subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

Here come the 2008s, but does vintage matter anymore?


California borrowed or stole the concept of vintage from the French, who noticed that some years were better than others in their damp, continental climate. I don’t think the 19th century California winemakers made a big deal about vintage, which is how the old slogan “Every year is a good one in California” came into being. It wasn’t until after Prohibition, when wine writers came out of the closet in droves, with their elitist noses stuck way up in the air, that the notion of “vintage” became important.

When I became interested in wine it was at the tail end of the “Every year is a good one” era, and people were trying to distance themselves from it. Anyone who said the “Every year” mantra, we were told, didn’t know what they were talking about, because the truth was, each year was not like every other year. You only have to live along the coast to know that. Some Summers are foggier than others, some Falls are warmer and drier, some Springs can be frosty, and Winters can vary from drought to flooding. So the “Every year” thing was thought to be silly.

As a result, during the Eighties everyone swung way over to the other extreme and made too big a deal about vintage. The culmination of all this was, of course, 1989, when rain during harvest was said to have ruined the vintage, especially in the North Coast. Almost immediately, there was a counter-reaction to this claim, with many vintners and critics pointing out that, while some wines were hurt, many others were quite good. But such is the way the media shape the conventional wisdom that most wine consumers, if they paid any attention at all to vintage, avoided the ‘89s like the plague.

Now here we are on the glide-down for the 2008 vintage, of which there will be much talk over the next months. The salient facts are these: Spring saw historic frosts that severely limited crop size, but not quality. June witnessed those awful forest fires and for a while everybody was worrying that the grapes (and resulting wines) would be smoke-damaged, but this doesn’t seem to be true. Summer was steady and not too hot. Harvest so far (and there’s still a lot of Cabernet on the vine) has been very nice, with a few heat spells here and there, but nothing that good farming can’t handle. The first coastal rain fell all the way down to Santa Barbara on Oct. 3-4, but the storm passed quickly, and as I write, the forecast for the next week is sunny and dry. Sometime in the next two weeks or so the pickers will bring the Cab in and it looks like a great vintage, if a light one. Most of the Pinot has already been picked and winemakers seem happy about that, too, but we have first to experience the 2007s, which could be the greatest ever.

My conclusion about vintages in California is drifting back to “Every year is a good one.” Vintages here really are more alike than not, and with viticulture at such a high level of expertise, and enology too, the problems Mother Nature occasionally throws at the grapes can be countered as never before. That won’t stop writers (including me) from making Vintage Charts (and there’s always a possibility of a truly dismal harvest), but consumers should see vintage in California from the proper perspective, which is, it should be far from your foremost consideration.

Recent Comments

Recent Posts