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A Restrained View of California Wine

Jon Bonné's 'The New California Wine' offers rewarding vignettes, but minimizes much of what California's established vintners have accomplished
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Nov 18, 2013 2:10pm ET

Jon Bonné insists he doesn't dislike all California wine, but he's hardly enamored with much of it. He makes that point clear in his new book, The New California Wine, A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste.

"From the moment I arrived, [in 2006]", writes Bonné, the wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, "I had to confront my own deep skepticism about California's winemaking reality. Again and again I was disappointed by what I found to be the shortfalls of California wine: a ubiquity of oaky, uninspired bottles and a presumption that bigger was indeed better."

Bonné tracks the history of California wine from the 1960s, and sees twin tales of financial success and spiritual decline. He criticizes what he sees as a largely complacent industry producing cookie-cutter wines.

"Technological manipulation had become pervasive not only for cheap table wines but also for expensive ones. And there was little doubt that this was the right path forward. By the time I arrived in California, a sense of entitlement pervaded the industry. Question California's path? Question the hard-fought victories of Big Flavor? Blasphemy."

But today, Bonné contends, Golden State wines are in a state of much-needed "revolution," undergoing a sweeping overhaul from mindset to grape variety. He identifies a new generation of winemakers rewriting the rules of contemporary winemaking.

To find the cutting edge, Bonné turns to an eclectic mix of vintners, some old, some new, and wines, some mainstream and others outliers. Among the approximately 125 names, you'll likely recognize some—Ridge, Hanzell, Littorai, Calera, Continuum and Turley, for example—but more are offbeat, under-the-radar and esoteric. They may be the darlings of certain big-city sommeliers, but most wine lovers would be hard-pressed to find them at a local wine shop.

The vintners leading Bonné's revival are willing to seek out new grapes and sites, encouraged by what he sees as a small but growing fan base disillusioned with modern, riper styles and fascinated with the likes of Ribolla Gialla, Tocai Fruliano and even old-vine Colombard. The fulcrum in Bonné's lever is often centered on alcohol, not flavor, 14 percent being the general line of demarcation.

Bonné is more infatuated with the stories behind the wines, and the vintners' passions and visions, than with the wines themselves. He is at his best with these vignettes. He also gives some of California's lesser-known appellations their due.

But he dismisses the state's largest wine companies; indeed, many are factories. Yet many others of these large brands have explored new territory in California and brought an innovative spirit to farming and technology.

To support his arguments, Bonné picks and chooses information, omitting inconvenient counterevidence. For example, those leading his revolution are fervent in their belief in terroir, as if that's something new in California. Bonné minimizes the accomplishments of the California wine industry in the past 30 years and marginalizes the good faith and strong sales of the riper wine styles he thinks are undermining it.

While at points thoughtful, Bonné's manifesto comes across as preaching to a converted few who apparently don't appreciate the diversity of styles and the kinds of wines many of us find as exciting and expressive. Kosta Browne Pinot Noir, in his book, is for "novices." Nor are the economics of wine given much weight. A few acres of Ribolla, however exciting the wines can be, can't and won't replace Cabernet in areas such as Napa.

If he wants to make the case that wines of restraint are the future for California, he must explain why it's for their own good to wean people away from what they like.

Bonné's excitement over these "different" wines and their producers mirrors the current generation's recent excitement over today's popular Napa offerings—full-bodied, flavorful wines made from fully ripened grapes.

To Bonné, the pendulum has swung, and a new generation is about to rearrange California's wine landscape. Yet for now he's identified more of a small grass-roots movement than an upheaval. How deep and wide that movement will spread remains to be seen.

The New California Wine, A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste, Jon Bonné (Ten Speed Press, 304 pages, $35)

Read James Laube's review of Jon Bonné's The New California Wine in the Dec. 31–Jan. 15, 2014, issue.

