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Wednesday Warblings
Who Needs Vintage Dating? I Do, But Do My Neighbors?

By Charles Olken

That proposition, it seems to me, is self-evident. Rather than blending to a high level of quality, and at times accomplishing more than most winemakers can with single-vintage wines, the wineries have bought into the notion that virtually all wines priced higher than vin ordinaire should come with a vintage date. But do we care about most day-to-day bottlings? Who here can tell me the qualitative difference between Chateau St. Jean Sonoma County Chardonnay of the last five vintages? We cannot because we don’t care about wine at that level, and our neighbors care far less than we do.

Here is my problem. I just read an intelligent and amusing guest editorial over on Tim Atkin's blog, entitled “Who Needs Bordeaux Vintages?” *. Tim is English so his and his countrymen’s senses of humor are quite dry. No knee-slapping over there. Just well-reasoned, perfectly intoned logic that will make you smile knowingly. You could almost believe that the author actually believed what he was writing. And, frankly, I think perhaps he did because there is a very legitimate argument to be made for everyday wines, those costing $20 and less for most varieties, and maybe $40 for Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon and a couple of others, to be blends of vintages.

For one thing, we here in California, and maybe now in Bordeaux, rarely have bad vintages. We have significant vintage variation, of course, and those variations are still of great importance to the finest wines because we want them to be as good as good can get. Blended wines simply by definition are not ever going to be reach that standard. Never mind that the whole wine-writing industry might lose its purpose if there were no vintage variations.

But what of lesser vintages and lesser wines on the whole? I am guessing that Beaulieu, to choose a name of some significance, could make a better $25 Rutherford Cabernet on a continuing basis than they do now if they would blend wines from several vintages. Beaulieu might miss the occasional high that comes when the vintage is grand from top to bottom, but those vintages are rare even in California. Maybe once every three to six years or so. Maybe less depending on who is counting, and at what level one is measuring. Intelligent blending need not lead to mediocrity.

If one starts from the twin premises that wine is too expensive and that wine is inconsistent from vintage to vintage, then the continuing above-averageness of a blend that can make use of a cross-section of vintages and lots to achieve better balance, more complexity and more bang for the consumer dollar is far more desirable than putting a vintage date on everything priced more than $6.

The editorial over on Atkin's is decidedly tongue-in-cheek, but it is also a serious complaint about the way in which vintage affects most of the wines that the world drinks on a daily basis. My neighbors know nothing about vintage variations. They just drink what they drink. Why then should their $15 tipple have a vintage and be subject to vintage vagaries when the winery could make a perfectly fine, priceworthy bottling with far less variation?

Do go read the Robert Joseph guest editorial. He is not advocating that we do away with vintage. He knows better, even in a world in which Bordeaux has already experienced five vintages of the decade and at least two vintages of the century. His article is a great read and is thoughtfully amusing. It also serious journalism in its own right because it is not nearly as easily dismissed as its humorous side might make it seem.



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Robert Joseph
by Ron Washam, HMW
Posted on:3/20/2013 9:39:17 AM

Hi Charlie,

I just had a few beers with Robert Joseph last Thursday in Healdsburg. He and I are two of the "hired guns" over at Tim Atkin's blog, and we're both enjoying it immensely. Robert is quite the British character, very funny, with a satirical streak the size of my own, and a long and distinguished career in wine. You'd have loved him.

So you can be sure that his tongue was firmly in his cheek when he wrote the Atkin piece, and that he also meant every word he wrote. That's how satire works, when it works. And, yup, it's a very smart piece and worth everyone's attention.

Comedy Is To Be Taken Seriously
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/20/2013 11:03:04 AM

Hello Ron--

Reading the R. Joseph piece immediately brought to mind our conversations about uses of the comic spirit. Sometimes comedy just makes us laugh. But comedy has often had a serious side--by poking fun at topics and people.

This comedic "poking" has long roots, back to Aristophanes and maybe beyond that--back several thousand years further to the time when people began to live together in groups.

