California Wine Doesn’t Need Saving

It’s déjà vu all over again as the wines of the Golden State are once again the whipping boy
Mar 19, 2014

Here we go again.

Every 10 or 20 years, the "Old World Wine Intelligentsia" tries to convince us that California wines are lousy.

Surely we're not falling for this again, right? We're bigger people after all these years, more secure about the quality of the wines. There's no need for California to justify its place in the wine world. 

You hear various complaints from a small but devoted group of sommeliers, winemakers, retailers and writers that California wines have no terroir, they're too ripe, they lack balance, they all taste the same, they're too expensive. There's an ounce of truth in the complaints, especially if you start with an agenda and look hard enough to prove it.

In truth, the complainers don't know California wines any better than I know Jura or Sherry. I like those wines and drink them when I can, but I would never pretend to be an expert, let alone have the temerity to claim, "These are flawed and this is how real Jura or Sherry should taste."

I've reported on California wine for nearly 25 years, and I've tasted a lot of wine in that time. I've interviewed more winemakers and growers than I can name. I've studied the history of California wine and have followed vintage variations and the general trends.

And "revolution" is in the air yet again. For those with a long view, it's déjà vu all over again. California wines, these critics tell us, are returning to the elegance and balance of the 1970s. Did any of these critics taste many California wines from the 1970s? Yes, there were many elegant and beautiful wines, but there were plenty of tannic monsters that never came around in the cellar.

Vintages in the '70s ran the gamut from cold and soggy to blazing hot and parched, producing a range of wines from hard and green to superripe and blousy. Labeling laws were more laidback then, and some old timers whispered that the wines were a lot riper than the alcohol percent on the label suggested.

Eventually, in fact, the '70s wines were considered so over the top that it led to the "food wine" movement of the 1980s, when acidity levels soared and winemakers went for big tannins in hopes the wines would age well. Some of those "food wines" were lovely, but a lot of them were thin and bland. Some of them held up in the cellar. A lot of them didn't.

That eventually created a backlash, and by the 1990s, when many of California's vineyards were replanted because of phylloxera, rich and bold had become the goal and early consumption the ideal.

And now we have the new California wines to show us the errors of the '90s. These are wines with lower alcohol and higher acidity. Strong herbal qualities are considered a plus, and never a sign the grapes aren’t ripe enough.

Sound familiar? It's enough to make a wine lover dizzy.

What's next? Another bipolar swing in the pendulum in a few years when the new wines aren't hip anymore? Let's face it, that's part of every trend, the drive to find something original and distinctive, something the others just aren't cool enough to truly appreciate. Every discipline, whether it is music or art or food, has its share of purists and elitists. 

You have to admit they keep things fresh, bringing varietals like Verdelho and Grenache Blanc into the conversation. Many of the so-called new California wines are wonderful, particularly the creative red and white blends. As for the level of ripeness, the 2010 and 2011 vintages were cool and certainly laid the groundwork for wines of lower alcohol and higher levels of acidity. How successful 2011 was in particular depends on your perspective.

That's because balance—which seems to be the wine word of the moment—is subjective, and that is something often lost in this debate. Taste preferences are genetically predisposed, and experience plays a role. If Bordeaux was your first love, it probably defines your sense of balance and elegance. If you started with California Pinot Noirs, that sun-kissed fruit is your idea of depth and flavor.

This latest skirmish is not a fight over the soul of California wine, as some might have you believe. Yes, there are many bad California wines, but the same is true with Bordeaux, Chianti and elsewhere. Trends come and go, especially in the freethinking New World, and history repeats.

In the end it comes down to "to each his own," and always has. I only take issue when tastemakers feel obligated to tear something down in order make their preferences appear superior. It's transference, like making fun of the fat kid to feel better about yourself.

Surely we're ready to move beyond this? We're grown-ups. Here's to California wine lovers skipping the inferiority complex this time. We've earned it.

United States California

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