2011 Napa Vintage Preview with a Glance Back at California Futures
by Chuck Hayward
The annual Bordeaux futures campaign attracts unparalleled attention, and there are many who feel the hoopla that surrounds it is undeserved. But it cannot be denied that en primeur focuses the attention of critics and merchants across the globe on the qualities of the vintage at hand. Interestingly, the lack of a futures program for California wines means they collectively escape the spotlight that Bordeaux wines enjoy (or rather endure, in the case of the 2011s). Instead, information about the latest vintage of California wines tends to come out bit by bit from those few critics who actually have access to winemakers and their cellars. However, it wasn’t always that way…
As the market for California cabernet became more serious in the mid-1980s, many wineries began to emulate the way Bordeaux presented new vintages to the press and the market. Recognizing that consumers were becoming increasingly familiar with the en primeur system for Bordeaux, and at the same time taking advantage of Robert Parker’s increasing influence in the California cabernet segment of the wine industry, MacArthur Beverages, a Washington D.C. retailer, held the first ever California futures tasting for their clients in 1985. Over the next few years, Parker attended the event as well and published his assessments of the unfinished wines while also offering practical advice to consumers interested in purchasing domestic wine futures.
In an effort to capitalize on the increasing popularity of futures offerings for California cabernets, 40 wineries bonded together in 1991 with the mission to create an organized system for promoting and selling the latest vintage. Dubbed the California Cabernet Society (CCS), participating wineries held tastings in San Francisco (and Napa during later years) to promote and sell their wines. Wines were either sold directly to consumers or to retailers who later offered them for sale. For a few years, the futures market for California wines was a raging success, propelled by Parker’s pronouncements on the latest vintage and the enthusiasm generated by this new method of purchasing wine.
Over time, however, wineries realized that the increased demand for their wines and the limited amounts they produced no longer required that they be sold at a discount. By holding on to the wines until they were ultimately released, these estates would benefit from increased revenue. Eventually, the few that sold futures closed down their programs. Today, only a handful of wineries sell cabernet futures, the most notable being Ridge Winery from Santa Cruz.
MacArthur Liquors continues to offer wine futures, but today the program is designed as a fundraiser for cancer research. And while Robert Parker and Antonio Galloni continue to assess wines out of barrel for the Wine Advocate, the fervor and excitement attached to their opinions about the latest vintage seems to have died down a bit. Whether this is because the market has matured or because the demise of the futures program no longer brings attention to the California cabernets is up for debate.
THE 2011 VINTAGE
Despite the collapse of most futures programs in California, the California Cabernet Society has continued their annual presentations of barrel samples from the most recent vintage. The 22nd annual tasting was held just recently where some 40 of the 70 member wineries, mostly from Napa, poured their 2011s.
The 2011 vintage, featured at this event, kicked off with significant rainfall in February and March and very cool temperatures, which persisted through spring and summer. The cooler weather delayed flowering which arrived just as freak summer rains hit the North Coast. The resulting poor set allowed for reduced yields while low summer temperatures slowed down the ripening that usually accelerates during late July and August.
Picking started quite late in many areas and proceeded slowly as growing regions experienced fewer of the traditional fall heat spikes that push grapes to their final stages of ripeness. Significant amounts of mid-October rain came at exactly the wrong time with grapes almost ready for picking. The considerable rainfall increased disease pressures and forced many wineries to pick earlier than they would have preferred. Mold and botrytis infections were plentiful in Sonoma and Napa.
As a result of the weather conditions, cabernet crops were down 25-35% depending on location. Wineries that had fruit on the vines during the rains faced the critical decision to pick or wait for warmer temperatures that did eventually arrive. Winemakers had to be diligent in the vineyard and cellar to cull out infected fruit. It was definitely a harvest that tested the skills of every winemaker, many of who had never seen cabernet with botrytis infections.
