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Vintages. Can’t live with `em… pass the beer nuts!
The question of whether or not wine vintages (the year printed on the label, which is almost always the year when the wine’s grapes were harvested) matter is one that often perplexes the budding wine enthusiast.
The questions that the Dude here regularly fields regarding wine vintages generally come in this variety:
Is it a “born on” date? Or an indicator of quality? Or a deciding factor in how long (or if) a wine can be aged?
The answer is “Yes.”
In this post, I’m going to try to clear up some of this vintage mess for ya. Mostly because I genuinely want to help. And, to be totally honest, because I get asked about wine vintages a lot, so I want to have a place to send people for more info. (read: I am lazy and don’t feel like answering the question anymore… hey, so sue me, I’ve got a newborn in the house!)….
Here’s the honest truth (well, the truth according to the 1WineDude, that is) about wine vintages: For the most part, the wine vintages printed on the label don’t matter all that much.
The reason that wine vintages (mostly) don’t matter is two-fold:
- 99% of wine sold today is not meant to be aged. Most of the wine that you encounter is meant to be enjoyed within 6 to 18 months of the vintage. In this sense, the vintage year functions more like a “born on” date – if someone is trying to sell you a really inexpensive older vintage wine, it’s probably because they want to pawn off their remaining stock of that vino that’s won’t otherwise sell because it’s past its prime.
Does this mean that the wine will magically turn into vinegar at the stroke of midnight 18 months after the vintage date, Cinderella-style? No – but thanks to the miracle of chemistry, there’s a good chance that the fruit characteristics of the wine will start to dissipate after that time. For the majority of everyday drinking wine that you might buy, you can set a mental note to enjoy it before its second harvest birthday. That way, you will get a chance to sample those tasty fruit flavors before they disappear.
For the most part, the wine vintages printed on the label don’t matter all that much.
- Modern wine-making can turn even poor harvest years into decent (and sometimes great) wine. Many moons ago, before the advent of versatile solutions for modern living that we take for granted today (like refrigerated transport, temperature-controlled fermentation tanks, and best of all those nifty little laser-pointer flashlights that can fit on your keychain), winemaking techniques were not as advanced as they are today. As a result, the conditions of a particular harvest year (weather, economy, invasion by the Huns, etc.) could have a dramatic impact on a wine’s quality.
While this is still true today to some extent, the stability of most of the world’s major winemaking areas, coupled with ultra-modern winemaking techniques and technologies means that consistent producers can churn out decent everyday drinking wine even in poor harvest years. In my experience, this has even been true for some fine wine in “bad” vintage years from regions with consistent weather (like California – Opus One’s 1998 blend is a good example of this).
So when does a vintage really matter?
Vintages do matter when you’re splurging on a fine wine purchase from a region that has a variable climate year to year.
The most famous example of this being red Burgundy, the fickle Pinot Noir areas of France that can produce wine tasting like sublime berry seduction one year, and rotten cabbage the next. If you’re going to shell out the coin for something special (either for drinking now or laying down for a special occasion later), it can’t hurt to do a little vintage homework. I recommend using the mobile vintage chart from BBR.com, which you can reference right from your web-enabled cell phone while at your local wine shop. This can help you to gauge the relative quality of a vintage for a fine wine purchase.
BUT… don’t steer clear of a vintage entirely just because it’s been deemed of lesser quality than a previous year. Why? You can miss some amazing bargains that way – these vintages are like a lower stock value; it’s time to buy. In an “off-year” you might have access to quality wines that might normally be out of your comfortable price range, and it’s a chance for you to explore the winemaking styles of great producers without totally breaking the bank.
Vintages do matter when you’re splurging on a fine wine purchase from a region that has a variable climate year to year. The most famous example of this being red Burgundy, the fickle Pinot Noir from France that can taste like sublime berry seduction one year, and rotten cabbage the next.
