There is probably no subject involving wine that is more often discussed by oenophiles and novices alike than “vintage” and the range of sub-topics surrounding it. Vintage is not only the date on the bottle but an expression of all that occurred during the growing season in a specific area and with specific varietals.

Yes there are those vintages widely hailed in the press and trade as exceptional (“vintage of the century”) and others that are either mediocre (“meant to drink while better ones mature”) or inferior (“not worth the search”). But these simplistic assessments do not tell the whole story.

Denis Dubourdieu is a highly respected vintner/winemaker and professor of oenology at the University of Bordeaux. He was recently quoted in a Decanter online post by John Salvin MW as listing the five criteria necessary for a great vintage. Dubourdieu’s criteria focus on the maturation of the vine and berries as they are influenced by various weather and hydration conditions at specific times during the growing season. After discussing the criteria in detail, Dubourdieu goes on to say, “three criteria must be fulfilled to make good wine, four for very good wine and all five for great wine.”

While knowing the character of the vintage is important, it is not necessarily a measure of quality across the board. Rather an assessment of vintage quality is connected to specific growing areas and often precise varietals and wines produced within the locale. Even in the same growing area, differences in weather conditions and ripening times of various varietals can yield mixed results.

Early blooming/ripening varietals (such as merlot, chardonnay and pinot noir) can be more harmed by early spring cold snaps and frost than later blooming/ripening varietals (such as cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel). But the late ripeners are more susceptible to fall rain and mildew that often occur after the others have been picked.

A superior vintage in Napa is not necessarily the same in Sonoma. The northern Rhone often differs from the southern Rhone, as do the Right (merlot focused) and Left (cabernet sauvignon focused) Banks of Bordeaux and the whites and reds of Burgundy. Great vintages are seldom universal, yet 1990 and 2005 did produce extraordinary wines in the majority of the world’s most revered winemaking areas.

With modern technology, along with a growing body of knowledge and experience, vintage variation has been somewhat leveled in recent years. This has served more to eliminate really inferior vintages than boost stellar ones beyond their natural potential.

It was once the conventional wisdom that in California vintage doesn’t matter because it’s always sunny and warm, and summer rains were not a problem as they often were in the Old World. Time has proven this general belief untrue. The recognition of vintage variation has become an important part in elevating California’s reputation for producing world-class wines that represent their diverse growing areas, varietal mix and vintage character.

Some wines from maligned vintages actually do survive the test of time and improve in the bottle while others from acclaimed vintages do not. There is an old axiom in wine study that some truly great wines are made in troubled vintages. And finding these “diamonds in the rough” is only one of the rewards in collecting and enjoying wine.

My Oct. 2 column “Wine service and what to expect” received several questions and comments relating mostly negative experiences. I guess we tend to remember the negative far more easily than the positive when it comes to service.

Bruce—Especially annoying to me is the “we don’t have that bottle.” If I am interested enough to ask for a wine list, I deserve accurate information. And when waiting for the replacement choice to arrive, it also slows down the flow of the meal.

Ken—Personally, my biggest beef is when they over-pour, especially in my glass. When they pour for non-drinkers, we just re-pour the wine into our own glasses or simply commandeer the non-drinker’s glass.

Paul—My question is this, and I have come up against the issue many times. When you get “unknowing” or simply inept service, how much do you want to complain, or as I usually do, just laugh it off?

Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article at or email me at

Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years.


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