California's North Coast

Following the challenging, short 2011 vintage, the North Coast's growers and winemakers got exactly what they needed in 2012:  a return to classic California weather and a copious crop, followed by a very early and highly successful harvest in 2013 that some cabernet growers are already calling better than 2012.  Most winemakers that Josh Raynolds and I visited on the North Coast in March made it clear that they would happily take the conditions of 2012 any time.  But were the idyllic conditions too much of a good thing?

The growing season of 2012.  The year began with a mild, frost-free spring.  Substantial rainfall in March helped ensure good water reserves in the soil, but then the second half of April turned warm and dry, and these conditions continued through May and June.  The flowering was large and successful.  The weather was seasonal in July, with cool nights, a pattern that lasted through August, allowing for slow, steady ripening.  The inevitable heat spikes during summer generally lasted just a few days before more moderate temperatures returned.  This weather pattern continued through September, although there was a short heat spike from September 30 through October 2. The first meaningful rain did not arrive until October 22.

By most accounts, the growing season in 2012 was nearly perfect, without significant climatic obstacles, and most growers could pick at their leisure.  Even wines with high levels of alcohol avoid coming off as pruney or roasted, as the lack of extreme heat helped to forestall raisining of the fruit and to preserve natural acidity levels in the grapes.

The major challenge in 2012 was controlling the size of the crop and finding the tank space to vinify so much fruit.  With so many producers short of wine and concerned about how the market would respond to their 2011s, some were not as aggressive about limiting yields as they might otherwise have been.  But the most conscientious growers trimmed their crops on several different occasions through the summer and early fall and have made wonderfully dense and satisfying wines with at least mid-term aging potential.  Many more 2012s are sweet, fleshy and satisfying and will give great early pleasure but do not currently appear to have the intensity, grip and structure to be serious cellar classics.  It is a New World style of vintage, whereas the much cooler 2011 vintage, and 2010 before it, are more Old World.

Of course, controlling yields was at least as important for pinot noir production as it was for cabernet and chardonnay.  Anthony Filiberti, winemaker at Anthill Farms and Knez, reported that in cooler areas like Anderson Valley yields were generally up by a third to a half while in warmer sections of the Russian River Valley crops could be double the size of 2011, or even higher.  In these areas too, the natural tendency of the wines in 2012 is to be fleshy, fruit-driven and sweet.  Healthier clusters enabled many winemakers to vinify with stems, whereas this was tricky in the rot-affected 2011 harvest.

As in recent years, I shared this spring's coverage of the North Coast with Josh Raynolds.  We each tasted with many producers in March (Josh visited wineries based in Sonoma County while I handled the Napa side) and we both followed up by tasting hundreds more wines back home.  Producers whose wines Josh reviewed are indicated with a (JR) following the last note under each producer.  Note that there are a number of exceptions to this general rule, as some winemakers who make wine in Sonoma County and points north are based in Napa Valley, and vice-versa.  Then too, producers do not always send their samples to the appropriate reviewer.  (You may also find a few wineries included in this issue which are not located on the North Coast.)

Josh suggests that 2012 is a year in which one should be cautious about buying wines made by unknown producers who rely exclusively on purchased fruit, or private label bottlings, as there was so much excess fruit that a lot of the worst of it was sold off in bulk.  Owing to high yields in 2012, even producers who consider 2012 to have been a uniformly excellent year from top to bottom often prefer the best wines of 2011 to their most successful 2012s.  In fact, the earlier-harvested Burgundy varieties were often quite successful in 2011, if generally in a medium-bodied style.  According to Tom Dehlinger, "it was a struggle to get anything up past 22 Brix unless you wanted to gamble on really late harvesting.  That's not necessarily a bad thing for the Burgundy grapes but can be real trouble for the Bordeaux varieties." Just as the reputation of a Bordeaux vintage can affect the market for that year's Burgundies, pinot noir and chardonnay have also been held back by the mixed performance of cabernet and other late-ripening varieties.  That's a shame, too, because the best pinot noirs and especially chardonnays in 2011 are aromatically precise, complex and gripping wines that show plenty of soil-driven terroir character.  We offered notes on early releases last year, and many more are covered in this issue.

"Will the 2012s age a really long time?" asked Bob Cabral of Williams-Selyem.  "Probably not, but we're talking about California pinot and the percentage of people who put these wines down for long cellaring is tiny."  There's an "obvious" quality to the vast majority of the wines that's extremely appealing but are some of these wines a little too easy?  And, if so, how much does that matter? asks Raynolds.  Today, very few people lay down California pinots and chardonnays and thus very few producers attempt to make cellarworthy wines.  With alcohol and tannin levels generally down a notch in recent years, noted Raynolds, there are now "far more syrahs and grenaches that I'd call pinot-like than pinots I'd call Rhone-like, as was the case just a few years ago.  Most consumers are happily going with the flow." 

