Focus on California

California's string of four consecutive very good to outstanding vintages came to an abrupt end in the El Nino year of 1998, a late, cool growing season punctuated by extremes. It began with miserably chilly, rainy weather that lingered into early June, extremely rare for California, resulting in an irregular, drawn-out flowering—as long as four weeks for some varieties in some sites. The stage was set for crop levels to be down as much as 50% from the record harvest of 1997.

Because ripening of the fruit was extremely uneven from the outset, many grape growers did substantial green harvesting, eliminating the less ripe fruit to alleviate some of these differences. But due to the small crop loads, other growers were unwilling to reduce their potential production any further. Although the summer was mostly cool, a heat spike in early August stunned the vines in some areas and burned exposed fruit. A couple days of substantial rain in the second half of the month, followed by a period of humidity, raised the threat of rot, especially where grape clusters were not sufficiently aerated. This period appears to have been particularly damaging for zinfandel grapes, whose skins were at a vulnerable stage. Many '98 zinfandels show incomplete ripeness, and some betray the damp aromas and/or dry-leaves tannins that indicate a percentage of rot.

By late August and early September, with the ripening process far behind schedule, the most quality-obsessed growers continued dropping fruit in order to aerate their vines and hasten ripening of the remaining berries. A period of rain in late September caused numerous properties to pick before their fruit was completely ripe, especially where heavy crop loads might have been vulnerable to rot. Those who waited were rewarded with generally warm, sunny weather through most of October. In cooler spots at higher elevations, the harvest lasted well into November, but by then the days were growing shorter and some vineyards never really ripened their fruit.

Not surprisingly, 1998 is a vintage that generally favors early-ripening varieties and sites. Many producers of chardonnay and sauvignon blanc told me they were able to pick at their leisure, for flavor development rather than sugar levels, without losing fresh acidity. (I actually found a higher percentage of fruit-deficient chardonnays from the Central Coast than from Napa or Sonoma.) Pinot noir, needless to say, was also widely successful, especially in the Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast, and there are many wonderfully aromatic syrahs, even from normally cooler sites. At the other extreme, cabernet sauvignon grown at higher altitudes, especially on east-facing slopes that do not receive late-afternoon sun, often failed to develop truly ripe flavors even when grape sugars reached reasonable levels. In my late winter tour of the best North Coast addresses, I tasted numerous '98 cabernets and proprietary red blends with pinched or downright green flavors and rather slight structures. Some wineries that normally show me cabernets from barrel the second winter after the harvest declined to present their '98s. But there are also, miraculously, some standouts.

An early look at 1999. Nineteen ninety-nine, by the way, was another very late growing season, featuring a late spring and a very cool summer. Once again, crop loads were generally small. A blast of heat in late September scared some growers into picking red grapes before the skins were ripe. But those who waited benefitted from a long, leisurely harvest, warmer than that of '98. My early look at some of the reliable cabernet superstars suggests that some remarkably dense yet fresh wines have been made. The vintage will be far less consistent than '97, for example, but it is likely that the top estates will produce outstanding bottles. More than one grower I visited in early March was already rating '99 among the two or three best vintages of the '90s.

1997 revisited. On my visit to California, and in subsequent tastings in New York, I had a chance to see a host of finished '97s. 1997 was a very warm growing season that began with a huge, even flowering. The warm summer, however, provided the conditions to ripen an extraordinary amount of fruit (it helped that the vines were in healthy condition following two light harvests), and many '97s are richer than would seem possible in light of the record yields. The harvest was the earliest to date for many producers, yet one of the hallmarks of the vintage is its lovely balance; even wines from very high crop levels will make pleasant drinking. At the level of the top wineries, the '97 cabernet- and merlot-based wines approach the '94s, '91s and best '90s in quality. They also possess the harmony and lush textures to give early pleasure (many of the best '94s, in contrast, are in a dumb stage right now).

A word on current California wine pricing. The recent NASDAQ bloodbath, which has already taken a good deal of excess cash out of our economy, will surely result in pricing restraint as demand for expensive bottles cools. After all, Wall Street types and millionaires—and the high-end restaurants that serve them—have been a major force behind soaring auction prices for California collectibles. But to this point, few wineries have cut their prices on '98s and some have raised them. When the better cabernets are released later this year and early in 2001, prices will likely be at or somewhat above '97 levels. (One problem is that the '98 crop is a small one, and there won't be a lot of '99 either.) In this wildly inconsistent vintage, there will be a host of vastly overpriced wines on the market, so consumers will need to exercise extreme care in buying the '98 cabernets.

On the following pages I offer brief profiles of wineries I visited in late winter, along with notes on their current and upcoming releases, including some finished wines that will not be released until next fall, or even later. Following this section are my tasting notes on all other recommended current California releases (i.e., wines receiving scores of 85 or higher) tasted in recent months in New York and California. (As always, unfinished wines are scored with ranges, while wines in bottle are given precise scores.) In my lists of additional wines sampled from a given producer, bottles scored 83 or 84 are denoted with asterisks.