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Tasting 2011 Rutherford Cabernets—And Living To Tell About It

By Charles Olken

You would have thought that the 2011 vintage—the one with rain at inopportune times by California standards, such as in June and late September—was a total disaster by the early reports coming out of the North Coast. I will spare you the minutiae about rain levels, specific picking dates, the ripening curve and everything else that went into making the sad reputation of this vintage. Suffice it to say that comparisons to lesser years like 1998, 1989, 1977 and 1972 were flying like mad yesterday up in Napa at the annual Rutherford Dust Society tasting.

Early in my wine collecting, I learned that Napa Valley was a code name for California wine for much of the world. And that the fate of Napa’s Cabernet Sauvignon pretty much defined what people thought of as vintage variation. And, of course, it was Rutherford (most particularly the West Rutherford Bench, which, in truth extends as far south as Yountville and as far north as St. Helena) that most often defined what the world thought of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. That calculus, rightly or wrongly, still has much to do with how we look at California wine today.

So, it was off to Rutherford yesterday for the tasting that I always look forward to as much as anything on my wine calendar. Knowing that we were tasting 2011s lowered my expectations. After all, at CGCW, we have been tasting 2011s of all stripes for some time now and we know that the vintage, while not as awful as initially reported by the wine press, is still one of the lesser lights in the vintage chandelier.

I am going to make this short because the introductory paragraphs above already tell much of the tale. Despite happy talk, as one would expect of an industry-produced tasting, the vintage is just not good enough. Too many weak wines with less “middle” than needed and shorter finishes than expected. And that’s the good news.

No, just kidding. The good news is that the wines were reasonably well-focused. They tasted of the variety and many of them tasted of the wished-for Rutherford richness. They were not a bad lot, and some of them were pretty good. There are better wines yet than the ones on display at the morning sit-down tasting, and some of them were arrayed around the room in the afternoon. We know about these wines because we do not need to go to Rutherford to get our first glimpses of the vintage. That is what we do day in and day out at our own tasting tables.

There are those who have suggested that the lower alcohols of 2011 are harbingers of things to come. That may be true for some wineries, but it will not be true for all for a couple of reasons. While there will be those who push the envelope in terms of vineyard preparation, picking dates, the use of adjuncts like oak flour in the fermenter to absorb certain less desirable flavors, there are still others who prefer to let mother nature dictate when to pick. And Mother Nature, who is so kind to California most of the time, does like to ripen Cabernet Sauvignon at higher potential alcohol levels than in some other parts of the world. That equation is difficult to overcome if the wineries want to maintain the same flavor profile that they have historically achieved.

Blame global warming or healthy vines or trellising systems or overly efficient yeasts if you will, but we have seen this story for the four decades over which we have been reporting on California wine and it is unchanged today regardless of desire to moderate the alcohols levels. That does not say the wineries are not trying to do what they can with canopy variations, watering regimes and even clonal selections that are less vigorous.

Ultimately, vintages like 2011 are going to produce less bold wines that are lower in alcohol. What it has not produced, and Steve Eliot and I probed the winemakers at great length on this, is a radical rethinking of ripeness levels. A little bit, yes, but an attempt to beat Mother Nature at her own game, no.

The vintage is what it is. Maybe a bit better than first reported, but weaker than average. Wineries in Napa have the manpower and the financial flexibility to “work” the grapes in the vineyard, at picking and as they arrive in the winery in order to make the winemakers’ jobs less challenging, but, in the final analysis, 2011 still forced the winemakers into strategies that has left them with better than expected results given the early reports, but results nonetheless that are the products of a less than good year.

Finally, please remember that vintage reports such as this are broad brush looks. Individual wines vary substantially, and selectivity will still give you far better wines than the average. It is just going to take a fair bit more of that selectivity with the Cabernets of 2011.


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