Jamie Sherman
Sacramento —  November 18, 2013 4:15pm ET

I'm tired of this same old wine is too ripe, alcohol too high conversation but at least if that's your bent then now you have a book to read. This is not Bordeaux or Burgundy. This is California. We should not be reproducing France. Our "terroir" is conducive to riper grapes. Furthermore, there are producers making a range of styles. Not into ripe? Find someone who makes wine in in a different style. It's not hard. Please stop complaining though! What a tired conversation. Balance, flavor, and personal taste is what is most important. My favorite style will not be everyone's favorite. That is the beauty of wine!
Richard Gangel
San Francisco, CA USA —  November 18, 2013 5:23pm ET
I began reading Bonne's columns in the Chronicle shortly after he arrived in San Francisco and realized that we had different opinions about wine right away. I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and even tried some of his recommendations. My suspicions about our difference in taste were confirmed and I find myself hesitant to try any more of his recommendations.

James, I rarely find myself at odds with your taste and have no compunctions about about trying your recommendations. Granted, we all have differences in taste, but when one agrees with a certain philosophy in winemaking you want to stick with what you know and like. Chacun a son gout.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA, US —  November 18, 2013 5:26pm ET
I find it interesting anytime someone talks about new and exciting grape varities, as if we've perfected the "old ones" to the point that they're now boring. Pinot Noir is still in its infancy in California. As are many other varities. I'm not sure how any variety would ever be mastered in California if the only way to stay relevant is to keeep trying new, esoteric ones.
Lyle Kumasaka
Arlington, VA —  November 18, 2013 10:16pm ET
I ran across this book while browsing online for wine-related gifts. The pages available for preview are every bit as insufferable and tedious as this review suggests.

One thing I admire about Wine Spectator is that with the exception of one columnist it is free of the condescending disdain and the Look At Meeeeeeee eclecticism that affects too much wine writing.
Kelly Carter
Colorado —  November 18, 2013 10:51pm ET

As your recent posts have highlighted for readers, we all have different styles and wines we prefer. Critical evaluation is useful to the consumer, just as individual experimentation and tasting are.

Regrettably, there are few CA gems at the price and quality being offered compared to other wine regions. I do buy some CA wines, and I appreciate your reviews (2008 Pedemonte Cabernet is a great example).

I do hope there is a revolution in California to make wines that are attractive in the glass as well as our wallets.

Larry Schaffer
Santa Ynez Valley, CA —  November 19, 2013 12:18pm ET
As with everything in life, balance is the key. I think that Jon Bonne has been in an enviable position over the past decade and a half and has had the opportunity to see trends appear in the CA wine industry. He has had the opportunity to get to know many of these winemakers personally, and, if I'm not mistaken, even made a bit of wine with one of them last harvest.

That said, balance is the key here. I have no problem spotlighting what a reviewer feels needs to be spotlighted - it is his or her prerogative to do so. At the end of the day, it is a subjective process anyways.

In doing so, though, it's important not to 'dismiss' other producers and other styles. You as a reviewer may not like them or feel they 'speak to the people', but there will always be others who disagree with these sentiments.

It is clear, based on your review and others that I've seen, that this very well might be the case. The absence of certain producers should not be looked upon as a negative, because it is impossible to cover everyone . . . but dismissing certain styles or producers should not occur.

One more point that should be made here - Jon really only is exposed to wines that have good distribution in the Northern California area. That may sound like that would be most wines, but there are plenty of producers who do not have that distribution channel and therefore would not be 'exposed' to Jon and his reviews.

All in all, I wouldn't dismiss the book as a whole - just understand the context in which it is written and enjoy it for what it is - exposure to certain wineries you may not have been exposed to without it . . .

Jason Thompson
Foster City, CA —  November 19, 2013 2:32pm ET
God forbid the ripe, fruit forward, wines make us consumers CONSUME them sooner in their evolution. I think that might be the large picture here. Less collectors and more drinkers. With storage at a premium and energy prices rising, maybe cellaring wine is going the way of the dinosaurs. Kosta Browne is great for what it is. Amazingly fruit forward, nuanced, full bodied pinot noirs that have distinct AVA differences and should be consumed in the first 3-5 years. What they are not is for long term aging and auction houses.

In the age of instant gratification and technology evolving before we need it, isn't it nice to drink wine that is fantastic right out of the gate. I am all for it.
Eric Hall
Healdsburg, CA —  November 19, 2013 8:22pm ET
If approximately over 90% of all wine produced in California in a year is consumed within 12 months after bottling, why are we still arguing about decade measured longevity?
Especially since most people don't have a clue how to store wine for decades.

PS, I love drinking Brian Loring's Pinots on release!

