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The Vagaries of Vintage

I had a difficult year in 2002. Ever try to get a refund for a lobotomy? I should have known something was wrong when I walked out of the hospital with antlers. But my neighbors had a terrific vintage—they moved, though it meant they couldn’t use me to dry their laundry. Different experiences in the same year.

Vintages can be very misleading. The press declares a vintage great, or terrible, and every winery in Napa and Sonoma, and even Mendocino, is painted with that same brush. It is never that simple. In Napa, for example, the vintage is usually rated by the wineries on the valley floor. In 1998, it was wet, and the vintage was considered mediocre in the Rutherford and Oakville appellations. Yet up in the surrounding hills, Howell Mountain and Spring Mountain, the Cabernets were fantastic, and are still wonderful wines. But the mountain wineries suffered, had a hard time selling their wines, from the vintage being declared a poor one.

Even in very challenging vintages, like 2010 in Northern California, there will be certain grape varieties that actually do beautifully. Grapes ripen at different times and under different conditions, weeks and weeks apart. When the virulent heat spell hit in 2010, the Sauvignon Blanc had already been picked and was gorgeous. The heat was merciless on Zinfandel in Dry Creek Valley on the valley floor, but most of the hilltop vineyards were spared from the sunburn that raisined the fruit at the lower elevations. So don’t discount every 2010 Zinfandel simply because it’s from 2010.

Simply put, there are great wines in vintages declared below average, and there are lousy wines produced in vintages labeled great. Grapes are not lugnuts. I found this out the hard way. The vintage on a bottle has meaning, but often less than you think. The only genuine test is to taste it without prejudice. That’s what wine professionals try to do.

I have to go now. I’m late for my job as a hat rack.

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