As we all know, a vintage is simply a year. The word “vintage” connotes more than just a number, depending on what you’re talking about. In the case of, say, an uncle, it’s deferential to refer to his vintage when he’s celebrating a birthday if he’s unhappy about getting older, slower, more gullible, whatever. Just say, “Wow, you’re only 65? Born in what, ’46? That was a great vintage, Uncle Fester! Hell, you look great.” In terms of cars older than 25-30 years, we always seem to allude to “vintage cars” – meaning old – but when talking to a guy like my pal who restores these, the vintage becomes the year of manufacture. He digs ’61 Chevy trucks, by the way, and would bust me in the grill (get it?) if I were to say that ’63s rock harder. Besides, what do I know? But the vintage is everything to him, and I love him like my very own dog. So for wine, yes, vintage indicates when the grapes were picked, of course – but should never, ever cause one to generalize about the yumminess of what’s in the bottle (re: Calistoga 1998, Haut-Medoc 1983, Beaune 1948) because A) The wine pundits make sweeping generalizations for us based on high-production wines that were submitted in order to judge a winegrowing year; B) your trash may be my treasure; and C) sweeping is reserved for musical passages, glances and brooms.
A vintage can indicate the mere character of a calendar year. For me, 2011 has been a kick-ass vintage that was determined well before bud break.
But back to vitis vinifera in California (because I don’t have the time or desire to get nerdy about the vines outside of my own locale)…yep. You can see it coming. I’ve seen it before, when the shit hit the fan, when rains came at the wrong time, when temperatures didn’t subsequently rise enough to prevent moisture, mold and general ickiness down to the root tips…when naysayers said, “Oh boy; we’re in the trash heap now.” It’s been a bit hairy for early-harvested varietals in Napa-Sonoma (whites, pinot, syrah, sangiovese and the like) but it ain’t over yet. There’s less fruit, sure, but the quality is awesome thus far, according to those tasting and testing. Now here we come to an interesting point: successful winemaking begins with effective, intuitive viticulture. If you’ve got a Jim-Bob-Johnson winery pushing out small quantities and utilizing clean techniques, you’re looking at a greater likelihood of quality down to the bottling line. Alternately, if you’re talking about the 5-million-case Miller-McPherson-Kerbopple Holding Company dba McFurdiger Enterprises squeezing out SKUs and product from 10 tons per acre, employing only the finest in mechanical harvesting technology and low-payroll, high-production, undocumented labor units to supply the marketplace with only the most reliable $4/bottle bullshit, then yes, the 2011 vintage may be seen as something somewhat sketchy and cause the overseas-closeout-liquidation-cutesy-animal-label marketplace to lather up their forklifts for more participation in the big lie they actually foist off as fine wine. But there’s no farmer thus far whose boutique-level efforts have ever characterized the quality of a vintage (in the press and on heavily-trafficked wine websites), at least to my knowledge. And you’ll always find joy in a bottle somewhere, somehow; maybe even believe that a winery you never heard of has just spun straw from gold and earned your loyalty. You just have to experiment. Put the shiny magazine down, hang up your smartphone for a while and let your palate be your guide. What. Do. You. Like?
I need to tip the hat here. I discovered John Anthony cabernet a few years ago and was KNOCKED OUT. It was the 2003 vintage. Enough said. Also, if you’ve ever drunk a Trefethen ’98 cab, you cannot tell me it’s not extremely well-made, only that it may not be your bag. The point is that when you take what the Earth has offered and do something mindful with it, it will work out. She doesn’t hand you awesome wine, only the building blocks.
I am opinionated and made sure to create fictional corporate names in Paragraph 3 while using real brand names in the next one out of respect for sheer awesomeness. That, friends, is what simple math is all about. It just is, and it’s everywhere. Hopefully this post inspires insightful discourse and discourages hopelessness when you consider whether you’ll want to buy any 2011 California wines.