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98: Not a Great Year For Wine in CA

by Sara & Monty Preiser

We'd like to call attention to the large number of recent studies confirming moderate wine consumption as an aid to overall wellness. Since medical research now dictates the value of wine, you should love reading wine columns more than ever. Most of us know about the value to the heart, but (and this is amazing) the Wine Spectator reports that according to scientists at Oregon State University, the components contained in white wine have been found to kill E. Coli and salmonella. Thus, an anti-bacterial white wine spray should soon be on the market (but because one cannot sell wine to miners, 1.5% salt will be added to make the wine undrinkable). So you see, if you gotta consume wine to be healthy, you might as well learn about what you're drinking, and drink the best. Of course, we're here to help.

Now that you can easily find California red and white vintages post 1998 (though usually lots of this vintage's wines remain available as they are not selling well), perhaps it is time for a comment on that most difficult year. Wine Spectator senior editor James Laube has said that 1998 was the worst year of the 1990's for California vintners, and many wine writers and wine lovers have agreed. Not surprisingly, the industry did not. The marketing line from the vintners was relatively uniform and took two tracts:
-Firstly, they contended that while 1998 weather was indeed bad, winemakers were nevertheless able to produce good wines. And while they may not have been as good as some other outstanding years, they were still wonderful.
-Secondly, many vintners and their advertising agencies went on the offensive and attacked the critics, most notably Mr. Laube.

As to the first contention, we think we can say with a great degree of finality that some 1998 wines were good, and some were quite hard to drink. Very few reached the level of excellence. However (and this is the important point if you are a casual wine buyer), because of the bad press and relatively poor year, lots of wine is available and you can find terrific bargains on some nice wines if you know which 1998s to buy. So much is unsold that some of the most "impressive" labels are available at discount houses such as Costco. Yet there were in fact knowledgeable winemakers who were able to withstand the economic or marketside pressure to harvest too soon, and, thus, by allowing a bit more growing time, they produced some good products. Yes, it will take some research to find out when the fruit was harvested and how the wine rates (for 1998 especially we would look at the opinion of a cross section of writers), but for one who does his or her research, some good finds await in the red category (it's about too late for 1998 whites - we don't recommend their purchase at this point).

We tasted from a majority of California wineries and found some very good 1998 reds and whites made by some of the state's most reliable and recognized winemakers. We also found some usual stalwart producers whose 1998 vintage we found lacking, such as Silver Oak, Spottswood, Gary Farrell, Rochioli, St. Francis, and Grgich Hills.

As to the criticism of the writers by the producers, it is safe to say that these were the same writers whose opinions were extolled in 1997 when they pronounced that vintage to be the best in ten years. Actually, it probably was, and all signs and tastings for 1999 and 2000 show that California wines have bounced back well from 1998. We all look forward to 2001, and 2002 (according to our contacts) could be stellar. Big harvests (which might also make for good consumer prices) were the rule in the fall.

Perhaps a word about the cost of wine. The fact that most wineries increased their wine prices between 1997 and 1998 (and then again in 1999) led, first, to some focused criticism by writers, and, second, to some actual introspection by the industry. Prices had been raised almost every year prior to 1998, and the producers and vintners defended the raises by pointing out the improving quality of the wine each year. But even though all in the industry recognized (even if they did not admit it publicly) a down year, prices did not drop, or even remain the same for the most part. Almost uniformly, costs per bottle were up.

Finally it seems the industry has become cognizant of the consumers' concerns about the rising costs of California wines. They also see the consumers' willingness to buy less expensive, but often excellent products, from Washington, Oregon, Italy, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand. Perhaps we can all look for some sanity in pricing in the years ahead. If not, nearly every state in the union is entering the competition - some with surprisingly excellent results.

So we leave you with our thoughts that all things being equal, when purchasing California wines avoid the 1998 vintage unless you know the wine and can buy it at a good price. Hunting for them, as for any bargain, should be fun.


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.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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