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Is the European model of wine regions obsolete for California?

32 comments

I just finished my feature story on Paso Robles for Wine Enthusiast, and the process made me wonder how I (and other writers, I would think) go about reporting on wine regions.

The concept of wine regions comes to us via Europe, of course. In historic old wine countries like France, Italy, Germany and Spain, wine regions were more or less permanently defined centuries ago, in fairly narrow terms, so that we have come to define a place like Bordeaux with Cabernet Sauvignon and its allied grapes, or the Mosel with Riesling, Burgundy with Pinot Noir, Sancerre with Sauvignon Blanc, Tuscany with Sangiovese and so on.

Forty or fifty years ago, when Napa Valley had everything from Pinot Noir and Zinfandel to Chardonnay and Barbera all growing next to each other in the vineyard, Europeans were appalled. Because their wine regions had become varietal monocultures, they couldn’t understand how Napa — which was trying so hard to become an important place — could willy-nilly plant anything and everything. Shouldn’t Napa, like Europe, specialize?

The Napans of the 1960s and 1970s who came to define the “boutique winery movement” certainly thought so. Influenced by the Europeans (and anxious to gain their approval), they tore out everything and replaced it with Bordeaux varieties, and when they developed new vineyards, it was with Bordeaux varieties. Out went grapes that for decades had performed perfectly well: Chenin Blanc, Semillon, Pinot Noir, Gamay, Barbera, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel. In went Cabernet, Merlot and the rest.

Who’s to say that these varieties didn’t make great and distinctive wines? They did, often as not, but unfortunately, they no longer exist, because Napa decided to go to the European model. I can distinctly remember the first Pinot Noir from California I ever really liked, and you know where it was from? Napa Valley. Not Carneros, but from somewhere around Rutherford. I miss that wine; what’s more, it was really different from today’s Dijon clone, assembly line Pinots.

As Napa goes, so too do the other California appellations. By the 1980s and 1990s, everybody thought they had to specialize and become known for a particular variety or varietal family. It was the European model writ large. But now, I find myself wondering if the European model is appropriate for California in the 21st century, and if in fact it hasn’t caused more harm than good.

Think about it. Napa Valley has some seriously good Bordeaux-type wines. But it also has a huge, boring morass of mediocre Bordeaux-style wines. Would we all be better off if Napa had stuck with its old model, and continued to produce good Semillons, Pinot Blancs, Carignans, Chenin Blancs, and so on, as well as Cabernet? Yes. We’d also have wines from Napa Valley that didn’t cost an arm and a leg.

So, back to Paso Robles. What was so exciting about this trip (and you can read all about it in the Enthusiast’s October issue) was my realization that Paso Robles has decided to forego the varietal route. It wasn’t a conscious decision, like all the vintners getting together at a meeting and saying, “Let’s abandon the European model and go back to the old California model.” No, things don’t happen like that. But individually, growers and vintners there have decided to grow a lot of different things, sometimes all in one vineyard, then see what does best and make blends from the top barrels. Sometimes these are straight Bordeaux blends, but more often than not, they’re strange mixtures of Cabernet, Tempranillo, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel or what have you.

I say “strange” only because we’re not used to them, but when you think about it, isn’t Bordeaux itself just a classic “strange blend”? Who ordained that Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenere were the only permissable grapes? Nobody. The Bordelais realized over centuries that they worked, and so the system developed the way it did. The difference between them and us is that, with their system of government, they enshrined these varieties into law. That will never happen here.

What I’m suggesting is that Paso Robles could be opening up a whole new way of thinking about wine regions — not in terms of single varieties, but in terms of “What are the best wines we can make here?” What a giant leap forward that would be.

  1. vinorojo says:

    Steve,

    I would like to point out that Napa’s neighbors to the West (Sonoma County) has huge diversity in it’s vineyards. Sure we have our varietal “hot spots” too but we have the ability to produce world class wines from Pinot and Chard, all the way to Zin Syrah and Cab and all within a thirty mile radius. I think the European model lends itself to marketing exec’s, in that there is some branding going on with Napa Cab or RRV Pinot Noir or Dry Creek Zin. I have always said that the marketing and branding of California wines are often a detriment to their own success. When thinking about Europe vs. Cali, our terroir is not the same, our vineyards are not the same, our wines are not the same, why should our mindset be?

