Recalling California wines

I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who doesn’t enjoy California wines… they are almost as overpriced and snobby as French wines and many are just as ill-mannered. Slate has a great piece on the increasing crisis in the California wine industry by columnist Mike Steinberger (whose observations I am really coming to enjoy).

To quote Mike:

Americans are also expanding their wine horizons: Wine drinkers are often weaned on Napa merlots and Sonoma chardonnays but then become more adventurous, dabbling in Loire whites, Rhone reds, and other imports. Many find they prefer the foreign stuff, which usually has a lot more character and goes down better with meals. (California wines tend to be abusively oaked, high in alcohol, and low in acidity, making them distinctly food-unfriendly.)
But none of this adequately explains the contempt so many oenophiles now seem to feel for California wines. They aren’t just shunning them; they are cursing them. At any gathering of wine fanatics, you’re apt to find one person, and usually more, who will claim to have entirely sworn off California. The manager of a major East Coast wine store recently told me he no longer sets foot in his shop’s California section unless a client can’t be convinced to try something else.
In fact, California produces almost nothing worth drinking for under $15, a failure that borders on criminal. Finding something in this range that is merely inoffensive is a challenge, a point underscored by a recent feature in the Los Angeles Times. The paper gave four local sommeliers $300 each to come up with a list of good, fairly priced wines (fairly priced was loosely defined). Of the 39 wines selected, exactly one was from California. “There’s no price-quality ratio in California anymore,” David Rosoff of Opaline restaurant explained, “Great mistakes were made here …”

The biggest mistake is vanity: Most of the California producers with the means, skill, and desire to make good wine seem to measure success by the price tag on the bottle and would sooner flog pickles than “devalue” their brand by selling a $15 cabernet. You’d think one of California’s star oenologists might be inspired by the examples in France of great winemakers—Aubert de Villaine and Dominique Lafon come to mind—who are happily slumming it on the side, producing terrific, inexpensive wines from satellite appellations. But apparently that isn’t the California way.

OK, there are a few exceptions. Mike lists Ridge, which is generally great, and I am of course a huge fan of David Bruce (especially the luscious Petite Syrah that Bob and Terry cellar).

OK, now I’m ready to leave the office and drink. I’m going to try to stay for at least another hour.

4 thoughts on “Recalling California wines”

  1. Sounds exactly like the French wine industry. So self-obsessed that they don’t realise that the rest of the world has passed them by. My favourite wines are made in Spain, Argentina and South Africa.

    A friend of mine recently had a France vs. Rest of the World blind wine tasting… and the French wines lost every single round.

  2. Last year I read an article that said we now have active wineries in all of the states of the US.
    Many will scoff at the idea of Oklahoma wineries and the like, but what is needed is less snobery and more knowledge exchange.
    The owners of these newer American wineries are struggling for a place in a market that is completely dominated by California wines. I think with the support and feedback of the US public, the products of our own wine industry would become much more food-friendly.

  3. The Californians have, indeed, gone the way of the old French establishment. Typical! Trying so hard to be different from the parent, then ending up saying the exact same words to chastise the child!

    As a minor note to Jay’s comments, the David Bruce we try to stock (ha!) is a Pinot Noir. If you haven’t tried it, I’d highly recommend getting a local wine store to order you a bottle or 36.

    One part of the pricing conundrum with CA wines is the growth of the superstar winemaker (I’m not sure there are branded oenologists, yet!) I was pitched by a wine merchant the other day to purchase a Santa Barbara Pinot at $75 a bottle. Unknown label, unproven vintage but the winemaker used to be the Professor of Oenology at UC Davis. Big deal! I used to be someone, too. I tried a bottle and it was absolute swill – tannic, heartburn inducing swill with an overpowering raisin nose and aftertaste.

    If I might, I’d strongly recommend that locals (to Seattle) get serious about our own state’s wines. Not the big names – they’re off on the same trip as California – but the little boutique producers in Walla Walla, Yakima, etc. One recommendation: try Viera’s 2001 Claret (a bordeaux blend called, correctly, by its English name!) or the 2001 Syrah. Maximum of $18.99 per bottle and now at Larry’s. Excellent fare.

    Oh, yes, while we’re at, let’s also have a major grass roots movement to repeal the vestiges of prohibition so that wine can be freely distributed and market forces can be brought to bear to reduce prices. If you aren’t up on this issue, Utah (ha!) just made it a felony to ship wine to a resident of that fine state. Pearls before swine, I say. Many other states are similarly resistant to mail order, internet sales, etc. Sure, you can buy crack or some fine china white but a Walla Walla Cabernet? Don’t be ridiculous.

    The monopolistic “three-tier” distribution system for alcohol (setup as part of the repeal of Prohibition and still run by the Feds) also prevents many smaller producers from accessing the major markets (ever tried to buy a Washington wine in New York?)

    Is anyone else offended by being patronized in this way? Even the Brits finally changed their legal drinking hours having been reassured that the day-shift at the cotton mill wouldn’t get hopelessly shit-faced at lunch and fail to return to work.

    Away with this faux-Puritan B.S.

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