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California never will have a winery classification, and it shouldn’t

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I was shopping at Rockridge Market the other day and stopped by the Goodwill Store to check out their books. Came across a familiar old one I hadn’t thought about for years: The Wines of California, by Roy Andries de Groot (Summit Books, 1982). Its subtitle: “Including the First Classification of the Best Vineyards and Wineries.”

I read that book when it was new, and it made quite an impression on me. Twenty-five years ago, I was a novice wine amateur, reading everything I could get my hands on. Of course, back then the bedrock of all wine knowledge rested in Europe, and in France in particular. I was very familiar with the Classification of 1855 and was in awe of it. It seemed to represent the pinnacle of everything California aspired to: great wine, grown in the right places, organized into established tiers of quality. Before I came across the book, I had wondered if California wines would ever be classified. It seemed like a natural thing to do. So the book really grabbed my attention.

If there was an inherent weakness in de Groot’s book, it was that it didn’t distinguish clearly between wineries and vineyards. That distinction is crucial in Europe. The Clos de Vougeot is classified as a Grand Cru vineyard of Burgundy, not the wineries who buy its grapes and bottle it. So when de Groot classified, say, Heitz Wine Cellars as one of his three highest-ranked (“Great”) wineries, mainly on the strength of Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, he failed to note that Heitz bought those grapes, whereas Stony Hill (another “Great” winery) grew all of its own grapes. (The third “Great” winery was Schramsberg.) If Heitz had lost access to Martha’s Vineyard grapes, it could not have remained a “Great” winery.

Still, what de Groot did was audacious and interesting for the time. And where he led, others followed. There were numerous attempts to classify California wineries over the next several years, most notably by Wine Spectator’s Jim Laube. In his 1989 “California’s Great Cabernets,” he stole the five-tier Bordeaux model and applied it to Cabernet Sauvignon.

We haven’t heard much about California classifications since the turn of the 21st century, and for good reason. As sincere as these attempts were, they were naive. A moment’s reflection would have prompted the following objections to any sort of California classification:

– as noted, a failure to distinguish between wineries who own their vineyards, and thus can never lose that fruit, and wineries who buy their grapes. Even a long-term contract may end someday.

– an inability to include wineries that did not exist at the time of the classification. This is not such a problem in the Médoc, where new wineries arise only rarely. But in fecund California, a classification would be futile because new wineries pop up all the time. For example, Laube did not include Harlan Estate, Cardinale, Staglin or Araujo in his book.

– the difficulty of revising the classification should a winery move up or down in quality. This problem afflicts all classifications in Europe. But it would be particularly misleading in California. Laube classified Shafer as a Third Growth, but surely, Hillside Select is of First Growth quality. De Groot placed Glen Ellen as a “Superb” winery — his second-highest tier. But that clearly was before Glen Ellen became a jug wine producer.

– it’s unlikely that any single wine critic could ever review all of the wines of California. There are simply too many brands (about 4,000 and counting). So any classification would be faulty for not considering everybody equally. True, a critic could focus his attention only on the more famous, culty wineries, but that would be patently unfair to the others, and could even reflect a pre-existing bias.

Despite the inherent weaknesses of a classification, the spirit of the 1980s permitted these efforts. It was a time of great optimism when anything seemed possible. We were still in thrall of Europe. Their systems had withstood the many tests of time; they must have been good, no? So why not try the same thing over here. Besides, the Baby Boomers were discovering fine wine by the millions; not only that, they were buying wine books. A wine book that purported to classify California wine was bound to sell lots of copies.

How times have changed. Can you imagine anyone having the temerity to classify California wineries? It would be ridiculous, and would meet up with the ridicule it deserved.

  1. You could always reinvent the classification model, using the wisdom of crowds and put all the wineries on digg.com!

  2. Hey Steve – tried leaving a comment here earlier but didn’t seem to take. I don’t think a CA or Napa classification would be any more or less ridiculous than the Medoc’s 1855 classification (I recommend that anyone doubting the strangeness of the 1855’s longevity should read Lewin’s excellent What Price Bordeaux?).