It’s always good to remember that to taste a barrel sample is to merely take a snapshot of where a particular wine currently stands. Any wine can be changed substantially in the future by its winemaker. And wines evolve over time, frequently in better directions. In addition, a quick overview of 30 or so wines is only a small sample of what Napa and Sonoma will churn out in this vintage. So, consider this assessment incomplete, though there were definitely some top-ranked wineries pouring their wares (including Diamond Creek, Corison, Viader).
Given this background and coming to an initial perspective on 2011 cabernets, it’s a wonder that we have not heard much about the vintage from critics during their recent visits to Napa. From what my colleagues and I tasted, the 2011 cabernets from the North Coast may prove to be the most challenging wines made in the last 30 years. It will be interesting to compare the ratings for these wines against those produced in Bordeaux in the same year.
The large majority of wines we encountered shared a number of common faults. Unripe and herbaceous aromas were forward and pronounced, dominating the bouquets of most wines. Where herbal scents did not overpower the nose, intense earthy notes replaced them. Rarely encountered were youthful, juicy aromas of fresh fruit. Unripe qualities were also manifested on the palate where herb-laced flavors formed a spicy and tannic layer. What fruit there was to be found was compact in shape with short, dilute finishes laced with strong acids. From valley floor to hillside slopes, again and again, the words bitter, green, dilute, and tart filled my notepad.
There was little charm and even less excitement in the majority of wines presented. Few scored above 90 points with many mired in the mid-80s. Alcohol (for those who had data to share) leaned towards moderate levels, ranging from 13.2 to 15. The few successes came from wineries that managed to tame the pronounced green-edged aromas and flavors and provide some richness and length in the back palate. In some cases these were elegant wines that stressed balance and finesse but there were a few big, rich bottlings that had somehow managed to retain Napa’s classic warmth. Overall, it was hard to find much joy and excitement in the wines I tasted proved to be mean and almost angry l especially as compared to what we encountered in Bordeaux something that was quite unexpected. Here’s hoping a bit more charm will develop in the barrel.
Are there any bright spots? In difficult harvests of the past (like ’88 or ’98), I have noticed that cabs from Sonoma often fare better than Napa. The difference between average Napa temperatures and what wineries face in cool years can be considerable. The classic, richly textured fruits that are quite normal due to Napa’s warmer climes give way to lean, green flavors in a cool year, and the contrast can be quite jarring. Cool and wet weather patterns are so uncommon that most winemakers lack the experience to produce wine in such conditions. In the case of the cooler Sonoma regions , the temperature differences are less dramatic. Sonoma’s heat spikes are not as high as Napa’s so its wines from both cool and warm years have much more in common. It may be that once again, Sonoma could save the day as the source of some attractive North Coast 2011s.
Winemakers who are used to making balanced, more elegantly styled wines may ultimately prove successful as well. Cathy Corison, whose understated styles have won her many fans, excelled in 2011 with a superbly balanced and fruit filled rendition that stood out in the company of her neighbors. With vineyards and cellar techniques attuned to fabricating wines of finesse and restraint, Corison and others who share her philosophy could be at an advantage.
On the whole however, tasting the 2011s proved to be a rather jarring experience, and one that does not bode well for the vintage. With 2010s showing clean, crisp lines and fresh, focused flavors along with lower alcohol levels, the last two vintages seem to represent a distinct shift in style from what many consumers have come to expect from Napa over the past two decades. This does not represent a sudden desire by winemakers to showcase finesse and elegance over Napa’s heretofore classic richness and power. Instead, you can thank Mother Nature for this new interpretation of Napa cabernet.
THE FUTURE OF FUTURES
Let’s face it, there’s no need for California’s wineries to re-establish a futures sales program. The best wines sell themselves and the pathway to the market is easy and efficient compared to what is required of Bordeaux. However, the fact that there is no uniform presentation of California’s latest vintage to the press and trade means that wineries and their appellations lose the opportunity to tell the story of the harvest. The CCS tastings perform that function quite well, and frankly, they deserve more support.