Is the European model of wine regions obsolete for California?
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.