Napa Vintage Shootout: 1997 and 1998

by Luke Sykora

Rarely have two Napa vintages been as diametrically opposed as 2011 and 2012: 2012 was near perfect from a grower’s perspective, producing an abundant, slow-ripening crop. The 2011 vintage, on the other hand, was downright cold, with a series of October rainstorms further hampering and pushing back harvest. Yields were low, and growers struggled mightily to get their cabernet ripe. Given the recent vintage fluctuation in Napa, we felt it would be an opportune time to check in on two other vintages that are considered polar opposites: 1997 and 1998, which have now reached maturity. On October 16, we sat down with several sommeliers and a collector at St. Vincent in San Francisco to taste through a series of 1997 and 1998 Napa cabernets.

    On paper, the outcome was all but assured before we even tasted the wines. A warm and uneventful growing season, 1997 saw early budbreak and an early, abundant harvest—resulting in ripe, opulent wines that were instantly lauded by many prominent critics. But while sommeliers continue to sell 1997s at astronomical prices, they haven’t exactly fallen in love with the vintage. “The ’97s have left me with nothing but disappointment,” commented Benu’s Bobby Conroy. “The wines are volatile, out of balance, overripe, over-oaked and overall a giant and expensive let down.”
    On the other hand, the sommeliers we invited have been surprised by the rising fortunes of the initially unloved 1998s. Yes, the vintage may have been comparatively hellish for growers—rains during flowering led to severely uneven fruit set, a searing heat-spike in mid-July further damaged the crop, the rest of the summer was cool and October rains made for a challenging harvest. But Michael Mina sommelier Josiah Baldivino noted that the cool weather also gave “a bit of Bordeaux flair to the wines, which I personally think is better for aging purposes.” Consultant and former Meadowood sommelier Michael Ireland agreed: “For me, in a snapshot, ’97 is the hare and is tuckered out, tired, while ’98 is the tortoise, winning the race with elegance and poise.”
    We were prepared to taste the wines and quickly agree that leading critics had been wrong about the two vintages, and the sommeliers were right: the 1997s would be fat, alcoholic and falling apart, whereas the initially green-tinged 1998s would still be fresh, bursting with tensile, acid-driven red fruit.
    Instead, after tasting blind through eight wines from each vintage, we immediately ran into a problem—the tasters were evenly split on which set of wines was 1997 and which was 1998. “I thought this would be easier, but it really isn’t,” commented Yoon Ha, head sommelier at Benu and a newly minted Master Sommelier. “It seems like there’s a convergence happening.” Neither the triumphant narrative about the 1997s nor the revisionist history that elevated the 1998s seemed to be playing out.
    Some tasters did find subtle differences between the two sets of wines. Conroy correctly identified the respective vintages based on color, since they were harder to pull apart by palate alone; he found the 1997s darker, but also showing more color degradation around the edges of the glass, whereas the ’98s were holding their color better. Collector James Johnson also correctly identified the 1997 vintage based on a subtle “toasted” character he found in the fruit. A number of tasters, however, were confused by the acidity in both sets, since they had anticipated using acidity to distinguish between the wines of the warm 1997 and the cool, late 1998 harvests.

    Several pairs of wines completely threw the panel for a loop. The 1997 and 1998 Beringer Private Reserves were eerily similar, both possessing a firm structure and lively tang (perhaps due to the contribution from Beringer’s Howell Mountain vineyards). Several tasters gave a slight edge to the ’97, but both were tight, intriguing wines. The two Clos Du Val Reserves were also more similar than expected. Composed mostly of Rutherford Bench fruit, since Clos Du Val was then replanting its Stag’s Leap estate, the wines were both holding up very well—long and savory, possessing classic Clos Du Val restraint.
    Of the two Duckhorn Estate cabernets, one was succulent and richly-fruited, leading Michael Ireland to comment quite sensibly, “This is what a ’97 should be.” Except in this case, the wine turned out to be a ’98.
    Things didn’t get any easier once we hit the volcanic terroirs—Shafer Hillside Select and von Strasser’s Diamond Mountain cabernets. The wines from these two producers showed distinct identities across both vintages. Hillside Select spoke of the shallow, sun-warmed soils of the Stag’s Leap Escarpment, reveling in rich, complex fruit tones and savory concentration. For Yoon Ha, the similarity of the two vintages showed “that they really know how to work with the fruit—a suppleness and good management of tannins.” Both von Strasser wines were appropriately grippy—the 1997 perhaps showing more power and the 1998 a touch more elegance, but without a massive chasm between the two.
    Across the board, both vintages read as fully mature and ready to drink without decanting. Collector James Johnson came away with the sense that neither is the ideal vintage: “I think there are some better vintages on either side of these two: ’94, ’95, 2000. There are problems with both of these vintages for different reasons and I’m also shocked by the convergences.” Josiah Baldivino did see some subtle separation between the two years: “It’s not that one is showing better than the other,” he said, “they’re just different. If you want a more fruity wine, I’d say go with ’97. If you want a more Old World style, go for ’98…. Both vintages are pretty good, depending on what you like.”
    Given the viticultural struggles of 1998, another factor that might contribute to the similar showing from the two vintages is the draconian selectivity that resulted in ’98’s top wines. Beringer Private Reserve’s production was 30 percent of normal. At Shafer, in addition to instituting rigorous cluster thinning, winemaker Elias Fernandez resorted to removing individual unripe berries from clusters to achieve even ripening. (Consequently, yields from Shafer’s hillside blocks plummeted from the normal 2.5 tons/acre to less than three quarters of a ton per acre.) Those who produced top-quality wine in 1998 clearly had to work for it; the vintage was not kind to laissez-faire growers, responding only to rigorous vineyard work and careful block and barrel selection.
     Even so, despite the stereotypes about the 1997 and 1998 vintages in Napa, the reality is more complicated. “The tasting was quite a humbling experience on a few levels,” Ireland commented in a follow-up email to the assembled group. “Socrates said, ‘I am wise because I know that I am not wise,’ and I now feel that I know these vintages a bit more intimately because I know that I do not know them well!”