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Tuesday Tributes
Repent and Be Saved, the End is Near... or Not

By Stephen Eliot

“Rains Ruin California Vintage!”, “California's 2011 Vintage Poses Key Dilemmas” “Harvest Report: Challenges Continue for Grapegrowers”, and “Hurray for California's ‘Bad’ 2011 Vintage!” These are just a few of the headlines among many of late that introduce “reports” from the field in this tardy and most problematic vintage. Some of the stories behind those headlines are thoughtful, some are just silly and some turn out to be the same old whines from those with axes that seem to need endless grinding.

I confess to being a little alarmed and surprised, however, with some in the latter camp who are so convinced that California has lost its way that they find their own special rapture in the saving silver lining of a potentially dismal vintage that to them will spell the end of the ripe “California” style. It is deus ex machina! A crappy vintage will save us, we hear. No more problems with high alcohol and overripe flavors! At last, we can be European! Well folks, as Adam Lee of Siduri Wines and others who actually grow grapes and make wine have articulately pointed out, lesser sugars and stunted ripeness do not necessarily ensure the “refinement”, “nuance” and the oh-so-elusive “freshness” so often cited as being the missing ingredients in our supposedly, sadly flawed local product.

The debate and conjectures of just what the vintage might mean are rife with philosophical meaning. All the usual rants are once again given voice, and a few powerful critics are blamed for leading the industry and wine-drinking public astray. The promise of California’s golden age, when wines were so much lower in alcohol, we are reminded, has been betrayed.

I wonder, as I generally do when the next new round of such lamentations and blame commences, just how many wine drinkers are truly looking to be saved. Did wines get riper and richer because of certain popular and powerful critics, or did those critics becomes popular and powerful because they recognized what people actually like? Are the popular critics the cause or the result of a taste for wines born of California sun?

I do not happen to believe that consumers are fools. Yes, there will always be those who seek out trophy wines solely on the basis of high scores and prices, but from designer clothing to automobiles and fountain pens, the “I only buy the best” mentality is endemic. In the end, most folks ultimately buy what they like, and I do take issue with those who claim that the problem is really that consumers do not know what they like, that they need to be educated, enlightened and saved. I do not see any difference in playing to the fear of buying a low-scoring wine or to the insecurity of being made to feel that you are wrong.

I happen to enjoy wines with firm structures and detail, and yet I also take pleasure in a “big red” now and then and believe there are dishes that demand wines of real authority, richness and weight. At the same time, I am no fan of low-acid, high pH, 16.0% alcohol, hotter-than-hell wines that burn as they slowly ooze down the throat. Still, I am not going to tell anyone else that they are an idiot if that is just what they like.

In the end, I am certain there will be both good wines and bad made in 2011. There are in every vintage. It will depend on the variety, the place and the winemaker as well as on the fickle fate of the farmer. That is always the case. There is no question but that great years are responsible for more of the good stuff that the bad, but smugly seeing salvation in the rains and the cold is all a little too much unblinking, true-believer nonsense for me. Equally troubling are ivory-tower conclusions that it is up to the winemaker to “shift their styles away from in-your-face-fruit” as the path to making “dramatic, vintage-specific wines with potentially long lives”. I guess that means then, that if you fail in 2011, it will be your fault. To paraphrase one Mr. Herman Cain, do not blame the weather, blame yourself.

A cool summer and early rains will not turn Sonoma into the Cote d’Or nor Napa Valley into Pauillac. I do not know why we should hope that they would. California is, well, California. A difficult vintage will not make converts of those who appreciate Californian wines, in all of their variety, for what they are. I tip my hat to the winemakers in 2011. I appreciate that a good many have their work cut out for them in 2011, and I wish them the best. The winemaker, however, who says “as for the dumb sh!t who wants a big red, gas up your SUV and pray for global warming” proves that every rule has its exception.


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direct hit
by Alan Baker
Posted on:10/26/2011 11:10:01 AM

Thank you Stephen.

I've been lucky these past two challenging vintages by simple luck of vineyard location... up until yesterday when we picked Pinot that was inching up above 22 Brix. Bears got about half the fruit, and Bot set in on 50% of what was left. (Pinot picked Oct 25?!) I'm optimistic about what went to tank but I've been reading the same words you have thinking I'd love to point out challenging conditions do not equal subtle nuanced wines but then it might sound like I'm trumpeting big CA reds rather than just trying to coax the best wines I can from the grapes.

Those writing articles that sing the praises of cold summers and early rains will easily find wines that reinforce their position but then, they can find them from EVERY vintage. It's just easier to pen an opinion piece that lacks substance than to work to enlighten folks about how great wine is made, so we're going to see them forever.

Alan Baker, Cartograph Wines

Re: Direct Hit
by Stephen Eliot
Posted on:10/27/2011 1:54:38 AM

Just trying to coax the best wines you can from the grape? Yes, and most every conscientious winemaker I know would say the same thing. The preception of style and what what is best, is another thing all together.

 I do, however, get a little tired of those in the "big is wrong" crowd who seem unable to comment on anything without having to make the same point all over again. It just struck me that praising a difficult vintage as a path to better wines was short-sighted and silly.

Thanks for your comments, Alan, and good luck to you in this most challenging year.

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