The difficulties of the 2011 vintage for California Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are more evident with every tasting. The 2011 Cabernets are a year away, but you can expect much of the same: variability and a lesser year. It's something you should consider when buying the current Cabernet vintages on the market.
California Chardonnay is usually one of the easiest wines to buy. Even as years differ in weather, it is usually a most reliable and consistent wine. The wines usually taste more alike from year to year than they do different, especially when they're young.
The 2011 vintage was one of the most challenging in decades. Some winemakers with 30-plus years of experience called it the worst they'd seen, across the board.
Aside from 2011 being a cool, wet year, late-season rains put the lid on the season. It simply didn't get warm enough in some areas after the rains, which led to widespread botrytis and other kinds of rot. The 2011 Chardonnays that have passed through my tasting room are lighter in body and flavor and typically 5 points lower than normal.
The 2011 Pinots are showing the same ill effects. They are lighter in body and shy on flavor and texture. One thing that stands out is that many of the Pinots I've tasted show ripeness in terms of sugar and alcohol (in the 14.5 to 15.5 percent range), but they don't taste ripe. Another is that the tannins are very dry. It's as if you can taste the dampness of the vintage when the grapes were harvested. I'm surprised too that prices are about the same or higher for many of these wines. Better to look for Pinots from 2009, the best recent vintage, and 2010, a cool year but not as cold as 2011.
As for Cabernet, it is one of the heartiest grapes, but there's only so much vintners can do when faced with unripe grapes or rot. You'll hear a few vintners put a positive spin on 2011, and there are almost always exceptions to the rule. But many vineyards went unpicked—there's no point wasting time and money attempting to salvage a bad year. Most of the worst wines have been dumped.
Regardless of what winemakers say, they will be relieved when their 2011s are gone.