Dan Berger

Vintage variation open for debate

Those who believe the old saw about every year being a “vintage year” along the Pacific Coast either know nothing about wine or wine makers, or they are wine marketing people whose first name is Pollyanna.

The quality of a vintage, for good, bad, or strange, is a topic that comes up about August or September (in the Northern Hemisphere) every year with people who are amused by such things. And two things are certain when such talk begins in the same calendar year as the vintage:

Two more facts:

For about a decade, I was the California author of a respected international wine society’s vintage chart. Others did other regions. I always wrestled with the fraud I was perpetrating by trying to reduce multiple regions and sub regions, multiple grape varieties, and multiple styles of wine into a single number that would have any meaning.

I finally gave up that task three years ago, and the chart is still doing its best to confuse people and offer bad advice.

I could give hundreds of examples about the reasons it’s idiotic to try to reduce the quality of a vintage to an easily understandable number. But primarily it’s because the number of exceptions would exceed the number of correct projections.

We can all figure this out for ourselves: the aberrant frost of a Washington vintage that affects one region devastatingly but not a nearby region; the disrespectful rainfall in the Willamette that harms the Chardonnay but has far less impact om the Pinot Noir; the rain in a California area that leaves wine makers talking of a “Vintage from Hell,” but where the Cabernet Sauvignons all turned out to be splendid.

Such was the long-lasting impact of a huge headline in The Wine Spectator after it got that exact quote late one afternoon from an exhausted Sonoma County grower in 1989 after his Chardonnay had been deluged by heavy rains.

It was two months later that the Cabernet Sauvignon, under blue skies and with the benefit of a great Indian Summer, turned out to be superb. Still, to this day, people speak of 1989 in Sonoma County as the “Vintage from Hell,” even in the face of some spectacular red wines.

Sure, there are some general ideas behind vintage charts, and there is no question that vintages leave their overall marks on wines. In California, for instance, we know that 1994 and 1997 were warmer years without huge heat spikes and that the potential was all there to make great wines.

And no question about it, both years proved to be a boon for lovers of Cabernet Sauvignon. Notably in Napa.

So by comparison (and only by comparison), the wines from 1995 and 1996 were seen as less good. Such a comparison is utterly unfair since all of the wines are different.

The 1996s were easier to like in general, but had plenty of stuffing to age, and 1995 was overlooked at first because the wines showed the greatness of “Bordeaux in California,” reticent early but exceptional as they aged.

So which vintage was better of the four? Most wine lovers would point to 1997 since it was a very ripe year. I prefer the 1995s, followed by the 1996s (the grace of the wines was superb), with 1997 being the least interesting of the four. (I found some of the wines slightly over-ripe.) But I only reached this conclusion after the 1995s were already out in the marketplace for four years, in about 2003.

Why did I wait so long to make this judgment? Because judgements made too soon are fragile little china dolls and subject to break if mishandled. The 1997s, in 2003, were so opulent and seductive that even I liked them early on. But I believed that they were short-lived.

The 1998s, on the other hand, were roundly disparaged coming from a year in which rain in the spring caused an uneven set. The wines, said some of the number-scoring experts, were lighter and not very powerful.

Here we are 17 years after the vintage and wine makers up and down California point to the 1998s as a reason that no one should ever disparage a wine because its color isn’t “saturated,” in the argot of a famed Maryland wine seer.

I did not come here to bury the vintage chart, however. There are various validities that we can point to that make it clear that we have some verities the chart can address.

Take 2008 in northern Sonoma and southern Mendocino counties. Please.

Heavy forest fires that lasted for weeks raged along the border and created a horrid and lasting impact for the grapes, mainly the red grapes that were harvested with full impact from the smoke. Smoke damage was widespread and many wineries’ Wines were devastated by the smoke taint. Some called the smell “like licking a used ashtray.”

And this year, the fires along ridgelines in Napa and Lake Counties are doing the same thing. Some wineries are reporting the damage due to smoke to be even worse than it was in 2008 since the vintage this year is so early. Everything looks to be a month ahead of schedule.

So sure, vintages do have their consequences for consumers, but every year is different and the results are always open to interpretation.

This story was originally published September 2, 2015 3:42 PM.

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