Focus on California's North Coast

These are fairly desperate times for wineries on California’'s North Coast. In spite of a splendid 2007 vintage that would ordinarily have given most producers a major financial boost, the prices of too many “collectible” California wines today are simply out of whack with today’s economic realities, and consumers are going elsewhere to find vibrant wines at far more palatable prices. Although some of the bluest of blue chip wineries claim to be selling their mostly limited-production wines through to consumers, albeit more slowly than in the past, many more are anxiously watching their inventory pile up in distributors’ warehouses and in their cellars, and they’re anxious about their financial future.

At greatest risk are vineyard owners in Napa Valley who paid top dollar for their properties in the mid-’90s and then invested heavily in vineyard development and winery construction under the assumption that they’d have no problem getting top dollar for their wines. The most heavily leveraged players are in dire financial trouble, and it will take a miracle to save them. The current deflationary environment will continue to place downward pressure on prices, as wineries increasingly will have to cut prices to move stock, whether by lowering their official retail prices or by providing special incentives to wholesalers and retailers. And in the event of the foreclosures that are being widely predicted by insiders, banks will have no choice but to dump inventory in an attempt to recoup even small portions of their investments. This development will in turn exert pricing pressure even on wineries that today are continuing to sell very good wines at fair prices.

Meanwhile, many smaller producers, especially talented winemakers outside Napa Valley who work entirely with purchased fruit, continue to make their wines without compromise yet manage to hold prices to more reasonable levels. Many of the wines from Sonoma-based producers reviewed in this issue by Josh Raynolds look like steals next to the pricier bottles of Napa Valley. But make no mistake about it: even the best of these smaller producers are working a lot harder today to sell their limited-production wines, but they are benefiting from greater customer loyalty because their prices have always been rooted in reality. As Ted Lemon of Littorai, who is well into his third decade of making wine on California’s North Coast, pointed out to me, “consumers should be aware that every bottle they buy is a vote for who will survive.”

The difficulty of selling wine above $30 today, let alone above $75 or $100, has also placed many wineries in a rut. Too many producers still believe—perhaps with justification—that the only way to impress the market is with sheer size. Put another way, if you’re a new producer of cabernet sauvignon in Napa Valley and you think you can get $100 for your first release, the odds are low that you’re going to try to woo critics and consumers with subtlety. This is not constructive for the future of California wine, as a new generation of wine drinkers, and the younger sommeliers who cater to them, are gravitating toward livelier, more graceful wines that are enjoyable with food.

Fortunately, there’s a new wave of wines, mostly from cooler microclimates in Sonoma County and points north, that are rightfully attracting the attention of wine fans who have tired of wines with headspinning levels of alcohol and are desperate for more vibrant liquid refreshment. (Josh Raynolds has reviewed a bunch of these in this issue.) There’s still way too much 15+% wine being released, but today’s sommeliers and even some critics are less and less likely to accept them. I don’t write off a wine simply based on the alcohol level listed on the label because I believe that many very rich wines can also have balance, energy and staying power. But most of these wines are simply too much: they’re exhausting to drink on release, and time in bottle is not going to magically revive them.

Which brings me, once again, to restate this publication’s philosophy on the big wines of California’s North Coast. We believe that the best of them, made from the finest sites, without being unduly exaggerated via too-late harvesting, watering back the must, over-acidifying, extracting heavily and overoaking, are some of the world’s sexiest drinks. But there are far too many pretenders: wines that mimic the great ones in their size and dimension but come off as unrefined or crude in comparison. These bloated wines can only confirm the suspicions of hard-core old-school drinkers, who believe that California is simply not for them.

I continue to see absurdly high ratings in other publications for coarse, chunky, roasted, overextracted or overoaked wines. Of course, you may have the same skeptical response to some of our notes. Wine-reviewing is to a great extent subjective, reflecting the critic’s personal preferences. But you should know that we take very seriously the challenge of distinguishing between the truly interesting and well-made wines and the clumsy and often equally pricey imitations.

The extreme growing season of 2008. Many of the wines reviewed in the current issue come from the extreme 2008 vintage, a growing season that witnessed every possible wine plague except frogs and boils. An epic spring frost—one Napa Valley grower mentioned running his wind machines 29 out of 32 nights from late March through the end of April and another in the Russian River Valley said exactly the same thing—cut crop levels dramatically in many areas. The frost, which even struck some steep hillside vineyards that normally escape this peril, led widely to uneven cluster maturity—from vine to vine and even within the same vines. As many hard-hit properties were tempted to keep their second-generation grapes, it was a challenge through the entire season to crop-thin so that this later fruit would have a chance to ripen, and to green-harvest assiduously in order to minimize the irregularity in ripeness of the fruit that remained on the vines. Even where frost did not have a serious impact on the crop load from the outset, it could throw off the balance of the vines.

Following normal heavy rainfall in January and a bit of final rain in February, 2008 also brought a drought: at the Oakville weather station a total of about one inch of rain was recorded between the beginning of March and the end of September. The flowering was drawn out and the fruit set was very uneven in many areas owing to the dry spring and the effects of the frost. (Shot berries, if not eventually eliminated, could compromise the texture and structure of wines and add an element of astringency.)

