I would guess that there are regional differences in this equation, as well as varietal ones, and the style preferences of the producer.
In the extremely challenging 2007 vintage in the Willamette Valley, I felt that I had made nice wines that were good work for the vintage but far from extraordinary. With 5-7 years in the bottle it became apparent that they were much better than I anticipated. As they have reached and passed the decade mark, these wines continue to prove to me that the Willamette Valley is truly a great winegrowing region. The weather that year at harvest was appalling, the fruit was visually less than stellar, but the wines are lovely. And notably as French winemakers become more common in the Valley, they universally seem to tout how little disease pressure we normally face.
The following year we had remarkable conditions for harvest, and the hype for the 2008 vintage started in the wineries immediately. Most of the wines have been very good, and perhaps as many great vintages go, simply still need time. But many 08s I have had have been blockish and a bit foursquare. Within my own wines, as much as I feel our style helped avoid the blockishness, my 2008 Willamette Valley is one of my least favorite wines. The top wines from our cellar seem like they are finally evolving into more magical creatures, but in general the vintage hasn’t really separated itself in quality from many other less heralded Oregon vintages.
2010 was a remarkably cool year for us, but quality was very, very good. These wines were extremely pretty when they were in the cellar and first in bottle. As they have aged, they have really held steady. I really enjoy the wines and look forward to seeing them in the coming decade. That said, I began making Willamette valley Syrah from Deux Vert in 2008 which finished quite warm, and the 2009 vintage was quite warm. In 2010 I picked the Syrah on Halloween at 19.0 Brix, which was the lowest Brix level I had ever seen for red fruit at the time. All of the Pinot Noirs came in at 20.0-22.0, also the lowest I had seen for a vintage. However, nothing was green and malic acids were in balance. The Syrah, which I had no idea how it was going to turn out, remains my favorite wine that I have made from that grape and that vineyard. And post 2010, I started pushing to get ripeness at sugars much closer to 20-22 than the traditional 23-24.5 that was/is prevalent through much of the Willamette Valley(while still keeping acids in balance). That’s a stylistic choice and statement rather than a statement of quality. I like wines at 12.5-13.0, but there are lots of wines made at higher Brix that are also very, very good wines…
Enter 2014. Early, warm spring and budbreak, then a hot summer had us all looking at early September for picking. We caught a small break as harvest approached and temps cooled for the final week of August. We hung into the first days of September and picked in cool weather. Fruit was ripe but not dehydrated, and some of our farming choices had helped hold Brix in check. But my desired 20-22 Brix was not possible. I worked hard to rein in the extraction(2014 is the birth year of my oldest son, so I busted my behind to make the very best wines possible), but my overwhelming feeling about the fruit was “meh”. Yields were large, clusters were huge. Days on the vine were barely 100. Everything was spotlessly free from disease but just seemed nice. Going to bottle, I was happy with many of our choices but still hadn’t shaken the idea that these wines were just good, and not my personal style. I bottled only a single barrel of wine as a Heritage wine, and that only because it was my son’s birth year. That wine has never been sold, except for a bottle or two to Bob Hughes to complete his Heritage vertical. The whites showed excellent potential, and we had managed to pick them at correct sugars mostly due to have such a large crop. In bottle for a year, it became obvious that the Chardonnays were well beyond our hopes, and that was validated with the 95s from the Wine Advocate. But the basic Pinot Gris was extremely delicious(even Jim Anderson would have loved it). The Pinot Noirs took longer to come around though, and their dumb phase was VERY dumb. There is a CT note from someone describing the 2014 Bishop Creek PN as “swampwater”. I opened a bottle after seeing the note, and could see their point. But that is the magic of Pinot Noir, and as the years have passed, those 2014s have begun to open up and show themselves. The Bishop Creek is pretty delicious swampwater now, and we offered the 2014 Whistling Ridge as an add on to our fall release for the mailing list. The response from people who have opened the 2014 Whistling Ridge has been remarkable, from very positive TNs, personal emails, and additional orders of current wines. To be fair, it was my favorite of the 2014s on release and the wine that I set aside cases of for my son, but it is pretty easily outperforming my expectations.
So, yes. Cool climate Pinot Noir, and ludicrously cool climate Syrah have plenty of surprises. That said, like Merrill, I also keep wines in the same barrel until bottling. While there have been many times a wine has been up or down from my expectations, I can’t think of any situations where the selections and blends are something that I would redo.
But harvest happens at speed and with unique fruit every year. I can think of tons of things that I would tweak if I had the chance to do them over again. The great Helmut Donnhoff is credited with saying, “winemakers should get to do every vintage twice”, so it’s challenging for me to believe that there is a winemaker out there that has done everything perfectly in every vintage. But ultimately, great wines are made by the vineyard. And winemakers being perfect isn’t always the deciding factor that some of us like to present it as.
But I have always wanted to KNOW what happens when choices are made, rather than simply parrot beliefs. So I would guess that I have had a lot more surprises than many other winemakers, except perhaps Todd Hamina. I truly dislike the reality of winemaking, that if enough people say something is true that it starts to become a “truism” rather than being something that is tested to see if it is a reality.
Two easy examples of this are: green stems being vegetal and pulling West side leaves during summer. Both are regionally(as in Oregon only, I don’t speak for other areas) held beliefs that drive me crazy. We’ve been pulling West side leaves near the first of August since 2014 and have yet to see any sunburn or dehydration from the fruit exposure. What we have seen is more sunshine on the skins leads to thicker skins, more dry extract, and ripe flavors at lower sugars. And maybe my biggest pet peeve with winemakers is listening to someone who didn’t use any stems pontificating on how they were too green to use. If you didn’t use them, then you don’t know whether they were too green or not. I’ve been vinifying with stems every year since 2003, green, brown, or both. And for anyone who wants to claim a vintage since 2002 that stems were too green to use in the Willamette Valley, I am happy to open bottles that will disagree with them.
If you’re never surprised by your work, then you’re probably not taking many risks, says Captain Obvious. And the wines will reflect that. And the reverse as well, as my wines can generally attest. For 20 years I have made wines that are definitely risky and show the effects of those choices. Pick your poison.