The 1998 vintage was a difficult year for growers, who had to contend with the machinations of an El Niño weather pattern that brought unusually cool weather and rain, both early in the spring and sporadically later in the season. The resulting fruit set was small and late. Temperatures in the summer ranged significantly from cooler than normal, to a few periods of heat where growers were concerned with sunburn. The result was uneven ripeness, irregular-sized berries, and an overall sluggish ripening.
Once again, hard work in the vineyard would be critical to getting the vines balanced and removing any unripe berries and bunches. A period of fine, dry, and warm weather finally arrived in late September, and the stubbornly late harvest got under way and continued into late October, with some wineries finishing as late as November. Notably, this was something that would not occur again until 2011.
Unusually cool weather and rain caused by El Niño
Drastic temperature swings
Harvest finally begins after a period of warm weather
Harvest draws to a close, very late
Before he died in 2009, after a long battle with cancer, Jim Richards was known as a down to earth, call-it-like-you-see-it type guy. While living in Texas, he and his wife, Barbara, had caught the wine bug and decided to move to Napa Valley to follow their dreams. In 1983 they bought a choice, 20-acre property at the top of Spring Mountain, and planted 15 acres with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. What followed were some of the best Merlots California had to offer. Although Jim has since passed, the Richards still have a rabid following among those who prize sweetness of fruit, creamy texture and plenty of spicy oak. Sheldon, Jim's son, now works alongside his mom in the vines and in the cellar, carrying on the work, and good reputation of his dad's vineyard.
Medium to full-bodied wines with flavors of black cherry, plum, and tobacco
Roasts, hamburgers, other grilled meats
Merlot enjoyed a surge in popularity in the 1990s as consumers suddenly discovered that they could enjoy aromas and flavors similar to those of Cabernet in a fleshier, softer wine with smoother tannins. A wave of Merlot plantings followed, frequently in soils and microclimates completely inappropriate for this variety, and the market was soon flooded with dilute bottles from young vines and high crop levels, and weedy, herbaceous examples from underripe fruit. Many of these undernourished wines were overoaked in attempts to mask their deficiencies. Over the same period, a number of Cabernet producers began picking riper fruit and doing a better job managing their tannings during the making and aging of their wines. The result was an upswing of powerful, satisfying Cabernets that were far less austere in their youth -- and a sharp decline in interest in Merlot.
Still, California's best Merlots, some of which predated the vogue for this variety in the 1990s, continue to be some of the finest examples of this variety outside Bordeaux -- in the same quality league with wines from Washington State and Italy's Tuscan coast region. Expect to find broad, supple wines with medium to full body, typically with aromas and flavors of black cherry, plum, dark berries, dark chocolate, tobacco, and earth, and suave, fine-grained tannins. Merlot also rules in Pomerol, and nowhere in the world does this variety make more complete wines than on the flat, clay-rich plateau that lies at the heart of this appellation.