The Vintage Rating Dilemma

The Vintage Rating Dilemma

Vintage ratings are based on barrel samples, but a wine in barrel is the equivalent of a baby in the crib. Who knows what it will grow up to be?

In our February 2004 issue, the Vintage Chart contained a typographic error. The 2001 Cabernet vintage in the North Coast was rated 87 when it should have been 95. That mistake has now been corrected, but in the meantime I, and the New York-based editors, received a number of letters, phone calls and e-mails that sparked this column. Some interesting issues were raised, and I thought they were substantive enough to take up in some depth.

The first issue is on vintage ratings in general, especially for Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends. The first time we at Wine Enthusiast, or anyone else for that matter, taste any given vintage, it’s from barrel samples. This provides an instructive glimpse into the vintage’s potential quality, but it’s also just a snapshot of the wine at that time. A wine in barrel is the equivalent of a baby in the crib. Who knows what it will grow up to be? It’s fine to make general assessments of a vintage based on barrel samples, but it’s obvious that it’s much safer to hold your judgment until the wines have been bottled.

There’s another problem with barrel samples, especially in Napa Valley. The valley’s earliest barrel tasting is Premiere Napa Valley, which is held in the February following the vintage. Everyone in the trade goes, and this is the first indication of the vintage’s quality.
The barrels that wineries display at Premiere Napa Valley are not, however, their regular bottlings. Instead, they’re special, one-of-a-kind wines, meant to be sold for high prices at auction. Thus, they’re the absolutely best wine the wineries can produce, and are likely to be better than the overall quality of the valley’s wines. So they are not the most reliable indicators of the vintage. Word of mouth can spread quickly about how good some of these barrels are, and some credulous souls may apply that praise to the entire harvest.

So, again, it’s better to wait until the wines are bottled. But in the case of Cabernet and Bordeaux blends, California’s most important wineries wait for three years before bottling, and many hold off for four years. In the case of 2001, that means that some of the most important wines won’t even be released until 2005. At this point (early February 2004), I’ve only tasted about 60 bottled Cabernets from 2001, out of another thousand yet to come. Of those, I’ve given a score of 90 or higher to only three. You can see that we’re dealing with very incomplete data. As more and more wines come out, our vintage assessment will become increasingly connected to reality. The knowledge buildup, in other words, is cumulative.

Another thing to consider is that in Wine Enthusiast’s vintage chart, we score for the entire North Coast—Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties—and not just Napa Valley. Maybe we should have a separate Napa Valley Cabernet rating. If you readers have any feelings about this, we’d love to hear from you.

Something else to consider is related to a comment by Gerry, one of my e-mail correspondents confused by the Vintage Chart type error: “I heard from California wine producers, and in other publications, that the 2001 release of Cabernet was supposed to be special.” Well, I hate to shatter anyone’s illusions, but you can’t always trust what wine producers tell you. This is especially true when these spin-savvy businessmen and women are talking to the media, and perhaps never more true than when the subject is the latest vintage. To hear them, you’d think every year is the vintage of the century. To compound this problem, some lazy writers merely quote winemakers on vintages, without bothering to do much tasting on their own and find out the truth. The public is then fed inaccurate, secondhand or misleading information.

Finally, the reputation of the producer is at least as important as the vintage. You can have a very great vintage, such as 1999 was for Cabernet Sauvignon, in which a vintner who’s less diligent produces a mediocre wine. Or you can have a so-so vintage, like 2000, in which producers like Pride, Stags’ Leap Winery and Joseph Phelps released outstanding Cabernets because of painstaking attention to detail. It should be obvious, but a 95-rated vintage does not mean that everyone produced a 95-point wine.

Having said all this, I don’t want anyone to think we’re blowing smoke when we issue our Vintage Chart. We’re careful to remind readers that it is intended only as a general guideline. Still, it does represent our collective knowledge of the wine regions of the world, and we work hard on it. We revise it each year as new information comes in, because we want readers to know they can trust it. And we promise not to make any more typographic errorz.

Published on May 1, 2004

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