Rumors have circulated around the valley about $100 bottles of 1998 Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon selling for $15, or being given as favors to guests at winery parties. Whether these rumors are true or false, they are a symptom of what has happened to that vintage.
Labeled a "Black Sheep Vintage" by Wine Spectator, the 98 cabs from Napa Valley took a beating in the marketplace. Typical of consumers' attitudes was this request of a Napa resident by an attorney from Chicago: "Can you get me some Silver Oak? Anything but the 98."
Why did the 98s get such a bad rap? Several factors contributed to the situation.
One was the weather — spring was unusually cool and wet, causing a late and uneven fruit set, which was spread out over a period of several weeks. This, in turn, meant that veraison, the time when the color of the grapes changes, occurred over a longer period of time than usual, resulting in an unevenly ripened crop. Then extreme heat struck during August and September, and in many cases, the berries were sunburned. Rain came in October, and grapes ceased to ripen. Picking was late already, and in some instances, harvesting continued into November. One winery reported picking as late as the day before Thanksgiving.
Another problem faced by the 98s was that they followed the 97s, which some labeled the vintage of the decade. The 97 vintage was huge — about 30 percent higher than the previous year, and growing conditions were excellent. Wine Spectator scored 43 percent of 97 Napa Valley cabs as "outstanding," meaning 90 points or higher on a 100-point scale. In contrast, only 11 percent of the 98s had that rating.
(The 1999 vintage also was excellent, and several people interviewed for this article said the 98 cabs chiefly had the misfortune to fall between the 97s and the 99s.)
Tasting panel assembled
Members of the Register staff wanted to see if time had changed anything, so with the assistance of the Bounty Hunter, a fine wine shop in downtown Napa, we assembled a retrospective tasting of a dozen of Napa Valleyís top 98 cabs and blends featuring cabernet sauvignon by a panel of wine industry professionals.
The wines tasted included, in alphabetical order, Caldwell, Cardinale, Consentino Winery's The Poet, Forman, Gemstone, Joseph Phelps Insignia, Opus One, Paradigm, Richard Partridge, Robert Mondavi reserve, Robert Sinskey Vineyards and Rudd.
The tasting panel included Gary Lipp, a wine marketing consultant; Peter Marks, MW, curator of wine at Copia; Ronn Wiegand, MW and MS, Restaurant Wine newsletter; Ted Hall, Long Meadow Ranch Winery; Ric Forman, Forman Winery; and Rhett Gadke, Craig House and Pat Chapman, all of the Bounty Hunter.
The tasting was done blind in four flights of three wines each, and no attempt was made to rate or score the wines. The purpose was to see if opinions about the 98s had changed, to see if the wines have matured and to see if the vintage was really as flawed as originally reported.
The answers were yes and no, yes and no, and somewhat.
The consensus of the group was that there wasn't a dud in the lot, that some were better than others, but that none were showing complexity waiting to unfold; thus, they should not be held for too much longer, and certainly consumed within four or five years at most.
"Who wants to wait more than five years to drink wine, anyhow?" asked Forman.
Pricing, economy affected vintage
They also agreed that pricing and the economy played a role in the negative press the vintage received. The 97 cabs were so good and fetched such high prices that wine marketing people kept the prices at that same level, even though the quality of the 97s wasn't present in the 98s.
Lots of people have compared the 98s to the 97s, but none put it as colorful as Hall: "The 97 presented itself as a voluptuous young woman, and the 98 was more of a sophisticated lady."
"It was more of a price complaint," Hall said. "It was as much a criticism of the pricing policies of winemakers as the wines themselves."
Wiegand took exception to the use of the word "winemakers" in that comment, saying that it isn't the winemakers who set the prices, it's the marketing people. But he added, "In retrospect, if they had known they (the 98s) would have met with such tough resistance, they would have dropped their prices. People were willing to pay anything for the 97s. It was bad timing in the market place. It (1998) was an average vintage, nothing more, they made wines that were shortcoming in value, and they seemed excessively priced compared to other vintages."
"The problem was that the prices didn't come down, they went up," said Marks. "Price should equal ageability, and they should have priced them accordingly."
Lipp agreed with the price complaint, "to some extent. If you're making wine in the 'collector' category, you must bring the (quality of the) vintage into the pricing. Maybe they would have been better off if they reduced prices, but conditions were such that they kept the prices up."
Were they overpriced? "By and large, yes," Gadke said. "There were so many newcomers to the wine business they felt they could keep or raise the prices."
But he said that after the 99s came out, many wineries that had a backlog of 98s in their warehouses gave incentives to retailers to buy the 98s, asking them, however, to keep the retail price up.
