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Tuesday Twaddle

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There you go again: California-bashing

1WineDude wrote in yesterday, “I spent the better part of this past weekend tasting / celebrating with friends, and the majority of that group openly despised the New World, CA Cab style.” Later, he added, “It was odd being the lone dissenter.” Welcome to the club, young dude. I experience this California-bashing all the time, sometimes even from my fellow Wine Enthusiast editors, but more often from Europhiles. It makes me think: If I, who love California wines, can also love European wines, then why can’t people who love European wines also love California wines? Could it be that I lack aEdit type of snobbism that Bordeauxphiles possess in the extreme?

Think about it. You will never, ever hear a California winemaker bash French or Italian wines. But you hear European winemakers bash California wines all the time. Too ripe! Too obvious! Too oaky! Too fruity! Too Tammy Faye Bakker! Yet every time they have a good vintage — look at the 2009 Bordeaux — they celebrate their wines’ ripeness and alcohol levels (as they did in 1947). Why is that?

I do think there’s a certain self-superior smugness among the A.B.C. (Anything But California) crowd. I can’t explain it for sure, but it’s something I feel. Look, California makes really great wine, and if you can’t acknowledge that, you should re-examine your own self.

Fritz Maytag sells Anchor Brewing

Editor’s note: In an earlier edition of this story, I incorrectly wrote that Fritz Maytag passed away. He did not, and I sincerely regret my error.

You may not have heard of Mr. Maytag (even if your mom had a Maytag washing machine in the basement), but Fritz was and is a Big Man in San Francisco. He owned (from 1965) and resurrected the Anchor Brewing Company, on Potrero Hill, producer of Anchor Steam Beer, which historians regard as America’s first microbrewery. He has now sold it, and it should continue in business for a long time.

More importantly, from a wine point of view, he owned the York Creek Vineyard, which I believe he bought and expanded in 1968, up on Spring Mountain.

Ridge used to bottle a York Creek Cabernet (so did Freemark Abbey). (Fritz Maytag had actually roomed with Paul Draper, at Stanford.) That Ridge bottling was an early example of a cult wine, not as important as, say, Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, but still very much in demand. Although my friend Jim Laube rated it only a Fourth Growth in his 1989 book, California’s Great Cabernets, other critics liked it better, and some of the old Ridge York Creek Petite Sirahs were über-famous. I remember, in the mid-1980s, going to the Safeway store out in Pacifica, where they always had a barrel of discontinued wines. I plucked three bottles of 1978 Ridge York Creek Cab out, for $2 each, and felt I’d hit the jackpot.

Green, schmeen

Speaking of Spring Mountain, I’m speaking at a “green” panel this Thursday up at Spring Mountain Vineyard, where I think I’m to play the role of Chief Debunker (as usual), in the sense that I don’t believe that calling yourself “green” results in better sales for a wine (although it may send the winery owner straight to Heaven). I’m not alone in this dubiousness. Check out this article, from Reuters via Yahoo! News. It says, “Organic, biodynamic and sustainable are words being used to describe wines but the eco-sounding terms have little impact on wine lovers.” One winemaker, an Aussie, said, “It’s [i.e., green] definitely a niche market, but 99.9 percent (of wine drinkers) didn’t respond to having organic on the label.” Ouch. On the other hand, going green can’t hurt.

And finally, “Don’t count me out” — Parker

The Great One makes “a rare appearance in Asia” in May, for a three-day “Ultimate Parker in Asia” in Singapore. “Parker is god,” somebody by the name of Arnaud Compas told Reuters; Compas founded a London firm called Hermitage, which sells rare and expensive wines (and obviously has a vested interest in anointing Parker to Deity status, since every time Parker blesses an Angelus, Dom or Cote Rotie, the price skyrockets, and Arnaud’s bank account swells). Okay, okay, so I’m jealous. Parker does Ultimate Asia, I get a few days in Paso Robles. But I’m not complaining. After all, I like California wine!

  1. And you know, I’ve nothing against those folks, or against European wines, or lighter styles of wine. In fact, I’ve got nothing against those folks disliking New World wines. I just don’t want to have to hear it every time a CA wine is served :-).

    I didn’t know that Maytag had passed – that’s a shame, he was a beer icon.

  2. I think there are a few of us that fall somewhere in the middle regarding California wines. Personally I almost never drink them, taste them all the time but rarely take them home. More often than not for the reasons you pointed out, just too much…but I am not willing to say that there is anything wrong with that other than for my personal taste. What ever creams your twinkie I always say, drink what you like. As long as the wines are not flawed then you will rarely hear me smack talking on them…okay aside from Zinfandel. The thing that gets me is how often my preference for French wines gets me labeled as a snob, pisses me off. I didn’t say the wines are better, just that I like them better….

