Talking About the Weather With Wine Icons Cathy Corison, Francis Ford Coppola, and Paul Draper

I had the honor of spending about an hour and half with Paul Draper, Cathy Corison, Francis Ford Coppola, Eric Asamov, and Elaine Chukan Brown last night on a virtual discussion of the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon vintage. Talk about wine royalty! I highly doubt I would ever have the opportunity to recreate this in real life, so I guess this is a tally in the covid column? Don’t worry, I’d happily forgo even this experience if we could just kick covid to the curb once and for all.

I like to think that I am not one of those crazy geeky wine people who would get excited about discussing the details of one vintage on one grape variety – but I’d be lying – especially from the perspective of such legends in the industry.

We’ve all seen vintage ratings, but I will admit I don’t take them very seriously. With the exception of Bordeaux, and to a lesser extent Napa Valley, vintage charts don’t get much attention from the average consumer, and I get it, most of us are never going to be able to identify the difference between a hot year and cool year, etc.

So why discuss 2011? Because it was one of the most challenging vintages in a decade at that time, and still holds that distinction a decade later. A late spring, cool summer, and rain at the most inopportune times throughout the season caused real panic for winemakers. Cathy Corison shared that the conditions were so bad, she was afraid that she wouldn’t have a 2011 vintage at all.

Hot, dry conditions finally arrived in mid-October, allowing the grapes to fully ripen, but the vintage is definitely one that is considered a long, cool season. The silver lining is that once the grapes did rally, in the nick of time, they produced wines that have greater phenolics, grater acidity, and moderate alcohol levels. This resulted in wines that are more intense, while at the same time more elegant.

The panelists all tasted through two of their own, and each other’s, 2011 vintages. The only thing close in my cellar is the Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and the Monte Bello, both 2017. I opted not to open either for this Tuesday night shindig, but I really enjoyed watching these wine legends contrast and compare, and discuss their own personal challenges from that year.

For Corison, the 2011 vintage marked the 25th anniversary of her making her own wine, although she had a long history with many well respected wineries, she says of her transition to her own label, that she just knew there was a wine inside of her that had to get out. How beautiful is that? I’m huge fan of Corison wines, and sadly don’t have enough of them in my life. I missed an opportunity to visit on my last Napa trip, but it is at the top of my list on my next visit.

Inglenook and Corison are close in proximity to each other, sharing what used to just be referred to as the Rutherford Bench, before the AVAs of St. Helena and Rutherford were defined. Inglenook perhaps had a bit of divine serendipity in 2011. Owner Francis Ford Coppola had just hired Phillipe Bascaules as General Manager in 2011. Phillipe came from Bordeaux where challenging weather is the norm. Not to mention, he came from one of Bordeaux’s 1st Growth estates, Chateau Margaux. Coppola always wanted what he calls a more “feminine” wine – one with elegance and restraint and not the typical “big, bad, cab” that Napa so often embraced during this time, and a vintage like 2011 lends itself to this style, especially with a guy in charge who is used to handling just this type of weather. I must confess I am not familiar with Inglenook wines, but after hearing the extensive history of this estate, there is a bottle of Inglenook and an entirely separate article coming soon.

Ridge Vineyards, located a little bit down the road from Napa, in the Santa Cruz Mountains, had a slightly less wet season than Napa, however, it was one of the coldest the region experienced since 1942. Ridge is one of my favorite producers, and in full disclosure, Ridge is one of the few wineries that we are members of. Ridge wines to me, always possess that powerful, yet elegant status. The kind of wines that keep a wine lover forever intrigued. Draper expects Ridge wines to plateau around 20-25 years and then still be excellent for many years after. He shared that the 1970 Monte Bello is drinking beautifully today. It is always a delight for me to hear Paul Draper talk about anything, and it was awesome to hear his accolades for Corison’s wines, which are some of his personal favorites. If you know the history of Ridge, it is truly mind boggling that this man is so humble.

Ok, so maybe discussing the 2011 vintage for an hour and half is not for everyone, but this is one of the best virtual events I’ve attended. I think this particular group of great people, would make discussing anything a real treat, Elaine Chukan Brown was a great moderator, and I loved getting to see, rather than read Eric Asamov ‘s thoughts! As an aspiring writer and educator, these two have my utmost respect for their incredible careers.

How do you feel about vintages? Can you identify them? Do you have a favorite?

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