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