Eric Hall-
Roadhouse Winery
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  November 20, 2013 12:32am ET
Best line of the day...."he must explain why it's for their own good to wean people away from what they like. "
Jay J Cooke
Ripon CA —  November 20, 2013 12:48am ET
I have long been a fan of yours, including your taste of drinking a wine ealier than later. However, the exception seem to be Marcassin which until just recently does not release their wine for 5 years. You have always rated their wine very high, even wines that have significant age, especially for pinot & chardonnay. I would not be afraid to age Marcassin but wonder what you think sets them apart.
Jason Carey
Oakland, CA, USA —  November 20, 2013 8:34am ET
Well I kind of see your point, however I think it's pretty weird to have the person at this magazine who's worldview is most being attacked review the book. James you might have some good points, but frankly many people including myself blame the Spectator and Parker for creating a style of wine in California that to some of us is over extracted, over ripe and over oaked. That being said, there is room for all tastes, as my girlfriend love that kind of wine. What I think people such as myself who like more restrained wines object to is that every wine I consider a 95 will always be rated 87 by Laube as .. thin, or a bit herbal or acidic. So the truth is that this magazine and others do have a great deal to do with the push to very ripe and thick wines, and pushing winmakers away from what they might have liked making in the 1990's to the style that is more in line with the extraction and ripeness bombs.
I think it rankles this magazine which has pretty much been ignoring the new wave of more non interventionist style wine making to have a counter point of view that contradicts its power.
That being said, again I am glad you have your style of wine and I have mine.. however it seems that after 30 years of having all the say it rankles you to have other people with a large voice contradicting your worldview..
James Laube
Napa —  November 20, 2013 1:02pm ET
I've had the opportunity to taste many older vintages of Marcassin and wrote about some of wines here: http://www.winespectator.com/magazine/show/id/42922. I've also tried the bottled 2009 Pinot, which might be Marcassin's finest. But it won't be released until next year, point being I don't imagine it will be better for me, but the owners like to have some bottle age, a choice that suites their tastes. No wrong answers.
Rich Meier
Reno, NV —  November 20, 2013 7:31pm ET
My first Napa trip was in 1971. For my taste and desires,the evolution to bigger Cali wines (Zins,Cab, and Pinots)was a good thing. My regret is my income did not increase at the same rate as the price that great Napa cabs did. I don't want to go back. I love light etheral pinots as well as the big RR River, Lucia, and Santa Maria ones. Great wine doesn't require critics to expose them. Word of mouth will work as well. The drinking public have spoken.
Douglas Fletcher
Napa —  November 20, 2013 8:06pm ET
Over the years, growers & vintners have tried to grow lots of other varieties besides the obvious ones. However, most of those vineyards didn't last because wines from those varieties didn't sell through. It wasn't due to the lack of trying on the growers part.
James Laube
Napa —  November 20, 2013 8:55pm ET
Jason, blaming critics for their opinions, or "creating a style of wine that some of us find over extracted, over ripe and over oaked," seems misdirected. People buy the wines they like and if they find some overdone, they back off and seek alternatives, of which there are many.
Kelly Carter
Colorado —  November 20, 2013 11:18pm ET

Are you inferring that 90% of California wine is consumed within 12 months because California wine is better wine, or California wine is better consumed earlier, or because most retailers devote 90 percent of their space to California wines? Or perhaps you think there is another reason?
Eric Hall
Healdsburg, CA —  November 21, 2013 12:39pm ET
Hey Kelly,

I'm not saying anything regarding quality or retailer shelf space... Just that an overwhelming majority of buyers drink their wine within a year. I'd also be willing to bet that 95%+ drink it within 2 years.
I do too...Especially since I drink mostly California Pinot Noir.
So let's make sure those 95% of our buyers are getting what they are asking for.
That being said, as a winemaker, who makes primarily Sonoma Pinot Noir, I focus more on how the wine should taste on release, and in the first 2-3 years after.
I think it's clear by the drinking habits of most people who buy California wine, that this is what they desire.
I know I do.
So I'm constantly surprised by the continuing arguments about how & when people drink wine.
Most drink it soon & most drink it outside of meals.
Therefore High Acid wines that need extended aging, are not what most people desire.
I know I don't.