The Joseph piece is gentle satire, and it may be aimed as much at the several "vintages of the decade" exoerienced in Bordeaux' last decade, but it carries, as good satire must, more than a grain of truth.

He does not expect, and I also do not expect, vintage dating to disappear. But, it is at least arguable that it is an unneeded conceit for inexpensive wines to be vintage dated.

AN ASIDE TO MY READERS: For those who may not know, Ron Washam is the creative genius behind the occasionally raucously funny satiric wine blog called "Hosemaster of Wine", Go read it, if you do not already, if you have even the slightest hint of a funny bone in your body.


Copy and paste from Word does not work
by CGCW Support
Posted on:3/21/2013 12:57:42 PM

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There is something about copy and paste from Microsoft Word that causes the post to become problematic. The end result is that your post isn't shown, AND others cannot post until we delete your post from "inside".

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Multi vintage wines work
by Austin Hope
Posted on:3/21/2013 1:59:34 PM

Good post Charlie- we couldn't agree more. In the last five years, we've launched two brands (Candor & Troublemaker) that speak to your point. We don't have bad vintages in California; we only have slight variations, but certainly not throw-away vintages. By blending vintages together, we can make a wine that's ready to drink now. Our thought is that by blending a younger wine that exhibits bright youthful qualities (great acid and juiciness) with aged wine that has more complex mature characteristics, we get a more consistent product that is better for the consumer. For wines that are under $20, vintage shouldn't matter, but quality should. We don't call them non-vintage, but multi-vintage. We hold ourselves accountable by using lot

Multi-Vintage Controls
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/21/2013 2:11:16 PM


Thanks for hanging in and finally getting your comments up.

If the industry ever goes back to multi-vintage bottlings of significance, then we will need a more complete discussion about how to differntiate them.

It looks like you were about to elaborate on your use of lot numbers. I would endorse that system wholeheartedly and can point to several multi-vintaged wines with identifiers whose grand character made them the darlings of their time.

The topic of lot identification needs also to be applied today to sparkling wine. Most sparkling wines made in the methode champenoise are very close to single vintage, but of course, they are not identified that way--or in any other manner.

In order to review those wines every Holiday season, we acquire fresh stock from the producers on the assumption that those will be the bottles in stock when people are actively buying $20 sparkling wine. There would be very little cost to the industry to put an indicator of some sort on the label and to somehow inscribe the disgorgement date for those wines that are disgorged over a period of up to a year.

In a related matter, when wineries like Robt Mondavi or Kendall-Jackson or so many others make many bottlings of their wines throughout the year, often with changes in the makeup of the wines, they should also disclose the change in lot with some form of inidicator.

Obviously, you are following some kind of open path with your wines. I have not yet tasted them, but I like the concept.

Lot numbers
by Austin Hope
Posted on:3/21/2013 2:22:41 PM

Yes, lot

by Sherman
Posted on:3/23/2013 12:38:18 PM

The houses in Champagne have been making the antithesis of vintage-dated, single-vineyard designated wines for centuries and people sing their praises, along with spending quite a bit per bottle to enjoy them.

Being ITB as a sales rep for a mid-sized regional distributor, I have a few wineries in the book that produce non-vintage blends of perfectly satisfying and affordable wines that meet the flavor needs of most consumers. When I present these wines to accounts, there is a certain amount of bias that we have to get by before the buyers will even taste the wines. The fact that they are generally quite affordable (and good candidates for by-the-glass programs) gets them tasted.


Perhaps we should just charge more and hype the image, a la Champagne? ;)

Charge More
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/23/2013 1:38:01 PM

Nothing would change the landscape faster than if a bunch of Napa houses whose Cabs are too expensive would put together quality-tasting non-vintage blends, identified them by lot numbers, perhaps with a blurb on the back to the extent that the label folks would allow and brought them to market for less than their entry level Cabs.

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