The majority of my fine wine purchases have been in “bad” vintages – I scoop that up like a day-trading stock hunter! The bottom line is that a passionate producer with talented staff and a history of great winemaking will still make impressive wine in an off year. They may not be wines of sublime perfection, but they sure as hell won’t be bad, and they have the potential to totally knock your socks off.
(images: globalbeautes.com [modified by the 1WineDude], art.com, weimax.com)
I know what you’re thinking, after reading the title of this post.
“Is the Dude about to go on yet another tirade about the PLCB? Okay, okay, they suck – we get it already…”
Well… the answer is “Yes.” Sort of. I’m about to go on a bit of a tirade about the wine shipping laws not just of Pennsylvania, but also of WA, ID, AZ, CO, KS, MN, IA, WI, MI, IN, KY, GA, FL, SC, NC, NY, VT, CT, RI, and IL (pending review of currently proposed legislation).
The state of affairs of wine shipping laws in those states is almost hopelessly broken. Notice I say “almost hopelessly.” That’s because I’ve thought of a way to fix it. Let’s break it down…
I say broken because those states have laws on the books that restrict the free trade of inter-state wine sales – a practice deemed unconstitutional at the federal (and for some also at the state) level. For the most part, these states are trying to protect state-run monopoly businesses that would be handed their own jock straps in the free market if, say, a big buyer like Costco were permitted to sell and ship wines directly to consumers in those states. The state run operations add extra cost while limiting value and selection – because they are monopolies, they don’t need to compete on the basis of price or service. If individual consumer rights, or the best interests of local state wineries get in the way of their monopoly profits, those citizens are simply disregarded – even if the states’ supreme courts have ruled against those practices. So, they make billions, pay big bucks to lobbyists to protect their position, and the state governments (for the most part) turn a blind eye to it all (probably because of the huge windfall).
How to fix this mess? Simple. Here’s a 2-step process of playing politics that could turn the tide. The thing to keep in mind is that politics is almost always a numbers game. And it almost always involves you (the people getting screwed) getting off your keesters and getting active.
- Stop buying wine from the state. I mean it. Don’t buy wine from your state-run liquor store. What will this do? It will reduce the windfall (remember the part about this being a numbers game?). No profits, no windfall. No windfall, no paying lobbyists to turn the tide of free trade legislation. No lobbyists, no deceit-filled battles to block the spread of capitalism to the wine shipping business.
Disclaimer: I’m not advocating you breaking the law – and to be honest, your state’s liquor laws are so convoluted you probably violated them already if you took any cough medicine this year. Anyway, I don’t care where you get your wine, as long as it’s not from a state-run monopoly. If you are lucky enough to live near a bordering state that does sell wine through the free market economy… well, I’m just saying that you might have alternatives.
- Write your state legislators. This is still a numbers game, because far fewer people actually do this than you’d think. So, if you flood your state legislators with correspondence, eventually they will question whether the tide needs to turn against the monopolies. Especially if you followed step 1 (politicians likely won’t stand by a sinking ship that is losing money) and indicate in your correspondence that you’re a voter in good standing and any re-election bid support on your part will hinge on their demonstrated support of free trade.
Fortunately, writing your state legislators is very easy. Head on over to FreeTheGrapes.org – they will find your legislators e-mail addresses for you, and give you a handy form-letter to send them (don’t forget to add the re-election support part – politicians usually don’t like losing their jobs).
Maybe this sounds unreasonable, overly-simplistic and ridiculous to you.
But ask yourself this:
Is it any more ridiculous than a business with cripplingly poor business models, that can’t compete on the basis of service, selection, and price, making in excess of $1.5 billion dollars a year by hiding behind antiquated laws and charging you artificially high prices?
What if your state controlled your cell phone service that way? Or forced you to buy milk only from the state, even though it was stored improperly and cost 35% more than what your cousin, who lives in the next state over, pays for his family’s milk (which he can buy from wherever he feels offers the best milk at the lowest price)? Or limited your selection of underwear to a handful of brands and sizes?