    Fine Magazines took a shot at a Napa classification last year:
    http://fine-magazines.epaper.fi/reader/?issue=8409;919160d5d654603a7aea5d746896a1e6;37

  3. Classification should involve wines and vineyards, not wineries. Every PGCru from Bordeaux has a second, even a third wine; so it makes no sense to classify wineries.
    GCru and PCru wines are classified because production factors are known and change very little trough time: vineyards; yields; grape-growing, harvest and winemaking techniques; barrel types and programs …
    Vineyards are classified for obvious reasons; soil, price of the land, yields, track record and most of all, for the impact of the grapes on the quality and price of the finished wine.
    Classification should be done on a dynamic basis, though. Certainly not as quickly as Stock Market Indexes, that change their composition on a quarterly to yearly basis, but at specific, a priori-defined, intervals.

  4. Dude, re-read my reasons why a new classification could never work. By 1855 most of the chateaux had been around for many decades is not centuries. The Medoc was pretty well settled down; relative price tiers had been established, and most everybody agreed as to who was best, second best, and so on. Everybody also agreed on styles. None of those conditions exist today in California.

  5. Have you considered ranking them by the prices their wines command? No judgments necessary and not in permanent rankings but rather a snapshot in time based on one criterion that has been used before.

    Steve, your comments got me to thinking about he great Cab producers of the 1970 vintage, one of the best we have ever had and one which we often recognize as the start of the modern era of CA winemaking, including the following at the top of the list. It was the first vintage that I covered fully as a writer, and it was one heck of a place to start. Here is what has happened to the quality leaders and percieved quality leaders of that time.

    -Gemello (now long gone but it wine lingers on and still wins some 1970 respective tastings)
    -Souverain (it was a small Napa hillside winery–not a winery in name only as it is today)
    -Freemark Abbey (a perfectly fine place but no longer at the top of the list)
    -Heitz (no longer at the top despite its continued access to Martha’s Vineyard)
    -Spring Mountain (then situated in the building that now is home to St. Clement)
    -Mayacamas (still owned by the Travers and occasionally heard from but no longer top tier)
    -Oakville Vineyards/Van Loben Sels (long gone)
    -Inglenook (we call it Rubicon now–and it owns a good bit of the Oakville Vineyards/Van Loben Sels property–meantime, what is Inglenook?)
    -Robert Mondavi (sold by the family, now part of constellation but still a serious player–but there will be young folks now writing blogs who have no idea who Robert Mondavi was or what he accomplished)
    -Ridge (still a CA First Growth in today’s snap shot)
    -Chappellet (its top wine still earn top scores)
    -Charles Krug (barely part of royalty then but ranked in the list because there were not many competitors)
    -Yverdon (could have been a cult winery but stopped producing)
    -Louis Martini (its Special bottlings scored well, and one does not have to go back more than a half decade or so to find Martini squarely in the mix of top producers–sort of for the same reasons that Krug had to be in that list)

    So, please pardon that walk down memory lane. It was fun for me, and it buttresses the very good arguments you make above.

  6. Charlie, I remember a lot of those wines, too. I don’t see how a classification could be based on price, as it was in 1855. Then, prices were consistent (as Penning-Rowsell’s book reminds us) and had been for ages. Nowadays, prices are all over the map. Caymus SS just dropped theirs from $150 to $99. And no matter what the winery claims the SRP is, you’ll find it for less, often far less, on the open market. So pricing is way too volatile a parameter to use for anything.

  7. Steve,

    A bit of tongue-in-cheek on my part. I should have added a smiley face.

    Oh well, at least I got a kick of suggesting it.

  8. Steve – I get what you’re saying, but I’d offer Lewin’s book and the Fine Mags article in reply to that; check them out, they touch on exactly those points (and several others).

    I’m not saying that a classification in CA is worth it – I don’t think that it is – but that the rabbit hole on this one goes even deeper than one might first suspect.

    Cheers!

