Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Wine Spectator got the 2007 Napa Cab vintage wrong

As much as one might disagree with a critic's rating of a wine, it's impossible to say that critic is "wrong." If Jay "feed me" Miller thinks a wine is perfect, then it's perfect for him no matter what I think.

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.


John M. Kelly said...

As in many of these highly-touted vintages, pundits appear to have fallen prey to the myth of the "perfect" growing season. The weather was "perfect" so the wines should naturally follow suit, right? Well, if the reactions of you and others at this single tasting hold up over a few more similar evaluations, apparently not.

The problem with these sweeping plaudits (or pans) is that Napa Cabernet still carries iconic status for all California wine. Does anyone really think that the 2007 Pinots would have been touted as highly if there was not a concurrent regard ebing expressed for Napa Cab?

1winedude said...

Generally in agreement with you on this, bro. Of course, it could be argued that we've not tasted the majority of Napa Cabs, and so the sample pool on which we base that assessment is too limited for the assessment to be accurate.


I know what I like, and I think I like the 08s better. Just sayin'.

W. Blake Gray said...

John: Very good points, both of them. I also wonder how much of the vintage applause came from barrel samples rather than finished wines.

Joe: I'm not prepared to say after that many wines that '07 was a good, bad, or average vintage for Napa Cabs. But a 99-point vintage? Think about the '05 Bordeaux -- THAT's a 99-point vintage. There simply isn't this much disagreement about it.

BradK said...

I don't know about 99 point vintages. Our 2007 was balanced from day one. Everything fell into place in the cellar.

W. Blake Gray said...

Brad: I'm not saying there aren't great wines. Those exist even in the most poorly rated vintages (there are some 1998 Napa Cabs drinking beautifully right now, but that's an entirely different story.)

What I'm saying is that the '07s don't clearly stand out as better than the '06s and '08s when tasted side by side, and in more cases than not of a tasting curated by Napa Valley winemakers, the '07s actually fell short.

How was your '06 and your '08?

Anonymous said...

The thing that I liked about 2007 is that almost everything has been great from almost everywhere in the state (unlike 08...many awesome wines but there is some picking and choosing, esp with pinot and Zin...)-- I make and help make wines (both home and professionally) from Lodi, Amador, El Dorado, Sonoma, Napa, Suisun and Clarksburg so my basis for comparison is pretty solid. While of course I like our 06s and 08s, I without a doubt prefer the 07s (except for the cab, forwhatever thats worth). Now, I also must admit to liking many WS reccomendations and I have definately liked 03 Bordeaux over 00 and maybe the 07 Vintage simpley suits my palate

W. Blake Gray said...

Anon: The problem is, Spectator's 99-point rating was purely for Napa Valley Cabs. See John Kelly's comment up top.

David White said...


Great post. My impressions last week were the same as yours (and similar to Asimov's). To me, too many of the wines were "uniform, monochromatic wines with little finesse.”

Across the board, I found the 06s and 08s more interesting. Not necessarily better, but certainly more unique. (And thus, more worthy of my money.)

That said, we were drinking wines at pretty high price points. As was Asimov. I have ZERO data to back this up, but I would guess that for sub-$30 Napa Cabs, one is better off blindly picking an '07 off a supermarket shelf than an '06 or an '08.

Winemakers didn't have to work in '07. The grapes ripened perfectly. At cheaper price points, I would think that in '06 you got more raisins and/or underripe fruit mixed in, so would more likely find some off-wine from producers that can't afford to diligently sort.

Anonymous said...

its Andy...sorry, couldn't figure how to leave my name. I agree, but they also rate this vintage highly for other varietals and sites as well. And, in some respects, I do not think its really proper (for WS or anyone else) to compare the validity of "vintage ratings" for Bordeaux (where they grow basically 3 varietals [7 total] compared to Napa, where pretty much anything goes. I'd rather see "Napa Ratings" rather than "Napa Cab ratings". If you did regional ratings, no doubt 07 would shine

Steve Heimoff said...

I rather liked the 2007 Napa Cabs. They were fleshy and approachable, and what's wrong with that? I also think what 1WineDude said is important: How many wines must a wine critic taste, before he can declare the vintage? Answer: Lots. For instance, that British critic who found the wines "hollow": how many did she taste? What are her qualifications? So just because Asimov and one or two others say something doesn't make it true.

W. Blake Gray said...

David: Very interesting point. Perhaps private-label Napa Cabs -- largely made from declassified bulk juice -- will be excellent in '07; that could be something to watch for value seekers. (Won't be me; in the value price range, there are other things I'd rather drink.)

Andy: It's an interesting point about Napa's variety. I'm a big fan of some non-Bordeaux grapes from Napa, especially Zinfandel. But I think regional ratings are tough because a good year for Chardonnay in Carneros might not be a good year for Merlot in Oakville.

W. Blake Gray said...

Steve: Let me put you on the spot, then. If you had to rate the '07 Napa Cab vintage, what would you rate it?

And at what point would you say a vintage rating is so high that it should be noticeable to all reasonably experienced tasters? I don't know if I have an exact answer to that question, but I know it's a few points below 99.

Marlene Rossman said...

Steve, I am with you on the 07 Napa Cabs. I rather liked most that I tasted, so far. And I taste many wines every day. I certainly do not think 07 was a 99 point vintage, but as has been said many times before, it was hard to make really bad Cab in Napa in 07.

Blake, you do not identify the "British critic," although being in the business, I have an idea of who it is. In any case, most Brits prefer ear-searing, eye watering, high acid, cellar-till-your-grandchildren retire clarets. And they would not say they liked any Napa Cabs, on pain of death.

