Producer Versus Vintage
By: George Balling
It is one of the oldest arguments in the wine industry and if you are in this discussion with a group of wine professionals it will likely never be resolved over one glass, and not any move likely over one bottle of wine. For many years I thought, “what is all the fuss about?” as long as you are drinking good wine, and when it comes to wine “good” is a very subjective thing, drinking good wine is all that matters. Right? Well maybe, because then you get to the question, “what if I could be drinking even better wine?”
Here is the basis of the argument. You should always buy wine from the best or your favorite producer, as opposed to buying the best vintage available just because it is a good year, from “lesser” wineries. The notion being that the best producers will always make the best wine from any year, regardless of the challenges that growing conditions during any vintage throw at them. The very best producers will always find a way to produce really good wine. The only caveat being that there are some years when this is simply not possible because the entire crop gets wiped out, like 2020 in virtually all of Napa and Sonoma Counties when wildfire smoke pretty much did in every grape in both counties. Excepting years like that though great winemakers will always prevail and make great wine.
As time has passed, I have come to agree more and more with the idea of buying producers over vintages. As I mentioned above that was not always the case as I gobbled up bottles from years like 1997, 2007, 2012 and other great years from just about any winery I could get my hands on. I have become more selective over time though. Among other reasons when I go back and revisit some of the lesser-known wines from those great years they simply have not held up as well as those from the best of the best.
Another reason though is if you taste two wines side by side from a really great year and one is from a favored or better producer, and the other from a less favored or not as good producer the favored will almost always win out.
Here’s the rub. What makes a winemaker great, or preferred is entirely subjective. While I may think that the wines from Jean Louis Chave from the Rhone Valley of France are the best Rhone wines ever and that Chave as a winemaker is atop the heap when it comes to Syrah, the style may not be your “cup of tea”. Fair enough. Here is real world example of what the argument is though. A couple of weeks back we were tasting wine in the shop with one of our distributors and the winery rep from Ramey. Ramey is located in Healdsburg in Sonoma County, and they produce wines from Sonoma and Napa that include some of our favorite vineyard sources.
One of the wines we were tasting was from the Pedregal Vineyard in the Oakville district of Napa Valley. The wine was from 2011. 2011 was one of the most challenging vintages ever across the west. It is the coldest summer growing season on record in Washington. Similarly in Napa where the grapes came from it was a late cold spring and a slow start. In the fall things got really bad in Northern California with early persistent rains that trashed much of the crop especially later ripening varietals like Cabernet. So, when the 2011 Pedregal was poured in my glass, let’s just describe me as skeptical. I tasted the wine and the first word of my tasing note was “wow”, the second was “delicious”. Then I thought to myself with some undisclosed embarrassment, “well of course it’s great, it’s from David Ramey a great winemaker”.
This was the moment when this age-old argument came closer to fully settled in my mind. When you have a year that is to this day still widely considered as dreadful and you have a winery you respect as among the best, make a wine that is that good, you’ve got to go with the producer over the vintage. Every time. Right?
This will be hard for many of us, its still hard for me. You are in a restaurant looking at a wine list or looking at wine on the shelf at a shop and you have a 2011 wine, next to a 2012 (considered one of the greatest vintages ever in the Western US). The 2011 was made by one of the winemakers in your own personal pantheon of winemakers, and the 2012 was made by one who is not. What do you do? I know where I will likely come down, unless of course I wimp out, which I have done.
Let me know which you choose and how it works out. We can argue all of it out over a bottle or two. You pick the producer.