Assessing the quality of a vintage of wine is a bit like buying a new electric blanket.
The first night, you try the setting at 5. Sometime later, you're toes are still cold, so you turn it to 8, and when you begin to sweat, down it goes to 6, and only later do you discover that somewhere between 7 and 8 is about right.
Wine lovers always try to evaluate a vintage as soon as the wines are released. This is tricky business at best, since time is needed to permit us to see the wine develop in the bottle, to give us a clue as to how the wine is developing. Early aromas and tastes are only a vague clue.
(In fact, some wine writers and merchants relish the thought of declaring their view on the quality of a vintage after trying the wines while they are still in the barrel, when the wines are just six to nine months off the vine. This can be hazardous. Even the best wine makers have been fooled by wines they feel are great, only later to discover that the early assessment may have been inaccurate. And wine makers make their estimates based on long-term exposure to vineyards they know intimately.)
I have been fooled more than once. The 1974 Cabernet Sauvignons were a grand case in point. Initially we all thought they were wonderful wines, and by 1978, when the wines were four years old, most of us were gurgling about them. By then, too, we were pooh-poohing the rather thin and slightly too herbal (for our tastes) 1975 Cabernets that had then come to market. Not ripe enough, we said.
Re-Trying the Classics
By 1982, however, I was convinced: 1974 may have started out with great potential, but the wines, by and large, haven't held up. The flavors that were so appealing when youthful have now faded in many of the 1974s, and what we now see are wines that are slightly washed out, not in any way classic.
But the downgraded 1975s? I recently tried a few and found all to be magnificent examples of wine making. I have recently re-evaluated the 1974s and 1975s as vintages, rating the '74s a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10 and the 1975s as an 8.
How can experts and wine makers all be so myopic? Simple. They don't re-evaluate vintages often enough. They don't go back and re-try some of the classic wines a few years later to determine if our initial judgments had been right.
As examples, let's look at a few of the "great" vintages for California Cabernets of the recent past. The 1978s, 1980s and 1982s all were highly regarded when released, and I thought the '78s in particular were going to be grand wines. Alas, all three vintages have recently shown themselves to be rather oafish--big, fat, overripe, somewhat clumsy wines with huge fruit, but also some late-harvest characteristics that I would hardly call classic.
Are they bad wines? No. Most are quite drinkable, but I'm not aging them any further. With a few exceptions, I have pulled the 1978s to the front of my cellar and I'm beginning to drink them. Ahead of the initially downgraded 1977s, I might add, which appear to be aging better.
Many of the '78s are particularly enjoyable with hearty cheeses after a lighter meal, almost like serving them as a substitute for port.
As for the downgraded 1979s and 1981s, they appear to be doing far better than the experts said they would do.
As I thought about writing this article, I realized that my opinions about the vintages of the past would be incomplete without reference to one still somewhat available on store shelves and especially on restaurant wine lists, the 1983s. But I also realized that the last time I had tasted a wide range of 1983 Cabernets was a year ago, when I judged more than 200 of them at the San Francisco Fair and Exposition. At that time, I was disappointed with most of the wines.
Helped by Taste Panel
Dipping into my cellar for the few 1983s I had bought, I began re-evaluating these wines now that they were 4 1/2 years old. The experience was enlightening and disappointing. Included on a tasting panel of these wines were a number of respected wine makers, who offered their opinions, too.
Dennis Hill of De Lormier, who then was at Alexander Valley Vineyards, recalled the harvest of 1983: "We got rain early, and the reds were not the best."
Max Gasiewicz of Fisher Vineyards said, "It was my least favorite of the last five vintages. We got rains and more rains, and the wines turned out OK, but I still didn't think much of it, overall."
Charlie Tolbert of Haywood said the wines had an unbalanced, slightly overripe tone. Kerry Damskey of Gauer Estate said, "A lot of the wines I tried just didn't have any finesse."
"I had a real hard time finding any wine that would be worth a medal," said Rod Berglund of Joseph Swan. "So many of the wines were simple and very hard."
Not all wineries experienced problems with the vintage, of course. Mike Lee, wine maker for Kenwood Vineyards, said the grapes came in "well above average in quality, and we still talk highly on our wines."