California producers are pleased by critics’ reception of the 2003 vintage at the annual tasting of new wines sponsored by the California Cabernet Society.

It is now clear there’s little likelihood of a repeat of the poorly–received 1998 and 2000 – and the devastating affect on sales of those vintages.

Most observers have been awaiting the 2003’s with some nervousness. The preceding two years, 2001 and 2002, are widely regarded as excellent, and many in the industry feared the worst for 2003 after a heat spike in mid September.

Many wineries poured samples from their premium offerings and most sampled were only components of the final blends. Nevertheless, the critics found most demonstrated full, ripe fruit flavors with none of the weedy, thin characteristics typical of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes picked underripe.

Most of the wines featured smooth, muted tannins – whether due to generally favorable weather or to restraint on the part of the winemakers isn’t clear.

Despite the positive reception of their wines, many winemakers question offering buyers and the media such young wines. ‘It’s difficult to make buying decisions about these immature wines,’ says Dawnine Dyer, formerly winemaker at Domaine Chandon who now produces wine with her husband Bill from their vineyard on Diamond Mountain.

But winemaker Steve Test of Merryvale Vineyards pointed out that simple, early praise can help the vintage. ‘It’s easier to remember one fact about the vintage than all the subtleties.’

The mass tastings originated in response to the en primeur events in Bordeaux, which generate great interest in the media and trade. However, few California wineries sell futures. ‘Bordeaux is driven by futures,’ said winemaker Chris Howell at Cain Vineyards. ‘Here, we’re driven by the new releases.’

As a result, most of the buyers attend the event for education, including comparing the new wines to the two previous vintages. ‘It’s a lot of fun,’ says winemaker Tim Mondavi of Robert Mondavi Winery. ‘It adds interest and enjoyment. We get a chance to taste these wines young, then as they progress.’

Written by Paul Franson