Log In / Join Now

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
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 19, 2014 11:00am ET

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.

Mark Lyon
Sonoma, California —  March 19, 2014 12:08pm ET
I agree that certain wine writers are self serving in their claims that California Winemakers re-discovered their 70's roots owing to the 2010's and 2011 Vintages being a less ripe style. To be dismissive of flavorful, ripe, and opulent California styles is being arrogant than accepting the fan base who love it that way. Finally, what a mistake to harvest great grapes with underripe flavors, then try to dress it up as somehow a more balanced wine. I harvested Cabernet from our best Cabernet vineyard at 23.5 brix in 1990. It did not develop into some great Bordeaux style. These sophomoric critics and soms need to spend more time with wiser, more experienced vintners to gain a better perspective of California wines than to jump on the new, next varietal. I finally harken back to Randall Graham,s self serving claim in the 80's about California is too hot and lower latitude to make great Cabernets, Chardonnays and Pinots. In its place, we should plant Syrah and other Rhone and Italian varietals. As a result, we,re stuck with too much Syrah planted in California. I rest my case
Jim Gallagher
San Francisco, CA USA —  March 19, 2014 1:59pm ET
I think the case can be made that there were both "over the top" and "elegant" wines produced during the 1960s and 1970s. Mayacamas and later Diamond Creek produced highly tannic Cabernet Sauvignon, while Martini, Charles Krug, Inglenook, Beaulieu Vineyards, Heitz Cellars, and Souverain were offering more approachable styles. What I found interesting is that all of the vintners had fans much as we see at present. Its nice to have variety from which to choose.
Tim Fish
Sonoma County —  March 19, 2014 4:55pm ET
Mark and Jim, I enjoyed your comments, thanks. Excellent points.
Erik Miller
Santa Rosa —  March 19, 2014 8:44pm ET
Very well put Tim! As a music lover, I enjoy many types and jandras of music. What type of music I listen to depends on mood and what I happen to be doing at the time. For the most part I respect all types of music and the world would be a very bland place if we all listened to the same stuff. It does seem like the somms right now are all drinking the same wines and their lists look much too similar to each others for the individuality that they all have. It appears to me that we have entered a time in wine where trends dominate the entire country at once. Whether it is a varietal that becomes extremely popular (Pinot after Sideways) or extremely unpopular ( Merlot or Syrah), regions that are popular (Jura or Argentina) , or styles (red blends to chocolate wines). I believe that this is just part of Americans evolving into wine as a intregal part of our lives.
John Kmiecik
Chicago —  March 21, 2014 5:34pm ET
It is so true about the snobbery and mentality at times. I make my case anytime you look at a wine pairing in a food magazine or website.I have no doubt that the Italian Chianti will pair perfectly with the baked rigatoni but there are Californian wines that will do the job as well but you barely ever see them recognized in most publications. I love to drink my wine on its own but I have paired countless California offerings with some of my favorite meals and to me they worked out just fine!
Kelly Carter
Colorado —  March 21, 2014 7:21pm ET
Everyone has to find their own palate, whether that is old world or new.

I do think that California wines are getting harder to enjoy at their price point. Spain, Tuscany, Portugal, and certain Chilean and Argentina wines are very enjoyable on the palate and the wallet. Germany and France also offer great wines at solid prices.

It is more difficult to say the same thing about California. As a result, my wallet and my palate increasingly takes me away from California.
Andrew Duncan
Austin  —  March 22, 2014 1:04pm ET
One interesting data point in this discussion is the 2013 100 Top Wines and Top Values lists recently published by WS that I was perusing immediately before reading this article. In both cases, I was struck by the low turnout among domestic producers -- especially in the value list. If American consumers take those lists to heart, California wine really will need saving.
Ted Keyser
Austin, Tx —  March 22, 2014 3:28pm ET
Thank you Tim for having the stones to say it ! Why I love your blog and WS. No apologies; drink what you like. For those that take pleasure in criticizing or trying to impose their taste (and "knowledge" if such a thing exists) on others, time for a new hobby. No one cares what you think. California vintners don't owe anyone an apology for the wines they produce. Matter of fact; they should be thanked for producing some the best and exciting wines available today.

As for value; it's there - in abundance. While it's hard to beat the incredible Rose's from Provence or the variety of very good red wines coming from Spain, Argentina, and Washington state...take a look around. Plenty are doing in it NorCal. How 'bout John Buehler still making estate grown Napa Cabs and Zins for under $25 ? Or the very cool and modern red blends that Sean Thackery and Mark Herold are producing for under $30 ? or the under $10 red splash by St Francis ! Even the ever elusive value Pinot is right in front of us today: Villa Mt Eden, Talbott (Logan), and Hahh (SLH) - all very good, all under $20, and each less than 10k cases made ! Best part >>> no airfare or waiting list required. Every wine I mentioned is 10 minutes from many of us at our local wine shops. And those are just a few that I like. Multiply that by everyone else reading your post who has favs come to mind.

NEVER been a better time to find such diverse styles and great wines from California and elsewhere around the world ...
John Wilen
Texas —  March 24, 2014 11:20pm ET

Off topic.... I see the review today for the 2011 Seghesio Old Vine zin. Did you also taste their 2011 Cortina?
Stan Hagan
auburn alabama, usa —  April 17, 2014 8:20am ET
Just a note on the Bogle Essential red, 2011. My customers think it is as good as 2010 (88) and are puzzled by that 84 you gave it, to the tune of three cases a week. Wonder if you got a bad bottle? Love your work and respect your tastings.

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 365,000+ ratings.