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Don Gillette
July 7, 2014 | Don Gillette

The Sometimes Thrilling 2011 Napa Cabernet Harvest & the Stars that still Glitter on a dark night

We recently tasted the 2011 Scribe Cabernet Sauvignon Outpost East, an absolutely gorgeous Napa bottling that any vintner on the planet would be proud to call his own. It is every bit as delicious as Scribe's wonderful 2010 Cab. The 2010s from Continuum, Boeschen and Lewis were terrific, and their 2011s are no less so. The 2011 Drinkward Peschon Cab is better than their 2010. If you taste these wines and a good many other 2011s, you might think this a great vintage, but it isn't.

This harvest is too complex to be explained in a few sentences. Wine lovers will soon be reading plenty about it however, and almost all of the news coverage will be broad, brief and bad. After all, 2011 was an unremittingly cool growing season that ended with rain at the harvest. What praise should they give a small crop that still managed to produce oceans of Cabernet unworthy of bottling? Who will waste ink defending a year in which so many of the least and most expensive wines were terrible disappointments?

I will for one, because we keep discovering jewels.

A complicated story sometimes begins with a question.

What did it take to make an exciting 2011 Napa Cabernet?

Consider these Five things, for a start:

1 - Control of the fruit source

2 - Freedom to make the right decisions

3 - The commitment to make those decisions

4 - The ability and willingness to adapt to what the vineyard gave you

5 - A bit of help from Mother Nature

1 - Ownership, or a contract/relationship with the grower that commits him to the course of action the vintner needs to follow. In a year like 2011, both parties had to be financially flexible and willing to make sacrifices to insure ripeness.

2 & 3 - Grape vines are pruned prior to each upcoming season, largely to help determine how many clusters the vintner will receive at harvest. Despite this, Mother Nature (who can just as easily wipe-out the crop if she chooses) sometimes provides too much fruit.

A vine can fully ripen a small number of grape clusters in a cool season, but must have hot weather to ripen a very heavy load.  When a crop is so large that ripeness or concentration are jeopardized, the grower may "cut crop" to better guarantee the desired result. The grower or winery, in effect, pays workers to discard part of its own investment.

A privately-owned winery, with no stockholders looking over its shoulder, will often choose to make such difficult production decisions for the long term interests and reputation of the winery. 

Historically, the CEOs of Corporately-owned wineries think only of the short term,  invariably keeping self interest in mind. Stockholders, learning that the winery incurred extra expense in order to produce less wine, are liable to hand the CEO his walking papers. Corporate wineries look for market share, not quality, and they keep the yields high, trusting that Napa's famous Indian Summer heat wave will manage a last-minute rescue for over-loaded vines. About once per decade Mother Nature gives the Indian Summer a vacation. It was on holiday elsewhere in 2011, and then rain arrived, to really spoil the party.

4 & 5 - In the 1960s and 1970s many great and some legendary Cabernets were produced in the Napa Valley. The vast majority of them were picked at a much lower degree of ripeness than is common today. However, some of today's most influential wine reviewers find extremely high ripeness, even at the expense of balance, much more desirable. As a result, Cabs in that style often receive scores as elevated as their level of ripeness. Many expensive Cult wines are grown and vinified in a manner particularly designed to please these reviewers. High scores support high prices. 

Pruning for low crop yields is part of the cost of doing business for the Cult producer, yet in the ultra-cool 2011 season even tiny yields could not bring the fruit to the super-ripeness some producers desire. No doubt some of those producers had crops ripe enough to produce lovely bottles, should that vintner be content with making wine in the 1960s-1970s manner. Others did not. Winemakers waited and waited, but it just would not get hot! What to do, what to do?

Near the end of September a truly scary weather prediction forced everyone's hand. Suddenly, everyone had to decide whether to pick at once (assuming workable ripeness), or gamble, hoping the storm proved less severe than expected and was followed by some heat. Unless the fruit was just plain unripe, not-picking was a big gamble. As things turned out, those who gambled, lost. A near-Biblical rain storm was followed by weather as cool as before. Some Cult favorites were thinned-out and many Corporate wines were washed-out.

Drinking at the High Table

The annual Oakville Growers tasting is a showplace where lots of heavy-hitting Cab producers introduce their next vintage, logically 2011 at this point. At the May 2014 event some of them failed to do so, pouring older vintages instead. 2011s were on display, but far fewer than we expected. Some of these were over-oaked, over-extracted and short of fruit, yet nevertheless appallingly expensive. There were a few Corporate wines poured as well, with the expected results. A few of the 2011s that we did taste were truly delicious, my personal favorite being Linda Neal's 2011 Tierra Roja. It was my favorite wine in the room, regardless of vintage.

Linda owns her own vineyard and is a vineyard manager by trade. Her Cab is always classically made and is typically outstanding. The marketing of Tierra Roja is utterly free of pretense, as is Linda. Yet Tierra Roja is a great vineyard, one of Oakville's best. Linda's 2011 drinks much like a great 1970s Cab, a trait typical of the most successful 2011s. Bye the way, my 2nd favorite Cab at the Oakville Growers tasting was made by Tor Kenward Winery, from Tierra Roja grapes.

Remembering to enjoy the amazingly good, while ignoring the bad and the ugly

Lots of decisions were made during the 2011 harvest and the results, good and bad, will soon be visible on store shelves. In early tastings we have seen $25.00-$40.00 range 2011 Cabernets that are delicious, just like the pricier wines mentioned above. We keep discovering jewels and have come to believe that Napa vintners have a lot to be proud of.

It is true that we have tasted some $200.00 Cult Cabernets that seemed unattractive at any price and it appears that a fair number of upscale producers plan to either second-label their 2011s, or skip the vintage outright. We confess that indifference has kept us from fully perusing the produce of the usual Corporate suspects, but we frankly suggest you follow our example. As regards the rest of our 2011 Napa Cab explorations, we are having fun!

Remember, in 2011 pride trumps price. Keep looking and you will find jewels as well!


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