Vintage ratings are different. When a magazine publishes a vintage rating saying a certain region's wines are Great or 99 points or whatever for a certain year, that's a statement that should be universal. It's saying that almost all wineries have elevated their game for that year, and if you like them in an OK year, you should love them in this one.
A 99-point vintage should be obvious to everyone, whatever your favorite winery or style.
Wine Spectator got the 2007 vintage of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon wrong.
For some reason, America's leading printed wine magazine says 2007 is a 99-point year for Napa Cabs.
But it's just not true. And I'm not the only one saying it.
Eric Asimov was the first to publish his misgivings about '07 Napa Cabs in the New York Times this week. He's not alone: I spoke last week to more than a dozen wine writers from three countries who thought Napa's 2007 was weaker than the two vintages that surrounded it.
The setting was the overlap of the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers and Premiere Napa Valley. People who attended either were invited to a fantastic blind tasting on Friday morning with a format perfect for vintage comparisons.
There were 36 decanters of wine in the room: 3 vintages each (2006, '07 and '08) of 12 Napa Cabs. The wines were chosen by a jury of winemakers to be representative of the region. We tasted blind, but here's the list:
Alpha Omega, Bennett Lane, Chimney Rock, Honig, Mi Sueño, Oakville Ranch, Peju, Provenance, Rocca, Shafer, Sterling, Titus
Perhaps it's important that the 25 Napa Valley winemakers who came up with this list were looking for wines that showed classic Napa style and terroir; i.e., not overripe fruit bombs that could be from anywhere. On whether 2007 was a great year for those, I have no comment.
But I digress. The tasters were not only the professional American wine writers from the Symposium (attendees and speakers), but also a large group of some of the leading wine writers in the UK and Canada who had come to town for Premiere. It was the kind of crowd where Oz Clarke (a very big name in Blighty) could verbally confront western Canada's leading critic, Anthony Gismondi, who found support from Wine Enthusiast Executive Editor Susan Kostrzewa.
In other words, this wasn't an everyday group of bloggers and twitterers, but people whose tasting credentials stand on par with any group one could assemble.
I was only on my third set of 3 wines when I got the first question from a British critic: "What went wrong in Napa in 2007?" I confessed I didn't know. She said all the '07s she'd been tasting were "hollow."
She was the first, but not the last. By the time I left the room, after chatting with more than a dozen other critics, I had not found a defender of the '07 vintage. Perhaps they exist, but if so they are in the minority.
Typically, Bruce Schoenfeld, wine editor of Travel & Leisure, tweeted to me this week: "I much preferred '06 when we tasted last week. '08 too." The only reason he's the only person I'm quoting is because I didn't bother to write down others' comments.
I'd say of the 12 wineries represented, only 1 made an '07 that was as good as the wines they made in the other two years: Bennett Lane. I split between the '06s and '08s for the other wineries, but in most cases the '07 was a significant step down.
So how can this be a 99-point vintage? Wouldn't all of us have been impressed by it?
The thing is, all wine professionals understand great vintages, because vintage ratings are a long-accepted European practice. Most of France in 2005 is a classic example. I had the opportunity to taste a lot of right-bank Bordeaux a couple years ago, and the '05s at every single winery stood above their peers.
I could argue that the problem with Wine Spectator's rating is that the 100-point scale shouldn't apply to vintages; there are simply too many wines to give a rating that precise. I am a reluctant user of the 100-point scale for wine ratings, but think of the movie analogy: Rotten Tomatoes might give a single movie a grade on the 100-point scale, but would anyone rate an entire year of Hollywood releases that way?
But that's not my point today. Whatever scale the Spectator could use to rate vintages -- stars, points, color bars -- to give the 2007 Napa Cabernets an almost perfect rating is just wrong.
What is that rating saying? That these wines are almost perfect expressions of Napa terroir? That all boats have been floated higher? No, that is just wrong.
It's not the first time. Wine Spectator went gaga over the '97 Napa Cabs, giving that vintage 98 points. Many were flabby and overripe; most of those wines are way over the hill now, whereas the vintages around them are drinking much better. It's interesting that this happened exactly 10 years ago, but the '97 misjudgment appeared to be a stylistic decision. I just don't know what happened in the Spectator's offices regarding the '07 vintage.
Kostrzewa revealed at the Symposium that when one of Wine Enthusiast's critics gives a very high rating (over 95), the magazine's editors sometimes stage what she called a "gotcha tasting," in which they retaste the wine and decide if Steve Heimoff was overly enthusiastic without good reason. Heimoff's still around, so the "gotcha tastings" must be working out for him.
I don't know if Wine Spectator is doing this for individual wine ratings or not, and frankly I don't much care, because their California ratings aren't what I consider consistent or useful for my personal tastes. But that's OK; they must have plenty of readers who do like them, and they don't have to worry about me.
But the editors really need to do a "gotcha tasting" on these vintage ratings. Credibility is a precious thing; priceless when you have it, and very difficult to reacquire. For those of us who have done some comparative tasting of Napa Cabernet vintages -- and that now includes more than 40 leading critics in three countries -- we're not laughing with you. Beware that your readers might join us.