What do I know
Albert Einstein famously said, “the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.” Of course, Einstein knew more about certain areas of science than anyone during his lifetime, but grasping new scientific concepts only revealed more fields for him to explore and doors for him to open. This process is what drove Einstein, and many people who push the limits of understanding in their fields, to work hard, to take risks, to make mistakes (and, for some, to achieve greatness.) Einstein’s saying has been applied to the accretion of wine knowledge, perhaps, in some instances, with a false sense of modesty. It struck a bell with me in early January, however, when I tasted through some of our older vintages to update our Aging/Drinking Window notes (see updated notes on our web site www.peayvineyards.com).
I first had this realization—that I was ignorant – when I started creating blends with Nick and Vanessa in the spring and summer after our first vintages. When creating blends, the wines are young and full of primary flavors that need time to diminish before the cuveé’s singular personality can come to the fore. Some of these aromas are temporary fermentation flavors that will be gone in a month, some not. Years later, I still have problems ignoring oak, fruit, yogurt, et al. aromas I know will not be as dominant when I open the wines on release. Only by being “wrong” so many times over the past 15 years have I learned to soften my immediate hedonistic impressions and add my intellectual understanding that this flavor or that aroma will not be there in a year or will marry with another aroma and reveal a characteristic of our vineyard I will recognize and like. Further, a youthful flavor I do not like when the wine is still in barrel may turn out to be an essential characteristic in the finished wine that reveals the wine’s essence. How ironic and wrongheaded that my desired absence of an aroma when in barrel—when no one will drink it but me—will diminish the potential quality of the eventual wine when opened in a few years! This underscores that an intimate relationship with a piece of land, of the various blocks and clones within that piece of land, of the resulting wines made in various conditions over years from that land, is the only way to have any sense for what one can expect from a young wine down the road. Only experience can bring this understanding. It cannot be faked (which is why the jet-setting consulting winemaker who stops in, waves a wand, and makes a blend pronouncement before moving on to the next uber-winery customer never made sense to me.) There is so much noise in young wine, so many precocious variables captured in a singular point in time, anything short of this degree of familiarity is dart-throwing.
When I am writing the tasting notes on finished wine that has been in the bottle for at least 6 to 12 months, I feel like I stand on somewhat firmer ground. My initial impressions are more reliable as the wine will not alter as rapidly as there is less oxygen in contact with the wine in bottle than when in barrel and changes take place at a much slower and predictable rate. I can write with some confidence not only what the wines taste like right now, but also what they may taste like in 2, 5, and maybe 10 years down the road. I am better at this now than even 5 years ago because of my experience drinking many Peay wines at various stages in their lifecycles. This can give me a false confidence, however, and even those impressions have not always been accurate. Each vintage imprints our various wines with a “vintage character” that will affect the flavor of the wine throughout its life. But to what degree and in what manner? For how long will it play a more prominent role than the underlying cuvee’s expression? Will it enhance or shape the terroir expression in a way I have not seen before? Can this even be parsed?
And, so, I have been wrong on some of my recommendations for when a wine will reach its full potential (as if there were a single moment, anyway) and even more off base on what aromas I expect will be present after 10 years. Thankfully, I have not been tragically wrong. In some cases, I thought a wine would come around more quickly and tannins would soften, aromas would integrate sooner, et cetera. This has happened most often with our Syrah which can be gorgeous with 5-7 years of age from vintage but now after drinking the truly magnificent 2005s over the past 6 months I would implore you to wait 11 years from vintage, not the 5 years I said upon release for that wine. But is 11 years long enough for the 2006s? The 2006 Syrahs still seem a touch youthful. Don’t get me wrong, they are powerful, meaty, and yummy right now and I have drunk almost all we made and held back but in 5 more years will the fruit further subside and the blood and iron qualities continue to emerge? The 2006 vintage was warmer than 2005 so that accounts for more fruit and muscle and less pepper and snap in the wines but do those aromas lurk underneath the fruit to add further excitement? In other instances, I have been overly conservative. The pinots have come together more quickly than first anticipated. The 2005s and 2006s shed their harder frames and are powerful, gorgeous wines and have been ready to drink for a few years now. But the 09s are still puppies! They need more time. Or maybe not. I have been pouring the 2009s at wine dinners and they are so pleasurable right now perhaps it is a vintage best enjoyed for the vintage character’s heady, youthful aromatics. They may never take on aged earth and tea aromas but only quietly diminish in fruit and floral intensity over time?
In the end, I must attach a very large qualifier to all my Aging/Opening recommendations: Almost every one of our wines should taste good upon release. Some need only a few months to a year to mature and for the flavors to coalesce. There is no doubt that when drunk right after release the wines will emphasize singular notes of power, spice and fruit over nuance, earth, and floral aromas. Neither style is “right “or “better.” You know what you prefer on any given day, and, if not, try them both. My desire not to choose what is best for you accounts for the long drinking windows in my recommendations. Also, please understand, like the weather man, the further out the predicted drinking window the greater chance I may be—probably am—wildly inaccurate with my forecast. Enjoy the tough work of getting to know more and, in the end, knowing less.