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