The Vintage From Hell, Now In Barrel (What Can We Expect From Napa’s 2010 High-End Reds?)

Vinted on April 18, 2011 binned in California wine, on the road


During my most recent jaunt to Napa, I had the pleasure of visiting a few producers in the Valley to get a feel for just how the hellish 2010 vintage (remember that?) was coming along in barrel (well, for those fortunate enough to get fruit picked and crushed from 2010, that is).

So after that totally loaded intro., you’re probably already thinking “okay, spill it, WTF is going on with the 2010s,” right?

Not so fast, buck-o!

Let’s prolong the agony… and give you a little bit of (important!) context.  You see, I didn’t taste every friggin’ barrel of aging 2010 red in the Valley, and to get a firm grip on a vintage, you need to taste a sh*tload more of wines from that vintage than I managed to do that week.  In fact, I only hit up three high-end producers during the trip (Chimney Rock in Stag’s Leap; Hourglass’ Blueline estate, where they were aging juice from there and from their mid-Valley estate vineyard; and Cornerstone Cellars, who are aging 2010 wines made from fruit sourced all over the Valley, including St. Helena, Oakville, and Howell Mountain) – so my assessments should be taken with the proverbial grain of vinous salt.  One brief assessment does not a vintage chart make.

Having said that… few elements stood out as consistent throughout all of those barrel samples, and so we can wax some preliminary geekiness about what we might expect out of the Valley’s upper-fine-wine-tier in the 2010s (once they get into bottle)…

  1. Looking for ultra-ripe fruit? Uhmm… well… I’ve got some bad news for you…I didn’t get overripe fruit in any of the barrel samples of reds that I tasted. Not once.  While I’m not a fan of trying to make Napa into something it’s not, I’m also no fan of over-the-top dried-prune-juice action in my wine – something that can afflict Napa reds in the warmest of vintages. And so I was (pleasantly) surprised by how much red fruit was shining through on the 2010s – dark red cherry, and red currants especially.  This is not austere, shy fruit by any stretch, but it’s nowhere near as showy as the more “storied” vintages of the last decade in Napa.  Which leads us to…
  2. Looking for way-cool secondary aromas? You’ve come to the right place!

    Without all of that ultra-ripe fruit screaming at you, the more interesting secondary aroma elements take center stage in the 2010s (or, in the case of faults like Brett, have nowhere to hide!).  And for the most part, those secondary aromas are beguiling: tobacco and tea leaf in Chimney Rock’s Stags Leap wines, earth and smoked meats (possibly from Brett, but not obnoxiously so) from Stags Leap and Oakville Cabs from Cornerstone, and black licorice and chocolate notes from all over the friggin’ place. As Cornerstone’s Craig Camp put it during my visit, “those things are always there; you just have a chance to experience them now without all of that fruit.”

  3. The 2010s could have serious aging potential. And over-top of all of that intense structure you will find… in the words of Peter Gabriel circa 1973 GenesisA FLOWER?!?? Yes, a flower.  As in violetsLots of them.  It’s the stuff that you find in the better Mt. Veeder Cabs, but with the often-obnoxiously-ripe fruit taking a, well, not exactly taking a back seat, but not talking so loudly from the front seat at least, there are softer elements that can be heard above the fruity din.  And one of them is violets.I found it in samples of what will become Chimney Rock’s SLD Cab in Stag’s Leap.  I found it samples of Cornerstone Cellars’ Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena Cab Franc, and in their Valley floor (Oakville) Merlot.  I even found it in a screamin’ good experimental lot of earthy, vibrant, red-fruited 2010 Malbec from the Blueline estate of Hourglass; which is right where you’d expect to find it if we’d been in Cahors – but in Napa?  That’s just geekily awesome.The violets are coupled in almost all cases (somewhat ironically) by a deep, dense tannin structure on most of the 2010 reds.  They are tight right now, as you’d expect from barrel, especially the juice from the Howell Mountain fruit (again, as you’d expect), and the core traditional elements of those tannins are intact (silky but with a chalky edge in Stags Leap, more open and rounder from Oakville, etc.). BUT… there’s something… else going on in the 2010s.  There is something very, very serious – and brooding –  about the tannins of these wines, something that previous recent vintages from the same producers simply don’t quite posses.

