Focus on California's North Coast

Following three lean years, California has enjoyed three fat years in 2001, 2002 and 2003. After a trio of growing seasons that featured varying combinations of late, rainy springs, colder than normal summer temperatures, destructive harvest-time precipitation, and generally late, nerve-wracking harvests, California's grape growers could once again focus on Job #1 in a warm, sun-drenched climate:getting the grape skins thoroughly ripe before sugars go through the roof and acidity levels plunge.

Even under the best California conditions, however, this can be tricky. There are always risk-averse growers who routinely harvest too early, before grape skins are properly ripe, and make hollow if not downright herbaceous wines in the warmest vintages. But it was the other extreme I saw all too often on my late winter tour of the North Coast. Today, too many growers are picking fruit at outrageously high sugar levels-intentionally seeking a percentage of raisined grapes-and then adding water to facilitate fermentations and bring alcohol levels down to less mind-numbing levels.

The 2002 vintage may well represent a new extreme for California wine, as this growing season has widely produced flamboyantly showy wines of great richness, some at freakish alcohol levels. This was a warm but not hot summer complicated by a series of sharp heat spikes in September and early October. In many sites grape sugars soared, but numerous growers told me that they had to let the fruit hang because the skins were not yet ripe. Others panicked and harvested in the middle of, or directly following, periods of extreme heat. Sites that were able to take advantage of the hot, dry September produced many outstanding wines. But the vintage brought some potential pitfalls as well. Many cabernets are characterized by huge and rather unrefined tannins, especially in comparison to the rich and sweet but more elegantly styled and often quite classy 2001s. In many instances, the fruit got considerably less "hang time" on the vines in 2002 than it had during the more moderate summer conditions of 2001. I tasted numerous wonderfully full, rich, aromatically complex pinot noirs in 2002, but others that seemed dulled by alcohol. The best 2002 reds are extraordinary, but it must be pointed out that every taster will have his or her point of diminishing returns-the point at which overripeness and high alcohol replace freshness and flavor interest as the dominant character of a wine.

Many 2002s go over the top, but the proliferation these days of Xtreme wines from California reflects more than warm, sunny growing seasons. It is apparent that there has been a generational shift in wine-buying tastes in recent years, with many wine neophytes-consumers who do not generally have Old World wine as a context-unwilling to accept red wines with anything suggesting "green," even though these green elements are often perfectly normal varietal notes and have long been associated with wines that evolve positively in bottle and last well. (Note that here I am not talking about extreme vegetal manifestations of bell pepper and asparagus, which characterize so many '98s, '00s and even '99s from late-ripening varieties in normally cooler sites.)But too often growers who harvest overripe fruit are simply replacing green tastes with brown tastes:with the tastes of raisins, prunes and dried fruits. They may bring down the alcohol with water, but they will never eliminate the raisiny taste or imbue their wines with vibrancy.

In an extremely competitive and price-sensitive market, too many wineries are trying to make statement wines, for fear that subtle, understated wines will be viewed simply as undernourished. For the first time, on my late winter tour of the better North Coast addresses, I heard the following message from several winery owners and/or their winemakers: We'd really prefer to make a more elegant, balanced style of wine, but we can't sell it."This is depressing news for most wine lovers grounded in more food-friendly European wine (as well as for wine producers in Bordeaux!).

It's the biggest, richest, darkest, most supersized wines that tend to attract the highest point scores today from influential critics.While I believe that the best-balanced of these bottlings are among California's most outstanding wines, some tasters don't seem to notice-or care-when these blockbusters start busting out of their pants. My suspicion is that many of these outsized wines, with their high pHs and dangerously low acidity, high alcohols and raisined fruit, have nowhere to go in bottle but downhill. I do not subscribe to the theory that wines with high pHs, low acidity and freakishly high alcohol will automatically age for decades as long as they're sufficiently concentrated. There is no question that California's richest wines from the 2001 and 2002 vintages offer great early pleasure. But, unless otherwise noted, I would not attempt to dissuade you from enjoying these wines in their youth for their extraordinary sweetness of fruit and voluptuous textures, rather than saving them for better days.

It seems to me that many conditions must be satisfied for today's immensely rich wines to reveal greater nuance in bottle as they lose their baby fat and are transformed by their tannins. To name just a few of these criteria:Careful nurturing of wines in sufficiently cold cellars, with the barrels kept topped. Racking done when needed rather than routinely. Judicious use of SO2 to prevent loss of freshness and the emergence of bacterial problems. Bottling without oxidative influence. Careful handling of the wines on the way to market. Temperature-controlled storage in your own cellar. Perhaps most important of all, the wines that will offer explosive drinking experiences 10 or 20 years down the road must begin with the near-magical balance of elements that only the best sites can offer. For too many of today's big California reds, the risks of burying them in the cellar outweigh the potential benefits.

Due to the sheer volume of wines I tasted during my late winter tour of the North Coast and subsequent tastings in New York, notes on new releases from California's Central Coast, highlighted by numerous excellent wines from Rhone varieties, will appear in the next issue. On the following pages I offer brief profiles of numerous wineries I visited in late winter, along with notes on their current and upcoming releases. Following this section are my tasting notes on many additional recommended current and upcoming wines tasted in recent months in California and in New York. Due to space constraints, wines from numerous excellent producers I visited in late February and early May appear in this second section.