  3. Dude, Fritz Maytag did NOT pass. That was a huge error on my part, which I have now corrected.

  4. The funny thing with Europhiles is that it’s always what’s oldest and most hard to acquire that they praise. That way they have a monopoly on the finer things in life. The funny thing with Caliphiles is it’s always what’s new, sexy and hard to acquires that they praise. That way *they* have a monopoly on the finer things in life! So, to me, it’s two sides of the same coin, more or less a disagreement over who’s lawn is greener or luxury car is faster. One group chases fashion, the other royalty. Which is better, Paris Hilton or Prince Charles? And how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

    Both groups are fairly silly if you ask me. They believe in “one truth” where one particular style or region is THE most correct, best expression. Some wines are singular and unique, yes, but most people will only pay a certain price for uniqueness when other styles or regions also offer high quality.

    I do side more with the Europhiles, though. Don’t even think about charging $50 or $100 until you have a track record. You must build from the ground up. Moreover, I tend to think progressive European producers are doing a good job integrating modern techniques while preserving regional distinction at fair prices. Too many CA producers charge a high price for anonymous juice that is rather over the top. I do find a good number of CA producers that express the CA fruit elegantly for a fair price, but they are in the minority.

  5. A comment on “green schmeen,” I think that it is much more important for the grapes vines to know that you are running a “bio-dynamic, organic, or sustainable” growing program than the consumer. Seems that the market is showing that also.

  6. Whew – VERY glad to hear Fritz is still alive & kicking!

  7. Emmett, I think the facts show that consumers don’t care. That could change in the future, but right now, consumers are more concerned with other things than whether their wines were grown green.

  8. I agree completely with your remarks about California vs European wines. I love the big, jammy California wines — I also love the subtle Burgundies with their long finish.

    These are just completely different styles, made for completely different situations: California wines are cocktails — drink them with snacks, as at a cocktail party, and they need to stand up and be noticed. European wines are beverages — drink them with your meal, as if they were iced tea or cola–they need to be light but flavorful, with a nice acid tang to clear the oils. A Rockpile Zin would overwhelm the meal, and needs to be appreciated for itself – it’s a mis match to serve these big US reds with a meal – it does not favor for either the wine or the meal.

    Different styles for different cultures — cocktail wines and beverage wines.

    Now go enjoy in peace, each in its own context….

  9. It’s interesting to hear from Samatha Dugan. She cut her teeth on French wine, knows more about it than she does about CA wine even though she lives in the LA area, and she is clear about her preferences.

    Funny thing is, when exposed to CA wine, even wine as ripe as Dehlinger Pinot Noir, she likes it. I get it when she says she does not like being called a snob. Who would? And she simply does not like the berryish aspects of Zinfandel. No one can or should argue with that. I like Zin. I don’t like Gruner. No one can or should argue with that.

    Yet, there is an element of CA wine that my good friend has said is just too much. Now, I am not criticizing Sam in the least, but if you go back to the comments of 1WineDude about his friends who universally said much the same thing, their reactions are part of a pattern of generalizations that brand all CA wines and ignore the facts that there are hundreds of Napa Cabs and Sonoma Pinot Noirs and Sierra Foothill Zinfandels and cool-area Syrahs that are balanced, food friendly wines.

    I get not liking individual wines, but try putting CA Merlots in with the ripe wines coming from Bordeaux’ Right Bank or the dozens and dozens of balanced, acid-braced CA Chards in with the raft of hyphenated Montrachets or Corton Charlemagne and then let’s talk.

    That is when all this generalized condemnation of CA wine hits the cutting room floor–because it is based on a lack of knowledge and a lemming-like reaction to the category.

  10. Steve, you’re right. California makes great wine, and has a much more desirable climate, for growing red grapes, than Bordeaux.
    Moreover, one should never expect the same kind of wine from two such different places: California’s North Coast is at 38-39º latitude, has a Mediterranean climate, low relative humidity, a bone dry growing season and huge solar radiation levels (around 7,500Wh/day/m2); Bordeaux is at 44-45º latitude, has an oceanic climate, mid to high relative humidity, moderate early season rainfall, a significant amount of late season (around harvest) precipitation and solar radiation levels on the low side (6,000Wh/day/m2). Hence, the former will normally produce viscous, dense, high alcohol, low acid, big body reds, with a lot of fruit weight; and the latter will mostly deliver thin, low alcohol, high acid, good balance, food-friendly wines.
    It is silly to expect something different from both.
    When it comes to taste though (if there is any relevance to it), I tend to agree with Samuel Johnson, who claimed that “Port is for men; and Claret for the boys”.

  11. Amazing. Simply amazing. Two professionals (McCarthy and O’Connor) repeat the same overheated generalizations and fail to recognize that there are hundreds and hundreds of wines that are not low acid, viscous, cocktail wines being made in California. I can understand Samantha Dugan criticizing CA sparkling wine for not having whatever it is she likes in her favorite Champagnes, because she is quick to point out Champers with $50 price tags that do not either. I have a harder time when folks simply lump all CA wines into one narrow basket.

