Focus on California's North Coast

For those wine lovers who find California's ever more alcoholic wines increasingly hard to swallow, the 2005 growing season holds out the promise of a respite. A very late flowering followed by a long, cool summer allowed the best sites to ripen their fruit thoroughly at alcohol levels often a full degree lower than those of recent vintages. Yes, crop loads tended to be heavy following the small production of 2004, and grape-growers who are not in the best sites or who did not practice significant crop reduction watched their fruit struggle to ripen. But growers in the best sites, and those who aggressively dropped a sizable portion of their fruit to help ripen the rest, are claiming to have made some of their best, and most complex, wines ever. In my extensive recent tastings, I got a snapshot of some 2005 white wines, but just an early glimmer of the 2005 reds, especially the cabernets, and I eagerly await tasting—and reporting on—these wines on a later visit.

For now, it's the 2004s and 2003s that are clamoring for the attention of red wine lovers. Both were very warm years, and both were affected by heat spikes and desiccating east winds in September, which often sent grape sugars soaring through dehydration but did not necessarily bring concentration of flavor and ripe tannins to fruit that could not be allowed to hang on the vines until conditions moderated. In some instances, vine shutdown and dehydration resulted in high acid levels as well. But in fact, neither year featured much in the way of temperature extremes in July or August.

As a rule, the 2004s are fleshy and exotic but essentially gentle, with high pHs and very high alcohol levels; several of the winemakers I visited in March told me that their 2004s are the highest-alcohol wines they have ever made—not just cabernets but chardonnays, pinot noirs, syrahs. In comparison, the 2003s, though also generally high in alcohol and in some cases extreme, often retain more freshness—or at least they are less likely to show obvious overripeness—sometimes with rather firm acid levels and awkward tannins that will require bottle aging. Although the 2004s, from a mostly small crop load, are generally sexier today owing to their liqueur-like fruit and often voluptuous textures, I suspect that the best of the 2003s will benefit substantially from bottle aging and will be longer-lived. They may also prove to have better punch and depth of flavor.

Although the harvest of 2004 was extremely early, beginning in mid-August, the months of June, July and August were actually mild by California standards. The early start to the harvest was largely due to a very dry spring, and to a budbreak and flowering that occurred virtually a month earlier than the norm. But unremittingly hot weather during the first half of September could compromise fruit that had to be brought in during that period (a few winemakers reported having seen some shriveling of the grapes by late August due to the very dry spring and summer). The September heat was less of an issue for later-picked varieties like cabernet, and conditions remained warm and dry until a rainy period began on October 17. (And some very good sauvignon blanc and even chardonnay had been picked before the early September heatwave.) Still, most producers recommend drinking the 2004s young for their early appeal, and few of them believe that this vintage has the tannic structure, healthy pHs and flavor intensity for more than mid-term aging.

In sharp contrast to 2004, the 2003 growing season had begun with a very cold and wet April and a later flowering. Other than a heat wave during the middle third of July, the summer months were once again mild, straight through until a heat spike beginning on September 11 and another one a week later. These hot periods could play havoc with the pinot noir and chardonnay harvests in much of Sonoma County but had little effect on cabernet. October was warm but not hot, and the later-ripening varieties could be picked in a leisurely manner. A very hot last week of October was ideal for the latest-ripening fruit in this larger-than-average vintage.

On the following pages I offer brief profiles of numerous North Coast wineries I visited in March, along with notes on their current and upcoming releases. Following this section are my tasting notes on many additional recommended current and upcoming wines tasted in recent months in California and in New York. Due to space constraints, wines from numerous excellent producers I visited in March appear in this second section.