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More on the troubling 2011 vintage



I was starting to feel like the only person on Earth who had concerns about the 2011 vintage, until I read this post from Jim Laube’s blog, in which he describes “a high presence of musty and even moldy flavors” in too many of the wines.

I’ve been telling Wine Enthusiast’s Tasting Department for the better part of a year the same thing. Of course, one is loathe to say, of any given wine, that it’s “moldy” because, unless you actually test it for, say, botrytis, you don’t actually know; that loaded word can kill the wine’s sales. But “musty” and “moldy” aromas and accompanying bad flavors are exactly what plagues so many 2011s. That, and a generalized unripeness across the board.



The vintage was the coldest ever–well, in living memory, anyway. It was the year that summer never came. Brutal for people and grapes alike. This problem wasn’t limited just to the coolest regions: it was coastal-wide, extending into Paso Robles. I’m not going to identify any particular bottlings, but here are some Moldy Hall of Fame 2011 wines; maybe you can figure out what they are.

There was a single-vineyard Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands that was filled with fungus.  A Paso Robles red Rhône-blend that reeked of mushrooms, not in a good way. An expensive Russian River Valley Pinot whose asparagus smell reminded me of the Monterey veggies of long ago, as did one from Carneros. Another Pinot, with a Santa Barbara County appellation, smelled like green beans and tomatoes.

As I look over my notes, I see that the variety that was most susceptible to these defects was Pinot Noir, although I also found it in some Zinfandels, Sauvignon Blancs, Chardonnays, Viogniers, Syrahs and Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blends, including some expensive ones. I guess Pinot was most affected because of its transparency: the very thing that lets us taste the most finely-tuned aspects of Pinot’s terroir also magnifies the slightest problem.

The thing about mold, unripeness and vegetal notes is that they don’t go away. You can’t blow them off with decanting. And they won’t age out. On Wine Enthusiast’s Vintage Chart for 2011 Pinot Noir, I gave Carneros my lowest score in many years. Ditto for Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley and Santa Barbara, including Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley. Having said that, the thing to realize is that 2011 was far from being a “bad” vintage. Yes, there were a lot of mediocre wines, more than usual; but there were also some fabulous one. The problem of moldy berries is easily addressed by the winery: If their viticulture can’t prevent it (and often it can’t, because botrytis moves in really fast), then the sorting table is where bad grapes are plucked out, before they go into the fermenter. Problem is, sorting is expensive. Not every winery can afford the equipment or the staff. It must be a terrible moral quandary for a winemaker to allow moldy grapes to pass into the wine–but what can she do? It’s economics.

Here are some wineries that obviously did have the means and will power to produce magnificent 2011 Pinot Noirs: Williams Selyem, Merry Edwards, Paul Hobbs, Rochioli, Lynmar, Dutton-Goldfield, Joseph Phelps, Failla, Thomas Fogarty, Flowers, Testarossa, Tantara, Freeman, Sojourn, Siduri and Foxen. The usual suspects, you say? Exactly. The reason they’re the usual suspects is because these wine companies do what has to be done to produce great wine.

Actually, the problems of 2011 (and, to an almost equal extent, 2010) underscore two important things to keep in mind: One, not every year in California is the same! And two, just wait until the 2012s start coming out. They will be superb.

  1. Steve,

    The other thing to remember about a ‘vintage socre’ is that it tends to be an over-generalization. Yep, 2011 was a challenging year, as was 2010. Yep, there was plenty of mold out there. And yep, some wines were affected by it . . . . but not ALL wines from any specific region.

    I’m sure you’ve perused Laube’s article, and the responses that came forth, and even perhaps my Facebook post on the subject as well. There certainly are a lot of ‘mixed’ feelings about the vintage, and many of them are specific to a single winery or region.

    For instance, down here in Santa Barbara County, we did not receive as extreme a heat spike at the beginning of harvest as our winemaking brethren up north did, and the October rains were not as ‘devastating’ as they were up there either. We were heavily affected by frost in the spring, and yields were way down (I didn’t receive any fruit from two vineyards I regularly get fruit from.)

    The challenge for a wine critic, though, is to do what you appear to be doing – giving an ‘overall statement’ about the vintage with plenty of ‘exceptions’. It makes it more challenging to get this point across to consumers than ever – ‘Beware 2011’s . . . but there are plenty of diamonds in the rough’.

    Keep up the commentary please.


  2. Larry, I certainly want to avoid a repetition of the 1998 vintage, which was slammed and had consumers thinking the entire year was a wipeout.

  3. Yup. Thanks for not writing the whole vintage off.
    At ACORN,we decided early on that $$$$ spent sorting (first in the vineyard, and then even more ruthlessly at the winery) was what we needed and wanted to do. Hope you’ll agree that that the time,effort, and $$$$ were well worth it. We, and our customers, seem to think so.
    Happy Holidays.