Three central themes starting to emerge from the 2010 Napa reds – at the high end of the market, of course, where we expect the wines to be good even in an off-year.  I am convinced that there will be some crap made in 2010 in the Valley, if only because the bombastic fruit won’t be there to hide any deficiencies in the grape-growing or winemaking.  BUT… based on my (so-far fairly-limited) exposure, the 2010 barrel samples are reminding me of the 1998 vintage in Napa – the best of which are more balanced than in crazy hot, ripe-ass years and as a result have aged beautifully in some cases.  Your mileage, as they say, may vary.






  • Nova C.

    Joe, even though you didn't taste a lot of the wines of the area, I'd say you're spot on with your highlights! We saw a lot of Cabernet from 2010 from all over the North Coast and as a winemaker I'm very exc ited about 2010 just because we're seeing more interesting wines than in the past. Very old world aromas and flavors. Merlot also rocked out last year and I think in the short term will probably outshine the Cabernets. The colors are amazing as well on all reds!
    I hope you had a great trip!

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Nova C. I have to admit, after that small amount of barrel sampling, I'm cautiously optimistic!

  • winethropology

    Sounds like 2010 will be an atypical year for Napa. No shocker there. Not a total loss, though – at least it was The Vintage Of The Century in Bordeaux ;-)

  • Austin Beeman

    Interesting that Napa Valley needs a "very difficult" vintage in order to produce the kind of complex restrained wines that the real 'wine geeks' love. I wonder what that says about Napa… and what it says about us?

    • 1WineDude

      Hi Austin – a complex comment! I like those!! :)

      I'd say emphatically that Napa does NOT need a difficult vintage to produce complex wines (supporting evidence: the 2008 Continuum… ). However, if we're talking about *restrained* wines, those do seem (generalizing here) to come in more difficult vintages for Napa, though some (like the 07 Araujo wines… ) are complex AND restrained and didn't require a vintage anywhere near as difficult as 2010.

      I think it does say something about Napa though, and about us, at least in terms of our expectations of Napa: IMHO, we shouldn't try to make Napa into something it's not. I've little patience for totally over-ripe, raisined fruit in my reds, but we have to expect some high ripeness levels and big fruit from Napa if only because of the climate there. Having said that, the best and most restrained (Corison also comes to mind here) balance that ripeness with complexity and (what seems to be a Herculean) effort to preserve acidity and liveliness.

      So I think we should be hard on Napa about the crazy over-ripe fruit, but need to ease up on them about the very ripe fruit, and applaud Napa producers who provide the big fruit in a balanced and complex way.


  • Aaron

    Thanks for the report Joe. Even anecdotal evidence is really helpful. Given the anti-hype from 2010 do you think premium Napa Cabs will face some downward price pressure? Seems like a lot of typical high end Napa consumers may avoid 2010 as it's not what the want/expect, leaving an opening for some us to maybe pick up some interesting wines at a relative value.

    • 1WineDude

      Hi Aaron – thanks! You know what… this is gonna sound odd but part of me does totally hope that what you mention actually happens: that the big wine mags downplay the vintage and give it low-ish scores. Then score-whores will avoid the wines, the prices will get reasonable on the good stuff, and real geeks and lovers of interesting wines can get some of the good stuff without breaking the bank, and the producers will still sell and move enough inventory (and possibly gaining a new set of geeky fans for their products).

      Sounds naive, but one can dream…! :)

  • white wines

    Hi everyone, Nice to see a good discussion going here. Anecdotal evidence is really helpful. The anti hype which was given from 2010 do you think premium Napa Cabs will face some downward price pressure? I think the price should be reasonable.

    • 1WineDude

      Hi white – see above. :)

  • PAWineGuy

    Downward price pressure… not much of a chance as the vintage was short (some growers down 30 to 50%).

    The bulk market is firming up already on certain varietals (Cab) – having tasted approx. 100 wines from 2010 last week, I think that Dude's comments are correct. I especially like 2010 for RRV and Sonoma Coast Pinot.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, PA – but if the vintage gets poor reviews in wine mags, don't you think there will be some price reduction? Or are you saying that the prices will remain stable or increase, on smaller volume, and the rest of the profits will be helped by selling juice in bulk?

