Vintage charts make a lot of sense for Bordeaux, and to a lesser extent for much of Europe. But for California, they're worse than worthless. Here's why.
The idea of a vintage chart comes from English aficionados trying to get a handle on which French wines to collect. And in France, they're still important, even though Frank Prial of the New York Times declared them dead a decade ago.
But California is not France. Magazines that breathlessly talk about the '07 California Cabernets -- and decry the 2010 wines before any have been released -- are at best mindlessly wasting space, and at worst misleading their readers.
There's not a single vintage in California over the last decade I would avoid, and not a single vintage I would rush out to buy either. It all depends on the winery -- and that's completely unlike France.
It's not just because French weather is unpredictable year-to-year. In France, many regions are planted with grapes that won't ripen in poor years. So a bad year really is a bad year, with many wines that aren't (or shouldn't be) released.
Moreover, very good years in France are strikingly universal. When I visited Bordeaux in 2009, every winery's 2005 tasted better than every winery's 2004 and 2006. It was amazing how consistent this was. And every winery's 2003 was noticeably overripe. I don't need to know anything about two Bordeaux wineries to know how to choose between a 2004 Chateau Mysterio and 2005 Chateau Beret on a wine list.
This simply isn't the case in California for two main reasons: 1) The weather isn't as extreme here. We don't get much spring hail and summer rain. 2) Very few grapes are actually planted in marginal areas.
As a subset of point 2, consider this: the main variety covered in vintage charts is Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Napa Valley is not Bordeaux -- it's hot, dry and sunny. In the few areas that aren't, notably Carneros, vineyards have mostly grafted their Cab over to Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. Most Napa Valley Cab vineyards aren't at risk of not ripening, even in an unusually cool year like 2010. They might not get ultra-ripe this year, but that's exactly why I think 2010 will be an exceptional year from some Napa producers.
Sure, there are Pinot Noir grapes out on the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts that won't ripen this year. I'm getting tweets every day now from people worried about grapes in fringe vineyards.
But more than 99% of the grapes in California are planted in areas comfortably warm enough to ripen -- even in a year like this. Do you think Lodi Zinfandel and Paso Robles Syrah aren't going to ripen?
This is why California vintage charts are worse than worthless. They're a shorthand that will convince some consumers to avoid perfectly good wines while creating artificial interest in other wines that aren't any better. To me, bad information is worse than no information.
Let me try an analogy. Suppose you're at the DVD shop and you have a chart that says all movies with George Clooney are good while all movies with Kevin Bacon are mediocre -- that's a fair approximation of what wine vintage charts say. So you pass up "Frost/Nixon" and "Mystic River" and instead rent "The Men Who Stare At Goats." Your loss.
I believe vintage charts exist for the same reason that every Valentine's Day we're subjected to a barrage of stories about pairing wines with chocolate. Editors like to schedule certain types of stories to fill out a calendar. The Bordeaux vintage report matters, and this is America, so let's do a California vintage report. And since we have these reports from every year, let's put them in an easily portable format with our publication's name on it.
Let me ask you this: When was the last year California had a year so bad that many wines weren't released? I'll tell you -- 1998.
I was one of many writers who panned that vintage when it came out. And I was wrong.
The '98s that are still around are drinking great; the '97s -- a universally lauded vintage -- are mostly dead. One of the few times that back-to-back California vintages were really different, and the media got it wrong. We did so because we didn't recognize the age-worthiness of the tighter, more tannic '98s, and we thought the sexier '97s were more exciting. But we were wrong, and you shouldn't trust us on this issue any more.
So I'm going to go out on a limb and predict this very unpredictable 2010 vintage for Napa Valley Cabernets: Most good wineries will make good wines. Some will make great wines. Some will inexplicably -- or explicably -- not be up to snuff. Amazingly, this is exactly the same as 2009 and 2008 and 2007.
If you want "drink/hold" recommendations, you have to know the style of the winery, because Corison wines will outlast Shafer wines no matter what vintage they're from. That has nothing to do with quality or point scores, because Shafer makes good wines in the full-bodied style. But how can a vintage chart that combines the two give good recommendations on either?
So throw away your California vintage charts, folks, unless you really enjoyed "The Men Who Stare At Goats."