Focus on the Central Coast

My annual tour of California’s Central Coast afforded the opportunity to compare numerous 2007 reds against their 2008 siblings, and the differences were intriguing. Fans of low-octane—relatively speaking, of course; we are talking about the sunny Central Coast—bright, red fruit-driven pinot noir and spicy syrah will find plenty to like from 2008, if they stick to the top producers. And wine lovers who prize full-throttle renditions of those varieties will be even more excited by the number of choices available from the warmer 2007 vintage. The best ’07s are rich and usually open-knit, expressing themselves already but also possessing very good depth and aging potential. By the way, many of the 2007s have been in the market for over a year now, and there has been steady demand for the wines since they were released. So we are fast approaching last call for the most sought-after 2007s.

“The best thing about the 2008s is that they have clarity and show their variety and place,” Tablas Creek’s Neil Collins told me. “It’s a vintage where it really wasn’t possible for the grapes to overripen, which is always a danger in the hotter areas of Paso Robles, and that’s when the characteristics of the grapes can blur into a sameness of rich, or even roasted or overripe, dark fruits and not much else.” He added that it was necessary to harvest late in ’08, “which means that we started to run into the dangers of fall weather.” Chad Melville (Samsara) is also a fan of 2008. “Naturally low yields without overripening means concentration without weight, which is exactly the style that I’m personally after. If you want more power and darker fruit character, then 2007 is going to be up your alley.”

That said, few growers are making any great claims for their ’08s and there was all-around disappointment with the small production brought about by uneven budbreak and a number of severe early spring frosts. Sashi Moorman (Stolpman, Harrison-Clarke) told me that 2008 required more vineyard work than any that he has experienced “and for not many grapes.” In terms of the cost of production, 2008 looks to be a debacle for conscientious growers on the Central Coast: a lot of extra work to produce a smaller-than-average crop that will be a harder sell than the 2007s.

Most of the white wines I tasted this year were from 2009, and in general they are forward and very attractive; most will be drinkable upon release. The growing season went smoothly, according to Arcadian’s Joe Davis, with “a blast of heat in September, just before harvest, which helped to push up sugars but not too dramatically.” It’s too early to make a call on the ’09 reds but the pinot noir specialists that I visited are cautiously optimistic that their wines will turn out well, with bright fruit and good energy. Brian Talley told me that “the even growing season and that heat spike in September were a good recipe for chardonnay and pinot. There’s freshness and ripeness at the same time, not too much of one or the other.”

The metaphorical rain on the parade in the Central Coast is the ongoing struggle to sell syrah, especially at the higher end. Some producers even wonder if the grape can offer financial viability at any price. None of the growers I visited were getting set to graft over their syrah vines to a commercially realistic variety just yet, but they are taking a hard look at the market. They’re painfully aware that they can’t stay in the syrah business if their wines that are supposed to sell for $40 only move if they’re offered at $20 or less, which is often the case these days. Some producers are even blending the syrah juice that used to make up their top bottlings down into lower-end and even entry-level wines, which makes for some real values for consumers, at least for now. With rare exception the producers I saw this fall told me that wholesalers have been treating syrah as if it were radioactive, with some of them flat-out refusing to carry any new vintages. If they do buy current bottlings it’s almost exclusively the lower-priced versions. “Thank God for our private clients, mailing lists and people who come to visit the winery,” more than a few producers told me in September.