Economy compounded problem
All pretty well agreed that the economic downturn that occurred about the time the wines were released had something to do with the reception the 98s received, as well. "The downturn compounded the market, said Marks. "The (press) comments came at the same time the economy dropped," Wiegand said. "If they (the 98s) had come out when NASDAQ was at 5,000, people probably would have been happy."
From a selling standpoint, Gadke said, "We knew that when (James) Laube (of the Wine Spectator) and (Robert) Parker came out, we knew it was going to be a struggle, so we were very selective in what we would buy and adjusted our policy to include some lower-priced wines. Consumer trust helped us sell some 98s. Once we got people to try them, they liked them and bought them."
The weather came in for blame, too. "When nature's against you, you do the best you can," said Wiegand, adding that the weather and the declining economy was a double whammy against the 98s. Lipp felt that the late rain meant it would be a tough vintage, and that much depended on the farming, "the care and attention in the vineyard. Good winemakers can overcome (weather problems) and make good wine. The weather in 1998 was less than ideal, but I wouldn't write off the vintage."
Those growers on mountaintops and hillsides fared better. Both Forman's and Hall's grapes come from mountain vineyards, and both said they were above the marine layer and had lots of sunshine. Both said they picked in early September, before the rains hit that adversely affected the vintage.
Wiegand, however, thought that when the wines were released, "they were very light and hollow, with no depth of flavor. I was mildly disappointed." He said that the more wines he tasted, the more he was disappointed. Marks' initial reaction to the vintage was, "They were inconsistent. There were some greenish tannins, they were lighter wines, and they suffered by comparison to the 97s." But he added, "In every vintage some wines are consistently good."
And Lipp felt that "drawing a broad brush to the entire vintage can be misleading. Some produced wonderful wines, some produced some all right wines. Some (growers) left the fruit out there longer and played tag with the weather," resulting in better quality.
Inevitably, comparisons of Napa Valley cabernets are made with those from Bordeaux. Forman, who felt the overall quality was good said, "This would have been a good vintage in Bordeaux." Weather conditions in Napa Valley in 1998 were similar to those faced by Bordeaux growers in most years. Some of the comments dealt with the pricing structure. "In Bordeaux they raise and lower the price, depending on the vintage," Gadke said.
Press comments affect perceptions
The panelists agreed that press comments about a vintage play a major role in consumers' perceptions. Many wineries offer the media an opportunity to taste wines while in the barrel, but this is before they are blended into the final product. Asked when would be the ideal time for critics to taste wines, the panel pretty well agreed that the ideal time would be just before the wine was to be released.
"Producers like to show it in the barrel, but it's incomplete then," said Lipp. Marks felt it would be best "to show the wine closer to when the consumer will drink it," and Forman said, "Right after bottling or even six months later," adding, "but I don't know how you could do that." Hall said he doesn't let anyone taste from the barrel.
Many who saw the "Black Sheep Vintage" headline in the Wine Spectator may not have read through the entire article. Although the author, James Laube, was critical in his opening sentence, writing "Without a doubt, the 1998 vintage of California cabernet sauvignon is the most difficult group of young wines I've tasted in more than a decade," he qualified it by adding that perhaps the wines will be "late bloomers and live up to some winemakers' claims that this vintage is a worthy successor to 1997."
And a couple of paragraphs later, he said, "To be fair, 1998 is far from a disaster; many winemakers succeeded in making the best of this wickedly uneven year." And his overall analysis of the wines was backed up by most of the panelists. He gave the vintage a score of 86, "meaning it is of very good quality," and his criticism was leveled at all of California's cabernets, not just Napa Valley: "The stars of the 1998 vintage hail mainly from the Napa Valley and the sites where the grapes obviously ripened evenly."
Laube also commented about the high prices, saying, "Paying top dollar for a curious vintage is a high-stakes proposition. If the wines werenít so costly, it would be a lot easier to get excited about them."
Whether consumers were influenced by the headline only is a matter of conjecture. What is known is that the 1998 cabernet sauvignons were of good quality generally, but not what most people had expected after the superb 1997 vintage. It was light and not a style to which California consumers are accustomed — "The California palate is geared toward fruit bombs," said Marks.
Overall, the panel found the dozen wines tasted to be pretty decent wines. While it was not intended to be a ranking, three of them seemed to generate the most favorable comments — Joseph Phelps Insignia, Forman and Gemstone. But, as was mentioned earlier, "There wasnít a dud in the lot."
If people were filling vertical collections, they needed the 98s. Those wineries that have exclusive mailing list subscribers sold out. But generally people stayed away, and many wineries suffered. Some 1998 Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons can still be found, and in many cases, they've been discounted. If so, they'd probably be a good buy. But drink them soon.
Jack Heeger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor's note: The Register wishes to thank Mark Pope, Rhett Gadke and the rest of the Bounty Hunter staff for arranging the tasting and handling the details. Thanks also to the vintners who provided their wines for the tasting.