Question about '98 Napa, maybe Roy P could chime in

Recently to celebrate a special occasion we opened a mini vertical of '97-'98-'99 Heitz Martha’s, just for fun we decided to do it blind, even though going in I knew for sure which one would be my favorite. There was a clear and unanimous winner, I of course had no doubts it would be the 1997. In case you don’t know where this is going, the winner was the 1998, followed closely by the '99 with the 1997 in third. I love tasting blind. In my opinion there was no “bottle variation” because the '97 was still a lovely bottle of wine. My questions are;

Is the talk about 1998 being such a bad vintage just plain wrong?
Is this a valley floor got away with it, while mountain fruit suffered worse situation?
If '98 was indeed a bad vintage, what did Hietz do to overcome it?
I’m curious if any one else has had some kind of similar results, either with other producers or surrounding vineyards etc.?


I personally like the 98’s, I find them ripe, but not overblown (in the period of time when they were really making ripe wines)they tend to have a bit more ‘vintage character’ to them with more earthy (some might say under ripe) notes. The 00’s are much the same for my own drinking pleasure.
People that prefer the riper, rounder style with less tannin and blockiness’ will tell you that they are under ripe and vegetal, as they say different strokes.
I also find that time has been really kind to this vintage and integrated a lot of these flavors and aromas (that turned people off initially) into really pretty and specific notes.

I remember reading on the other board about a blind vertical of Bryant Family covering about 10 vintages I think. The winner was the 1998. I suspect this vintage was probably higher in acid and may have aged better.

I have had more 2000s than 1998s, but both vintages seem to be far better than they were when released. Both vintages were cold ones (as was 1999 too,) but not as cold as 2011. Last year people dropped fruit, did leaf pulling and there is more plant material with rootstocks that ripen more cleanly. In 1998-2000 the higher ripeness mantra was still just among the cult wines, so most people did not really know how to pull out all the stops to ripen the fruit. Most people picked at 23 brix or so. Many of those wines were less interesting when young and several exhibited outright green flavors.

In the last couple of years I have had some from those vintages that were really drinking nice; medium-bodies, with no oak presence, and good complexity. They are “charmers” more than awe-inspiring wines. I am sensing more fatigue with some of the wines and I think they need to be drunk up shortly, but in this zone they are tasting better than most people thought they might. I had a 2000 Dalla Valle Cab several months ago I gave 94pts, whereas when I had in at the turn of the millenium, I gave it about 88.

I think if you stick to reliable names, you can probably find good, very drinkable wines from 1998-2000 at fairly cheap prices. Just make sure storage has been good.

There is a little voice in my head that whispers this is some evidence against needing to have big ripeness to make good wines here, and the 98-00 vintages do seem to be at least some evidence of that, given how they have surprisingly aged. 2011 as well, most all of which are under 14% alcohol off the valley floor and also have slight vegetative streaks in many cases. The issue for me is that it took ten to fourteen years to get to this point with those vintages, and I simply don’t have that much time to wait. I am 46 and don’t want to wait til 60 to drink a Cali Cab.

In summary, the 98 and 00s are surprises in some ways. My recommendation is if you find one you like, hunt down a couple more and drink em soon, while they still have some fruit on them. You might be able to find em for a song. But try em before you buy em.

We had a mini-vertical of BV Georges DeLatour - 97, 98, 99. Unanimous winner in a room of 12 people was the 1999, followed by 1998, and then 1997, which tasted like baked out nearly stewed fruit, despite perfect bottle condition from the winery. I believe all showed 13.5% abv, but the acid in the 1998 and 1999 seemed to keep the wines very fresh and alive, while the 1997 was fading. I think 1999 will end up being a very good long term vintage, since it seems many wineries found ripeness, but also maintained acid and structure. It took the one redeeming quality of 1998, and blended it with the once redeeming quality of 1997, rich fruit. Something about balance. I digress.

1998 reminds me a bit of 2009…stick to top producers and your wines will be pretty good, but as a whole, the vintage isn’t that good compared to its contemporaries…even now.

Horrors! Ten to 14 years for a cabernet to mature! Surely not!

I think you’ve explained a lot about the increase in ripeness and alcohols right there: It’s the demand for wines that are relatively soft and drinkable on release.

I don’t have a broad sense of the '98 vintage as a whole because I didn’t buy many based on early reviews but I am in agreement with you that there are definitely some good wines that outperformed early expectations. One recent example I noticed was the Herb Lamb Vineyards cab. I opened a 1997 at a dinner a few months back. First bottle of the night, everyone got about a glassful. 45 minutes later we needed another bottle and I didn’t have any more '97’s so I opened a 1998 figuring it’ll be an interesting comparison. Both my wife and I were pleasantly surprised by how similar the wines were. I expected a vast drop off in quality after just tasting a '97 and it wasn’t the case.

