Stop Stressing About Vintages! What You Need to Know About “Good” vs. “Bad” Wine Years

Anyone trying to impress with their “wine acumen” will often spout off statements like, “Ah, this was an excellent year for Cabs!” or “Egad! I refuse to order any bottle from that vintage!” But what the heck is the secret to knowing good vintages from ones to avoid?

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Unless you care to memorize every wine region in the world AND the specific vintage conditions in that area for every year under the sun, the answer is, “Good vintage years are a myth, so stop stressing!” I got this sage advice from someone who should know: Sean Crowley, Trade Market Specialist (or Brand Ambassador, if you will) of Healdsburg, California’s J Vineyards. Unique in this industry, Sean’s role is to be the face of J Vineyards for high-end luxury restaurants in major cities across the Western United States.

According to their folks, J Vineyards differentiates itself by providing an unparalleled experience in all of Wine Country with food and wine pairing at the Tasting Bar on a daily basis. We're not talking about crackers and a chunk of cheese here; we're talking about delicious, well thought-out pairings. Sean’s role as “estate sommelier” is a further example of how they provide a unique experience for both their trade customers as well as for their visitors. He has been a sommelier for over twenty years and did stints at Aqua and Campton Place in San Francisco, as well as having owned Hayes and Vine, a funky little wine bar in SF’s adorable Hayes Valley.

So what is the deal with good years versus “bad” years for wine? According to Sean, when it comes to discerning vintages, the climate and conditions are the biggest factors, but a whole variety of factors can affect quality. And of course, weather patterns are different around the world, so what could be a “not so good” year in Napa, might have been excellent in Chile. It’s probably wise not to make blanket statements about a given year unless the vintage was phenomenal worldwide from start to finish – like in 1990 when Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, California, Italy, Spain, etc. universally yielded brilliant results.

Prime growing conditions, optimal weather patterns and a host of Mother Nature’s whims can contribute to a good vintage. But any winemaker worth their salt knows how to work the elements to produce good wine. It’s the nature of the business – they make a thousand tiny decisions about when to pick the grapes, the type of oak to use, what kind of yeast, on and on to still get the best out of any given vintage. If, however, there are compelling weather events such as hail, extreme frost, intense heat – anything extreme – then they can indeed negatively effect wine quality. But for the most part, good winemakers know how to ride the wave of varying conditions and still produce excellent wines. It’s kind of like a good airline pilot: they need to handle unforeseen situations in-flight and make new decisions based on those conditions, but in the end, they will still get people safely to their destination.

When people first start into wine, they tend to dwell on specific vintages and that just does not make sense. Or they use buzzwords and get misinformation based on what they hear and they tell two friends, who tell two friends until it just gets passed around. A lot of this is hangover from when the “wine elite” ruled the game with pretension and snobbery. But as Sean says, “There is no need to know about the yeast a winemaker has used to enjoy good wine. Just trust your palate and figure out what you like.” There are so many more important factors to consider aside from the year that will help you figure out which wines are good ones: the region, the winemaker, the house – it’s never only just one thing.

So before you dismiss all 2000 wines from around the world just because Napa, California may not have produced good Cabernet that year, think about all the other factors first. And don’t be afraid to ask the sommelier. He or she is not there to judge you; they are there to help you choose the best wine for you, based on your preferences, price point, and the food you will be eating. “A sommelier’s whole reason for being is to gauge the customer and give them what they want. We are in a service profession,” says Sean. You don’t need to kill yourself to impress them by saying, “Ah, 1990 was an excellent year! Bring me a bottle of that!” Communicate your needs and likes and let the sommelier do his or her thing. Note that Sean jokes he’s never had a problem with women asking for help; he finds that if someone is trying to act like they know everything about wine and vintages, they are usually male. I guess that whole “asking for directions” phobia pops up in the most unexpected places!

So the next time your start stressing about choosing the 1997 Cab or the 2005 Syrah, remember to consider what kinds of flavors you like and the winemaker. And ask for guidance if need be. Here’s a free tip for you: J Vineyards 2005 Russian River Pinot Noir. Apparently 2005 was indeed a rockstar year for Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley. Now don’t go making some blanket statement about EVERY wine from that year….!

Maria Ross is a freelance writer who also runs Red Slice, a branding and marketing agency that helps emerging businesses, including wineries and wine bars, tell their unique story and attract new loyalists.  She is based in Seattle.