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Early Criticism of 2003 Vintage May Be Flawed

by Sara and Monty Preiser

A few years ago The Wine Spectator opined that wines harvested in Napa and Sonoma in 1998 were of dubious quality, thereby effectively trashing a full year of work for hundreds of wineries and their thousands of employees. We have always believed the magazine’s writers and editors more properly should have stressed that certain winemaking practices might have succeeded in overcoming what was undisputedly a troubled year weather-wise, and thus produced at least some (and perhaps many) wines that would indeed bring pride to the industry. Instead, the publication left little, if any, margin of doubt about the lack of quality in an entire vintage – not trusting consumers to decide for themselves whether they liked any, all, or some of the 1998 bottlings.

In fact, this negative evaluation of an entire vintage still has an effect on the nation’s wine drinking practices, as least as far as red wines are concerned (most of the whites are gone). For example, airlines frequently serve 1998 vintage reds, and in the retail rooms of many wineries 1998 Cabernets remain in inventory even though the 1999 and sometimes the 2000 production is already sold out. In restaurants, 1998 bottles of cultish Cabernets are available for unheard of low prices because so many consumers refuse to order them when given the side by side choice of a 1997, 1999, 2000, and now a 2001.

The truth is that a good number of talented winemakers waited through the poor ripening conditions that hit California in the summer of 1998, and chose not to harvest their fruit until very late in the season. We now know that their patience and skill reaped benefits, as the delay allowed better climactic conditions to positively affect the ripeness and acidity of the grapes. Some 1998’s (e.g., the Mondavi and Frank Family Reserves) have aged “like fine wine” and are now drinking beautifully. Could the last laugh be on The Spectator?

Well, here we go again. While the 2002 Chardonnay releases have been hailed by The Spectator’s James Laube as perhaps the best of the past decade (the vintage scored a 99), he has been quite unkind to the state’s 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon production. However, an important distinction in his rating process existed as it relates to the two varietals. Mr. Laube tasted finished (and probably bottled) 2002 Chardonnays, while he only sampled young 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon components from barrels. Universally, each sample tasted from a barrel will be far different after it ages and, if the winemaker desires, after it undergoes some type of blending. Only then will this wine be completed.

To be more specific, much, if not most, of what is barrel tasted is from one small block (area) of a larger vineyard. This Cabernet Sauvignon will usually be later blended in one of a number of possible ways, such as with Cabs in other barrels from the same block, with Cabs in other barrels from the same vineyard, with Cabs from other barrels grown in many vineyards, or even with other varietals from almost anywhere. Further, sometimes the blend occurs early in the aging process, sometimes in the middle, and sometimes late. One can easily see the problem with a premature pronouncement indicting an entire vintage, especially when most of the wines won’t even see a bottle until early to late 2005.

For three weeks we tasted numerous 2003 barrel samples from many undisputed top producers – not 90 of them like Mr. Laube, but a statistically significant number. In a phrase, we thought the vintage to be potentially exciting and exhibiting great promise. Perhaps the 2 –3 months of aging between Mr. Laube’s tasting and ours made a difference. Perhaps we just sipped different wines from different producers. Perhaps our palates are just different. Whatever the reason(s), we believe the wines we sampled will be superb, with bright fruit in the mid palate, and plenty of spine and structure to integrate the fruit into a balanced finish. Some of our tasting notes are illustrative:

-Nickel & Nickel: This is a somewhat unique winery in that it only produces Cabernet Sauvignons of single vineyard designation (but, as we said, each of the barrels we tasted were only from a single block within each vineyard, and will later be mixed with the balance of the fruit from the vineyard). Branding Iron was full on the palate and showed red and black fruit with cranberries, Carpenter evidenced spice and a rich, earthy mouth feel, while the Sullenger reminded us of a cherry life saver with balanced tannins.

-Amizetta: The Vendetta showed hints of dark red fruit and chocolate, with a long finish,

-Harrison: Plums, truffles, and leather accompany black cherries from the Max Vineyard (named for the seemingly obligatory “wine dog”).

-Verasion: Deep and luscious -- we eagerly bought some futures.

-Ramey: The already blended Claret was, simply “Yum.” The Diamond Mountain was full of smooth yet chewy tannins with plenty of fruit to balance them out. And the Jericho Canyon, as always, tasted of black cherries and dark chocolate.

-Araujo: Lush black fruit and powerful chocolate with a coffee finish

-Pine Ridge: The Oakville showed nuances of blueberries, the Stag’s Leap District was packed with fruit bolstered by soft tannins, and the Andrus Reserve was Rutherford “dust” earthy with a black cherry finish.

-Darioush: Tannins and structure are illustrated in the Hillside, while The Estate vineyards are softer and show higher acid (the two will later be blended – a good example of what we have been saying).

-Grace Family: This winery is always a standard setter for the entire industry, and the wine is gorgeous this year as well.

-Pride: Rock Arch and Carolyn’s Vineyard show big, black, juicy fruit with sweet tannins.

-Kathryn Hall and Hall: Napa River Ranch has bright fruit, Briarstone showed dark intense fruit with chewy tannins, the Hall Estate was opulent, and between two Stagecoach blocks, we found juicy black fruit, blackberries, cedar, and smoke. The Sacreshe vineyard has incredible richness of fruit (like jelly) and smooth tannins.

-Flora Springs: Here is a winery that blends some of its grapes early, leaving a bit unblended for small changes later. Thus, a sampling cannot be thought to totally reflect the finished product. Nevertheless, each sip from the Napa Estate, Rutherford Reserve, Out of Sight, Holy Smoke, Wild Boar, and Trilogy Vineyards was terrific, with each reflecting its place. All the fruit was ripe and full, and the tannins promised longevity.

-Bremer Family: New, but extremely promising. Vineyards from Rutherford and Howell Mountain have extremely chewy, yet smooth, tannins, surrounding nicely favored fruit.

With all of this said, the wine industry itself (but not necessarily writers) needs to be careful not to criticize the 2003 Spectator ratings too loudly, lest it seem as if their complaints are disingenuous. It is of course difficult to credibly attack negative judgments, while simultaneously extolling the positive. If retail and tasting room personnel point out the Spectator’s headline announcing the achievement of stellar Chards to help them sell a 2002 Chardonnay, the same sales people can hardly throw away Mr. Laube’s opinion on 2003 Cabs with a nonchalant or “we don’t care” attitude.

The answer? Just give consumers the facts, and let them decide for themselves. That’s what it’s really all about in the long run anyway.

Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.

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