Eric Hall-
Roadhouse Winery
Adam Lee
Sonoma County, CA —  November 21, 2013 3:17pm ET
I purchased Bonne’s book the day it was released and read it over the next couple of days. As one of California’s Old Guard (that’s still difficult for me to admit, but 2013 was Siduri’s 20th harvest), I personally didn’t expect to be included in a book entitled “The New California Wine,” but I was mentioned once–“Adam Lee of the Siduri winery, a bête noire of the lower-alcohol set.” Not really a compliment, but you have to admit the imagery is cool.

I was fascinated to learn in detail about numerous newer wineries, many of which I had heard about and tasted, but I didn’t know the people behind these wines and their stories. As James Laube wrote in his review of the book, I found these vignettes to be some of the book’s most enjoyable features. I also enjoyed Bonne’s descriptions of California viticultural and enological history. Do you know much about the work of E.W. Hilgard in the late 1800s in determining what grapes are planted where and how they perform? After reading Bonne’s book you will want to know more.

But (and you had to know that was coming), as I re-read certain parts of the books I became more and more concerned about the use of certain wording and what it potentially portends for the future of California wine. In multiple instances, Bonne uses the term “war” to describe the stylistic differences between wines and the decisions winemakers use to create their wines. In the section of the book devoted to the discussion of Pinot Noir he entitles a section “A Battle for Balance” and references “the war over Pinot Noir” and “the style wars.” The choice of what Pinot Noir clones to plant, a several-decades-long set of trials and experiments in an attempt to match planting to site, are not described as such, but rather as “The Clone Wars.” Bonne even takes the war comparisons a step further. He writes, “But what is the optimal point of ripeness? Defining it has created a schism between the proponents of Big Flavor and pioneers in a post-Big Flavor world, those participating in wine’s equivalent of a culture war.”

Of course, “culture war” is a meaningful term. In the modern American lexicon, the term “culture war” was introduced in James Davison Hunter’s best-selling book from the early 1990s, “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.” Hunter writes that an increasing number of hot-button issues have come to define American society–issues such as abortion, gun ownership, the separation of church and state, and numerous others–and that society has divided into two established, intransigent camps based on these issues. What Bonne is postulating through implication is that California wine producers have also split along such hot-button issues, issues such as ripeness, balance, clones, wine styles, and even the very nature of certain wine types (Zinfandel, Cabernet, perhaps Pinot Noir). So, is California wine truly immersed in a culture war and, if so, what does that tell us about our future?

(continued in the next comment)
Adam Lee
Sonoma County, CA —  November 21, 2013 3:18pm ET
(continued from above)

Personally, I don’t believe that we have yet reached that point. First off, there are numerous opportunities for producers who make very differently styled wines to showcase their wines together. We often share distributors and present at trade shows together. At these events we often discover commonalities and develop respectful relationships, if not outright friendships. And it goes further than this. Speaking just from my own experience, both Siduri and Novy share vineyards with a wide range of producers, some of which are highlighted by Bonne in his book, others are those that are criticized by Bonne (for example, we share a Pinot Noir vineyard with Failla and with Kosta-Browne). In these vineyards, picking decisions are sometimes spread out over a long period of time, but other years they have been quite close together. From my observations, these decisions are made by vintners walking the rows, sampling the grapes, seeing their development and deciding to pick based on what they truly believe is correct. These decisions are not made based on some overriding cultural war, or attempt to curry favor from a particular wine writer. Perhaps there is no greater example of the shared nature of our endeavors that one of the producers highlighted in Bonne’s book, Zepaltas Wines, is made by Siduri’s assistant winemaker, Ryan Zepaltas, at our winery.

Please don’t get the idea that I am trying to paint the entire California winemaking community with a rose-colored brush. We have differences and yes, sometimes those seem to put us in different camps. But adopting the mentality of a culture war is not something that I see as being beneficial to any of us. In the last few years, the intransigent positions of the culture wars in the political arena have expanded beyond just a handful of hot-button issues, to the point that politicians can’t seem to agree on the color of the sky or the weather outside. With the government shut downs, the public approval of all politicians is at an all-time low. If we, as wineries, follow a similar path, I fear that the same fate will befall all of us.

