In the inverted pyramid of wine enthusiasm, the first question is often, “Red or white?” Then, with each step of experience, we dive into grape varieties, particulars of growing regions and styles of preferred wineries. Near the peak of the exercise is the study of single-vineyard bottlings, where the notion of terroir is examined under a microscope.
But what’s next? For Old World wine lovers, there’s the study of renowned vintages. But in California, where we get most everything ripe every year, annual fluctuations just aren’t quite so dramatic.
That’s why the next tier of wine appreciation out West should be bottle age. Much of the industry seems to agree. During every exclusive wine affair I’ve attended on the Central Coast over the past decade, huge accolades are awarded for those wines that maintain the most intriguing character deepest into their lifetimes.
And there are a number of California wineries confident enough to start selling their library vintages. That’s a trend worth supporting, on both the producer and consumer side.
The Ojai Vineyard, for instance, features more than 350 wines for sale at its tasting room steps from the arcade in downtown Ojai. Selections include dozens of vineyards and vintages going back to the 1980s. It even pops a handful of old bottles every weekend.
Plenty of other wineries up and down the coast are starting to sell library wines with more regularity. In part, they do so to unload old stock, which works quite well for the opportunity-minded consumer, In other cases, offering library wines for sale is strategic, a desired offering to savvy fans and wine club members.
Jaffurs Winery, in downtown Santa Barbara, is about to release a few cases of its 2007 Larner Vineyard Syrah. It’s been making a habit of doing so with different bottlings in more recent vintages as well.
Founder Craig Jaffurs recognizes that winery-based back-vintage offers have a unique value, as compared to buying the same wine from another source.
“It’s nice to sell them an ’07 that’s been protected in our cellar, rather than from God-knows where,” says Jaffurs.
He said this while we sat at a table with 15 other fans of Jaffurs wine. They had assembled to explore 17 vintages of his Syrah from Thompson Vineyard, which is located on the eastern edge of the Los Alamos Valley.
The afternoon tasting featured Syrahs from 1994 (Jaffurs’s first vintage, which won accolades from critics and launched his post-tech sector winemaking career) until 2013, with the exception of 1995–97.
The room was full of industry experts: the Thompson Vineyard manager and owner, restaurateurs and winemakers. Also present were distributors like Antonio Gardella, who’s worked for The Henry Wine Group for more than 25 years and was the man to take Jaffurs wine to the masses.
The point was to do exactly what I believe any wine lover will want to do as they grow more educated: examine how time adds nuance to aromas and flavors. That often means fresh fruit has dried a bit, adding nuttiness and leather, and increasing savory and earthy qualities, which could be labeled as tertiary qualities.
But with the Jaffurs Thompson Vineyard lineup, as for many wines made with care from a unique site, the most fascinating aspect was how the aged wines were reflective of their youth. Many, if not most, possessed the same verve, boisterous fruit and minty, licorice accents they did when bottled, albeit translated gently through the lens of a decade or so.
“We don’t pump, basically,” says Jaffurs. “They’re minimally handled. That makes them last longer.”
So what was my favorite? I guess I’m a back-vintage champion to the core. The 1994 was stunning and lively, with red fruit and licorice spice, and yet the poise of a wise, weathered, well-dressed gentleman. And that’s a man you’d like to meet.