Or treated women’s designer shoes the same way? (scary… that one might have the potential to drive Mrs. Dudette to kill)…
Sure, there’s a big difference between “essential” goods like bread and luxury goods like designer fashions. But before you write off wine as an item that is fair play for regulation by the “pleasure police” (Robert Parker‘s term for the alcohol regulators in his home state of MD), don’t forget that two of our founding fathers (the two widely regarded to have had the most raw intellectual horsepower, by the way) – Jefferson and Franklin – viewed wine as an essential life good, equal to water and bread in terms of necessity.
So… who’s being unreasonable?
(images: blog.whathappensnow.com, wine.appellationamerica.com, ronalfy.com)
Welcome to the next installment in the “How to Be a Wine Geek” series here at www.1Winedude.com!
Many wine lovers have toyed with the idea of one day breaking into the wine biz. That’s not just trying to jump into perceived (and relatively false) romantic cache factor of workin’ the vineyard and making wine. Some would like to take a different approach to turning their hobby into their livelihood – in a way that doesn’t involve the potential to run into farm animals on a daily basis.
I thought it would be enlightening to get a view on what it’s like to turn wine passion into wine profession. So I asked someone who has done it. Jill Bernheimer, owner of the on-line wine store and blog Domaine547, kindly agreed to give us her thoughts on ‘life behind the bottle’.
Jill has been featured in Entrepreneur magazine, and has garnered a reputation among the wine blogging community as someone who is not afraid to speak her mind. Another way of putting it, is that she’s not afraid to say publicly what the rest of us are thinking provately (thanks, Jill!).
Jill recently advised her customers to buy one of her wines from a competitor because it was able to offer a lower price than she could – an act that earned her mad props in the on-line community (and no doubt increased customer loyalty).
The interview results are a great insight into life in the wine industry. Enjoy…
1WD: Tell us a bit about your business. How did you get started? What made you chose to get into the wine biz?
Jill: I run a little wine shop that happens to be online only. It’s called domaine547, and the focus is on…well, on wines I like. I personally taste 98% of the wines that I bring in, and that way I can sell them without any hesitation.
The website itself is a bit curious, because the way you enter the store is through a blog… some people may not even realize there’s a store, but that’s intentional. I’m a soft-sell kind of gal, and I don’t want anybody to feel like anything is being forced upon them. If people discover the store, and if people want to shop there… then great.
1WD: What’s the most rewarding aspect of your business?
Jill: When I started the business just over a year ago, I wouldn’t have considered myself an expert on wine. That’s not to say I was without qualifications – I had my Intermediate certificate from the WSET, and lots of experience traveling, reading and drinking wine (and a moonlighting gig at a local wine shop). But my attitude and approach was as an enthusiast discovering wine alongside my customers and my readers.
I think the most rewarding thing is that, even with hundreds of more wines tasted, and much more knowledge about wine and experience in the wine business, my attitude has stayed pretty much the same: I’m like a kid in a candy store, just as excited about wine as I was when I made the transition from hobbyist to working in the trade. Of course, getting to taste wine everyday and meeting producers is great as well.
1WD: What’s the biggest P.I.T.A. about your business?
Jill: Shipping. On all levels…my hands are riddled with paper cuts from packing orders, and my head hurts from the intricacies of interstate alcohol shipping restrictions.
1WD: How do inter/intra-state wine laws impact your business?
Ugh. How do they NOT impact my business? There are lots of folks who say they’d order from me if it were legal, so I’d have to say that my volume is affected directly. Whether or not they’re just saying that? Well, I guess I won’t know until the laws change…
1WD: Beatles or Stones?
Jill: Hmmm, that’s a bit of a narrow world view. [Editors note: well, it is my blog, after all!]. But I’d have to go with Beatles more often than not, with the occasional Ruby Tuesday moment.
1WD: What’s the best wine & food combo that you’ve come across?
