From time to time I pull out a few bottles from a specific vintage or producer. It’s part of the joys of a well-stocked wine cellar. I can see how someone’s wines are aging across different years. Or I can see how different producers dealt with a particular vintage.
Even before grapes are picked and wines are made there are multiple assessments of the expected character and quality of the vintage. The major wine publications go so far as to offer vintage charts and scores, glibly assigning entire regions a number for the year. In an AVA such as the Columbia Valley, which includes most of the wildly different sub-regions scattered throughout eastern Washington, it’s a fools errand to call a vintage poor or great. Almost without exception any vintage in the Columbia Valley has its strengths and its challenges. Good, even great wine is being made in the most difficult vintages by someone; and some truly mediocre wines come out of every vintage, rain or shine.
Most winemakers agree that there are ‘easy’ vintages, wherein the weather gods smile, the grapes ripen evenly and it doesn’t pound down rain at harvest. And there are difficult vintages, with spring frost, or shatter, or rot, or any of the myriad woes that afflict farming. But the actual wines that those vintages produce are the result of micro-climates, specific vineyard management practices and of course the winemaking decisions made during crush.
This past weekend a marvelous event called “Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine” was held here in Walla Walla. Each summer a specific varietal theme is assigned (Merlot this year, Cabernet Sauvignon in 2024) with a full slate of seminars, tastings and dinners, along with presentations by local and visiting winemakers, on the schedule. For me a highlight is the Vintage Pour, a tasting designed to showcase the age-ability of Walla Walla Valley wine.
At Vintage Pour wineries offer tastes of one or two wines from their own cellars, sometimes going back decades. This year the event, held in the barrel room at L’Ecole No. 41, featured wines from over 30 wineries. I didn’t try to cover them all, and I’m not sure I got to all the best of them. But I was especially excited to taste wines from 2011 and 2012 – back to back vintages that were given very different ‘scores’ by the magazines.
Wine Enthusiast rated 2011 Columbia Valley Cabernets and Merlots 89/100. The magazine rated 2012 Columbia Valley Cabernets and Merlots 95/100. Only one other vintage in the past two decades got an 89 (2004) oddly enough followed by a 95 pointer in 2005. As it happened there were a number of wines being poured from the 2011 and 2012 vintages and I made a beeline for them, to see how they’d aged.
To be fair, the magazine calls 87–89 point vintages “very good” but since no vintage has ever been rated lower than 87 it seems to suggest that all vintages are at the very least very good. A 94-97 point vintage qualifies as “superb.” But public perceptions are more closely aligned to how those scores are applied to individual wines. An 89 point wine is not generally sought after by retailers or consumers unless that wine is under $10. A 95 point wine is thought to be about as good as it gets for most categories.
The 2011 and 2012 wines I tasted at Vintage Pour were without exception delicious. From 2011 there was an Abeja Merlot, a Corliss Bordeaux blend, and Merlots from Balboa and L’Ecole. These wines were in perfect condition and showed no sign of whatever problems the vintage had brought. From 2012 I had Cabernets from Bledsoe and Dunham, along with a splendid Woodward Canyon Estate Reserve. Again, all in top condition and drinking beautifully.
Granted that one would expect wines that have come directly from winery libraries to be in fine condition, as all of these were. But shouldn’t there have been some noticeable differences between the two vintages – one that most agree was more difficult than “very good” and one that is considered to be among the very best of the past two decades?
I couldn’t taste any such dividing line. Which seems to suggest that vintage charts – which are based purely on guesswork related to weather events and (perhaps) cursory tastings of barrel samples of very young wines – are not only unreliable, but likely to do far more damage than good. Why damage? Because they create specific impressions that affect buying decisions by both trade and consumers. Once retailers (especially out-of-state retailers) see that Columbia Valley reds got a low vintage score, you may be certain they will shy away from those wines once they are offered for purchase. And consumers follow the trade, and the scores they rely upon.
Those vintage ratings, for better or worse, will last as long as the wines themselves.