The summer featured a series of heat spikes and higher-than-average temperatures. The stop-start nature of the weather meant that the vines were constantly shutting down and then restarting again. There was no prolonged steady growth period and thus vine physiology remained unpredictable. The veraison in many areas was drawn out. And the summer of 2008 will long be remembered for the dozens of lightning-generated brush fires that burned out of control in Mendocino County from late June through the end of July. Drifting smoke seriously affected vineyards in Anderson Valley and much of Mendocino County, with some vineyards in Sonoma County, mostly close to the coast, also affected. Even some mountaintop Napa Valley producers admitted to me that there were some smoky days in their vines. Happily, most quality-conscious producers with reputations to protect either did not make wine from smoke-tainted grapes or declassified this juice into cheaper appellation bottlings, and a few top growers did not even ask their clients to take their fruit. Other wineries used a variety of high-tech filtration and reverse osmosis techniques to try to minimize smoke taint but may have stripped their wines of texture and character in the process.

The most damaging late-summer heat spike occurred between August 27 and September 7. (Andy Smith, winemaker at Larkmead Vineyards just south of Calistoga, told me that afternoon temperatures reached three digits every day during that period.) By then, some wineries that had used much of their water for frost protection in the spring had run out of water, which meant their vines were pretty much on their own during the hot, dry late-season weather. Many growers thus had no choice but to bring in their grapes quickly, even where the fruit had not achieved full phenolic maturity. Perhaps worst affected was early-ripening pinot noir in Carneros and across parts of Sonoma County, which could lose its aromatic high notes. At the other extreme were cabernet vineyards in cooler areas, such as east-facing slopes in the southern portion of Napa Valley, which were not picked until well into October.

Continuing the up-down nature of the growing season, the middle two weeks of September then turned unseasonably cool, and most growers could let their fruit hang in the hopes of getting it fully ripe. But in many areas, the extreme heat of late August and early September had affected the photosynthetic capacity of the vines’ canopies and grape sugars did not rise much even during favorable weather. But skin tannins, which had softened in the heat, continued to mature. Winemakers who are obsessed with letting their grapes hang as long as possible were likely to make soft wines in 2008. And, of course, some waited too long, losing structure and acidity. The end of the month turned quite warm again and the pattern of alternating very warm and cooler periods continued through October. As Tod Mostero of Dominus noted, phenolic concentration was often quite high as the loose clusters permitted excellent exposure of the entire surface of the grape to air and light, allowing for a homogeneous ripeness of the phenolic compounds in the grape skins. And where the range of ripeness within vineyards was pronounced, a key to success in 2008 was harvesting in a series of passes.

While the extremes of the year were unusual by California standards, growers in Europe have been dealing with vintages like this for centuries. Clearly, the challenges of the growing season required much more work in the vines than usual, followed by stringent use of sorting tables to eliminate overripe and underripe fruit. Experienced grape-growers and winemakers were at a distinct advantage.

Yet while the vintage is uneven, overall it’s a very pleasant surprise. The low yields and vine stress made for small, deeply colored, highly concentrated grapes. Many cabernet producers in Napa Valley told me that the skins were rich in phenolic material and easy to extract. So many of them did a gentler and shorter vinification, especially where they were concerned that the seeds were not fully ripe. In conjunction with the warmer than average temperatures in August, September and October, this has generally resulted in fruit-driven wines that will be accessible in their youth. I particularly enjoy the immediate aromatic appeal of many of these wines—especially the floral and mineral tones that are not yet as widely evident in the generally denser and more serious 2007s. In retrospect, it may turn out that winemakers who got their fruit sufficiently ripe, yet made wines with a somewhat wider range of ripeness than usual, will have produced wines with atypical complexity. Think of the underrated vintages in Bordeaux and Burgundy that began in the shadow of the so-called great years.

A brief follow-up on 2007. Meanwhile, the 2007 crop of wines, from a nearly perfect growing season without extremes, is mostly splendid: fleshy and sweet but structured and balanced to age. This vintage looks to be one of the greats of California’s modern era, but that does not mean you can buy 2007s at random. Far from it: there are still plenty of boring and generic wines on the shelves. Judging from our tastings in recent months, many of the 2007s will be delicious from the start but should age well. Many others, especially top cabernets from Napa Valley but also pinot noirs and syrahs from Sonoma County, are currently hiding their fruit and are dominated in the early going by their rather powerful structures. John Kongsgaard aptly summarized the differences between ’07 and ’08: “The 2007s give a lot of pleasure now, but it’s the pleasure of admiring the strength of youth rather than the wisdom of age. The 2008s are achieving their equanimity at a younger age.”

Once again, I shared this spring’s coverage of the North Coast with Josh Raynolds. He visited producers based in Sonoma County while I handled the Napa side in early March, and we each tasted many more wines back home after our North Coast tours. Wineries reviewed by Josh are denoted by a (JR) at the end of the last wine note.