The 2011s in bottle.  Readers should refer to Issue 168 for a blow-by-blow account of the extremely difficult 2011 growing season, "the year without a summer." Here's a recap:  The year began with a wet, late, cool spring, with significant rainfall into May and a rare heavy rainfall during very cool weather on June 3 and 4, the flowering was seriously affected by rain and cool weather.  There was another rainy spell in late June.  By that point, vine development was weeks behind normal and the seeds for rot and mildew had been planted.

Cool and frequently foggy weather during July and August exacerbated mildew pressures, especially in parts of Sonoma County, and many growers dropped affected fruit via multiple passes through the vines.  September then turned warmer and remained dry, making for a very good if late ripening period.  But then substantial rain fell between October 3 and 6:  many growers picked adequately ripe fruit prior to this rainy spell but others jumped the gun--and the late-ripening varieties were not yet ready.  Further rain fell on the 10th and was followed by mild and often foggy conditions that resulted in quickly spreading botrytis, especially in particularly humid low spots.  The second half of the month then brought better harvesting conditions, but temperatures fell sharply at the beginning of November and more rain arrived on the 3rd.

Now that Napa Valley's 2011 are virtually all in bottle, it's clear that the vintage is a mixed bag.  Many wines are clearly underripe and undernourished. Steep, high-altitude vineyards that are typically above the fog line and enjoy better air movement were generally far more likely to benefit from longer hang time, but picking literally into November is not always a good thing.  The best valley-floor growers, who did everything possible to open up their canopies and expose their fruit to sun and air, often succeeded in the end, but they were up against very difficult conditions, with relentless periods of ground fog caused by damp soil and still morning air.  The vines struggled to finish ripening, and the fruit showed weakened skins, botrytis spores or obvious rot when the fruit hung too long.

But the best cabernets of the vintage are expressive, intense and generally medium-bodied, offering good phenolic ripeness at lower alcohol levels than usual. They are sufficiently vibrant and aromatically expressive to capture the interest of even the most incurable Europhiles.  And when they possess enough density of material, they should evolve gracefully in bottle.  Although well-drained mountain sites above the fog line may have been less affected by rot in October (especially the back side of Howell Mountain, which is exposed to drier Sacramento Valley air flows), it was still a challenge to ripen the fruit because the beginning of November brought more rain and sharply colder temperatures.  It's also worth noting that while some growers were forced to pick before their fruit had reached good ripeness, others thought at the time that they were picking too early, at insufficient grape sugars, but may have made better-balanced wines as a result.

Some Napa Valley veterans compare the 2011 cabernet-based wines to the 1998s, and a lot of wines do show a family resemblance.  But the El Nino year of 1998 was on-and-off rainy and more consistently foggy throughout, and the wines lack the flavor intensity and phenolic ripeness of the better 2011s.  It's hard to find a 1998 cabernet without obvious greenness. While many 2011s are plagued by herbal or even raw peppery qualities and clear signs of underripeness, others avoid greenness almost entirely.  Some wines actually show an overripe/underripe character, suggesting that growers let their fruit hang in search of better ripeness but that the grapes were affected by withering skins as the botrytis spores spread.  Clearly, growers with well-drained, high-altitude hillside vineyards were generally far more able to let their fruit hang during the rainy spells, fog and high humidity of October.

Current wine pricing.  Thanks to California's normally clement climate, producers are in the habit of making good wines every year.  Skipping a vintage would never occur to most of them and for cash flow reasons would be untenable for all but the deepest-pocketed wineries.  Nor are producers in the habit of cutting prices from one year to the next, as the Bordelais occasionally do.  On the contrary, in recent years California wine prices have pretty much gone in one direction only: up.

But in 2011, some wineries literally did not make their flagship wines, and in most of these cases they have done a service to their clients.  Others felt that the vintage was not up to their usual standards and declassified their flagship wines to their second wines, or even second labels.  I applaud these brave and honest producers.  But most have simply kept prices steady from 2010.  I commiserate with those wineries who are attempting to sell very good 2011s in a vintage viewed by the market as problematic (and here I'm speaking mostly of cabernets that earned ratings of 90 points or higher), but when $125 bottles of cabernet lack stuffing, come across as distinctly green and barely merit scores of 87 or 88 points, they are poor value by any standards.  At particular risk are middling producers whose wines are not primarily pre-sold each year to mailing-list customers and preferred retail accounts. It will be very easy for customers to take a pass on their 2011s.