California’s tangled history with vintages

Misleading to paint an entire vintage

The assessment of vintages in regions such as Bordeaux and Burgundy has fascinated and challenged vintners and critics alike for centuries. In California, the question of vintage has a less clearly traceable history

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Even in ancient Rome, certain vintages were celebrated. The Opimian vintage (121 B.C.)–so called because it occurred under the consulship of Opimius–was so famous that Pliny wrote about it, more than a century later, describing it as “a year of the highest excellence for all kinds of wine.”

California has a more tangled history with vintages. For a long time–the better part of the late 19th and 20th centuries–vintages were not thought to matter very much. There was an old saying, “Every year is a vintage year in California,” which held a certain truth. In California, the weather during the growing season is much more consistent and predictable than anywhere in continental Europe. One can say, with relative certainty, that summers will be warm and dry, and autumns generally dry until the majority of the grapes are in; and even if it rains, most of the grapes still on the vine will be thick-skinned varieties, like Cabernet Sauvignon, so that the sunny, breezy weather that dependably follows an early rainstorm will dry off the vines. California therefore is far less prone to vintage disasters than is Europe.

In the 1970s, there arose a new class of wine mavens who examined growing conditions with far greater scrutiny than ever before, and who declared that the “every year is a vintage year” claim was, in fact, a lie. They argued that anyone who actually lives in California knows that years differ dramatically from each other. When I entered the wine business, this attitude was dominant. There were some years, such as 1989, that were trashed by the magazines then dominant, such as Wine Spectator, while other years, like 1990, were praised to the skies.

As I acquired greater knowledge and understanding of my own, I found I did not need to rely on the judgments of others, in determing the quality of individual vintages or anything else pertaining to wine. I could make up my own mind, based on my own experiences. And what my experiences suggested to me was that the truth of vintages in California is complicated. It is not true that “every year is a vintage year,” but neither is it true that some years are great while others are poor.

The reasons for this should be obvious. California is a huge state, and even if you restrict yourself to its prime grapegrowing areas along the coast and up into the Sierra Foothills, it is plainly impossible to say anything about the weather that is applicable to them all. It often rains in the North Coast in September and October, whereas rainfall at that time south of, say, San Luis Obispo is extremely rare to the point of vanishingly small. On the other hand, the Central and South coasts sometimes get severe Spring frosts that bypass the North Coast. These are to take only the most obvious examples of how misleading it is to paint an entire California vintage with a single brushstroke.

On a smaller level, even within a single region, vintage conditions may vary. In Oakville, in the Napa Valley, a hot vintage or even a single heat event may scorch grapes growing on the valley’s eastern side, while affording perfect ripening to grapes on the western benches and hills. And vice versa: a cool year may be more beneficial to the east side, which receives the afternoon sun, the day’s warmest.

Having said that, there are certain vintages that stand out. The year 2007 was almost without exception a great success for every variety, in every part of the state. The wines were generous and supple. Even Napa mountain Cabernet Sauvignons were drinkable early, although the best should age. For Pinot Noir, 2005 was a notable success. So were 2007 and 2009, and it looks like the 2010s will be great. Yet to infer that 2008 or 2006 were unsuccessful would be a mistake, since there are many beautiful Pinot Noirs from those years.

Although I make vintage assessments each year for my magazine, Wine Enthusiast, I try to make clear that these are generalized approximations that should not be taken as the gospel truth, or given undue emphasis. The ultimate assessment of the quality of a wine is what’s in the bottle, because a great winery will make great wine despite whatever challenges Mother Nature throws its way.

Written by Steve Heimoff

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