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California Caution Flag

James Laube
Posted: May 23, 2000

California Caution Flag

By James Laube, senior editor

I expected that this would be a tricky shopping season for drinkers of California wine. After a series of great vintages through most of the 1990s, I knew that the variable quality of many wines sold this year would be something of a letdown. But it's even worse than I thought, so up goes the warning flag for everyone to see.

The essential reasons lie in the vintages that are currently being offered. The specific causes are a poor growing season in 1998 and overcropping in 1997--giving us two instructive lessons in wine quality analysis. But what's worse than the problems themselves is that prices are too high and bear little correlation with the quality of the wines, so caveat emptor.

You can never really pass judgment on the wines of a vintage until you taste them. Oftentimes it takes years for ageworthy wines to show their true colors. The trouble is, you need to make your buying decisions when the wines are available. With the overheated wine economy, many bottlings sell out amazingly fast. Cautious buyers are not rewarded for their prudence if they miss out.

Still, at this stage I've tasted enough white wines to make some general observations. When it comes to California Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay from 1998, quality is below normal. The Sauvignons are, for the most part, light, crisp and simple, with very few exciting wines. Even though we've come to expect this class of wine to provide value, that didn't come to mind as I sipped through the offerings.

The Chardonnay class has also been largely uninspiring. You may have become accustomed to bold, ripe, rich, flavorful wines from vintage after vintage. But with 1998, the wines lack depth and concentration, and the fruit flavors are modest. You get an up-front glimpse of fruit, and then the finish turns dilute.

I've waded through a river of '98 Zinfandels, and the findings were similar--many light-colored wines, some even with premature browning. Green, earthy and muddled flavors dominated many of them, accompanied by dry, snapping tannins.

The next '98s to arrive will be the Pinot Noirs and Syrahs. I've been pleasantly surprised by some of the '98 Pinots, which were ripe and complex, but overall quality will be mixed; ditto for Syrahs, which so far have been a meaty lot.

The culprit in '98 was the long and uneven bud break (which is when the vines first start growing in the spring, after winter dormancy) and grape set (when the flowers turn into fruit). Winemakers usually don't worry much about bud break. But in '98, because of unseasonably cool, wet weather throughout the spring, bud break and the subsequent grape set spanned six weeks -- an abnormally long period, particularly within a single vineyard. The grape set was the most problematic; it usually takes only a week.

Imagine grapegrowing as a footrace. When there's a regular set, all the grapes start together and cross the finish line at about the same time. Winemakers can fairly accurately predict crop size and harvest dates, and if it's a large crop, they can thin the bunches to reduce the number of berries. When there's an irregular set, the grapes get a staggered start. The grapes that start late then struggle to ripen. In the case of '98, the poor set resulted in a very small crop, of uneven ripeness. As you might expect, these wines have a wide range of flavors, including green and underripe notes.

The other wines that will dominate this year's market are the 1997 Cabernets and Merlots. The '97 vintage had a better bud break and set, but it produced a too bountiful crop -- about 30 percent higher than normal. Growers who sell their grapes (but don't make wine) love a bumper crop. What farmer wouldn't like a 30 percent raise after a string of scrawny vintages? Wine salesmen love it too, for the same reason. But the best winemakers cringe at the thought of too big a crop. They have to press growers to thin clusters, and they still worry that the vines won't ripen all their grapes.

Too large a crop often leads to a vintage that falls short of the best. I haven't seen all the Cabernet and Merlot heavy-hitters yet, but based on the wines I've tasted so far, there's reason to be concerned.

Consider these vintage scenarios when you shop for 1997s and 1998s.

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This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Tuesday by a different Wine Spectator editor. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives.

(And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)

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