Peter O'Connor said...

It would be interesting to know what systematic criteria are employed by WS (and WA) to assert that a vintage is 99 points (?!). For it doesn’t make much sense, to me, that one or two reviewers can assign one single score to a vintage made of tens of thousands of wines, produced from different varieties, in different styles & techniques, from dozens of regions and thousands of wineries; based exclusively on non-controlled (tastings) experiments.
European AOCs facilitate tremendously the vintage evaluation process since most phases of winegrowing and winemaking are strictly regulated, and there is much higher climate variability. California, on the other hand, has highly predictable weather patterns, with extremely low-variance among growing-season data sets (with very few exceptions like 2010) and has an unregulated wine industry. Producers can do virtually anything, anywhere.
Vintage evaluation in CA, IMHO, is in the details: taxonomy, classification and evaluation of different regions; valuation of high temps in late September and early October; incidence of late-season heat waves and/or rain; fine-tuning the number of sunshine hours (or solar radiation levels) around and after veraison; etc.

Bill Ward said...

Far be it from me to defend the Wine Spectator OR vintage ratings, but at the 2009 Premiere Napa barrel tasting, the '07 cabs were by and large spectacular: great fruit but also great harmony and depth. If that's the basis for the 99, I can see it.
Maybe the time spent in oak since then explains why you and I were among those who found the '07s underwhelming at last week's comparative tasting.
And I'm way on board with the whole monolithic thing, especially in the non-mountain bottlings. Too many Napa cabs taste manufactured; that seemingly made-up word "spoofulated" comes to mind in an almost onomatopoetic way.
Still, there are a lot of distinctive '07s (Outpost "True," Bevan Showket, Corison Kronos. Shafer Hillside Select) that I suspect will age better than the '97s.

Fred Aliano said...

Purely anecdotal evidence but it supports your premise (and my personal opinion of the 2007 vintage) At a wine event in my hometown, a half-dozen Napa winemakers were pouring their wares (mostly 2007 vintage). I asked each to compare their own 2007 and 2008 vintage wines and, to a person they said they liked their own 08s better! That's a powerful statement when it is delivered by a winemaker trying to support sales of their 2007 product. I asked the question because I had seen the vintage rating and it wasn't represenative of what I had tasted so far. I think you nailed it.

Maratene's Fine Wine said...

I think the 2007 vintage is alot like 1997. They are beautiful to drink early. As for the score for the vintage. WS is as usual favoring over ripe vintages. I have tasted a great number of 07 Napa Cab and the vintage as a whole is good, but I do agree that many of them are hollow. They are wines built for critics who favor a particular style of Napa Cab.

Austin Beeman said...

As a retailer, I'm finding that the 2007 Napa Valley Cabs are producing some of the finest wines ever in the $15-$40 price point. And that is among wines where I have great familiarity.
When you couple that with the multitude of 2007 that have been bumped from $50 to $20 because of the economy, customers are experiencing better Cabs that they would normally taste.

Doug Wilder said...

I don't think you can paint an entire vintage in broad strokes. In The Spectator's defense, people like to read about it and honestly how many pay attention three, five, twenty-five years later? Personally, i look for the individual quality of the brand - you can't treat a region like the SP500. It is a non-issue for me as a writer. I actually did have several comments about Eric's "Judging the Napa Cabernets from 2007" All 20 of them!.

Furthermore I just tasted wines from vintages WS suggested we avoid; including 83, 88, 98 and the results were surprising.

Anonymous said...


Rating a vintage is not an easy task, as any honest critic will acknowledge.

Making a blanket judgment on the basis of sampling a few wines, even a few dozen wines, on a single occasion is, in my opinion, an act of hubris.

At Wine Spectator, we look at the growing season, to estimate potential; interview winemakers, to gain perspective; survey the results of our own blind tastings of hundreds of wines from the vintage; and finally, make a judgment. Our goal is to give consumers a general guide to the style and quality of a given vintage in comparison to others.

Clearly, James Laube, who rated the 2007 vintage for Napa Cabernets, prefers the ripe, structured, balanced wines that come from warm growing seasons. That's why he rates 2007 higher than, say, 1998. Critics with different criteria will come to different results, and fairly so. As with specific wines, it's all a matter of taste.

I think you leave an erroneous impression, though: you imply that Laube disliked 2006 and 2008. That's far from true: he gave '06 Napa Cabs a vintage rating of 95 points, also "classic," and '08 a preliminary score of 90-92, "outstanding."

Here is a recent summary, from Laube's tasting report on 2007 Cabs:

"If 2007's stellar quality is not enough to whet your appetite, vintners are just as revved up about what lies ahead. Many winemakers insist that as grand as their 2007 wines are, 2008 will be superior. There's yet another wave of winemakers who suggest that the 2009 wines, still in barrel, may even trump the others.

"Though the focus of this report is 2007, the 2006 vintage should not be overlooked. Many exceptional wines were made in '06, some of which have only now been released."

We appreciate you bringing attention to Wine Spectator in your blog.

Thomas Matthews
Executive editor

Bryan Maletis said...

"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."

Be careful of the Group Think phenomenon here. Sometimes the first person to say something can influence the perspective of the others who are listening.

Also, vintage variation in New World wines is very low in my experience when compared to Old World wines. Of course, Oregon is an exception with the rain, but to me, Cali cabs are generally more similar than different year in and year out.



W. Blake Gray said...

Bryan: I understand the group think problem, but in this case most of us tasted quietly and discussed afterward. In any case, it was a hard-headed, opinionated group.

As to your second point, I completely agree.