  2. Vinorojo, Sonoma isn’t really an exception, because it has so many sub-AVAs that really are defined by specific varieties. Russian River Valley is sort of an exception, as you point out, but I wonder how long it’ll be before some of those old vine vineyards are torn out and replaced to Pinot and Chardonnay. (It’s already happening.) Although I’m sure we’ll continue to have some RRV Syrah, Petite Sirah and Zin and Sauv Blanc in the future (at least, I hope so).

  3. Morton Leslie says:

    Sometimes I think you write things just to piss off winegrower. The idea that growers and vintners individually decided on the grape varieties they would grow and the wines they would make based on apeing the French is silly. If you think about it; Chenin Blanc, Semillon, Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Sauvignon Blanc are, in fact, French grape varieties.

    There was no vast left wing Francophilian conspiracy. I forgive you, Steve, you were a baby when things changed.

    Yes, there were diverse grape varieties in the Napa Valley in the 1960′s and early ’70′s. Not just the varieties you mentioned, but there was also Grey Riesling, Burger, Green Hungarian, Mondeuse, Early Burgundy, Carignane, Grenache, Furmint, Red Pinot, Alicante Bouchet, French Colombard, Sauvignon Vert and Red Traminer. I know, because I made wine from these and those you mention. If you look closely all of the varieties are European, most are French.

    You say we removed grape varieties that performed perfectly well. That is not true. Unfortunately many of the varieties I mention and you mentioned were simply uneconomic. If you can’t make money growing a grape or making wine from that grape you don’t. If you can make more from one versus the other, it’s a simple choice.

    Pinot Noir and Chardonnay spread in Carneros primarily because sparkling wine made money. For much the same reason Pinot disappeared from Calistoga, St. Helena, and Rutherford. It didn’t make money when planted there. But Cabernet did. Despite what you say, Sauvignon blanc has not disappeared from the Napa Valley. There’s plenty of it.

    For most growers and wineries when you replant a vineyard there are two decisions. What varieties can I make money with? Of those, which variety is best suited for this plot of land? Planting a vineyard is a long term and expensive undertaking; in the real world, the decisions are mostly economic. (I know, that isn’t the story we tell you, but believe me the reason we talk to you is, at it’s roots, economic.)

    While it is consumers, retailers, restaurateurs, wholesalers and the wine media who decide what is grown and made into wine, if you want to blame a single culprit for the demise of that innovative Gamay/Grenache/Zinfandel/Muscat proprietal blend take a good look at the wine media. I don’t know a single writer who does not, down deep, despite their protestations to the contrary, have a bias in favor of things conventially French.

  4. Morton: I fully understand the importance of economics in a winemaker’s decision making. What I was talking about was simply that it’s sad that a lot of good, sound wines that Napa used to produce have vanished, only to be replaced by a sea of indifferent Cabernets. Maybe I miss a world that couldn’t exist in this day and age — a much more diverse and interesting Napa Valley. As for writers have a French bias, I don’t. I’ve admitted to having a “European” palate, if you will, because I like for my table wines to be truly dry. But I think most wine pros would agree with that.

  5. I have extracted 2 quotes from your article to emphasize my thinking:

    “Out went grapes that for decades had performed perfectly well…”, and

    “Would we all be better off if Napa had stuck with its old model, and continued to produce good Semillons, Pinot Blancs, Carignans, Chenin Blancs, and so on, as well as Cabernet?”

    I would like to suggest that we have become smarter over time in two ways. First, and most importantly, we strive to do more than just make “good” wines or things that do “perfectly well”. We strive to make the best wines given the growing conditions we have. And so it is that much of the specialization that has occured is in recognition of this best varietal for the best conditions goal. It just may be that Paso will find their sweet spot over time and there will be less willy nilly; they are a relatively young growing area after all. And second, even though you also suggest this above, busines people do want to plant what gives them the greatest return on investment so yes, the higher prices of Napa Cab’s is a collateral outcome. But isn’t the wine quality the over-arching benefit? I hope so. Not that there aren’t some lesser presentations, but that will always be the case in any art.

