Saturday, April 24, 2010

A taste of Napa's '98 vintage

It’s rare – even for those of us in the business – to taste a large number of older Napa Valley wines in one sitting. One might get the occasional chance to try something with a little age at a restaurant or a winery event, but it’s an infrequent treat to get a look at a broad swath of producers. Given the opportunity, I jumped at the chance to attend the St. Helena Star’s tasting of the ’98 vintage organized in conjunction with the Napa Valley Vintners at the Rudd Center of the Culinary Institute of America. Along with about 20 other winemakers, sommeliers, retailers and journalists, we undertook a 21-wine tasting of the much maligned 1998 vintage to see if really deserved its bad rap.

The vintage was a challenging one, no doubt. It was the year I moved to Napa from the East Coast and I have vivid memories of rain well into late of April and thinking, “this is California weather?” It wasn’t just a sprinkle here and there either. We’re talking days on end of serious storms. Basically, it postponed the start of spring and added another challenge to what would be a cool, wet growing season overall (one tasting panelist recalled seeing grapes on vines with no leaves in early November still trying to fully ripen). Conventional wisdom would point to green, vegetal wines in instances where the farming wasn’t properly managed.

Critics being critics, they saw weakness in Napa and pounced, all but declaring the ’98 wines undrinkable. What we learned, surprisingly, was that underripe fruit wasn’t the issue… but brettanomyces, the yeast present in cellars around the world, certainly was. In minute quantities, it gives a distinctive “funk” to a wine which some wine drinkers find appealing, but most winemakers do everything in their power to drive it out of their cellars and barrels as it is often ruinously destructive. It was apparent that “brett” was a lot more prevalent in Napa cellars a mere 12 years ago than it is today.

Overall, the group felt the wines to be enjoyable if not spectacular. We were nearly unanimous in the belief that most had hit their peak and that further cellaring wouldn’t add much to them. However, this was certainly not the display of liquefied asparagus foretold by the critics – they just tasted like older Napa wines. It demonstrated once again that a “bad” vintage in California is a very relative term.

--Rhett Gadke, Wine Director

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