Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Vintage charts for California are worthless

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."


Cabfrancophile said...

Great read. I have a few thoughts, though. While failed vintage are rare in CA because few vines are planted in truly marginal areas, what about super-ripe hot vintages? I suppose you'd say good producers sort out raisins and drop sunburned fruit. But if there's a big heatwave near harvest, this seems like something universally hard to mitigate. These wouldn't be failures, but isn't the heat reflected often enough in the wine that broader vintage character might be worth considering in the context of producer style and site typicity?

Also, while good producers always make good wine, shouldn't there be a 'rising tide' effect in the mass market wine. I'm thinking your BV Napa and Blackstone sorts of stuff, made in 100k+ case territory. Granted these aren't great wines, but I'd think a uniform year like '07 would benefit these nicely.

W. Blake Gray said...

These are good points, but the nature of California wine and the market for it muddles both.

Re super-hot vintages: Let's face it, many people like those wines. Plus, the nature of the fog layer on the coast, particularly in Sonoma County, generally prevents longterm heatwaves from being universal.

Re the rising-tide effect: That would be a great argument if the wine market were in balance; if all wine available for sale were being sold. In fact, there's so much turmoil that great bulk juice has been available cheaply for the last three vintages. The worst of the bulk juice doesn't need to be sold.

Keep in mind when you talk about a brand like Blackstone's California appellation wines, they can use fruit from anywhere. In a tight market they probably have to buy more fruit from lesser areas like the Central Valley. This year they can include fruit from some really premium areas. To me, that's why the market is more important to these brands than the annual weather profile.

Anonymous said...

I would think that the better blenders are seeing some pretty good juices this yr.
Yes 2005 is much better than the yrs around to bad I only have a few bottles left.
jo6pac said...

Nice blog and very interesting point. Reading this from Europe (Denmark) it kind of reasures me I'm not all wrong on Cali wines.
Stick with the winery and the style you like, and buy them in the cheapest vintages.

Cheers and have fun

Frederik Kreutzer (In Danish, I'm sorry)

sonomaguy said...

I think the comparison is flawed because you are comparing California as a whole to individual regions in France. There would be more validity to a Russian River, Dry Creek Valley, Paso Robles, Napa, etc. vintage chart. Not everyones sole focus is Napa Cab.

Anonymous said...

I think a certain kind of vintage chart would work in CA.

It would be an appellation by appellation chart that has ratings for different varieties in each appellation. That would be a chore to create, but the only kind that makes any sense.

Tom Wark

Frederick said...

Even Bordeaux Vintage Charts are not as useful as before ... they have global warming there and when the rare harvest is not good or better, they use advanced, modern techniques in the winery and in the vineyard to improve a difficult vintage.

Vintage charts, like wine ratings, should not use numbers, but style indcating words that address alcohol level, ripeness, acidity, tannin, age worthiness, etc.

For regions that are sunny, warm, & dry, you only need to remember the rare vintage abberations - one or two years per decade where the wines will still be good, surely, but a little lighter and brighter.

Rick Schofield
Port Ewen, NY

wine-ev said...

IMHO, vintage charts should not be based on “a posteriori” ratings, which solely state whether a vintage was good or bad.
Vintage charts should be based on descriptive “a priori” quantitative ratings that reflect the particular features of each vintage, like: heat (temperatures), precipitation & solar radiation. So that industry players can do their job in the best way possible and consumers can gauge the profile of the wines they will buy and drink.

W. Blake Gray said...

Solar radiation? Are you serious?

Kent Benson said...

Another supposedly bad followed by good couple of California vintages was 2000 and 2001. I don’t get a lot of chances to taste older vintages. Would you say the same is true with these two vintages as with the ‘97 and ’98? A couple years ago I compared the Beringer Knights Valley Cab 2000 to the 2001 and the difference was dramatic – the 2000 didn’t hold a candle to the 2001.

Peter O'Connor said...

Mr. Gray,
Given adequate temperature parameters, solar radiation is the single most important factor in the ripening process.
Or do you assign more importance to a critic’s opinion than to the amount of sunlight that a region has received in a specific season.

W. Blake Gray said...

Hi Kent, I've never paid much attention to 2000/01, unfortunately. The '97/'98 ratings comparison was so stark that I've been paying attention ever since, so no need for a retroactive tasting. Sorry, can't help on '00/'01 though.

Peter: Yes, I do think a critic's opinion is more important than the statistics on solar radiation.

But more to the point: do you think anybody in the trade -- sommeliers, wine buyers, Gary Vaynerchuk, anybody at all -- is going to say "Wow, 2007, the solar radiation numbers were great that year. You should buy this Cabernet."