  6. It’s rare to have all the growers in the area decide of their own will to start growing in an experimental manner with their varietals. I also like your phrasing in that it’s only “strange” in that we are not familiar with it, not for some negative context related to the word. Strange is good and can be great, it’s the reason life can remain exciting and avoid complete homogeny.

  7. Enofile, I hope Paso DOESN’T “find their sweet spot over time,” if that means becoming a monoculture. And in Napa Valley, some of those “good wines” that did “perfectly well” have been replaced by bad wines that are just simple Harlan wannabes. There used to be a Pinot Noir from Louis K. Mihaly winery which, I believe, was somewhere in Rutherford or maybe St. Helena. Anyway, it was a wonderful wine, and I wish it was still around. But, like you and others have pointed out, the market didn’t reward it.

  8. I also think that wine drinkers themselves may have played a role. Perhaps as consumers we have not been as interested in purchasing so many different varieties of wine from one particular area as it is very easy to buy imported wines from all over the world. But with increasing interest in buy local campaigns many of us would like to see a greater number of varieties produced closer to home. I was listening to a radio show last week where the economist being interviewed (don’t recall his name) suggested that with increased energy and transportation costs being likely in the future, there will be greater economic incentives for all of us to buy local for all types of products. We may all then regret the lack of diversity in our nearby areas if all we have left to drink is a few varieties of wine.

  9. Janeen, I’m all for buying locally if it’s possible. But what would a wine lover in, say, Alaska do? Maybe they have ice wine up there!

  10. Steve,

    I tend to agree with vinorojo and will use Dry Creek and Sonoma Valley to further the argument. I have seen more growers in these valleys rip out merlot, chard, etc. in favor of Rhone varietals. Unti, Frick, Preston, Wellington, Landmark, Quivira and Teldeschi are just a few of the trend setters who have devoted a good amount of their programs to Rhone grapes.

    Great discussion!
    DC

  11. With respect to Napa become Cabernet-centric, the wine-rating media definitely bears responsiblity. Where does one find evidence of “a huge, boring morass of mediocre Bordeaux-style wines”? Going by the numbers, it seems you have enjoyed a whopping majority of the Napa Cabs that crossed your desk.

    A quick search of the WE maga database for “Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley” shows that this year alone, you have rated 75 out of 95 as 87 or better (which translates to “well recommended”).Going back ten years, 1,017 out of 1,374 were 87+, and nearly half (661) scored 90 points or better.

    With ratings like that it’s no wonder Napa vintners continue to focus on Cabs and Cab blends. And if there really are that many “mediocre” or “indifferent” Cabs out there, it doesn’t actually seem to be coming out in your reviews.

    Meanwhile, while I don’t disagree with the general idea of lamenting the grape varieties that we’ve lost along the way, I am trying very hard to think of particular bottlings. Does Chappellet no longer grow/make Chenin? Has Clos Du Val stopped making Semillon? I believe Smith-Madrone and Trefethen are still making good Riesling, yes? And there is no shortage of Napa Sauv Blanc and Zinfandel, as far as I can tell

  12. Steve, I like your article. Our ranch is surrounded by Cab, Zin, and Petite Sirah growers. Most people’s jaws drop when I tell them we grow Pinot Noir. It’s always the same…a quick heart palpitation, a loss of breathe, and a bead of sweat running down their forehead all while mumbling, “PN is not suppose to grow in your area because it’s too hot.” I remember when we decided to plant it in 1995, my entire family, along with many others said we were stupid, and that we should be planting Chard, Cab, Merlot, like them. My dad didn’t care, because he knew he could make a wine that people would like. Of course there are better wines, but ours is different than most, and people like that. Why not try something out of the mold? You don’t have to bet your ranch on it. I wouldn’t make it in Europe I guess.

