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Thursday Trials and Tribulations
Diversity and Vintage Variation Make The Vinous World Go Round

By Stephen Eliot

It is easy enough to start feeling a bit jaundiced when you taste some five-thousand wines a year, and we admit that there are days when what we do is closer to work than to pleasure. Still, new insights and sometimes striking surprises come our ways most every day, and, for the most part, we are as excited today about the next new crop of wines as we were when starting out some forty years back. Short of pitching for the Giants or the Red Sox, we can think of few better ways to have earned a living.

There are new wines from new producers arriving daily on our doorstep, and the vinous landscape seems to change with each and every vintage. I have little sympathy with those who complain that the world of wine has become boring as everyone rushes to make the same wine from the same grapes, and, while I enthusiastically welcome new varieties and choices, diversity and the very future of fine wine does not depend on a parade of obscure grapes, a good many of which I rather suspect have historically been relegated to obscurity for a reason. Those who actually believe that every Chardonnay, every Cabernet Sauvignon, every Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir taste exactly alike -- and from my perspective of tasting a great many they surely do not -- strike me as being far too easily bored.

We have often acknowledged that we as wine critics sometimes live in a world of small differences, but the differences are real, and they are not always so small. There are, as I said, endless surprises, and a constant source of them is the way in which vintage leaves its indelible and varied mark on every wine.

There has always been a very real danger of assuming that vintage affects every wine in the same way. There are exceptions to any rule, and there is special wisdom to that simple notion when the conversation turns vintage here in California. While the effects of vintage are palpably evident in smaller, well-defined districts of Europe where most every vintner works with the same grapes, it must be remembered that California grows most every variety in most every place and that the north-to-south boundary of our great vineyards spans a distance roughly equivalent to that from the Loire Valley to Sicily.

The dictates of climate in Santa Barbara or the Sierra Foothills or either side of the Santa Cruz Mountains can be and usually are vastly different than they are in Sonoma or Napa in any given year. And, of course, making blanket assumptions about the success or shortcomings of any vintage must further address just which grape is under consideration. What is good for Pinot is not necessarily the same for Cabernet, et al.

Still, we all make vintage judgments even if at the same time making all of the necessary face-saving caveats, but I sometimes wonder if we make them too soon. Two good cases in point and ones that have been the source of significant surprises are the 2011 and 2012 vintages here in California.

There is no question that the very cool 2011 harvest was by most accounts a difficult one. While trumpeted by some as a vintage a seminal importance certain to put California on the path to new success by way of nuance and subtlety, it was hard to find many smiling faces among those actually grew the grapes and made the wine. In general, we have found the wines of 2011 to be limited in expression and understated at times to a fault, yet we have also been surprised at just how many very good wines there are to be had, and it would be a mistake to summarily write off the vintage. We have, for example, most recently tasted a host of remarkable Zinfandels, a grape that was supposed to be especially handicapped in 2011, and some, such as those from Ravenswood and Ridge, are wonderful wines by any measure.

On the other hand, 2012 on the label, despite being universally praised, does not de facto guarantee beauty, and we have seen a fair share of recently released under-performers. Admittedly, a good many of the 2012s that have come to market are lower-priced bottlings, but one of the marks of a truly stellar vintage has always been the success shared by modest wines and great ones alike, success that up until now has been sporadic at best in Chardonnay, for example.

Now, we confess that we have a long way to go, that there many hundreds of wines to be tasted before useful conclusions can be reached. The picture will be slow to fill in, but fill in it will, and we are certain that there will surprises aplenty to come. We cannot wait to find them. They are, after all, what keeps our vinous world turning.


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