  4. 2011 was a year that tested the integrity of a given producer. As a producer (knowing what a lot of the fruit looked like) and consumer (wanting the best wine for my dollar) I am very reluctant to purchase a 2011, especially when given the choice of a different vintage. That said, I agree with Steve there are some superb wines from 2011, but they are not a dime a dozen. This is true for any challenging vintage. It is really important to understand the commitment level of the different producers, so that you can know what you are getting in any given vintage. Some years the disparity between the the top and the bottom is slight, while years like 2011 it is great.

    But the truth is it is only the wine elite who will know the difference. Most consumers are like most winery owners, cheep. The average consumer wants a wine that taste good and does not bust the bank. The average owner wants to make wine as cheep as possible that is “ok” and line there pockets as much money as possible.

  5. Jeff J, thanks for a very insightful comment!

  6. Bill Wertzberger says:

    We in CA are spoiled by consistently good weather, and some folks didn’t know how to adjust. If you took what the vintage gave you, there were some fascinating wines to be made. If you were stuck on fulfilling some perceived consumer demand for alcoholic fruit bombs, well, good luck.
    Plus, a small producer who was out with the pickers could keep the rot from ever arriving at the winery, but if you had mechanically harvested fruit it was impossible to cull the moldy berries.
    I saw the crazy conditions as a rare chance to make some unique and delicious wines.

  7. Steve,
    We have vineyards in both the Sierra Foothills and Napa Valley. We did not have mold issues in the Sierras due to an aggressive spray program but there was no cure for the 9.25″ of rain that fell in early October, 2011. Finally, the last week of October the sugars were again ripe and we picked. The wines were thin and diluted. All that is necessary is to taste the 11’s along side the Awsome 12’s.
    When we decided to pull the Napa cab we selectively picked the vineyard to avoid the rampant mold, but even so we could see the mold spores floating up from the bins whe the fruit was dropped in.
    Bottom line for us? We kept the Sangiovese from 11 because it was picked before the non stop rains and the Nebbiolo because the crop was so small it still retained decent intensity. The rest was all sold off in bulk.
    Of course there will be the exception, and I often refer to this vintage as the 1972 of this era. An excellent reminder is reading the back label of the 1972 Ridge Geyeserville written by Paul Draper. “The Geyserville vineyard was picked just before the two week non stop rains that arrived in early September”, or something to that effect.

  8. Included in your list of producers that go the extra mile is the always overlooked Woodenhead!

  9. Dear Steve,

    Location is everything. No mold problems at Amador Foothill in 2011.


  10. As a small grower of Pinot, over spraying can have bad effects as well on the crop and natural yeasts for fine wines. You have to have a good working relationship with the winemakers and their each individual wine styles so you can farm the vines to match their style. Some like more sugars while others like less, some like little variation in version while others want a variety…pruning structure, pulling leaves, amount of drop, etc. are all part of working together. As far as botrytis and other fungus, I train workers and work behind them to pretend they are on the sorting table. At harvest there should be little to QC but careful eyes are watching for fungus before and after grapes are in the bin. Allowing the wine to be made as natural as possible is the goal because a great vineyard should have all the requirements for great wine to be made simply.

  11. That is what is so great about Livermore, the rains in the north rarely reach us allowing us to dodge many bullets. While we held our chard to get the flavors I like and got hit, most neighbors pulled theirs off before. We got a bunch of water but the the fruit held long enough for us to get it off prior to an explosion. We could hear the fuse burning but the wine has been as tasty as it is normally. A bit more acid and mineral due to the season, but the returning customers are loving it. Cheers, mike

  12. Everyone has made very astute comments and I appreciate the truthfulness in them. The 2011 vintage “separated the men from the boys” (using the expression, not being sexist). Anyone using a formula practice of winemaking or grape-growing probably was more susceptible to problems, adaptability was key. For example, we did a an additional two passes of leaf pulling and fruit thinning in the vineyard that year, and in the cellar we changed our crushing/destemming protocol at harvest and extended barrel aging for these wines.
    Not all vineyards were harmed, especially sandy ones, and the only sweeping generalization I will make about the vintage is that the North had it worse. I remember reading articles about helicopters being used to dry out vineyards and grapes. It is no doubt that the Central Coast did better. Steve, I wonder if the mushroom/asparagus flavors were not fruit derived, rather improper stem inclusion as is common in those varietals?
    Consumers will have to weed out bad wines (pun intended), and perhaps try something new for that vintage. I am sure many wines scored lower than usual, but some probably excelled. This may be luck or designed, but those producers that did as well as usual or even better than usual deserve a further look. Wether it was their estate, fruit source, winemaking, or just luck – one thing for sure is we are not all going to raise our prices like they do in Bordeaux, even in bad years.

  13. Steve,

    No doubt that 2011 was a harvest that required significant emotion control and the willingness to wait when you need to wait and go when you needed to go regardless of the risk those choices entailed…..We found that when the picks were timed properly the resulting wines are fresh, complex, and lower in alcohol than most vintages. In the end real treat actually, but, boy where their some really hard decisions that had to be made to get there!! You put your finger on it when you bring up sorting. We believe hand sorting is a necessity in any vintage and in one like 2011 impossible to get away without it.