I've been writing about wine for years, and I'm not known as averse to science. But I confess I don't even know the unit of measurement for solar radiation. I could look it up and appear all smarty-pants. But I'd rather be honest.

Peter O'Connor said...

Mr. Gray,
Thanks for your reply.
The fact that a measure like solar radiation is not hyped does not imply it is not essential.
And while the amount of sunlight is an intrinsic property (with causal relationship to the development of sound enological compounds) of a given vintage, a critic’s opinion is merely a subjective appraisal, with no verifiable (or falsifiable) correlation with adequate levels of sugars, acids and tannins.
As a matter of fact, critics would provide far more reliable judgments if they’d bother to check scientific facts.
PS: Solar radiation is usually expressed in “Watt-hours per square meter (W-hr/m2)”.

W. Blake Gray said...

Peter: Can you point me to a study that links solar radiation to wine quality?

Peter O'Connor said...

Mr. Gray,
There is a vast amount of academic literature on the subject. I suggest you take a look at the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture (website) and at Google Scholar.
In any case, I list below a few books and academic papers; including some of Dr. Richard E. Smart’s work which I highly recommend.
Principles of Grapevine Canopy Microclimate Manipulation with Implications for Yield and Quality. A Review; Richard E. Smart; Am. J. Enol. Vitic., Sep 1985; 36: 230 - 239.
Sunlight Into Wine; A Handbook for Wine Grape Canopy Arrangement; Winetitles; 1991; Richard E. Smart & Mike Robinson
INFLUENCE OF LIGHT ON COMPOSITION AND QUALITY OF GRAPES; R. E. Smart; ISHS Acta Horticulturae 206: Symposium on Grapevine Canopy and Vigor Management, XXII IHC
Viticulture and Environment; WineTitles; Gladstones, J.; 1992
Sunlight Exposure and Temperature Effects on Berry Growth and Composition of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache in the Central San Joaquin Valley of California; Juliet Bergqvist 1, Nick Dokoozlian 1, and Nona Ebisuda; Am. J. Enol. Vitic. 52:1:1-7 (2001)
Effect of Crop Level and Crop Load on Growth, Yield, Must and Wine Composition, and Quality of Cabernet Sauvignon; B. Bravdo, Y. Hepner, C. Loinger, S. Cohen, and H. Tabacman; Am. J. Enol. Vitic., Jun 1985; 36: 125 - 131.
Physiological Effects of Solar Ultraviolet-B Exclusion on Two Cultivars of Vitis vinifera L. from La Rioja, Spain; Encarnación Núñez-Olivera, Javier Martínez-Abaigar, Rafael Tomás, Saúl Otero, and María Arróniz-Crespo; Am. J. Enol. Vitic., Dec 2006; 57: 441 - 448.
Berry Temperature and Solar Radiation Alter Acylation, Proportion, and Concentration of Anthocyanin in Merlot Grapes; Julie M. Tarara, Jungmin Lee, Sara E. Spayd, and Carolyn F. Scagel Am. J. Enol. Vitic., Sep 2008; 59: 235 - 247.
Separation of Sunlight and Temperature Effects on the Composition of Vitis vinifera cv. Merlot Berries; S. E. Spayd, J. M. Tarara, D. L. Mee, and J. C. Ferguson; Am. J. Enol. Vitic., Sep 2002; 53: 171 - 182.

W. Blake Gray said...

Peter: Thank you for this. I'm going to see how much of it I can track down. Losing ignorance is a long slow process.

But this is all a bit of comment drift. The post is about vintage charts, and even before reading the scientific data, I need to make this point:

Riper grapes do NOT necessarily lead to better wines. In fact, it can be the opposite, as in 2003 in most of France.

I guess you can tell me that there's an ideal sweet spot of solar radiation for each region, and maybe that's true. But that doesn't counter my original point that California is a big place with lots of subregions, and ideal conditions for Napa Valley Cabernet may or may not happen in the same year as ideal conditions for Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir. I know you're going to agree with that.

Kent Benson said...

The guy that first brought up the term solar radiation (wine-ev), I think, must be associated with a really cool Web site, I've used it a lot to get information about Heat Summation Indices. That's the measure used to determine the climate zones I, II, III, etc.

Among many other tings, this site displays data from vitually every weather station in the world!

By the way, the Wine Enthusiast vintage chart gave Napa Cabernet scores of 85 for 1998 and 96 for 1997. The 2000 vs. 2001 comparison was even starker, with scores of 85 and 98, respectively.