And that would be a horrific shame. The United States is 52nd in the world in per capita wine consumption. That means that there is a great bastion of potential wine drinkers out there that none of us are reaching. Truly it shouldn’t matter if those consumers get turned on to a wine made by a winery from what Bonne terms the “Big Flavor” camp or where they are attracted to a wine made by a winery that is part of the “In Pursuit of Balance” crowd. The simple fact is, we have so much to gain by working together rather than letting our differences become divisions.
John Kmiecik
Chicago —  November 21, 2013 5:59pm ET
Adam you are a terrific writer and even a better person and winemaker...
Kelly Carter
Colorado —  November 21, 2013 7:02pm ET

Thanks for the response.

I can't speak for others, but I enjoy the path of enjoying a rich fruit forward wine within 12-36 months after harvest, and I also enjoy a layered wine that take time to unfold and show great nuances from first glass to last.

Good luck with your winery. I checked it out, and hope you have 2012 in bottle soon. I will look for it.
Joe Malvagna
New York —  November 21, 2013 7:40pm ET
Brilliant response.
While I haven't read Bonne's book, you bring out some excellent points.
Keep making your blockbuster Pinots and I'll keep drinking (and yes, buying) them. After all, having infinite numbers of wine styles to choose from is one of the things I love about the USA... and Cali.
Peter Vangsness
East Longmeadow, MA —  November 22, 2013 9:44am ET

Thanks for your thoughtful response and input.

Most authors write books to either share a particular view or to convince others of the validity of their case. In doing so, they are aware that books that arrive at subtle or quiet conclusions rarely sell to the general public. Introducing a more severe set of conclusions is, often, a method to increase attention to the book for the purpose of better sales.

Perhaps the Bonne book's capacity to generate rational discourse on an interesting wine topic is one of its contributions to the ongoing discussions of wine styles and California's evolution through this journey. That in itself has value.

One not need engage or agree with severe conclusions to be enlightened by the content of any book.
Adam Lee
Sonoma County, CA —  November 22, 2013 11:36am ET

Thank you for your response. I hope it was clear that, from learning from about producers that I was less familiar with to highlighting different parts of California wine history, I thought the book was enlightening.

And I have long been a believer that exploring differing viewpoints on issues is a positive thing. Sadly, sometimes I find myself wondering about that now, as differing seemingly is becoming synonymous with polarizing. It seems to me that there is a big middle out there and that many of us fit into that position. But that we are being pushed to one side or the other and into more and more extreme positions.

Without trying to be too negative, I've been bothered by something that I recently calculated out. According to statistics provided by the Wine Institute, during the period 1998 to 2002 total wine consumption increased in the United States by 17.5%. From 2003 to 2007 it increased by 16.1%. From 2008 to 2012 it increased by 14.7%. The rate of growth of wine consumption in the United States is actually slowing. That at a time when the number of potential wine drinkers (by age) is increasing. That worries me tremendously.

I think that as wineries we need to work together to reverse that trend, rather than working against each other based on wine styles.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Jay J Cooke
Ripon CA —  November 22, 2013 12:21pm ET
Great comments. I am surprised that wine consumption in the US is slowing especially since I feel that the quality of wine in the US is at very high level. Possibly price has something to do with that trend? I know I can no longer afford to buy Cabernet.

Peter Vangsness
East Longmeadow, MA —  November 22, 2013 4:18pm ET

I should have been more clear that I thought you did, in fact, find the book valuable on several levels.

I, too, am surprised by your statistical data shared in your response. Perhaps the 1998-2002 period represents the "peak" of wine growth in the years you listed rather than being emblematic of a continued decline. Hard to tell from three samples, but I do understand your concern.

For winemakers, staying current with wines that remain in demand (at any price) will continue to be the difficult vocation it seems to have always been (weather, fruit set, harvest, etc.). Add to that the whims of the wine-buying public and I am reminded what a gamble it is to be in the wine producing business. The odds are significantly better for a producer such as you that offers high quality wines each and every vintage (my humble opinion).

Here's hoping the producers are able to make the wines they are anxious to share with us and that they can stay in business doing it!!
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  November 22, 2013 7:22pm ET
Adam, brilliant insights. Thank you for contributing them.

