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