  9. There will never be a classification in California because as growers we will never agree to being classified. Here’s how it will go down: “You don’t think I’m a First Growth? Better have more money than facts and a very good lawyer!” The whole system of controlled appellations is a giant marketing scheme that the continental growers have imposed on themselves. To suggest that any entity outside the grower community had control of how those appellations were established is naive.

    The idea that these guys got together and said to each other “yes, we all know who is best, second best, and so on – now let’s establish a bureaucracy to enforce this classification, regulate plantings and yields, etc.” is so foreign to the American psyche as to be inconceivable, but that’s exactly what was done. The supposition that the great unwashed, much less journalists (!) had anything to do with it is ludicrous.

    :) (smiley face, in case anyone is in doubt)

  10. Although US’s bureaucracy and advocacy groups muddling capacity should not be downplayed, nothing can be imposed in a true free market environment.
    If someday there will be a classification of wines and vineyards in California, it will be entirely market driven; an independent market entity will develop an index/indicator to rank wines and vineyards, based on objective criteria, which will reflect and highlight several attributes like quality, consistency, perenniality, economic value…
    If agents (consumers and the wine industry) will adopt it or not; and which method/algorithm will be chosen, is a whole different story.

  11. I think a classification system would also make wine in CA a whole lot LESS interesting to suss out. Wine writers would be less important because the classification system would do a large part of their job. Over time, it seems, there is a de-facto self-classification of fine vineyards and fine wines. Perhaps the thinning of CA syrah vineyards planted in the wrong spot is an example. In a down economy with oversupply, marginal producers tend to drop out. These “bad” years select for top producers who can hang on and deliver good quality at a price that is not astronomical; survival of the fittest at its best! Our system is truly American.

  12. Gregoire (Greg)Poirier says:

    Hello Steve,

    With all due respect I am always amazed at anyone who makes their opinions known in terms of making proclamations as you do to your opinion on the possibility or potential benefits of classifying the best in class vineyards in America. I not only believe that we should, I believe we will.

    The questions raised are good ones, which in this time and place simply define a critical path to doing something so ambitious well.

    Owners can’t control or influence certainly, a level of transparency is critical, developing some simple as possible ways to address valid concerns are a must, this designations can not be bestowed eithout restriction including somd limits of time to ensure and maintain credibility for the brand value overall….. and the like.

    While you raise good points, proclamations seem unwarranted, and in this opinion are simply wrong. Only time will say who is correct. I believe enough consumers would want to know, it’s good for our global image and therefore to support global demand in a very competitive environment, supports and recognizes the great small single vineyard producers with that kind or premium vineyard, promotes the industry to focus more on vineyard quality which could serve a continued uptick in quality where everyone benefits…..and can be done with proper safeguards that protect the consmers trust…..in our own American way that will work. What about the states striving for great vineyard outcomes? Although California (much more so then maybe Napa) will benefit by indentifying a recognizing the great vineyards outside Napa Sonoma that still do not recieve the recognition in the broader consumer market that they deserve. It’s not a short term, next quarter, suit type business effort, and no one would really want it to be. Lots of potential upside and most importantly to fire the newer wine geeks who did not start out when most of us did, but are getting more passionate everyday.

    Great topic, thanks for allowing my contrary opinion too!

  13. Steve,

    I’m a little late to the party, but in a practical sense, the major wine critics & magazines have already created a classification system. Wineries and vineyards are not given an official designation, but the ratings that they have received and the prices they can charge create a dynamic, pseudo-classification system. In some cases, critics such as your Washington compatriot Paul G. have assigned wineries into “classifications” such as The Leaders, The Specialists, The Bench, & The Rookies.

    If you aggregate the ratings from the most respected critics for each winery over the last few vintages, I think you can identify, at least fairly well, the quality players (that is if you believe that wine ratings are a good measure of quality). You can then use these aggregate ratings to assign a winery to a “classification” and update the aggregate scores on a regular basis.

    The result is a dynamic, but not too dynamic, pseudo-classification system that can help wine drinkers identify the best wineries for a particular region. Since a great number of wineries already submit their wines for review, the basis for the system is already built, and there’s no need to get everyone to agree (which would probably never happen as John previously noted) to any official designation.

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