  13. “Would we all be better off if Napa had stuck with its old model, and continued to produce good Semillons, Pinot Blancs, Carignans, Chenin Blancs, and so on, as well as Cabernet? Yes. We’d also have wines from Napa Valley that didn’t cost an arm and a leg.”

    I think the answer is more like “maybe” but certainly more variety couldn’t have hurt things…

  14. Chappellet no longer makes Chenin Blanc. It made no sense to have acreage that would support good Napa Valley reds planted to Chenin Blanc. Interestingly, they are going to put some back in, but in a place of their choosing–and that choosing means that it will not in dirt that could make expensive red wine.

    Clos Du Val makes Ariadne, a Semillon-heavy blend with Sauv Blc.

    No one makes Burger any more or Green Hungarian. And no one misses them except for the sake of discussion. They would not sell so what would be the point?

    It is true that some PN has come out of the valley proper. So what? Do we so lack for good PN that we have to lament a few economic decisions made by growers?

    Napa Valley Cabernet may be overpriced and overhyped and can easily be accused of making lakes of mediocrity. But, try telling that to the critics, including the guy who writes this blog, or any one else. Maybe we are all wrong, but frankly, grapes will be planted where two things happen. They do well there and they make money.

    California is light years ahead of some parts of the world because it can plant anything anywhere. It the grape works out, it stays. If not it goes. If it starts a movement, more gets planted. If not, it gets ignored. We are very, very lucky to have our own system.

    Just ask the guys in the northern Rhone who planted Syrah in Beaujolais high up on Mont Brouilly, on a south-facing slope with soils and climate strongly reminiscent of Cote Rotie. They cannot sell that wine as anything other than Vin de Pays with no further designation because of the anitquated system within in which they work.

    And by the way, some of the same guys have Viognier in St. Joseph and Roussanne in Condrieu, but because the vineyards are essentially within spitting distance of the winery, the authorities have not cottoned to the fact that the grapes planted accorded to wine quality considerations, not bureaucratic rules. Roussanne goes into St. J. and Viognier to Condrieu regardless of where the line is drawn.

    We have no need for the mindset that would make rules of that nature.

  15. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for recognizing the diversity in Paso Robles. I’d add a nuance that you didn’t really address: that there are such diverse microclimates inside Paso Robles that even if producers are doing everything they can to choose the best grape for their spot, there would be dozens of different choices due to the different soils, climates and rainfalls within the AVA. And Paso isn’t unique in this fact (though it’s pretty dramatic here). As Vinorojo mentions, Sonoma is notably diverse as well.

    The other fact worth emphasizing is that in any given microclimate, there are likely dozens of “right” choices. You don’t have to abandon the search for an appropriate match between grape variety and terroir in order to get diversity. In a world of California wine where new varieties are available every year, and in a wine market that is increasingly open to new grapes, there isn’t a simple choice between making what sells and making what is right for your vineyard.

    Sure, you probably wouldn’t want to plant Riesling in the same vineyard site as Mourvedre… but it’s important that people realize that there is rarely only one right answer.

  16. Jason, I’m “down” with Paso diversity, as they say. But I wouldn’t want to carry this too far. Paso Robles doesn’t have anything like the climate of, say, Edna Valley, so it would be wrong to portray it as “a little bit of everything.” Paso Robles is warm climate winegrowing. Within that parameter, distinctions can be made.

  17. Charlie, as the guy who writes this blog, I can tell you I routinely give lousy scores to Napa Cabernet/Bordeaux blends all the time. Wine Enthusiast doesn’t always publish them due to space limitations. I also disagree with you that California “can plant anything anywhere. If the grape works out, it stays.” That’s simply not the case. Economics trumps quality all the time. There’s no reason Napa should have stopped making Pinot Noir, except that the critics of the 1970s and 1980s deplored it, thereby discouraging wineries from continuing to explore the possibilities.