With respect to the statistics on wine consumption, two things:

1. It's important to note that these are percentages of INCREASE in consumption. We Americans continue to drink more wine, only we're not adding as many wine drinkers, or perhaps we're all consuming slightly less.

2. The decline in percentage of increase roughly corresponds to the decline in birth rates 20-30 years ago. In other words, it looks as if just as many younger adults born in USA are joining the ranks of wine drinkers, and consuming about the same amount as their predecessors. There's just fewer of them.

It would be instructive to know what the per capita consumption of wine is by age.
James Laube
Napa —  November 22, 2013 7:32pm ET

I had the same response/thoughts as Harvey...there was also "the drinking less but drinking better" phase, which is also difficult to quantify...that, plus, what other *beverages* are people turning to? Perhaps we need a mixologist to sort this out.
Jerry Potter
Charlotte NC —  November 23, 2013 10:42am ET

I don't think the declining consumption increase should be a great concern because of the law of large numbers, increases tend to decline over time when you consider that 1 per cent is equal to millions.

Having just finished Bonn's book, I found it enlightening in terms of various vineyard practices and the results they produce.

I thought that Mr. Bonn included wineries such as Turley and Bedrock as part of the new era was a little suprising as I wouldn't consider their wines shrinking violets.
I guess it still boils down buying what the individual enjoys.

ps I do enjoy Siduri and Novy Wines.

Adam Lee
Sonoma County, CA —  November 23, 2013 1:27pm ET
Harvey, Jim, and Jerry,

I am sure you are all correct as far as the interpretation of statistics go...I was an History/English major in college and thus my exposure to statistics was fairly minimal.

I still don't feel too comfortable, for a couple of reasons. First, per capita wine consumption is at an all time high in the United States....the last time it approached numbers this high was in 1986. That high was followed by a decade long decline of almost 30% in per capita wine consumption. It was, in fact, only in 2007 that we reached that level of per capita wine consumption again in this country.

Second (and here's the history major part of me), I think that as Americans we have a somewhat naïve idea that things always continue to grow/increase. It is an offshoot of Manifest Destiny in some ways. And that extends to the acceptance of wine in this country. But, if you consider Europe, you see a prolonged and precipitous decline in per capita wine consumption. In places like Italy, per capita wine consumption is at an all-time low.

All of which is some background to my comments that I think putting California wine in the context of a war/culture war runs the risk of dividing wineries and putting at risk much of what has been gained by our winemaking forefathers (and mothers). Even if I am just being paranoid in this regard, I still believe that we can all accomplish more working together rather than fighting one another.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
James Zalenka
Pittsburgh, PA —  November 24, 2013 12:15am ET
To each his own and there should be many styles of wine available. As I've made my wine journey over the last 20+ years, my palate has changed and I seldom buy California wines today. They are too big and overpowering, and much too high in alcohol for my taste. I gravitate to Italy, France, Spain and Oregon. I just saw a blurb today about BV's Georges de Latour private reserve and it clocked in at 15.8% alcohol! If the old world wines are your blueprint, something is seriously out of kilter with those kinds of numbers. I have found some excellent wines in the traditional style in Anderson Valley, Mendocino and Monterey county, even Sonoma, but I stay away from Napa.
Peter Vangsness
East Longmeadow, MA —  November 25, 2013 2:03pm ET

As a fellow history major, I also am intrigued by any trends that suggest an increase or decrease in any activity related to something in my profession (human services). Your wine consumption data is very interesting.

Keep in mind that trends, historically, can be of little consequence to those who continue to produce an affordable, high quality product. While the industry as whole may sustain some losses, the quality operations (like yours) will probably be fine.

Of much greater concern would be the assertion that wine consumption is somehow related to a negative consequence. At this point, however, the medical evidence suggests a benefit to those who consume moderate amounts of red wine. Perhaps the industry hasn't done enough to capitalize on this circumstance.

My anecdotal observation is that jug wines are selling, well made wines from $10-50 are selling, and high end stuff below the $100 price point are doing fine. The sectors struggling are dull or unknown wines in the $15-40 range. WS and WA scores have a lot to do with it, as we discussed in one of James Laube's earlier blogs.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!!
Steve Pickelman
Alamo, CA —  November 27, 2013 1:30pm ET

All good insights and perspective on an agricultural product and industry. Certainly not an exact science, as mother natures deals wine makers a different hand each season. What they have to work with, and the "style" they feel is best received by the marketplace, leads to their results going into the bottle. Fruit, alcohol level, aging opportunities, etc., all become the attributes the experts and the consumer consider when they buy. I subscribe to the old adage of "good wine is wine you like and bad wine is wine you don't like". It's led to my 30+ case cellar and I couldn't be happier with what I have on hand to enjoy.