Jill: Sottocenere cheese with a Barbera d’Alba. This is going to sound pretentious, but they taste like they have some terroir in common. The cheese is a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese infused with truffles and with an ash rind containing cinnamon and nutmeg spices. [Editors note: drooling is permitted.]
1WD: What’s your favorite wine in your portfolio?
Jill: Without a doubt, the Rafael Palacios “As Sortes” Godello. It’s steep for a Spanish white – it crept up from about $32 in the 2005 vintage to $46 for the 2006. But it’s so good. A hint of lemon, nutiness, some wet stones, ever so slight oak, and some tingle on the tongue without the acidity hitting you over the head. Really delicious. I’d compare it to a Grand Cru Chablis, and from that perspective it’s much more reasonably priced. Funny thing is, I’m much more of a red wine drinker than a white wine drinker, but there is no hesitation with this response.
1WD: How many times gave you seen the film The Big Lebowski?
Jill: I’ve seen it from start to finish only a couple of times, but I’ve seen it in snippets many more. Favorite quote is definitely “I don’t roll on Shabbas.”
1WD: Where do you turn for help and inspiration? Any Trade publications, Blogs, web resources, support groups or Therapists you find particularly helpful?
Jill: I have RSS feeds to more than fifty wine blogs, but I’ve been falling behind on my reading lately. I have learned a tremendous amount from blogs like yours, Good Wine Under $20, Catavino, Good Grape, Wannabewino, Catie at Walla Walla…too many to really mention. I do enjoy Twitter more than other community web resources as it offers me a chance to talk with all of the aforementioned (except Jeff who refuses to tweet) in a more Instant Message, conversational mode.
1WD: Exactly how much does the band Rush totally rock?
Jill: Would you believe me if I told you I got “Exit, Stage Left” [Editor’s note: Dude’s all-time favorite album!!!] as my Afikomen prize when I was in the 3rd grade or so? I loved Tom Sawyer. But it pretty much started and ended there (and with the Geddy Lee collaboration with Bob and Doug McKenzie) [Editor’s note: “Hey, 10 bucks is 10 bucks…”].
1WD: Any advice for budding wine enthusiasts?
Jill: Taste early and taste often.
1WD: Thanks for agreeing to the interview, Jill! One final question – Do these pants make me look fat?
Jill: There’s pretty much no right answer to this one! [Editor’s note: I’m sorry… that answer is incorrect. The correct answer is “No, you look great! Did you cut your bangs?” But thanks for playing!]
(images: delawaretoday.com, gophila.com, vinology.com, newdaleville.com)
“It is my life’s work to identify and bring out colors, smells and flavors that not only typify my region but are also delicious.” – Eric Miller, Chaddsford Winery
A few months ago, I started a mini-series of posts about how to become a ‘wine geek’ (see Part I and Part II for more background). This post is the (long overdue) third installment of that series.
The ultimate wine geek is probably the winemaker – what budding wine geek hasn’t (at least for a minute or two) entertained the thought of growing their own grapes, and making and selling their own wine?
I went to the source to get an insight into what it’s like to run your own winemaking operation. Following is a short interview with winemaker Eric Miller, proprietor of PA’s most celebrated winery, Chaddsford.
I asked Eric to reflect on winemaking after celebrating Chaddsford’s 25th year. The result is a fascinating look into what it really takes – passion, know-how, and a fair amount of luck – to make and sell your own wine…
From the point of view of an experienced Winemaker: what resources do you feel give wine lovers the most ‘bang for their buck’ as beginners just exploring wine, and then as more experienced wine consumers?
The best resources for a new wine drinker: avoid tight-assed views stuck on old world rules and regs. I teach a twice annual class on what wines taste like, the words to describe them with an international selction under the primary headings of: light fresh fruity dry (white annd red), light fresh fruity sweet (iIonly show a white), med to full body dry white, med to full body red usually a cab, pinot, syrah or shiraz, and a fortified sweet red like lbv porto.