Very interesting you mention 1998 Heitz Martha CJ. Remember drinking the wine a few times years ago, and was disappointed, so much so, never even considered revisiting one. Organizing a 60’s through 00’s Heitz Martha vertical with local friends and perhaps one should be in the lineup? Of 1998 Napa Cabs in general, have had more disappointing experiences than not, too many to list. Think however Peter Michael Les Pavot and Dalla Valle Napa hit it out of the ballpark!

I think the respected names were able to make good wines in even 98 & 00. I also think Heitz can ave a tendency to not strictly follow the vintage tendencies. They put out some better stuff in “off” vintages and (IMO) some lesser-then-expected stuff in vintages where other wines did very well.
I drink a lot of cab. I think some of the 98s have aged better than expected, after a lot of the wine wasn’t showing great at release. I bought stuff anyway, especially on discount a year after release. Some surprises excepted, I still think it is a significantly below average vintage, though again not the disaster apparent back then. I still think one is better off with almost all the vintages around it. Some of the heralded 97 have fared less-well than hoped for but on-average I think they’re much superior. 99s IMO have been showing pretty well, also perhaps better than the prevailing opinion at release. 01 & 02 are much better in most cases.
I think 98 and 00 kind of get lumped together. My experience is that 00 is indeed quite a poor vintage, definitely worse than 98. Again, I still bought quite a few and even some of the typically upper echelon wines just don’t compare to the wines of the 10 years surrounding them. Many of the more pedestrian cabs I’ve opened from 00 lately are barely worth drinking.

I think 1998-2000 vintages in Napa provide great value in the secondary market right now, for wines that drink well now, tend to be more traditional in style, and are often available quite cheaply.

I’ve always thought that 98 and 2000 were much better than people widely believed, rather like 01, 02 and 04 in Bordeaux. And I usually prefer 99 over 97 among more highly regarded vintages.

But I’m mostly talking about the good quality rank-and-file Napa reds, not necessarily the cults, with which I have only modest experience.

I’ve seen that in 97 vs 98 and in older wine such as 87 vs 89 (similar sort of years locally). The big reds didn’t have the acid to age well, I’m guessing. The wines from the “bad” years aged better, but never are what I’d call great wines–just better than the hyped vintages. I think the lesson is drink the big, fruity ones early.

I think the positive performance of vintages like '98 and '99 are a good example of how the “riper is better” religion was taken to extreme during this period.

So has anyone had the 1998 Lokoya Diamond Mountain recently? I’ve got a big Pinehurst golf gig coming up and Winebid has the 98 at $70.

What do you mean, Kevin? Not attacking, simply curious. Some of the very-ripe wines of 1997, like BV GDLT and the incredible Montelena Estate were 13.5% to 14.1%. While many 1997 were fruit heavy, in hindsight they don’t seem to be ridiculously overripe in the high brix–>high sugar and phenolic ripeness–>high alcohol context that we see non-stop in Napa today as abvs seem to begin at 14.8% and only go up. If anything, it seems the lack of acid in 1997 was the major detriment, or at least it tastes that way as the once juicy fruit seems to be turning stewed and flabby in many bottles. And maybe that’s a ripeness issue as well, just rearing its head in a slightly different way. As for perceived flavor profiles and ripeness, in my experience many 1997s offered some black cherry notes (a deep red fruit taste to me), which are seemingly forsaken for currant and plum nowadays (black as night).

All that said, I’m looking at finished bottles and not necessarily winemaking, so I’d love your perspective and knowledge.

Or, are you simply saying that the wines in 1998 and 1999 were overlooked because they lacked the richness of a 1997 or a 2002?

Sorry I realize I wasn’t very clear. Yes, my point was that '98 and '99 were pretty overlooked on release because they were marginally ripe vintages and all the critical accolades at that time were being focused on the ripest wines made in the ripest vintages. After recently tasting a '93 Monte Bello (which was terrific) I was reminded that if you have the patience to age wine, some of the cooler vintages can be fantastic.

I think 98 and 00 are drinking well right now. It took them a while but many of them did eventually come around. I think those above noting the coolness of the vintage are correct. It made for poor ratings, add to that the lack of “confidence” in the ageabitlity of Cal cabs, and hardly anyone predicted that by age 10 to 15, the wines would be excellent. But the proof is in the bottle.

I remember liking a '98 Napa Cab (I think the Sequoia Grove) and being told by the winery that the success of the vintage depended partly on where the vineyard was located in relation to Highway 28–some vineyards got too much rain but others did just fine