  • PAWineGuy

    I'm not sure they will be poorly reviewed, as I am seeing fairly high quality everywhere, with the exception of Zin. My best guess would be pricing stability, as wineries try to draw a line in the sand to stop the discounting of the last few years. Even if they are poorly reviewed, they will not have as much wine to sell, thus they can hold pricing without worrying about getting stuck with a lot of inventory.

    In regards to the bulk market, it's not that wineries are looking to dump 2010 juice, it's all related to the short vintage. Wineries are looking to extend their 2009 bottlings to keep them in the market longer, and people who were really shorted on their 2010 crop are looking to back fill through other sources.

    To summarize:

    weak vintage + big crop = lower prices

    weak vintage + small crop = not so much (and it may not turn out to be weak)

    • Aaron

      This is a great point, but obviously supply is only a portion of the equation. There is a BIG drop off in demand in the market below a certain score point so if, and it's a big if, some premium producers can't boast a 93+ rating, the demand affects may outweigh the supply side ones.

      One thing that may happen is that discounts on release will not be much (or any) if, as you suggest, wineiries are drawing a line in the sand. But if retailers find they can't move it without the score, you might see discounts coming in after awhile.

      This is all of course one big, probably unlikely dream. But if I see 2010 Hourglass Estate Cab for $100, in 24 months, I'm coming back to say I told you so.

  • 1WineDude

    Aaron – just come back with a few bottles of that Hourglass… ;-)

  • Matt C.

    Joe –

    A comparison to '98 certainly isn't the worst thing. Although that vintage was critically panned, I think most people have been very pleasantly surprised with how the wines have turned out, especially from a finesse and longevity standpoint.

    2010 was about making good decisions in the vineyard and not letting a 'house style' define the vintage. I thought the season brought a lot to the table and as long as you weren't set on making black goo, you had every opportunity to make a solid wine.

    BTW – I've been very impressed with the wines coming out of the Rock as well.


    • 1WineDude

      Hey Matt – totally agree. When the `98 vintage in Napa got panned, I did what any logical person would do, which was go out and buy up wines from the higher-end producers that I liked, mostly at a discount. Some were not great, others were superb. It taught me that vintage charts are only valuable at the highest, most abstract levels :). Cheers!

  • Steve

    Wait a minute…I think the 1989 vintage officially got tagged the "Vintage from Hell." There may be a trademark infridgement here…better call the lawyers at Constellation (or, better yet, The Wine Group)…they'll know. You may have to call it something else.

    1989 was know for mass quantities of underripe mediocrity that took forever to sell.

    • 1WineDude

      Steve – Constellactus may already be after me…! :)

  • Jackson T. Straw

    Hey dude! Awesome. but what do you define as the "Valley’s upper-fine-wine-tier"?? I wouldn't exactly place those wines you tasted in that category.
    Also, while you didn't find "ultra-ripe fruit screaming at you," I would offer that the wines you tasted are usually not of that style normally. So what's you're point again…. ? The big headline screaming "Vintage From Hell" sort of threw me off….
    Our wines are stunning for 2010. I would dub the vintage "The Biggest Knee-Jerker" of all time.

    • 1WineDude

      Hi Jackson – Upper-tier is going to be relative, for sure; but for many, many people that range is going to be wines that cost $100 or over (and for many more it’s probably closer to $50 and over), and all three of those producers are offering reds in that price range (2010 included, I’m sure). I’d seriously challenge that the wines from those producers don’t usually offer fruit on the *very* ripe side of things, and I’m *not* saying that’s bad (we are talking about Napa here, and fruit gets very ripe there) – put them up blind in a flight of wines from Europe, for example, and I know which ones I’m betting on to be declared very ripe. Again, nothing wrong with that – but stylistically, not achieving perceptibly high ripeness is something out of the ordinary, generally for Napa.

      Totally agree on the “Knee-Jerker” moniker, though: and as I mentioned in previous comments, there’s a very selfish part of me that wants the knee-jerking to continue in the hopes that it might help keep prices from rising and maybe even mean some wines are discounted, so I can afford them…

    • 1WineDude

      Jackson – forgot to mention that you need to send me samples of your expensive, stunning 2010 wines, because 1) I am thirsty and 2) it reinforces my childish, self-appointed wine-blogging snobbery.

      That is all.


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