Focus on California's North Coast

With the superb 2007 growing season, California enjoyed yet another strong year, probably the most complete vintage since 2002 for the North Coast. Question: With tariffs for so many North Coast wines, especially those from the high-rent districts of Napa Valley, at nosebleed levels during a prolonged and severe recession, can there possibly be enough demand to absorb these bottles? Answer: Just because they’re overpriced doesn’t mean they’re not worth owning.

By most accounts, California’s top limited-production wines, especially those that retail for less than a hundred bucks—or better still, less than fifty—continue to sell out. Some producers admit that their spring offering used to sell out in a week but took a month or more this year. Many confess to having to work harder than ever before to sell their wines, including spending more time on the road in support of their distributors and important retail accounts. But, generally speaking, they’re neither hurting nor complaining, yet. Still, one wonders about the often much more expensive Napa Valley cabernets, especially those produced in commercial quantities. As one producer of a tiny lot of wine told me in March: “There are still enough rich people buying a case of our wine to keep on their yachts.” But surely that number is rapidly dwindling, and more and more high-end wines are chasing a shrinking group of free-spending wine lovers.

Recent vintages. Two thousand seven was a moderate, textbook growing season without climate extremes, the first of two drought years. Just enough heat at the beginning of September and again toward the end of the month helped to finish off the ripening process in most sites without causing a serious drop in acidity, and most growers were able to pick at their leisure, as rains held off until mid-October. Most of the producers I visited reported that crop levels were moderate or lower than average. While most of them told me that the 2007s have more of everything than the 2006s, the wines tend to be so fleshy and seamless that their substantial ripe tannins seem to melt into their compelling fruit. As a result, many of these wines, even some of the heftiest cabernets, are likely to give early pleasure, but they generally have the tannic structure, healthy pHs and material for a long and positive evolution in bottle. On the Sonoma side, growers were thrilled with the concentration, phenolic ripeness and near-perfect sugar/acid levels of their grapes. The 2007 vintage has yielded not just outstanding pinots and chardonnays, but syrahs and zinfandels as well.

I found a range of styles in the finished 2006 cabernet-based wines I tasted in March. This was a growing season with a very cool spring and a moderately cool harvest but a prolonged and rather savage heat wave in late July and some very hot days in late June. Some wines show the effects of the July heat spike in their roasted qualities, lack of fresh fruit or tough tannins, but others are more typical of a cooler year with a late harvest—which was what 2006 in fact was. Numerous cabernets seem more dominated by their tannins after the bottling than they were from barrel, and these wines will require patience to find their ultimate balance. In retrospect, it was critical for growers to have removed sunburned clusters at the end of July, or to do crop thinning later on in later-ripening sites where the July heat wave may have drawn out the veraison.

Many cooler spots that escaped the worst of the July heat, such as Coombsville and most vineyards at high altitude up and down the valley, did especially well. Although relatively few wineries prefer their 2006s to their 2007s, there are some that do. And there’s no shortage of excellent 2006s from Napa Valley. Chardonnay and pinot noir produced in Sonoma appellations were trickier, though, as extended foggy periods during August and early September triggered rot in many low-lying sites with limited air circulation.

Many Oregon producers used the challenging 2007 harvest as an excuse to declassify a lot of their best juice into much less expensive basic bottlings in order to generate cash flow, but wineries on California’s North Coast don’t have the excuse of a difficult vintage these days. That may change with vintage 2008, as a growing number of wineries find it impossible to sell high-priced bottles and face the decision of what to do with all that juice. Two thousand eight was an extreme and erratic growing season, featuring damaging spring frosts, a succession of heat spikes during the summer, and an extended period of cool weather in mid-September, but virtually no rain from the beginning of March through to late October. Quality may well be variable, but on my recent tour many producers expressed confidence that they made very strong wines.

Once again, I shared this spring’s coverage of the North Coast with Josh Raynolds. He visited producers based in Sonoma County while I handled the Napa side in early March, and we each tasted many more wines back home after our North Coast tours. Wineries reviewed by Josh are denoted by a (JR) at the end of the last wine note.