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Creating Vintage Charts

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Oct 19, 2006 12:50pm ET

Jesse Calderon has a great question about how I arrive at vintage chart ratings.

I'm sure my colleagues will be glad to share their thoughts on this subject as well, since we all have our own ways of analyzing vintage quality.

Rating vintages is a bit of a moving target. By that I mean that in California the wine scene changes significantly each year. New producers arrive. Some wineries go out of business, or lose a key vineyard, which can change the character of a wine.

So I’m not measuring the same wineries and estates each year, as is the case in an area such as Bordeaux. There, the estates essentially produce wine from the same property year after year and you don’t have great changes in grape sources or new châteaus.

Basically, I use a system that relies on the percentage of outstanding wines from a given appellation. I also take into consideration weather and winemakers and grape grower analyses, especially those who work with a wide range of grapes and not just a single vineyard.

You’ll notice that in the past few years, I’ve broken down the grape varieties into smaller appellations and I’ll continue to do that as I see fit.

With Pinot Noir, for instance, this year (in our Dec. 15 issue), I’ve added Anderson Valley to our vintage chart. Until recently there haven’t been enough Anderson Valley Pinots to compile a vintage chart that I felt comfortable with. But there are now perhaps 20 or more Pinots that I reviewed from there this past year, and I decided I’d rather have some vintage rating than none at all.

In areas such as Sonoma, with Chardonnay, before deciding to lump all the appellations (Alexander, Russian River and Sonoma valleys and Sonoma Coast ) together, I broke them down into individual appellations.

What I found is that for purposes of a vintage chart—and a general overall rating—the areas were more similar than different each year and followed a general pattern that works for a vintage chart.

I did the same with Santa Barbara Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, looking at both Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills. Eventually, as more wines emerge from those two appellations, it may make sense to break those appellations apart.

Thw bottom line is that I’m constantly trying to figure out the best way to reduce the vintage to a snapshot.

Arshavir Kouladjian
Los Angeles, California —  October 19, 2006 8:06pm ET
Hi Laube,
The 2004 vintage is comming out for CA cabs and your still talking about, whether or not to buy 2003 cabs in the magazine.

Your opinion on such matters are of the up most, but allocations come in April and September - November and usually 2 years behind.
Currently, the 2004 allocations are in. The key should be to be on top of allocations, not a year in, when some would say, "A DAY LATE and a DOLLAR SHORT."
Thank You and look forward to your blogs
James Laube
Napa, CA —  October 19, 2006 8:37pm ET
Arshavir, I reveiew the wines as soon as I can, irrespective of the vintage. Most of the wine market now is dominated by 2003. I have reviewed some 2004s and will continue to do so as they become available to me.
John Wilen
Texas —  October 20, 2006 12:32am ET
AK has a point. I've always thought that the magazine has sacrificed timeliness for comprehensiveness when it came to the Buying Guide. It isn't that hard to identify the key early releases in CA every year. You should be ahead of the curve on those. For example, without fail, Pride, Caymus and Lewis are almost always the very first big gun cabernets to be released. You can set your watch by it. The same is true for certain chardonnays and pinots. These key early releases and other benchmarks should be reported on the minute they hit the shelves. (The wineries haven't sent them over yet? Get on their case or threaten to buy the samples you need at retail.) That is much more important than going to the nth degree to capture every wine that's been released in the last 12 months. Frankly, do we really care whether you give Smoking Loon an 81 or an 82? If we find out the answer a month later, does it matter? If you want to stay a driving force in the marketplace, lead us. Get out in front! We will still value the comprehensive and insightful assessment of the passing vintage. Just accept that by the time it gets published, as readers of the magazine, the website, the Insider, Advance and blogs, we already know the answer! There are few surprises, and our attention and checkbooks have turned to the new releases. (On another note, kudos for picking Caymus SS as #1. Without question, it's the correct answer....)
Michael Anderson
San Diego, Ca —  October 20, 2006 6:28pm ET
Guys - don't you think James Laube knows a least a little bit more about wine than the average reader (i.e. you) I'd much rather have detailed analysis of a particular vintage, and the winners therein, than a "quick hit" on the new vintages (and trendy choices) so I could rush out to buy and be part of the trend. Remember, California reds, like Cabernet, have been known on occasion to age and improve in the bottle, so what's the rush :-)
Robert Fukushima
California —  October 20, 2006 8:02pm ET
My question would be how to use the vintage chart effectively as a tool. It seems to me that it is a fairly gross measure of an area, even when broken down as James mentions. I tend to buy many of the same wines year after year, and experiment with others as the name comes to me. I know people in the wine business, they provide me with leads. Where does the vintage chart really fit in?
Delmonico Stkhse @ Venetian
Las Vegas, Nevada —  October 22, 2006 4:12pm ET
James - Seems like the nature of us as human beings is to want to put everything in a box. We want to over-quantify everything, while the reality is that most of the world is grey with really very little black and white. That being said, It is important for you to give us some kind of picture of what each vintage is bringing us. There lies the challenge. Your concern for accuracy gives us more confidence with a vintage and how to approach it. Keep up the great work. Kevin Vogt
James Laube
Napa, CA —  October 22, 2006 9:14pm ET
Thanks, Kevin. Great to see you in SF.

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