Chatter Matters: The 2011 Vintage and Key Conversations
As the California grape harvest begins to move into its final phases, it appears that this could be a year when grape sugars come in significantly lower, particularly for late ripening grapes like Cabernet. This in turn means we may be in for 2011 Cabs with lower alcohols. If this does occur, look for an industry-wide discussion asking, "Is this harvest good for Californian wine?" If fact, it seems this discussion has already begun with this fine peice at WineSpectator.com by Tim Fish and Augustus Weed and with this article at the SF Chronicle by Jon Bonne.
Now, I say "could" because I'm not yet convinced that we will see significantly lower sugars. It's entirely possible the next couple of weeks could be steady low 80s temperatures like today. This would work wonders. Average temps for this time of year are in the mid 70s to high 70s.
For many years now there has been a slow and steady drumbeat of opinion that California wines, and particularly Cabernets, have become too big, too soft, too alcoholic, too extracted. And many vintners have responded by either talking about or implementing a program to bring more balance back to the category. If 2011 is a vintage of lower sugars and lower natural alcohol levels it will be interesting to see if California vintners choose dip into the concentrate container to try to bring the style back to what have been perceived norms. Or, will they work with what they have and lead a move, beginning seriously with 2011, to move the style of California's wines back to what is perceived by many to be "balance".
What's interesting to contemplate is what would be the impact of a significant amount of chatter and writing and talk that advocates a loosening of the belt where California wines are concerned. Chatter matters.
In this case, what would matter is media and vintners and trade publicly weighing in on and advocating that California vintners take the opportunity of less ripeness to demonstrate that balanced, complex, structured wines can be produced under California skies. Stylistic changes and winemaking trends move much more slowly than they do in the beer and spirits industry. The opportunity to move winemaking styles one way or another occur once per year. Beer and spirits styles can be pushed this way or that at any time, regardless of the month or seasons. That's why 2011 could represent a seminal moment in the course of California winemaking…if winemakers consider the opportunity, if they are encouraged to do so and if it appears they will be championed for their efforts.
While most won't be tasting the 2011 Cabs and Syrahs until they have been in barrel for a while, winemakers will know within weeks what kind of vintage style they will have on ther hands and they will need to make decisions here rather quickly. That means if any kind of an industry-wide conversation is to take hold and if vintners are to be encouraged to try something different, rather than try to "fix" and push the vintage using odds and ends and additions, that conversation has to take place soon.
No one should underestimate the courage it would take for, say, a Napa Valley Cabernet producer of note to make a stylistic change dictated by the vintage. Napa Cabernet works. No varietal brand in America is more important, watched closer or celebrated more frequently. It's hard to find well regarded Napa Cab that comes in under $50. That's a testament to the success of Napa Cabernet and the style it has been made in for the past 20 years. Why change things up now? Why not make the effort in the cellar, if necessary, to use the various tools to push the 2011 bottlings as close to what they have been? It makes monetary sense and that means it makes sense for the consumer.
But the consumer is easily guided down any number of paths. If winemakers and the trade want to see California wines evolve into something less stylistically extravagant, consumers will follow…as long as they are carefully guided.
What should be noted, however, is the potential for conflict if winemakers heard a call for something new and took the opportunity of the 2011 vintage to heed the call. Were America's top wine critics and publications to pan the 2011 wines for their lightness, while at the same time the trade and the chattering class celebrated the move, we can see the winemakers' efforts go down in flames since, as always happens, the most important critics will be quoted by the mainstream, non-winemaking press and the vintage will be ranked a failure it the general public's eyes. Nothing would stop the move in its tracks faster than this.
Still, its very interesting times with interesting possibilities for California wine. A discussion, at least, should ensue.