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james laube's wine flights

Dropping Vintage Dates Might Make Better Wines

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Aug 3, 2007 2:39pm ET

As wineries try to keep a lid on prices—and at the same time aim for good-quality wines—many turn to the California appellation, and that’s often a good thing.

Blending grapes from multiple appellations makes sense, whether it’s for single varietals, such as Zinfandel or Sauvignon Blanc, or more diverse wines, such as Rhone-inspired reds.

One way wineries might make better (and more consistent) wines would be to do away with vintage dates. I know that will sound like heresy to some. But if wineries were to blend different vintages, they could achieve better balanced, more consistent and more complete wine, in many instances. Case in point: non-vintage Ports and Champagne; both mix various vintages to achieve complexity and consistency, and you don't hear many complaints about these wines.

Another example: Blending riper wine from a year such as 2004 or 2005 would soften the drier, harder tannins evident in many of the 2003 Cabernets, Merlots and Zinfandels.

I see blending and dropping vintage dates as a way of making better quality, more affordable wines. Whether it makes sense to consumers or producers is a hurdle that may be impossible to clear, given our belief that a wine with a vintage date is superior to a wine without one.

In the case of California, we could use more and better value wines. Perhaps we should give serious thought to dropping vintage dates and blending years (for California wines) to accomplish this goal. Huge crops in 2005, 2006 and soon 2007 will provide greater blending options, so maybe now is the time to act.

James Scoptur
WI —  August 6, 2007 12:22pm ET
I think that you would take away from the individuality that each year is, just as blending from many appellations or areas in an appellation takes little things away from the terrior each site gives. I like the fact that each year is different, smells different, tastes different, and is better or worse than another vintage. I do not want the same thing every year. I want what is in the bottle to be an expression of a vintage, not the same every time, otherwise it will be bland and boring, like the big house champagne that is blended and meticulously altered every year to taste the same. I don¿t want that. I want to taste the individuality, whether good or bad.
John Miller
Windsor, CA —  August 6, 2007 12:29pm ET
James,This is an excellent (and very onorthodox) idea from a winemaking point of view. From a marketing point of view, however, I am not sure the general public is ready for a serious NV redwine.
Willim Tisherman
Katonah, NY —  August 6, 2007 12:49pm ET
This is preposterous. No, wait -- it's genius! If producers make multi-vintage cuvees, how would numbers-wielding critics be able to dish out their tattoo-like ratings?
Douglas Johnson
Appleton, WI —  August 6, 2007 1:28pm ET
If vintage dates were dropped, how would one know one bottling from another as far as quality, etc. are concerned? For example, if WS rated a Mondavi cabernet as outstanding without any reference to vintage, how would I know that the bottle in the store is from the bottling you rated? If all vitners adopted a lot number system like Marietta Cellars, then the buyer could be confident his purchase is from the same bottling, but unless such a system were mandated, I think consumers would be in the dark.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  August 6, 2007 1:39pm ET
Douglas and others, my suggestion pertains to value-oriented California appellation wines, where vintage date is less a factor if even a factor in quality, and certainly not suggested for all wines. Blending vintages would even out some of the deficiencies that exist particularly in wines in lesser years.
Brandon Redman
Seattle, WA —  August 6, 2007 2:04pm ET
I think it's a great idea, and some producers are doing it already. I've had numerous excellent bottles of Townshend Cellars Vortex Red (about $13 in Washington). Marietta has its following for their NV red. More producers doing this could really sell, in my opinion.And, Mr. Scoptur, I also enjoy the individual personalities that each vintage brings. I don't think Mr. Laube is suggesting that wineries ONLY bottle NV blends, but do it in addition to their regular, vintage-specific releases. That way, we the consumer have more options available on the market. Can you imagine a very tasty $25 NV blend from Dalla Valle or Shafer (to name two) NOT selling well? I can't and would certainly buy.
Willim Tisherman
Katonah, NY —  August 6, 2007 2:06pm ET
This is preposterous. No, wait -- it's genius! If producers make multi-vintage cuvees, how would numbers-wielding critics be able to dish out their tattoo-like ratings?
Philip Barr
New York City —  August 6, 2007 2:30pm ET
When you look at wines like Abacus by ZD, and Fourteen (blended at the Renolds Family winery) the wine loses some identity by blending appelations and vintages the way these bottlings do. There is no doubt that these can be excellent wines, and both of these examples aim for the very top of thier markets. However, I am much more inclined to reach for something that may source fruit from a couple of different areas, but has an identity that can be found in the winemaking process, vineyard sources, or blend of grapes year over year. I like trying several vintages of a wine to see how it evolves and how a winemaker deals with the challenges of each growing season. This is how the winemakers we follow from project to project develop a reputation. They are more than blending artists, they feel out the qualities of what comes in each year and try to make the best product with the crop available.
Wines Vines
August 6, 2007 2:32pm ET
Champagne/sparkling wine producers have been doing this for eons with their non-vintage sparklers. So why not do the same with some table wines? I don't think JL is suggesting that we replace ALL vintage-dated wines with non-vintage. Hey, anything to give California vintners a chance to better compete against imports at the value level...
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  August 6, 2007 3:08pm ET
Interesting idea. I'm not sure it would help as far as value goes, since it's expensive to keep bulk wine around for years. The examples you give (NV Port and Champagne) aren't necessarily cheap. But then I guess value can be found at almost any price level, so maybe you really didn't mean lower priced wines.

