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Hugh Johnson does not find California wines “undrinkable”


But you wouldn’t know that, if all you read was the headline in the recent issue of Decanter. It said:

Hugh Johnson speaks frankly about undrinkable Californian wines

Well, let me tell you, when I read that I was ready to rant! I envisioned writing a blog that would pound that imperialistic, pompous Englishman for insulting my state!

But, as it turned out, the headline wasn’t based upon an article, it was a link to a taped 48-minute interview Johnson gave. I listened to the whole thing, and you know what? Johnson said nothing of the sort. Instead, Decanter, turning to the oldest journalistic aphorism of them all — If it bleeds, it leads! — simply came up with an eye-grabbing, but totally inaccurate, header.

I’ll go into detail about the Johnson interview in a minute, but first I want to urge readers to listen to the entire tape. This interview should be required of all wannabe wine writers. Johnson is at the peak of his game, after, what?, 50 years, and the interviewer (whom I don’t know) asked some pretty good questions (although he did try to bait Johnson into bashing California wine. But then, I’ve tried to bait subjects during my own career. It’s frustrating when a subject won’t say what you want him to!). This audiotape represents wine interviewing at the highest level.

Now, onto the individual points.

Here, in italics, is what Johnson really said about California wine. I follow his remarks with my own observations. (I am an extremely fast typist, and these quotes are largely accurate, but I can’t swear they’re verbatim transcripts.)

“I was tired of California wine. Too strong, doesn’t go with food, we’ve all been through that, haven’t we? They seemed to be losing their way. But lately I’ve seen wines that are taking this message and becoming more lively and balanced. California seems to be becoming a new country. This is a good moment to take a new look at California.”

That doesn’t exactly square with the “undrinkable” headline, does it?

Then the interviewer asked Johnson why he thought California was reinventing itself.

“I think their customers are getting more sophisticated, realizing they want a third dimension to their wine. That’s important. And Robert Parker’s influence is essentially waning. Sweetness, heaviness, all those things — sweetness is a terrible thing! I want wine with shape, capacity, balance, not too heavy. That’s what it’s all about. Not sweet.”

Amen, brother! (Sorry about that, RMP. Don’t blame me, I’m just the messenger.)

Johnson went on to talk more about what he called “the betterization” of California wine.

“There are 20 million [American wine lovers] who are discovering themselves. The market will appreciate more sophisticated California wine. The betterization will continue. There will be popular wines, and wines that are taken seriously.”

If Johnson has a major criticism of California wine, it’s that it probably won’t age.

“Investment in time is one of the great problems. The wines are being made to drink too early, to go through the system and fade away. They’re not being made to improve with keeping, because no one keeps them. Bordeaux is the only region confidently making wines to be laid down, sold and resold. What other region? Even Port is being made to gobble up quick now, isn’t it? It throws away one of the greatest joys of wine, which is complexity of age.”

I wouldn’t disagree with any of this, which is why I’ve lowered my own ageability estimates on top California wines, and why I’ve raised questions about Parker’s, which frequently extend out for decades.

The one place Johnson got a little controversial was in the alleged differences between Napa Valley’s sub-AVAs. You can listen on the tape to where he mentions some “quite well-known guys” (his words; I’m not naming names) who admitted they can’t tell the difference between Napa’s various appellations.

Finally, when the interviewer asked Johnson how consumers are supposed to make buying decisions amidst all the chaos of the wall of wine, here’s what he replied. “Well, you can hear people waiting to hear what Parker says!…[But] you can learn an awful lot without tasting wine [by] reading. Keep reading. Learn what’s building up.”

Much, if not most, of what I learned about wine in my earlier years was through reading, especially reading the words of a master like Hugh Johnson.


Hugh Johnson, not tasting blind

Photo credit: Jim Budd

  1. Just a few quick thoughts on my way to my first cup of coffee.

    The notion that Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon will not age has been disproved so many times that I amazed it is still a topic of conversation. Apparently, no one remembers that the same wines that won the 1976 Paris tasting also bested the French 25 years later.

    Apparently no one seems able to differentiate between the thick, heavy wines of some makers and the balanced wines of so many others. It is not that California wine will not age but that some California wines will not age as well as others. Even a very ripe wine like Shafer Hillside Select has shown that it will age extremely well, as will David Ramey’s and Paul Hobbs’ big reds.

    But, what about other Cabernets like Spottswoode, Corison, Ridge, Mondavi Reserve, Quintessa, Trefethen, Turnbull, etc, etc? It is time to put this fallacy to bed. It is style that calls the tune on ageability, not the state of California. I wonder if the esteemed Mr. Johnson has tasted any recent Angelus or Pavie-Maquin with their 15% alcohols.

    Second point–Even Chardonnay, which has been notoriously low on acidity relative to France, has shown that it will age. True that higher acid Chards like Marimar, Farrell, Cuvaison, Talley vineyard-designates, Ramey have aged better than recent ZDs for example, but look at El Molino grown in the middle of the Napa Valley with decidedly higher pH and lower acidity. Those wines hold well for up to a decade. How much longer do we need our Chardonnays to age.

