The Wine Exchange

Was that really an off vintage?

2013-07-11T19:20:00Z 2013-07-25T21:12:01Z Was that really an off vintage? Napa Valley Register
July 11, 2013 7:20 pm

I have always been a skeptic when it comes to an “all” or “none” approach while judging any situation, and I tend to look at the shades of grey that exist in most. And nowhere in the world of wine is this skepticism more apparent for me than in the broad classification of vintages pronounced “superb” or “inferior.”

Of course, there are many descriptors commonly used (primarily in the critical press) in defining both. For those superior vintages terms such as “earth shattering,” “vintage of the century,” “not to be missed” and “must buy” are but a few. And for the inferior ones “thin,” “not worthy of the search” and “meant to drink while better vintages are aging” are some that come to mind.

A few weeks ago, we attended a summer kick-off barbecue dinner at the home of vintner/winemaker Joe Cafaro. Cafaro decided to pair a delicious butterflied leg of lamb with two cabernets from 1988. Due to a cool summer, rain at harvest and other issues during the growing season, 1988 was widely considered an inferior vintage for cabernet in the Napa Valley.

So it was time to check my skepticism on the critical opinions and look at the two wines (Cafaro and Spottswoode) and their evolution over the past 25 years. And what a treat the wines were as evidenced by the favorable comments by all the vintners and winemakers at the table. The Cafaro had a bit more breadth on the palate and the Spottswoode demonstrated a more focused structure. Both wines showed the breed of the vineyard even in a lesser year and are holding beautifully well past their predicted life expectancy.

So with my skepticism upheld, I decided over the last couple of weeks to try some additional wines in my cellar from supposed “off years.” I’m pleasantly reassured that an overall “hex” on a vintage is uncalled for and many surprises await those willing to explore. A few standouts in this search were 2000 Araujo Cabernet Sauvignon, 1989 Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon, 1998 Corison Cabernet Sauvignon and a surprisingly good 1993 Cosentino Novelist (sauvignon blanc/semillion).

English wine authority Jancis Robinson wrote in the July 5 Financial Times of a recent vertical tasting she attended featuring the very rare and most expensive Chateau Pétrus from 1970 to 1982. The selection naturally included the weakest vintages of the period along with the most revered. Her greatest surprise was the long-dismissed 1972 (“seductively heady”) and a disappointing showing for the respected 1978 (“rather undramatic”).

While not all wines from maligned vintages survive the test of time and actually improve in the bottle, the same is also true of some wines from highly acclaimed vintages. There is an old axiom in wine study that some truly great wines are made in troubled vintages and finding them is only one of the rewards in wine collecting and enjoyment.

My June 28 column — “OK, now what do I do?” — drew several responses showing this is a quandary experienced by many readers possessing a range of wine knowledge.

Jon — Ah, “just bring a bottle of wine,” seems so simple — unless you have a reputation for knowing something about wine. Then life and choice become more complex.

This is the other side of the question I addressed but is no less relevant or perplexing. But knowing about wine as you apparently do will at least direct you to the questions you’ll want to ask the host and tailor your selection to the cuisine and the other guests attending.

Joe — It’s a recurrent problem that I try to simplify by asking a bunch of questions.

Seeking the advice of others, and knowing the questions you want answered will certainly help in making the best decision. You’re on the right track.

Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article at or e-mail me at

Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 30 years.

Copyright 2015 Napa Valley Register. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(1) Comments

  1. Bob Henry
    Report Abuse
    Bob Henry - July 19, 2013 2:46 am

    My nominee for a dreadful California Cabernet vintage is 1972. The Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve was and remains gawd awful.

    My nominee for a "sleeper" California Cabernets vintage denigrated by the wine press is 1998.

    1998 Vintage: The Challenge of El Nino

    The 1998 vintage has received “mixed” reviews, with most wine pundits fearing early on that the El Nino rains would produce underripe Cabernet and Merlot grapes with “hard,” unappealing tannins. Top vineyard managers and winemakers, mindful of protecting their reputations, adopted “green harvest” practices, rigorously “dropping fruit” from the vines to allow for smaller-sized grape clusters to fully ripen. At some wineries, laborious hand culling of underripe grapes from within the clusters was likewise adopted.

    For the results of a single-blind tasting of 1998 vintage wines (held in Winter 2001), go to and click on file "California Cabernets - 1998 Tasting."
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