What Exactly is a “Good Year” for Wine?

I typed "good year wine" in Google Images, and this is what it gave me.

I was recently faced with a minor problem.
A guest had ordered a bottle of ‘07 Napa Cabernet ($70) from my wine list (that’s right, in case you didn’t know, I run a restaurant/wine bar). The problem arose when the guest realized the bottle (after it had been poured) was in fact not from the ‘07 vintage as the wine list had stated, but actually ‘08.

Did the Server explain the vintage discrepancy before the bottle was opened, as per her training, to make sure the guest was cool with it? I’m not sure, but to be quite honest, it doesn’t really matter. Even if she had, and the guest confirmed it and then realized their mistake, I’m sure there would have still been a problem.

The guest complaint went something like this: “’07 in California was a MUCH better year than ‘08. There was a bunch of rain in ‘08, and it diluted the grapes. It isn’t fair to charge the same price for a ‘07 as an ‘08. It’s misrepresented on the wine list.”

Long story short, the problem was resolved, and the guest was happy. The guest, after all, is always right (at least in a restaurant, and nowhere else for some reason). However, I’d like to dissect this situation in the next couple of paragraphs

 

Did he have a point? Was ‘07 better than ‘08 in Napa?

Truth be told, 2007 WAS actually a “better year” in Napa than 2008, although not for the reasons given. Rain in 2008 was actually lighter than most other years, and frosts destroyed quite a few vines. Through all of this, the grapes managed to pull through, and still produce one the best Napa vintages on record. 
Now; I’ve personally never paid much attention to Californian wine vintages, and certainly will never waste my time debating good vs bad years. The temperatures in California stay fairly uniform, in comparison with Old World countries, where you’ll see big year-on-year fluctuations.
With all of that being said, I’d still been caught “with my pants down” with regard to the vintage discrepancy.

 

Does a “good year” make a good wine?

You could write a book on this one question alone! The one un-debatable detail is that a “good year” can certain help toward making a good wine, but it isn’t an all encompassing factor.
Why should you take my word for it? I’m not a winemaker. 
Well, how about this……
I was talking with a very influential and renowned Napa winemaker (who shall remain nameless*) a few weeks ago, and the conversation wondered onto the 1997 vintage (one of the most heralded vintages of all time). I asked him what made ‘97 so special?
He started smiling, and stated “You know….everyone was, and still is, all excited about 1997 vintage, proclaiming it the ‘best vintage Napa has ever made’. Personally, what I saw was one of the first vintages where the alcohol levels in the large majority of wines had really started to make a sizeable jump. THAT, in my opinion, is what got the vintage such rave reviews with the critics!”

What he was saying was that ‘97 had been declared unanimously by “the critics” to be possibly the best vintage Napa had ever had. Then again, it’s a well known FACT that (at least back in 1997, and arguably still to this day), that the major wine writers and publications were susceptible to being swooned by higher than normal alcohol levels. This winemaker was therefore stating that the only reason ‘97 was given two thumbs up, was that it was one of the first years where this had happened on such a large scale. Until he’d pointed that out, I’d never made the connection; but I think he had a very good point! Maybe there’s a few small holes in the system…

 

Why wasn’t the vintage correct on the wine list?

That’s a very good question! Was I too lazy to have correct vintages on my wine list? Truth-be-told, I actually do weekly/bi-weekly menu reprints, adjusting pricing, correcting vintages, and modifying the selection overall. I’m fairly meticulous when it comes to have a correct wine list, and cringe whenever someone points out even the smallest typo. 
The whole process of a restaurant staying up-to-date with their list is a nightmare! Just because a winery is selling their ‘08 vintage, doesn’t mean that you’re not going to encounter some cross-over with the distributor, without any warning. They could also randomly find a case from ‘07 hiding away in their warehouse, halfway through the release of ‘08, and you sign for it without knowing.
If we were talking 2000 Mouton Rothschild, then a little more rigorous vintage-checking usually takes place. In this case, one bottle must have slipped through. Sue me. I guarantee that if you go through 99% of the worlds’ wine lists, you’ll find vintage inaccuracies.


Does a “good year” really matter, if it’s meant for immediate consumption?

Yes and no. We’re talking ‘07 vs. ‘08 Napa here, and we’re drinking it in 2011. Chances are, they’re both a little too young to drink. If we were talking for cellaring purposes, that would be a whole different matter. Likewise; if we were also talking about a restaurant that buys wine with the specific purpose of letting it gather dust until it’s ready to drink.
I guess I’m a fairly easy-going guy, and I would never not order a particular wine (at least from a reputable producer) which I knew to be from a “mediocre year”. Everyone is different though, and I respect that………..kind of.

So what exactly is a good vintage / year?

Proclaiming a “good  year” is a very rough guideline, and almost seems to be a dying rhetoric. Times have changed. Winemakers can manipulate a wine much more nowadays; whereas “back in the day”, they had to play with the cards they’d been dealt. There’s a slew of technology and winemaking techniques available to a winemaker now, which can be used to transform wines from an average year, into something outclassing those from an excellent year.

 

*The winemaker in question wouldn’t let me record the conversation, but some of the other things he had to say blew my mind!

2 Comments

  • November 29, 2011

    The Sediment blog

    Kris, I think there’s one sentence which could do with a little further thought: “It isn’t fair to charge the same price for a ‘07 as an ‘08.”

    Now, is that a commercial judgment? Forgive me if I use a Bordeaux comparison (I know my clarets better than my Cabernets…) but it would be perfectly reasonable to ask why a restaurant was charging the same price for an 08 as for an 09; they would be making much more on the mark-up from the original market price.

    Or is it a quality judgment? ie, that a restaurant is somehow wrong to charge the same amount for a lesser wine? Because if this is the case, you are heading towards a completely subjectively-priced list, bearing no relation to market prices – and presumably excluding big name wines which a customer believes are not as good quality, even though more expensive, than an unknown?

    Sorry, I know that’s a more serious point than we usually raise, but I think the financial issue of this argument is just s important as the “good year” aspect!

  • November 29, 2011

    Kris Chislett

    …and that’s where my whole argument falls apart! :) With this article, I was only talking about New World wineries. As I stated, when it comes to Old World producers (Bordeaux being a great example), there will always be a good amount of variation (in both price and quality) between vintages. That can’t ever be disputed (unless you’re Michel Rolland).
    No worries on the “more serious point”! Always happy that you guys have an interest in my little site! :)

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