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Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.

Vintage Vantage

When most of us purchase a bottle of wine – either in a retail shop or restaurant – we have to make a number of judgment calls. Which wine will work best with tonight’s dinner? Do we want to stick with the familiar or try something new? Is there a particular grape varietal we crave, and if so, which producers make our favorite wine from that grape? How much do we want to spend? To which part of the wine world do we want to make a virtual journey? If you trust someone’s palate more than your own, you might even want to consider what “score” a wine received in a wine magazine or newsletter, or at a web site. Decisions. Decisions.

The good news about choosing wine in 2011 is that there has never been a time in history when so much good wine was available, and at such affordable prices. Gone are the days when you had to spend a lot to get a good, even great bottle of wine. So we make our aesthetic, geographical, and gustatory judgments, figure out what we can afford to pay, and choose a wine. It’s as easy, and as much fun as that.

But hold on. There’s another potential issue to deal with in choosing a wine, and it’s one that few of us think about very often. That issue is the vintage of the wine – the year in which the grapes were harvested. We always notice the vintage year on the label of still wine (the overwhelming majority of sparkling wines – including true Champagne - and fortified wines – unless we’re talking about Vintage-dated Port or Madeira - are “non-vintage” sometimes politely referred to as “multi-vintage”). But what, in the modern era of wine, does the vintage year really mean?

I should point out that some of the least expensive varietal-labeled wines, including “Two Buck Chuck” at Trader Joe’s and [yellow tail™] at any wine shop are vintage-dated wines. At the same time, some of the rarest and most expensive wines in the world – great Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo, Brunello, Rioja, fine Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and on and on, also display their vintage years prominently on their labels.

If you can find a qualitative difference in taste between a 2008 and 2009 “Two Buck Chuck” or [yellow tail™], then you’re either a much better wine taster than me, or suffering from some sort of delusion. Notice also that in mass-produced wine such as these two and many others there is no price difference based on vintage, and that is the way it should be. Wines produced on a mass scale are “engineered” to be predictable; to taste a certain way to please the consumer, to offer the perception of value. And perhaps in most of the wine in the marketplace, the use of vintage dating adds to that perception, because although we may not seriously consider what vintage year appears on a label, we would be disappointed to find a label without that year prominently displayed, and perhaps judge the wine to be somehow inferior. The careful inclusion of a vintage date on wine that is predictably the same on a year-to-year basis is called marketing (some might call it mass hypnosis, but that’s a discussion for another column).

We live in a world where more than 90% of the wine produced – far in excess of a billion bottles per year – is consumed within two years of vintage, and remember that we are talking about the year in which the grapes were harvested, not the year in which the wine was produced, bottled, and shipped, so that is a very small window of time from the vine to the empty bottle or box. Consider also that most wines are best consumed within two or three years of vintage and we begin to see that the old Orson Welles caveat to “drink no wine before its time” has little meaning in the world of enjoying wine as an everyday drink to enjoy with our meals. Add to this the fact that, much like the rest of the world, 95% of the wine purchased in the United States is consumed within two weeks of purchase, and at least 75% of that wine is consumed within 24 hours, and we see that Americans, who now collectively drink more wine than the citizens of any other nation, truly enjoy wine; vintage be damned.

So, has vintage lost its importance altogether? The answer is: it depends. Vintage is the last thing most people who enjoy wine think about, unless it’s to make sure that the white wine they’re buying is not too old. However, there are a small percentage of wine drinkers who pay very close attention to vintage when purchasing wine. These folks are purchasing very special wines, usually very expensive wines; wines for special occasions, dinners, and celebrations; wines that by their cost and pedigree seem to anoint the purchaser with prestige. Importantly, this category of wine consumer also includes those who buy wine not primarily as an object of pleasure but as an investment in a bottle. And this is where vintage matters.

If we take a look at the Bordeaux wine trade as but one example, vintage is all-important, because wine grapes, the most climate-sensitive crop in the world, respond to the environmental imperatives of each growing year – sunshine, rain, wind, heat, cold – and each year the wine produced from those grapes is different. The machas and doyennes of the international wine press taste each vintage of Bordeaux while it is still in barrels, and make predictions and proclamations based on their perceptions of quality. The most powerful member of the wine press is Robert Parker, who invented the 100-point scale for judging wines, and whose opinion directly impacts the price of a particular Bordeaux wine and all of the best wines of an entire vintage in Bordeaux. Tens, perhaps even hundreds of millions of dollars hang in the balance, based on Parker’s prognostications. Parker declared 2000, 2005, and 2009 “the vintage of the century,” with many wines receiving between 95 and 100 points, and prices for those wines followed suit.

I am not exaggerating Parker Power when it comes to Bordeaux. Let’s take a look at just one excellent red wine, Château Haut-Brion, from the Pessac-Léognan district of Graves in Bordeaux. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, Haut-Brion has a great history, and was one of only four wines (and the only wine from Graves) granted Premier Grand Cru Classé (“First Growth”) status in the 1855 classification of Bordeaux. Remember that Parker declared 2000, 2005, and 2009 as extraordinary vintages. Below are current prices of various vintages of Château Haut-Brion (each price is per bottle and is followed by Parker’s score, as per the website of Zachy’s, a famous wine shop in the lower Hudson Valley town of Scarsdale, New York):
2000- $1,180 (99)
2001- 625 (94)
2003-595 (95)
2005-$1,800 (100)
2006-$750 (95)
*2008-$692 (95)
*2009-$1,200 (98)
*Both are purchased as “Futures”, known as en primeur in Bordeaux. You must pay for the wine in full, and then wait until the summer of 2011 to receive the 2008, the summer of 2012 to receive the 2009. (By the way, Parker gave the 1989 Haut-Brion a perfect score (100 points). That wine sells for $2,400 per bottle at Sherry Lehmann wine merchants in New York City).

Clearly, in Bordeaux, vintage (and Parker Power) makes a huge difference in the cost of the wine. When you buy the wine as “Futures” you’re betting that the price will rise when it arrives in the market and will increase substantially over time. People who buy their wine this way are often thinking of the auction market for these wines, where they can sell the wines at a profit. We are not even in the same wine universe as wines that sell for say, $10 to $25, where many of us are comfortable, and where many very good wines at reasonable prices live.
Since I believe tasting the world’s greatest wines is a nonpareil and priceless experience, I am incapable of assigning a dollar sign to the joy I see reflected in the faces of friends, family, and loved ones on the rare occasions when we sip the amazing product of a very special piece of earth. Certainly, the last thing I want to think about is the market value in cold cash of each sip. While my relaxed stance might be perceived as decadent, privileged, and undeserved, I can’t believe that people would find me crazy for reveling in this fleeting but somehow eternal moment.

In Bordeaux, however, I might be locked up as a madman, dangerous to myself, and more important, dangerous to the Bordeaux wine trade. So, now we live in a world where $1,000 or more for a bottle of fine wine is considered sane. Forgive me, but I have to ask, “Who’s crazy?”

Well, maybe it is me that’s crazy, but the last time I checked the reason I love wine is the fact that it is one of life’s great pleasures. On the other hand, I thought I actually was crazy the last time I checked the performance of my 401-K retirement fund and realized that the only future I can reasonably afford to plan is death. How can I measure my sanity against these two seemingly incongruous benchmarks? What has pleasure and love got to do with profit and loss? Must we balance the indulgence of the senses with the imbalance of the cents? If we buy our wine thinking “vintage first,” maybe.

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