    All the Best

    Mark McKenna

  14. Thomas T Thomas Vineyard says:

    Steve, as 2011 was the first vintage from my vineyard in Anderson Valley, I have to tell you I could not be happier with the results. We harvested in early October and avoided the second/major rain storm that ruined a lot of vineyards that had not already picked. We did not have mold or sorting issues, just clean and beautiful fruit. Bink Wines bottles a Vineyard Designate from my vineyard and I have to say it is an excellent bottle of wine. I try very hard to avoid the big, high alcohol pinot noirs that so many people seem to enjoy, and at least for my vineyard, 2011 delivered a perfectly balanced wine, with great fruit and structure, and a wine that is still improving in the bottle.

    Thomas T Thomas

  15. I agree we should not write off the vintage, although if I had a choice between an ‘11 over another vintage, more than likely I would go for the later. I will back Steve up on this regarding consistency, not only in California, but also across the globe. For me, many of the wines are thin and flat, lacking definition and character. I open every bottle with hopes and dreams only to be let down…well, at least 90% of the time. But there are always interesting surprises to be uncorked from this challenging vintage and it’s those few shining examples that I live for and seek out.

  16. I can’t believe you would generalize an entire vintage in such an ENORMOUS state. California is longer than Italy or France, with an incredible array of micro-climants. I find this completely irresponsible, to the point of being reckless. So, some people made crappy wine…Call them out of it! Don’t put the whole state in the same boat. Great producers make great wine. PERIOD! You don’t like vintage variation? Move to the Equator

  17. I am very pleased with our 2011 PN, both our RRV appellation and single vineyard. As to botrytis, the sorting table is the last resort. Canopy management and perhaps a pass or two to drop bad fruit in the vineyard in the weeks before harvest are much more effective. That said, some sites are more difficult than others.

  18. But in Loire Valley, 2011 is a good vintage for noble wine, we will write un article about it later.
    You can read it.

    Loire Spectator

  19. In the midst of all the “not our site” and “sorting saved the day” type comments, our experience was quite different. In spite of our normal shoot thinning, cluster thinning, and green drop (in other words, few clusters, good exposure, open canopy) the October rains hit us hard, followed by a fog that would not go away. We made more passes in the vineyard, dropping compromised clusters, then sorted both pre and post crusher. In the barrel the wine looked pretty good, and we optimistically took the wine through two years of barrel aging, before having to admit that is just wasn’t up to our normal quality level and style. So no Dyer Cabernet in 2011. Hasten to add that this does not pertain to everyone on Diamond Mountain–different elevations and different exposures gave different results.

  20. Bill Haydon says:

    Thanks for your breath of fresh air honesty, Bill. This comment section was beginning to look like a lineup of guilty looking third graders in the principal’s office………all pointing the finger elsewhere.

    I appreciate your insight and have heard very positive things about your wine from those not usually prone to trumpeting much out of California. I’ll seek one out.

  21. One of the joys of working in a tasting room is to hear some of the wildly mis-informed things that visitors sometimes say. One of my faves was “someone told me that only 100% varietal wines can be aged’ (gotta wonder where that came from).

    Unfortunately when Heimhoff, Laube et al use the words ‘troubling 2011 vintage’, what most consumers hear is ‘all 2011 California wines are bad’. I know this is not the message you want to convey, but how can we get the casual wine drinker who is not going to pour through individual reviews to NOT come to this conclusion?

    Everyone appreciates it when you say: “I certainly want to avoid a repetition of the 1998 vintage, which was slammed and had consumers thinking the entire year was a wipeout.” But alas, it is too late and I am sure many people are already saying ‘avoid all 2011 Ca wine”.

    Perhaps we’ll see a similar comparison between 2011 and 2012 as was done between 1998 and 1997 down the road. Interesting historical perspective here….

  22. Hi Steve – 2011 was a great vintage for winemakers who like to make balanced wines with structure. There was some mold that had to be sorted out, but nothing too significant in Santa Barbara or Edna Valley. One of the silver linings, was that because it was such a cool vintage, even French Camp Vineyard in Eastern Paso Robles delivered good acidity and balance!

    I’ll put our entire lineup of 2011’s against any vintage…they probably won’t get high scores, they are not showy wines, but there is not a musty or lacking wine in the bunch!

    cheers, Bob

  23. The wines that I have consumed or purchased from the 2011 vintage had none of the problems mentioned and there are quite a few that are not on the list. They include producers that do what is necessary in the vineyard and at the sorting table year after year. None of them are on the above list they include but are not limited to Dehlinger, Benovia, Moshin, Paul Mathew, Emeritus, Hartford, Littorai to name just a few not mentioned by Steve. All Russian River/Sonoma Coast producers I might add. Many of these wines had wonderful aromatics, finesse, and delicate flavor profiles that many Pinot lovers desire. Not all of them are costly either. Consumers need to recognize that mass producers will not give them the consistent quality that small winemaker owned operations provide. Know your producer and support them!

  24. Thanks for the info about 2011 vintage.

  25. I heard Maybach declassified their entire 2011 Cab vintage.

    “a highly uneven growing season in 2011 led to
    the eventual abandonment of our Materium and Amoenus Cabernets from that vintage.”


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