The Myth of Vintage

You’ve been there, haven’t you? Wine is poured. Swirls then sniffs are initiated. Sips ensue, and the owner of the wine pronounces it outstanding. But, of course, it is, he or she notes; it’s a ’95. Or a ’99. Or an ’05. Or whatever.


Yes, it has to be good because it’s from a good year. And that is the final word on the subject.


I know why the owner of the bottle proclaims its worth: they likely paid a tidy sum for the juice. I also know why everyone who is sipping the wine buys into the thought: they want to appear knowledgeable and appreciative. And then there are the winery owners, the journalists, the shopkeepers, the restaurant sommeliers, all of whom have a stake in perpetuating the idea that this wine from this place, harvested during this particular year, is well worth your time and hard-earned money.


Maybe yes. Maybe no.


A number of years ago the winemakers from California became very defensive when tongues at the international level noted that since the weather patterns in California are pretty consistent, what weather brings to any particular vintage is pretty much the same from year to year. The point: vintages really don’t matter in California.


Those thoughts, and their opposing arguments, have resonated throughout the industry and given rise to more than one heated discussion, usually after a good bit of the beverage in question has been consumed. Read a little more about that in this recent blog post.


Of course, weather patterns are not the same from year to year in any given place, and there is sometimes quite a wide variation given temperatures during the growing season, rains and their timing, hail, sunshine days, as well as fog influences. Europe has more diversity from year to year, but California also has swings in patterns. It does not take much to have an influence on the final outcome of a winegrape’s growing season. Such events can make a pretty good vintage into a great one, and vice versa.


Still, in the main, California enjoys steady weather from April all the way through to October, and maybe even November. It’s a big state, however. What happens to the north in Napa or Sonoma, may not have any real meaning 400-500 miles to the south in Santa Barbara or Temecula.


And in the grand scheme of things, timing is often more important than event. Should cool weather occur in late August, that temperature dip usually, simply, only prolongs the time the grapes will spend on the vine awaiting proper ripening. Not a big problem. Should hail occur in May, that unfortunate circumstance can severely damage a crop and since you only get one harvest a year, the winemaker will be cooling his heels until another year and the opportunity for another vintage rolls in.  


But all the discussion about whether vintages in California are important or not has missed a central point, it seems to me, and that has more to do with the new realities of the winemaking business, its marketing and the talents of those who convert the sugars in the fruit to alcohol.


First of all, you should know, just in case you don’t, there is very little bad wine being made today. There may be wine made that you personally don’t like, but it’s not bad. It’s just not for you. The difference between the quality of wines as measured on a well-done to not-so-much scale is actually pretty narrow. In the entire 6,000 year history of wine, it has never been narrower between the top of the heap and the top of the bottom-range.


The eternal question of whether you should purchase a $120 bottle of fine wine, or three $40 bottles, is further away from an answer today than it has ever been. Even paying $40 for a bottle of wine puts you in possession of some pretty good juice.


So why pay more than necessary to get the kind of good wine you want? The answers to those questions lie with you. Are you a collector? Do you like to bring out very, very nice things and impress your friends? Are you a “super taster” and can tell the difference? More importantly, does it matter a great deal to you? Do you have the luxury of living at the top of the totem pole and you really don’t care about the cost?


How you answer those questions is important…to you. Bottom line: do what you want that makes you happy. Period.


As for the continuing discussion about vintages, whenever there is a not-as-good-as-we’d-like harvest in California, or anywhere, the winemakers go to work to find something to bolster the structure, quality, taste, aromas, quantity, or whatever it is that keeps the vintage from being all that the winemaker wants. Additives, sometimes even chemicals, are brought to the fore. Processes are altered. Aging is reconsidered. Release dates are massaged. Other grapes are considered in order to construct a blend that is commercially appealing. Or any of a whole list of other avenues that winemakers can follow to make the best product with what they have been given to work with.


These alternative paths are usually implemented by the winemaker, in conjunction with the marketing group and the winery’s owners, so that whatever hits the retailer’s shelves is something in which the winery can take pride. It may not be as great as if Mother Nature had provided a perfect season, but it won’t be as bad as what would have been the outcome without intervention.


And that’s the bottom line with vintages. Some are better than others because of all the factors involved in the natural growth and fermentation cycle of the wine. But, for the most part, none of the vintages from the New World countries, are going to be “dogs.” Commercial success is an important part of winemaking. Sometimes the winemaker can step back and let the whole operation roll towards a natural and wonderful conclusion with minimal interference.


Sometimes they work their asses off just to get to something respectable. More often than not, the results of a growing season are not the biggest deals. It’s the talent of the winemaker whose work allows you to sip the final product and proclaim it a gift from nature. Maybe. Maybe not.


But who cares as long as the juice is pleasing and we share it with good friends?



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