I was called recently by the Wine Spectator, who wanted my review of the 2008 vintage in Paso Robles for their annual report card for the recently-concluded vintage (you can read the resulting article on the Wine Spectator's Web site). Distilling the complexities of a vintage down to a letter grade is challenging, probably even more so than reducing a wine to a score on the 100-point scale. A wine is a snapshot, a finished product, and can be evaluated as such. A vintage is a collection of events whose impacts vary even across a single vineyard, and vary more greatly as you expand the area under consideration.
When I struggled with the question, the writer helped me by saying that the Wine Spectator had rated the 2006 and 2007 vintages a "B+" and that most of my fellow vintners were rating this vintage a "B". Really? I understand everyone's desire to cast the most recent vintage in a positive light, but I don't see how anyone could assert that 2008 was only a fractional grade less positive than 2006 and 2007.
After mumbling something to the point that if the last two vintages were "B+" then this most recent vintage was at best a "B-" I tried to make a caveat. I've felt (and I wrote here six weeks ago) that Rhone producers in the Paso Robles have the chance to make some of the standout wines of the vintage. We didn't have the issues with shatter and over-rapid ripening that producers of Bordeaux varieties had, we didn't get impacted by the fires that affected much of Santa Barbara, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties, and we didn't get the late-September rain that drenched the North Coast. Plus, the April frosts that impacted much of the state were more severe in regions to our north and south than they were here.
After I finished the call and had a chance to compose my thoughts a little, I wrote a follow-up note to the Wine Spectator writer who'd called me trying to clarify what I thought about the last few vintages. My point boiled down to that there's no way that the last two vintages should have been rated as "B+" vintages. If there ever were a vintage that deserved an "A" grade, it was 2007 (at least if you were grading for quality; quantities were low). And both 2005 and 2006 should have received "A-" grades, in my opinion. In this context, a "B" or "B-" grade for 2008 seems deserved for the region (though, for Tablas Creek and other Rhone producers near us, I think that it warrants an "A-" grade, a shade below 2007 and on par with 2005 and 2006).
I included in my note my grades of the last decade's worth of vintages here in Paso Robles, and wanted to share them with all of you. I give a few brief notes of explanation following each grade, and I have linked the vintages to our harvest reports since we began keeping them if you would like our blow-by-blow experience as the vintage has unfolded:
2008 Vintage: B- A difficult vintage bookended by frost in the spring and freeze in early October. Yields were low, and Bordeaux varieties and Zinfandel suffered, and an August heat spike forced many producers to pick before they wanted to. Beautiful weather in mid- to late-October saved the vintage for producers who could afford to wait. Rhone varieties were most successful, and produced wines with good flavors and lower than normal alcohols.
2007 Vintage: A A fabulous vintage defined by the cold, dry winter that preceded it. Rainfall levels just 40% of normal stressed the grapes. The summer was moderate in temperature, producing a long, slow harvest with yields down 15%-30% from 2005 and 2006. The wines were intensely flavored, dark in color, with surprisingly gentle tannins for such a powerful vintage. A potentially classic vintage for the Paso Robles region.
2006 Vintage: A- Above-average winter rains and a cool spring got 2006 vineyards off to a wet and late start. A moderate summer followed, and the resulting harvest was delayed but unhurried, with beautiful weather persisting into November. Winemakers reported a higher then normal crop (perhaps a shade below 2005's levels) with notable elegance, pure flavors, medium body and comparatively lower alcohol levels.
2005 Vintage: A- 2005 was a nearly ideal growing season, begun with early flowering after a wet winter. Yields were higher than normal and combined with moderate temperatures to encouraged gradual ripening. Harvest began about 10 days later than normal, which meant that grapes had spent nearly a month longer on the vine between flowering and harvest. The harvest resulted in the largest crush on record in the region, but the resulting wines were nevertheless intense and balanced.
2004 Vintage: B- 2004 was the third consecutive drought year, marked by a warm spring and very early flowering. A fairly mild summer morphed into a late-August heat wave, with much of the harvest completed by mid-September. The problems came with the early (mid-October) onset of the rainy season, and many late-ripening varieties weren't harvestable. 2004's wines showed classic flavors and moderate concentration, and tended to drink well young.
2003 Vintage: B A second drought year marked by the warm, dry winter and spring which brought bud break in early in March. An average summer, with hot days and cool nights still resulted in an earlier-than-normal harvest and wines with somewhat higher than normal alcohols. Wines showed good richness and substantial tannins, but only moderate complexity.
2002 Vintage: A- 2002 growing season began with a warm, dry winter with the lowest rainfall in five years. Spring remained dry and cool, while June, July and August were very warm. Moderate temperatures returned in September and weather stayed ideal well into November. The resulting wines (like 2007) were intense and powerful, with high tannin levels but good complexity. Red wines have aged beautifully. Similar overall to 2007.
2001 Vintage: C The 2001 growing season started with moderate vigor from average rainfall and cold temperatures. A warm March led to early budbreak, which allowed a major frost event in mid-April to inflict major damage and dramatically reduce yields. High winds during flowering compounded erratic yields. A protracted heat wave in the early summer accelerated ripening and set the stage for an early harvest. Yields were very low, and ripening uneven. Wines were lighter in body and early-maturing. Bordeaux varieties produced the best showing.
2000 Vintage: B+ 2000 saw average rainfall, with warm springtime weather, early budbreak but no significant damage from frosts. Summer daytime temperatures were about normal while cooler than average summer nights helped extend the growing season. Harvest began two weeks later than normal, and wines had good intensity despite slightly higher than normal yields. Wines showed good persistence and have aged well. Similar overall to 2005.
1999 Vintage: B+ Slightly below average winter rainfall reduced yields and ripening was further accelerated by a warm, dry spring and summer. Harvest began in mid-August, the earliest date on record at Tablas Creek. The wines were intense and tannic when young, with slightly elevated alcohol levels. The wines needed some time to come into balance, but many have aged magnificently.
Is this helpful? Other winemakers, do these grades and descriptions seem right to you?