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Drinking Out Loud

Modern Wine Myths

They're pernicious. Pervasive. And oh so wrong
Matt Kramer dispels the myths that California is too hot, Canada is too cold, and more.
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer dispels the myths that California is too hot, Canada is too cold, and more.

Matt Kramer
Posted: August 18, 2015

We live in an age where, for reasons that need no explanation, certain beliefs acquire power from sheer repetition. Enough people repeat, usually by simply cutting and pasting, what someone else said—never mind whether it's true or merely out of context—that the assertion takes on a patina of truth.

This most certainly occurs with wine. All sorts of assertions appear that, like urban legends, become embedded as verities. As is so often the case, there's usually a grain of truth around which a baroque-shaped “pearl of untruth” is formed. For example:

It's Too Hot in California to Grow … Well, You Name It. Something about California both fascinates and irks people. Perhaps it's California's “Golden State” self-promotion and a perceived sense of superiority and smugness. Very likely there's also an element of envy at its undeniable material success.

With wine, California has long proclaimed itself as a kind of heaven on earth. "Every year is a vintage year" was a much-trumpeted slogan; local wine boosters championed its wines at every opportunity; and money from everywhere poured in to participate in the now-fabled California "wine lifestyle." Is it any wonder that an irritated grievance lurks among the doubters?

Consequently, a modern wine myth has emerged that, really, California is simply too damned hot to grow … well, pretty much anything worth drinking. Chardonnay. Pinot Noir. Even Cabernet Sauvignon. Whatever it is, short of Thompson Seedless, California is too hot to do it right.

This has been abetted by contemporary chatter about global warming. “Napa Valley will be too hot 50 years from now to grow fine-wine grapes,” shrieked the headlines not so long ago. Now, maybe that will be true and maybe not. But it presumes that everybody in Napa will be sitting on their hands and doing nothing about selecting different strains, different rootstocks, different irrigation techniques, different trellising techniques, different yeasts, and so on, to address the challenge.

Pinot Noir has long been seen as “impossible” in California. Don't believe me? Just ask pretty much any Pinot Noir producer in Oregon. For as long as I've lived among them (and that's going back to a time when you could count the number of Oregon wineries on the fingers of two hands), they’ve stuck pins in the voodoo doll of California Pinot Noir.

Fans of Burgundy-quality Chardonnay say the same thing about that grape variety. “It's too hot in California to grow great, ‘true’ Chardonnay,” they declare with certitude. Well, tell that to Hanzell, Mayacamas, Mount Eden and Ridge wineries, which have each been issuing incontestably great Chardonnays for the past half-century, never mind stellar newcomers such as Rhys or Peay or any number of producers in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA of Santa Barbara County.

The idea that California is too hot is an utter myth. It's got so many climates, so much summer fog and so many high elevations as to defy this silly generalization. And yes, it is hot in Central Valley.

It's Too Cold in Canada for Anything Except Ice Wine. This past June and July brought me to Canada's two primetime wine zones—the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia and the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario, south of Toronto. Both places are issuing remarkable wines from an impressive array of grape varieties.

Yet whenever I mention Canadian wine to friends, or even colleagues, the response is both uniform and universal: It's too cold to grow anything but ice wines up there, right? Wrong. Big-time wrong.

If I were king of Canada, the first thing I would do is ban ice wine. That would disappoint a lot of Asian tourists, who buy the stuff in quantities you wouldn't believe, according to endless tales told in Ontario.

But the truth is that Ontario excels not in ice wines (which represents a small proportion of what they do) but, rather, in Chardonnay, Gamay, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir, as well as with some very impressive sparkling wines thanks to their superb Chardonnay.

The Okanagan Valley, for its part, is more a mixed bag, with some surprising (there's that word) success with Syrah, to say nothing of Gamay and Pinot Noir.

Frankly, the Canadians have no one to blame for this myth but themselves. They don't market their wines south of the border to the world's largest wine market and the only export market they can actually drive to. The only thing Canada does send us, as we all know from television weather reports, is “a cold front bringing subfreezing temperatures.”

No wonder we Americans think that it's too cold in Canada for anything except ice wines.

Today's Wines Can't/Won't Age as Well as Wines Used To. This is a classic. Precisely because wines from another era took so long to come around, largely thanks to excessive tannins and unclean winemaking, the modern wine myth arose that contemporary wines just can't go the distance.

The reason likely is rooted in a kind of wine Calvinism where you can't simultaneously have pleasure now and save your soul for eternity. Contemporary wines are designed to deliver pleasure today. Tannins are indeed softer, rounder and riper than they were 50 or 100 years ago. So, the reasoning goes, there's no way such wines will last the way those same wines—Cabernets, Pinot Noirs, Nebbiolos—once did.

This is so wrong, on so many counts, that one hardly knows where to begin. The real problem is the very premise. Those old wines lasted not because they were better but because they were simply hard and often highly acidic from underripe grapes.

Can you have it all? Of course you can. The greatest achievement of modern wine is the quasi-universal creation of wines crafted from ripe grapes, processed with a certain tenderness so as not to extract unwanted bitterness from seeds, and that are subsequently aged and bottled with almost exquisite calibration to a just-right exposure to oxygen.

Anyone who has had the time, patience or luck to taste what might be called the first generation of well-made modern wine, i.e., wines made starting in the late 1970s, will discover that the best of them have matured every bit as well as any of their predecessors.

What's more, less-exalted grape varieties that never previously got the care and rigor that they receive today, such as Barbera, Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and a host of others, are dramatically superior to anything ever previously seen or tasted.

Not only will these modern-day Cinderella wines live longer—if that matters to you—but they now consistently deliver a level of quality and refinement that would astonish previous generations of wine lovers.

What more can you ask?

Amedeus Dascanio
Maple, Ontario ,Canada —  August 18, 2015 7:39pm ET
Finally Ontario wines get the credit they deserve !! I'm a native of the area and have watched this area grow from about 25 wineries in 1990 to about the current total of about 125.

I'll agree we got a ways to go in the marketing department, but it's coming.

In the earlier 1990's I mostly drank Italy and Califonia wines and was unimpressed with Ontario efforts .

But that has changed in spades! As the local vintners imported some world talent in winemakers, (Stratus and others) the understanding of "terroir" and long term thinking has resulted in some surprising Cab Franc , Pinot Noir and of course, most of the white varietals .

Now I'm not saying Canada is going to dominate the world in wine any time soon, but I've done some blind tests with some knowledgable friends and the locals have surprised vs the world.

My present cellar is 25 % California, 20% Italy , 15% France 15% Aussie and South America and 10% Canada !

Most of my Ontario selections are from Stratus ,Tawse, Colaneri , Foriegn Affair and Norman Hardie!

P.S. A shout out to Finger Lakes area as they are doing great things in a similar "cold weather" climate.

Keep up the good work and I hope to get to a NYC wine experience soon.
Thomas A Kramer
Northbrook IL —  August 19, 2015 8:44am ET
I'd like to add another, even more basic myth: that all wines get better with age, the more the better. Wine geeks know that some wine should not be aged, but even the most knowledgable folks I know will confess that something they've been hoarding for years proved, when they finally opened it, that they waited a bit too long....

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