My suggestion would be to get the terms down in an environment like that. If that is not available just go to the myriad of shops that do tastings and begin to get vocabulary in tune with taste. If that is not available throw a series of parties and have a hell of a range of wines for friends and you to taste. The important thing is to taste like a banshee.
“There are few printed publications or blogs that are tuned to the beginning wine drinker, unless you want to begin with prejudice or excess info.”
Or if the new-be is really bold go as close to the source as you can. Winelovers like me will talk eagerly to someone truely interested. (you get a dozen newbes together and iI will speak). There are few printed publications or blogs that are tuned to the beginning wine drinker, unless you want to begin with prejudice or excess info.
What are the most essential resources for you as a Winemaker (excluding your own know-how and expertise)? I.e., the top 3 or 5 resources that you could not live without, and to which you find yourself returning on a regular basis?
What I do to learn is to formulate questions. That is so hard. Then what I do is put it on paper, see how it looks and put together a budget. Then I contact industry friends to see who is working on those topics and send my agenda. When the serious know someone is serious he or she will find time to chat.
To learn about the restaurant industry I read “restaurant wine review”. To learn about production I scan “practical winemaker”, “the american society of enology and viticulture” and “vineyard and winery management”. To understand what it means I make a date with our enologist and she gets excited or answers and shuts me down. Or I call our state viticulturalist, and he either answers me or sends me on down the line. It is never easy.
After 25+ years of successful winemaking, what advice would you give to wine lovers that want to expand their knowledge of wine? What advice would you give to those that may want to someday enter the wine trade?
I do not have 25 years of succesful winemaking. I have 25 years of trials and some successes. I would say to those who want to learn wine to make the hard decisions about what they want: is it sales or production? One needs to know a bit about either but the disciplines require a life time to get good at. Especially in this varying east coast climate.
“Climate trumps all but judgment.”
Here we are faced with climate change for most vintages and to produce wines typical of the region (and not colored by infections) the first critical thing is to know the effects of site, soil and climate on the development of non-terroir affectations. Climate trumps all but judgment. Being an east coast winemaker today is a commitment to research. I need to be bled dry of information by someone with a depth of technical understanding of the chemistry of our soils, the effects of our climate on what the vine uptakes and how a vineyard should be established so controls are limited. I have limited interest in how to sell. My simple mind says that in today’s world of wines we have simple divisions. Superstars that have cult status to carry them, mass marketed products and regional wines with only local interest to carry them.
The future of a successful marketer is to move a lot of wine off the shelf. That’s a matter of money and marketing. My future is as a local product with regional identity. It is my life’s work to identify and bring out colors, smells and flavors that not only typify my region but are also delicious.
In the course of time I have made wines that a) do not taste like California wines or are from California, Australia, Italy or cost less than 12 bucks a bottle and so are rejected by a significant number of wine drinkers b) suck and I will never be forgiven or tried again c) are exemplary examples of this region and fit the wine-model of only the most broad-minded or uninitiated wine drinker.
“Any good winemaker, if you want my recommendations for someone thinking of getting into the biz, has gotta love delayed gratification. Be bold. And never, never, never, never never, never quit.“
What that means to those who want to sell wine might be to avoid anything that is new and not-yet-established. Or it might mean that those who see the next big thing will become recognized clairvoyants. How can i make recommendations?
I have been revising my thinking about how best to handle tannins and acidity and fruit character in terms of soil amendments and cultural practices and pressing and timing of malo-lactic fermentations and frankly my attention is gravitating to ’08 and ’09 releases and analysis of tissue and soils from this growing season in terms of the ’08 vintage.
Any good east coast winemaker, if you want my recommendations for someone thinking of getting into the biz, has gotta love delayed gratification. Be bold. Find other winemakers who will talk and keep on trying. And to quote my new friend, Patrick Feury, and Winston Churchill – never, never, never, (Churchill has a tommy gun in this photo) never never, never quit.
How about you ask me the same questions in 10 years?