  18. Steve, perhaps we are talking at slightly cross-purposes here. There is a very strong economic bent in my discussion, and when I say “If the grape works out, it stays”, my thinking included economics in that definition of working out. We have never discussed my background, but I was a professional economist at the time I happily took up winewriting–a profession that is a lot more fun than economics.

    That said, there are reason beyond economics why the middle of the Napa Valley is not the place for Pinot Noir, in general terms at least. The critics like wines that they like and do not like wines they do not like, and heavy, high pH Pinot Noir was one of those. Carneros, the Russian River Valley and lots of other places are much better sites for Pinot Noir. The fact that there is still a fair amount of Sauvignon Blanc in the Valley suggests that both quality and economics have worked to keep those grapes there.

    For my part, I am also happy to see Riesling leave the Napa Valley. It belongs in cooler sites. And while I happen to believe that Napa Valley floor Zinfandel is delicious, it is clear that economics drove it out. No argument there.

    So, sorry if my point was less than clear, but quality and sellability do have a way of going together at some basic level and then dollars will trump quality but that is also a measure of market response, not just critical review.

  19. A nod of the head to Jason, who pretty much hit the nail on the proverbial head, and Steve, who authored this. Cerro Prieto in Westside Paso has 13 identifiable microclimates, and two distinctly different soil types—limestone in the mountain vineyard, and black river bottom in the valleys(okay there are some chunks of limestone there too), but point is, as you and Jason both pointed out, many of us have rather pronounced climate and soil diversity in sometimes, adjoining areas of vines.

    I will say this: despite several yrs of planning aforehand, with 60 high /low thermometers, and scads of soil samples, until i saw Cab struggle in rich cold bottom land, it didn’t take a genius to graft over to cold weather, richer soil varieties. If it’s cold it’s Pinot or Sauv blanc…at least in our vineyards.

    We have Cab separated from pinot by 5 feet in one of our steepest straight up/ straight down blocs, and in that 5 feet the temp differential is a whopping 12 degrees each nite. In one 3 acre bloc, the temp splits are 18 degrees, and the elevation drops from 1250 to 1000 feet. Most is steeper than 60 degrees inclination. With weird real time facts like that, one would have to be a fool to try and stay with one variety and watch the Cab dropped each harvest with a brix of 21 and virtually tasteless grapes. The pinot? The Sauv blanc? Phenomenal. So this is both a matter of reality and $$, because one cannot continue to drop a yrs’ worth of work on the ground yr after yr.

    Somewhere along there, a guy starts looking for what WILL grow. As for the $$ issue, rather than look at it like Napa, where Chenin blancs , Semillion, Chards were pulled up in favor of better revenue Cabs, we look at it as plumb foolishness not to learn from the terroir, and take what it gives you. Whatever the variety is that you end up with, the goal is the same: try and grow the perfect extremely low yield grape, and hence, make the perfect wine. Not only does it all not have to be Cab, it doesn’t all have to be the same. It does, however, have to be happy where it grows and that includes both climate and soil.

    Mountain vineyards in the proposed Willow Creek area tend to be homogeneous. Cold valley vineyards here tend to be the somewhat homogeneous, one vineyard to the next. Not infrequently , many of us end up with two very distinct vineyards(or three), all juxtaposed on the same piece of property which makes for truly challenging conditions. If laid out right, and farmed carefully and properly, these vineyards can produce remarkable wines that have no business being literally adjacent to one another. I see it every day and it still never ceases to amaze me.

  20. Napa’s neighbors to the southeast also have a huge diversity of varietals and appropriate growing conditions for each (cool to warm) in Suisun Valley and what is left of Solano Green Valley. Makes life much more interesting.

  21. Greg Croisetiere says:

    Just to take this theory one step further. California’s newest AVA, ( 8-05)High Valley, a sub appellation of Lake County has an Estate property, Brassfield Estate, that is growing 19 different varietal’s, all on the same property. It is owned by Jerry Brassfield who has 2500 acres which he has owned since the early 70′s. The soil comes from the inactive volcano, Round Mountain. The wines are beautifully made by Kevin Robinson, of Rutherford Hill fame. I strongly urge anyone to seek them out. Did I mention they may be the best value in all of california?

