One of the most crucial aspects of determining how valuable a wine is comes from the year, or vintage, the grapes were harvested. Wines are dated not by when they are released but by when they were first pressed. The reason this is important is because of how big an influence the weather has on the flavor of the grape. A growing season that is unusually wet or cold will affect how the wine eventually turns out, and no amount of aging can change that. With some wines, the difference between an average vintage and an exceptional vintage can be reflected in the exceptional wine costing five, ten or even more times the price of the average wine.
The wines and wineries of California have a bit of an advantage over wineries from other states and countries because of a more stable weather pattern year to year. While there still tends to be differences between vintages, in many cases, these differences are not as pronounced, and an off year tends to be much more of an exception than the rule. Whereas some French vineyards are pleased if they get two or three exceptional vintages in a decade, many California winemakers feel disappointed if at least half of their wines do not earn high marks and reviews.
It may sound strange to call this a fault, but these expectations have had the effect of resulting in an overproduced uniformity of wine. The predictable growing seasons allow winemakers to leave the grapes on the vine until they are almost overripe. The riper a grape gets, the high the sugar content it has, which leads to a higher alcohol level. When wines start getting over 16 and 17 percent alcohol, they tend to lose many of the subtleties and nuances the wines were first prized for.
Today, many of the smaller winemakers in California are actively working against that trend. These small batch wineries, some of whom produce no more than five thousand cases a wine each year, focus on harvesting the grapes when they have reached what they believe is each varietal's perfect potential. By selectively harvesting the grapes when they are ready and not simply when the season finally ends, they can put out wines that fully express each wine's individuality.
Most of these winemakers are focused on varietals less well known than those that have made California wine famous around the world. Instead of trying to compete against industry behemoths that produce millions of cases each year, they instead are reintroducing lesser known varietals that, in some cases, have never been produced outside of their native regions. These new wine makers are helping to bring the next generation of wine drinkers back to California.
Jack Terry is a freelance writer who has been writing about the food and beverage industry for over 20 years. http://www.wineclubworld.com