The idea isn't without some risk. What if the next's year crop did really blend that well with the previous? In the Port and Champagne example, there are other "things" involved to potentially mask such issues.... for Port there's fortification and residual sugar, and for Champagne it's the secondary fermentation and time with the lees that add masking flavor and complexity.

I really don't have any problem with the idea - anything that makes a better wine is fair game as far as I'm concerned. I'm just not sure it would guarantee better wine.
Tim Sylvester
Santa Monica, CA —  August 6, 2007 3:23pm ET
James--The premise of your piece, that wineries are trying to keep a lid on prices, seems only true in the margin. It's a rare sight indeed of the 15 or so mailers I receive from California wineries to see even steady prices from year to year; price reductions? Never. Further, I don't see Screaming Eagle, Colgin, Harlan, Marcassin, Kosta Browne and the other cult cabs and pinots showing any interest in making their wines more available and, by definition, affordable to the masses. That any of the dozens and dozens of big time wineries in California would risk its place in the market by blending its best wines across vintages is economically counter-intuitive.
Hugh L Sutherland Jr-m
miramar beach, fl —  August 6, 2007 3:46pm ET
I would be more in favor of bringing back some of the good curvees that we had before wineries decided to make more money and make single vineyard wines. There are some very good zins that are NV. So the idea is not so far-fetched as it may seem. As Tish says, we would no longer have to deal so much with those misleading numbers and have fewer wine "experts" rating the wines. I get tachycardia just thinking about the possibility.
Harvey Kornicks
Vero Beach,Florida —  August 6, 2007 5:07pm ET
I think the public is entitled to know what the year is, and the vintages of what goes into the bottled...Please correct me on the next point..Is not the government trying to have more information on the labels rather then less? Who,what,when, and why? What would prevent the wineries from selling to each other from their different vintages, and years..I rather have a date....Harvey Kornicks
Harvey Kornicks
Vero Beach,Florida —  August 6, 2007 5:11pm ET
I think the public is entitled to know what the year is, and the vintages of what goes into the bottled...Please correct me on the next point..Is not the government trying to have more information on the labels rather then less? Who,what,when, and why? What would prevent the wineries from selling to each other from their different vintages, and years..I rather have a date....Harvey Kornicks
John Miller
Windsor, CA —  August 6, 2007 5:12pm ET
The idea is not to blend your "best wines across vintages". Even Champagne houses don't do that. Their best juice becomes a tete de cuvee. The idea is that you take lesser juice with an interesting component (maybe good acidity, maybe firm tannins, or color or aroma) and blend with juice with another interesting component. The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. There is no inherent value in "individuality" regardless of whether it is "good or bad", any more than "single-vineyard" bottlings (the rage in the US) are inherently better than multi-vineyard ones. Reminds me of a great Bill Cosby bit where a guy is extolling the virtues of cocaine and tells Cosby that it "enhances your personality". Cosby answers, "Yeah, but what if you're an a$%#?"
John Wilen
Texas —  August 6, 2007 5:46pm ET
JL, what you propose is not radical at all. But it will be to people who read it and immediately (and incorrectly) think of their Phelps Insignia or Lewis reserve chardonnay.

Your suggestion makes sense for inexpensive wines. Do consumers buying $8.99 labels care about vintage dates? I'd guess they value them less than people think. At that price point, I'd wager the consumer wants consistency and freshness.

Wines sold at low price points are intentionally made to taste consistent across vintages. Other wine-producing countries recognize this and have different content rules. Last time I checked, Australia and the EU allowed 15% of the blend to be outside the stated vintage, while South Africa and Chile allowed 25%. (In the US, the law is 5%.) This puts our mass producers at a disadvantage in competing againt a flood of imports.

But the answer is not to relax our content laws, which would undo years of hard fought battles to raise the quality image of California wine. Rather, if low-end American producers simply exercised their current legal right to package wines without vintage dates, it would likely make them much more cost competitive.

But here's the twist. There is one advantage to knowing the vintage for an $8.99 wine. But it is not what you might think. The vintage date helps the consumer determine how long the wine might have been sitting on the shelf. Remember, additional bottle age at this price point is not necessarily a good thing. Vintages can help identify inventory that's been sitting around forgotten in some hot warehouse, but has just now hit the shelf. Which is exactly why your non vintage proposal needs another leg to stand on! And here it is: a born-on date. Give people an easy way to know!

So which mass producer will be the first to drop vintages, add born-on dates, and hit the TV airwaves hard with a "freshness" campaign? Just wait, it's coming....
Dave Joyce
Winston-Salem, NC —  August 6, 2007 6:01pm ET
James, I certainly agree with your assertions on blending making a better wine, but if you think wineries are slow to make the switch to screwcaps, even when that choice seems like no brainer, that process will look speedy compared to adopting blending.

However, you must think of the downside, or upside depending on your point of view. Not having specific vintages to write about would certainly make Wine Spectator hundreds of pages lighter each year (certainly popular with the 'green' movement). We could retire the phrases "best vintage ever", "best vintage since XXXX", and so on. No vintage forecasts from around the world, no vintage hype coming from each winery, no vintage release dates, no pressure on the distribution channel to clear the previous vintage so that they can order the next. I am not sure the industry could stand it!

All kidding aside, with the track record of some wineries on hiking prices and creating super premium wines, we might just end up with claims that since blending makes a better wine, it should have a much higher price (i.e. ZD Abacus). Can you just see the winery press releases saying "blend number 345R is just released and has far more (insert hyperbole) than blend number 344R and the price only went up 10%". Overly jaded??

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