Chatter Matters: The 2011 Vintage and Key Conversations

ChatterersWe are on the verge of a discussion that could turn out to be of some import.

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 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.

5 Responses

  1. George - October 18, 2011

    If the sugar levels are lower it will be interesting to see what the winemakers produce. People are getting a little cautious about higher alcohol levels in wine generally.

  2. Edible Arts - October 18, 2011

    It isn’t obvious why vintners in Napa should be striving to make the same wine even in less troublesome vintages. There are exceptions, of course, but quality Napa Cabs tend to exhibit very similar stylistic features. While that may be good for branding the region–as you point out they are clearly doing something right–in the long run some diversity might make Napa more interesting to a public that increasingly seeks diverse experiences. Although it may take courage for vintners to buck trends, it is a way to make a particular wine stand out in a very competitive market. Wine preferences continually change. The preference for highly extracted, alcoholic wines is unlikely to remain a fixed point.

  3. JohnLopresti - October 18, 2011

    Shorter life binned in the wine cellar on customer premises.
    Quicker time to market from winery.
    Committee redesign of balance.
    Lab assessment of full complement of resources in the fruit as harvested; and, as TomW observed, depending on the nice 80-degrees-plus sequence of days in the sultry offing this indian summer on northcoast.
    Ancillary blend products: cabernet BEAUJOLAIS! Oui!
    Cost outlay augmentation to hedge predicted final brix at harvest: hurry, communicate with your closest limousin oak provider. This cuvee needs to extract fast. And then? Make it to market at an even more elevated pricepoint in 2013? Make that $60.
    How about some funny experiments with different tannin balances?
    All just thoughts that are out of date, perhaps.

  4. Joe Herrig - October 18, 2011

    The wines that will be taken seriously and given acclaim will be the ones perceived to have been made out of what nature gave the winemakers…
    …well, at least those are the ones I’ll give acclaim 🙂

  5. Oscar Quevedo - October 26, 2011

    Well said Joe. If the nature gave lower sugar to the grapes, a serious winemaker should avoid concentrations or adding sugar to make the wine bigger and more alcoholic. Specially now that the consumer is looking for elegance rather than power.

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