How much should one go by vintage with California wines?
Over the years I've concluded that, with the exception of those few years in which the weather is REALLY a factor in any California wine regions grape crop, it has seemed to me that vintage is much more of a broad-brush criterion than what I often see as a general qualifier. For the most part it seems to me that a quality vineyard and a quality winemaker can produce quality wine in almost any year........ at least in the "better" California regions.
So................ should vintage really be a major factor in California wine buying? Or is it more of a general indicator if you don't have anything better to go by? I ask because I am often confronted by "vintage buyers" who seem to use it as much more of a decision maker than I would.
My feelings about much CA wine aside, I think it depends what your intentions are. If you plan to drink the bottle in the near future, mediocre vintages are more forgiving. If you plan to sit on it for a good deal of time, solid acid/tannin/fruit is more important.
Here is my 2 cents, it depends...
If I am buying to drink it right now...it doesn't matter much to me at all. Knowing the style of the CA wine is much more important. The style and vineyard will tell me more about "if" I will really like it or not. If all things are equal and I need to make a choice- I would choose what would be considered a better year.
If I am buying to invest (or perhaps trade for later) I will pay attention to vintage MOSTLY because the vintage year can make a difference in the final value of the bottle later. Some Cult Cabs are excluded and none of the CA have such a DRASTIC price difference for vintage years as FR.
I bet your "vintage buyers" may have gotten used to buying French and German wines where vintage can really matter, and they are projecting that onto CA more than needed? As I have watched the wine market change over the years, it seems to me that the CA Cult Cabs have shown that the market can almost completely ignore the "best" vintage years here without prices being greatly effected.
IMHO, good wine makers make good wine almost regardless of the vintage. A mediocre wine maker will make mediocre wines even in some of the best vintages. That being said, I pay attention to the wine maker and not the vintage (unless something really terrible happened such as fires, floods before harvest, etc.)
I think I should add that, while I understand the 'holding' idea, what I'm really asking about is whether there is really that much of a difference in simple current drinkability between vintages. The vast majority of people drink wine within a couple of weeks of purchase, so I think they're usually applying a 'will I like it' criterion to the vintage info they have. For down the road...... not so much.
My observations are the same, or very similar to yours.
While there are certainly differences in vintages out at the extremes, they are less obvious, in more general terms.
I cannot help but recall the 1989 vintage, when almost the entire wine press completely panned it. Was it a great vintage? No way, but many made some great wines that year. It was not easy, but they struggled, and did it.
Another example was the '94 vintage. Like the '85, several were quoted as saying "if one cannot create a great Cab in '94, they need to sell their winery." Similar was said in '85.
I still recall the horribly maligned '98 vintage. Almost every wine writer, that I saw, decried what a horrible year that was. Well, there WERE good wines, though not up to the aging standards, set forth by the wine-porn press. From good producers, they were great "restaurant wines," as they were lighter, more ready-to-drink, and more easily approachable, then some previous vintages.
It seems that if a vintage is not perfect, and the wines up to par, and cellar-worthy for 15 years, the press screams.
It almost seems that some in the press must complain about a certain number of CA vintages, or their credibility will be diminished.
I suppose that their loyal readers just cannot stand, "another fabulous day in paradise... "
Are some vintages better than others? IMHO, the answer is yes. Are good wines produced by certain winemakers, regardless of the vintage? Again,I MHO, the answer is another yes.
Just my personal feelings,
re: Bill Hunt
I opened a 1986 Orion Syrah (Sean Thackrey) tonight. I believe it was the very first vintage for syrah, but I can't really remember! Anyone who is not familiar with his wine making- should be, he is "a rebel with a cause" and his history is facinating. I only have a few bottles left- and would not have kept them this long if his wine making skills were not so stellar. That is how I know CA wine and vintage years...... think of the wine maker and winery FIRST...then consider vintage year. There were (are?) so many small producers in CA that have world class wines that are just as age worthy as any- but so many folks put their faith in vintage years and big names- they miss out on truly superb wines and opportunity to experience wines evolution. What a shame. Oh well, more for me :)
BTW....it was fabulous.
Yes, don't rush it. The 1986 still had plenty of fruit. It was dark fruit, leathery and a fabulous weight. It had a great spicy finish that was looooong! I have another 1986 that I will save maybe until next year. I would like to see if more spice comes out. It is hard to find many tasting notes (especially for Orion) as it has been produced in such limited quantities. I would like to hear what others think as these age.