Different styles and those corresponding results is what makes the "hunt" interesting. From rock solid consistency to surprises found in unexpected places, the journey is the pleasure.

Affordability is the final filter as to what one can buy and put away for optimal consumption.
Edward Lane
Central New York —  December 11, 2013 5:25pm ET
Fascinating discussion in the above. I've been drinking/collecting for 20+ years, and I feel like I'm a rank novice, although most of my friends think I'm the 'expert'. Go figure.

I started drinking wine when I started travelling internationally. That said, my earliest exposures were to European, mostly old style reds. I'd come home and stumble through my local stores looking for something I might like, and in time, I learned to expand my tastes and find what I liked.

As to the whole overripe/overproduced/amped-up vs. Traditional/old world/yadda-yadda, I admit I was contemplating this very question in 2005 during my first visit to Napa. I was hoping to engage vintners to see if they were being driven more by what the masses wanted to taste or more by their own sense of what they wanted to produce. I never really got the answer but the questions always lingered, and the questions sharpened my pursuit of what I liked and why. Ergo, I think the question is more valuable than an answer.

At the end of the day, I think it's fruitless to take a position on either end of the debate. California can produce wines that most of the world can't..huge, opulent, fruit-forward flavor bombs. So, why not?

There's plenty of room for every style. I enjoy young, oaked up Cabs every bit as much as a 15 y/o Barolo or Barbaresco. Each in its time and according to your mood.

Thanks to all who posted for a thought-provoking discussion.
Scott Hendley
Alexandria, VA —  January 27, 2014 4:59pm ET
I'm an equal opportunity wine drinker and regularly explore and enjoy a wide range of New and Old World wines and styles. While I respect the quest for balance, if taken too far it can result in a little too much restraint (at least according to my palate). I recently visited one of the wineries featured in Jon Bonne’s book, and found their wines (both red and white) to be so delicate (compared to what is typical of the varieties grown in that particular AVA) as to barely register a gustatory impression. Tasting them brought to mind Gertrude Stein’s saying: "there is no there there." Beware the pendulum swinging too far.
John Lahart
NYC —  March 5, 2014 12:11pm ET
The vast majority of wine consumers simply don't care about alcohol levels. They buy and drink wines they like.
It has been forever thus.
The alcohol issue is an "issue" only in the minds of wine polemicists who buy into "wine wars" blather.

I wonder if a lot of these writers really know much about alcohol and the role it plays in how a wine tastes (there are claims that high(er) alcohol wines don't age well. I suggest reading Peynaud "The Taste of Wine." Also. the tendency to call out one component (of many) and make a sweeping case is IMOP really dicey!
James Laube
Napa —  March 5, 2014 12:39pm ET
John, I'm afraid too many writers haven't read Peynaud or others who address ripeness, balance, etc. Too many ignore the fundamentals of blind tasting, too.
John Lahart
NYC —  March 5, 2014 3:37pm ET
It is amusing but I have never encountered one consumer who inquired about the alcohol levels in wine. Given my limited experience I asked the manager of one of the largest wine retailers on the East Coast if he encountered consumers asking about alcohol? He said No.

This doesn't mean that people who are concerned about alcohol levels don't read labels and don't ask retailers/salespeople about it.

It is rather surprising that given all the hoopla in the press--including a lot of National media, there wasn't more hoopla on the wine shop floor!

James Laube
Napa —  March 5, 2014 4:14pm ET
Same here...occasionally I hear people complain that they get a *buzz* with high alcohol wines, and I can understand that...But where I live (Napa) and the wines and people I associate with don't have a problem with the wines...the media attention, for what it's worth, is disproportionate to what people care about...as such, too many writers are focusing on a non-issue, or narrow scope issue, or targeting critics (RMP) or shooting at themselves instead of focusing on stories/wines that might interest wine drinkers.

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