    Last bit–The day when the aging of wine is measured by the practices of English lords of the last century are over. We want some of our wines to age for twenty years or more but we do not need them to be undrinkable at six. Because I am older than Steve, I owe as much or more to Hugh Johnson for his brilliance, his inspiration and leadership on wine writing. That does not make him right on every issue.

  2. A couple of minor points of disagreement with Mr. Johnson:

    1. There are noticeable differences between the various Napa Valley AVAs but, as is the situation with discerning the various communes in Bordeaux, it takes an experienced tasted to pick them out in a blind tasting. I know several CA wine specialists who are able to do this regularly but wouldn’t be able to ascertain with any certainty whether a Bordeaux example came from St Julien or Pauillac. It’s a matter of exposure, and true with the perception of wine from any region, be it Cornas vs. Hermitage (vs. Barossa) for Syrah or Nahe vs Mosel vs Wachau for Riesling.

    2. I still find that there is no lack of wine being made internationally that requires age before its drinking window opens wide. I’ve recently had a number of Austrian Rieslings, Grüner Veltliners, and Sauvignon Blancs that are intended for long term cellaring. Premium-level wine from Chinon, Savennières, Rioja, Rhône, and even new world producers whose wines benefit from aging such as Kalin, Domain Drouhin Oregon, Wendouree, et al.

    I too gained much of my early knowledge of wine by reading about it. I don’t begrudge Johnson’s blanket generalizations (after all, he’s tasted a lot more wine than I) but it behooves readers not to take everything written at face value, particularly if they’re being filtered through a journalist trying to use the interviewee to prove a point. Better to use the printed word as a jumping-off point for your own exploration of various wine regions, styles, and grape varieties.

  3. Jim Caudill says:

    I’m gonna use that “betterization” term over and over again, lovin’ it. Hugh got mad at KJ years ago over some oak tree cutting for a Santa Barbara vineyard. I wrote him a letter with a summary of KJ’s point of view, and some supporting documentation, and I got a lovely letter back and an apology of all things. Class act all the way.

  4. I more-or-less worship Johnson’s writing.

    But, if he thinks that Bord’x is the only spot making wine worth aging (hello… Mosel Riesling…), then he’s smokin’ some crack.

  5. I perceive that Sir Hugh Johnson did not confer with Sir Harry Waugh on the subject and that Steve H. is not the only one who cannot personally taste 39 wines a day.

  6. On some level I question the view that all good wine must age. I understand that it takes bottle age to develop secondary and tertiary aromas as well as to tame the structure of certain wines. But unless there are near ideal circumstances–sufficient fruit, sufficient (but not excessive) structure, appropriate chemistry, proper storage conditions, an untainted cork that forms an impermeable seal–the ultimate result is a tired if not dead or flawed wine. If everything goes right, there’s still fruit, the structure has resolved, volatility and oxidation are in check, and more flavors have developed. But how often does this actually occur and is this the only way? I suspect a lot of aging windows end up exaggerated because they’re based on best case scenarios and also because wines used to be stored in colder, damper cellars that slowed their development (especially in terms of spoilage organisms).

    The way Johnson phrases it at one point, “wines to be laid down, sold and resold,” seems a particularly un-romantic view, as if the point of making a massively structured wine is to generate a commodity for the market that survives because it’s unpalatable for a decade or more.

    I’m no fan of unstructured wines that lack subtlety, but at the same time there are winemakers who seem capable of achieving youthful complexity and structural harmony. I’ve read that the complex aromas generated by native yeasts fade rather rapidly, as does the fruit in most wine. So in many cases, if the structure is not an obstacle, a hand-made wine will often be at a peak once it’s overcome bottle shock. Unless it ages gracefully and develops in, say, 5 years, it’s all downhill from there. Is it possible a young wine could be equal, but different to an aged wine?

    I know that if I buy an expensive wine, I’ll want something that will hold and develop for some time. But maybe the criticism of wines that are best young is not that they are inferior, but simply that they are over-priced since they won’t have any value on the secondary market. But wine is meant to be consumed, anyway, so I’d consider the niche wines that are meant to be traded for decades a sort of oddity, anyway. Being young as I am, the famous names are not accessible as they were in the 60s and 70s to “ordinary” collectors; the long-term survivability issue is not all that relevant to me. My concern is that I get accurate information on the structural and organoleptic qualities and when the wine will peak, be it 6 months, 6 years or 6 decades. If a wine can hang on for 5 (or 50) years, fine, but if it’s ideal at 2 (or 20), I’d like to know.

  7. Is it really permissible to write such sensationalist title when the content doesn’t point to it that way even when taken out of context?

  8. Damn, I musta been doing something else to have missed this one. This guy Johnson pinned the tail on the donkey! CA wines are out of balance due to a large part from RP and the 100-point scale. I’m having a hard time drinking my fellow CA producers’ vino for the very same reasons. too much stuffing.

    I can’t wait till folks realize those fancy-pants high scored wines begin to fall on their perverbial faces. There’s simply no way wines that have ph’s in the 3.7-3.9 range will last 5 years. Drink those flabby cult RRV Pinots and Napa Cab’s up kids.

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