  22. Readers: Mr. Croisetiere appears to work for a distributor that sells Brassfield wines. [Steve]

  23. A few facts.

    Fact: About 60% of all the grape acreage in the Napa Valley is deveoted to the five red varieties of Bordeaux. It is likely, given the heavy plantings of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir south of Napa City and in Carneros, that the plantings in the valley proper are closer to 80% Bordeaux reds.

    Fact: All told, there are over 40 varieties planted within Napa County (basically equivalent to the Napa Valley AVA). If the majority of those other grapes had a market, they would have been marginalized.

    Fact: The goodness or badness of this kind of concentration is in the eye of the beholder. There is no magic formula for grape diversity that applies here.

    Opinion and Fact: The loss of acreage for successful varieties is unfortunate. Steve misses up-valley Pinot Noir. I don’t. I miss up-valley Zinfandel. Steve does not mention it.

    Fact: But nobody misses most of the varieties that used to exist because nobody misses their wines. Those varieties, including some very good varieties like Chenin Blanc have disappeared everywhere.

    Fact: The Napa Valley has become the place for Bordeaux red varieties because it makes those varieties better than most places in California and better than most places in the world. You can bet that other areas would follow suit if they could. The amount of unsuccessful Cab in Napa does not change the basic equation.

  24. Steve,

    You present solid points about the “old’ Napa Valley and the field blends those winemakers and growers crafted in earlier times. When Napa turned to the European model it did so for purely economic reasons, but that doesn’t mean parts of it can’t be changed back. However, given the going price per acre in the Valley I doubt growers or wineries are itching to experiment with the old varietals like Charbonno. And Green Hungarian or Alicante Bouchet? What distributor would take on those wines in their book, even if they were available?

    Like so many other winemakers I’m deeply unimpressed with the sea of high priced “me too” cabs of questionable quality derived from notable vineyard blocks. In many cases I don’t blame the farmers, they’re just growing what they can sell and each year are at the whim of whatever nature throws at them. It’s amazing they stay in the business at all. I think it’s the marketing guys, the hype, the scoring system and reviews that have brought a lot of these recipe wines to the forefront and our tables. Branding and marketing will never be stand ins for great winemaking but that’s what we seem to be borrowing from the French these days.

  25. Mr. Croisetiere doesn’t just appear to work for Brassfield’s distributor he DOES work for the distributor. His self serving commentary illustrates how fortunate you are Steve not to have sales people wade into these discussions so the dialogue can remain disinterested and therefore much more enjoyable.

  26. Tom, I guess I have been lucky. I don’t like deleting comments, even when they’re self-serving (and Mr. Croisetiere isn’t the only one!). But I did want to alert readers about him.

  27. Morton Leslie says:

    Three decades ago, wineries in the Napa Valley that produced, say a dozen different varietals were universally criticized by the wine media. The contention was that a winemaker couldn’t make great wine unless the specialized. What followed was virtual idolization of anyone who came out and said, “We only make one wine.” Witness Opus, Dominus, Jordan, and a hundred more all focused on Bordelaise grapes. Everyone cut back on their SKU’s, and no one was stupid enough to focus on Chenin Blanc or Riesling or Semillon. Now these same wineries are accused by the media of specializing to the detriment of the wine drinker. Or worse yet mindlessly copying the French. And now we fawn over wineries who don’t specialize and try to grow everything?

    This is much like the wine media fawning over 16% alcohol wines for a decade, then turning around and condemning the same the next for being too high in alcohol.

    In the end, it appears, we should not pay any attention to what the wine media have to say. I wish it were the same with the consumer.

  28. Morton, it’s a continuing conversation. Anyhow, I wasn’t one of those wine media types 30 years ago criticizing Napa. The larger question, it seems to me, is if it’s possible for a relatively small region to produce several different types of great wine. Russian River may offer the most promising example in California. Of course, every region will always produce average wine also, except for something tiny, like Cote-Rotie.

  29. Morton, this is the umpteenth time today (well maybe only the fourth or fifth) that I have read some winegrower or winery blaming the media for the path it has chosen to follow.

