By Lenn Thompson, Founder and Editor
Last night over on Facebook, I learned about Wine Specator's first 2008 vintage report card, which includes an A grade for the Finger Lakes and a B for Long Island. A brief comment discussion ensued and I thought that I'd write a bit about it this morning.
I have an email in to Mitch Frank, who contributed to the piece and who I know writes about Long Island for the publication, because I'm curious to learn how these grades are calculated. On the surface, it looks like winemaker and vineyard manager interviews are the basis, but is that it? I don't know, so I'm trying to find out.
But assuming that is the case, I think that giving regions vintage grades, especially so soon after harvest, is extremely problematic and not all that useful to the consumer or anyone else, except maybe the PR and marketing folks. These grades are problematic and maybe shoudl be taken witha grain of salt for a few reasons.
First, while I know that winemakers and vineyard managers wouldn't actually lie, they do need to sell the wines from the 2008 vintage and they might soften or downplay the negative parts of the year. Of course, if the grades are also based on degree day data and other objective measures, this is less of an issue.
Second, I think that it's silly to grade a vintage when the wines are barely even made. For some of the long-hanging reds on Long Island, we're not even a month past harvest yet. These grades are clearly meant to be an early indicator of wine quality, but are they?
Which leads me to my third point. It's difficult enough to give a grade or rating to an individual wine. There is bottle variation (for a number of reasons) and yes, they are subjective. But at least those are for a single wine. Giving a grade to an entire region, even one as geographically small as Long Island, is incredibly hard to do well. From vineyard to vineyard there is so much variation in terms of weather, temperature, etc. that these grades really are broad generalizations at best. The unfair generalization is probably even greater for the Finger Lakes just because it's a larger region with vineyards lining several lakes. According to Bob Madill from Sheldrake Point on Cayuga Lake, who was quoted in the WS story, "Vineyards that surround the three major lakes are at differing elevations, aspects and are subject to varying rainfall. This is not a small detail, particularly in years that are dry or that have winter temperature episodes."
I've also heard that certain riesling vineyards were harvested a full three weeks before some others. Can any single grade/rating/score cover that variation?
I've heard many great things about the 2008 growing year in the Finger Lakes, so this isn't about whether or not the region 'deserves' an A. Winemakers up there have learned how to make great wines even in lesser vintages. Many expected 2007 to be a flabby year for riesling, and in some cases it was. But there were still terrific wines, with good acidity, made that year.
One final point before I end my rant: If these grades are meant to be tools for consumers, then why was Long Island given a B? I can only assume the B is the result of region-wide yields being lower (up to 75% or more for some varieties in some vineyards). But almost across the board, I've been told that sugar and phenolic ripeness was very similar to 2007, which was lauded as a banner year. If the wine quality is as good, or close, to 2007, is it really a "B" vintage? Or is it an "A" vintage with fewer bottles available?
This is the same problem that I have with people/shops/critics who rely on numeric or letter grades and don't look at the context around them. Yes, yields were down on Long Island, but from what I hear (and I already covered the potential for bias among sources) there are going to be some outstanding wines from 2008, just fewer bottles. So are these grades about the quality of the vintage or the quality and quantity?
I doubt the consumer really cares about the quantity. So who are these grades really for? I wonder if the primary audience here is the wineries themselves (and their PR people) so they can start talking up the wines long before they are released. Is that of benefit to anyone else?
Many American wine consumers crave scrores and grades. I get it. But I thnk it would be great if publications, both in old and new media, could be smarter about it.