    Thirty years ago was 1979. Parker had been publishing for a year at best. The Wine Spectator was a being printed on newsprint in San Diego. It is too damn easy to blame “the media”. It is high time for the producers to look at themselves and admit that they make their own decisions based on a myriad of inputs, most of which have to do with what they think they can sell and what they want to grow. The “media” did not pull out Riesling or Chenin Blanc or Burger. The industry did. And if you now think you were wrong, for goodness sake, go plant those varieties in Rutherford and stop complaining. You own the land.

    But, Morton, if I owned the land, I would be planting based on what I wanted to grow and what I wanted to sell. I don’t need Jim Laube or Steve Heimoff or anybody else to tell me what to do. Why makes you think that a bunch of very rich people do?

    And by the way, just because some folks are all of a sudden worried about diversity, that does not mean that it is time to pull Cabernet–unless you too are worried. Then by all means, plant Golden Chasselas.

  30. steve,
    to characterize europe as a continent of wine monoculture is absolutely inaccurate. what about the southern rhone, languedoc, rousillon, priorat, and portugal? i think that you fundamentaly misunderstand the history of the great european wine regions. those varietals were selected, by trial and error, over hundreds of years. they were selected because they made the best wines given the terroir of the region. the laws that now codify those varietals are less than fifty or sixty years old in most regions. do you really want do drink fat, flabby riesling from paso robles? or thin, stemmy cabernet from epernay? i don’t think so.
    i will agree that experimantation is important but let’s go ahead and learn the lessons of our monastic predecessors and plant varietals appropriate to the local conditions.

  31. Steve & Charlie You guys have to see that the wine media’s attention to specific varietals from specific areas has lead to alot of the monoculture steve is writing about. The thing is that there are other grapes then Cabernet being grown in Napa. I carry a Charbono, Cab Franc, Rousillon, all from Napa. I have not seen these varietals written about in any significant way in the wine press. We, wine writers, and retailers, have convinced the public that this grape from this region is what they do best and the discussion usually ends there, well at least with the vast majority of wine writers and retailers. Consumers than take this idea and run with it like a Kenyan on chrystal meth. Hence cranking up demand for that wine from that region. Grape growers are business men, they need to grow what will sell at the best price. I do not blame them for just trying to earn a living. So let us all share the blame, wine writers for propigating the notion that one grape is the best grown in a given area. The retailers for being lazy and dependant upon the wine writers, and the wine drinking public for not getting out of their own way and begin buying things that may not be the grape they recognize.

  32. Gregg–

    Love your store. Great that you carry wines no one has heard of. The producers need outlets like yours who will hand-sell those wines.

    I can’t speak for all other writers but my rag does review Cab Franc as well as small acreage Rhone varieties. We have not yet got around to Rousillon. Sorry about that.

    But blaming the media for the turn to Cab Sauv in the Napa Valley misses the point in my opinion. Cabernet Sauvignon was the most important grape in the Napa Valley forty years ago before the wine boom hit, before any of the current media even came into being. The vines from which the great Cabs of the early ’70s came were planted years before that.

    It seems to me that you have this equation bass-ackwards. The media reviews wine that is based on growing decisions made years before those wines ever hit our cellars. The media did not tell growers what to plant. The media reviewed wine and liked what it liked and did not like what it did not like.

    It is not surprising to me that Cabernet Sauvignon rated higher with the media than up-valley Pinot Noir. It did with the wineries that existed before our time. Either they were all wrong and we along with them, or Cabernet has earned its way to its place in Napa.

    I won’t disagree that good grapes got pushed out in the process, and I have no argument with the notion that there are plenty of boring Cabernets grown in Napa. There are also boring Grand Cru Bordeaux. And a veritable ocean of boring, less than Grand Cru Bordeaux. Do you see anybody ripping those grapes out and planting Albarinho?

    California growing decisions reflect some combination of market and quality expectations. That is why Cab is king in Napa. Because it is KING in Napa. The place made it so. Not the media.

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