  12. Great comments Steve. California wines are the best in the world (and some of the worst). I think when you are the best, you come in for criticism of the type “1WineDude’s” friends evoke. If you are the best, then you are criticized. Just like the United States, despite all our flaws (or perhaps because of them), everyone in the world hates us and loves us. Bordeaux wineries rested on their laurels for years and are now playing catch up.

    As a disclaimer here, I used to be not only a wine snob, but a French wine snob. I started out drinking Bordeaux and then graduated to Burgundy and Rhone. When I first came to California, I would look at friends with shock (and pity) when they suggested I drink a “California wine.” “Heaven forbid! That’s swill!” I would proclaim. Then, I actually remember my first California wine – a very sneaky, tricky friend convinced me that this thing they called “Zinfandel” was only made in California and “it’s like the State grape!” she enthused… I tasted it and was hooked (of course in those days it was “the Zin,” a Ravenswood)…

    So, my point in all this rambling is that people should drink what they like, I still drink Bordeaux (when I can afford it), and Rhones, and Rioja, love some ot the wines coming from Sicily now, but primarily drink California wine (another disclaimer – I make wine in small lots in California and have for the past six years) because I love it. But to say you avoid California wines, I believe, is just ignorant and shows that one is ignorant about wine. If you don’t like it, don’t drink it, but don’t dictatorially (is that a word?) foist your tastes (or lack thereof) on everyone else…

    BTW – somewhat tongue in cheek: I think Samantha Dugan is a Euro wine snob! I mean that comment “Personally I almost never drink them…” C’mon! That reeks of snobdom! Then again, I love Zinfandels… But just think if I said “Bordeaux? personally I almost never drink them…” It just sounds like a Snob with a capital “S.” Third disclaimer: I do not know Ms. Dugan and her comments always seem very balanced until today!

  13. Sigh…because I don’t have a palate for them makes me a snob? See just as I was saying. I would never skewer California wines, they may not be to my taste but seeing as I respect that everyone has their own palate and preferences I would never presume to imply that mine is in some way superior….but here someone is lambasting my preferences and because they happen to be French I am a snob. Look I taste wines all day almost everyday, I work in a wine shop…in California, I just happen to prefer leaner wines with high acid and less primary fruit. How is that snobbery? Was it the word personally? Richard if you said you don’t prefer Bordeaux I would never imply that you were a California snob…hell, I don’t much care for Bordeaux either. I adore the Loire and Burgundy, light wines. I commented on this post to kind of speak up for those of us that might have a passion for French wine but would never look down our nose at any other region….and once again I get called a snob for it, perfect and kind of proves the point I was trying to make in the first place.

  14. Samantha, thanks for weighing in. I hear and respect you.

  15. Samantha,

    I agree with Steve. Sorry for my comment – it was meant tongue in cheek because you said because of your preference for French wine people called you a snob. I do not think you are a snob and your comments are always insightful and well said (much more so than mine!).

    This was sort of my point (which my obvious attempt at humor failed to relate) – because you do prefer French wines, you are called a “wine snob;” if I prefer California wines, I am a lesser snob, because of perceptions, at least in the U.S., that Europeans or any preference for European things gives one “affectations” of pretentiousness or being a snob. And this too applies to almost anyone in the U.S. who has an appreciation for wine and expresses it in an educated manner. Europeans, in general, have a greater appreciation for wine and for many countries, it is a part of their culture – they have grown up with it – not so the U.S. This is a generalization, of course, and many Americans have a great knowledge of and appreciation for wine. But, I am generalizing overall.

    In any event, you are most definitely not a wine snob Samantha and I apologize!

    Richard.

  16. Steve, thank you Sir, very kind of you to say.

    Richard,
    Dude, you like wrecked me for the whole three or so hours that I was pouting and “Not going back there to have people be mean to me when I am sort of agreeing”…um, think it is my poor husband that needs the apology, poor bastard had to listen to me rant/whine/pout….such a chick right?! Anyhow I appreciate you clearing things up and understanding my point….really does mean a lot.

  17. Mr Olken:
    I understand you have a hard time grasping some concepts from descriptive statistics like; normality, probability distributions, medians, means, tails, skewness, kurtosis…
    Of course there are exceptions to normality. But if you let nature take its course, in the vineyard and in the cellar, even in coolish regions like Carneros, Sonoma Coast, Russian River, Santa Maria, etc…, (perhaps with the exception of Northern Mendocino) good grapes (with adequate yields) will produce wines that are much denser, more viscous and higher in alcohol than in France; and particularly low in (tartaric) acid.
    You just have to look at “normal” mean maximum temperatures for September and October in most of California wine regions to understand that.

  18. Samantha, You Go Girl… Love it when you tango with the big boys.

  19. Steve,

    I agree that the consumer really doesn’t care about the “green” label. I think that if you are going to put the energy into a “Bio-dynamic, sustainable…. ect.” label it is more important that the grape vines, who are the on the receiving end of this labeling, know that you are running this program. It is important not just use to use these words as marketing tools. I worry that the “green” markers will mean even less as people brand them to their labels without any really application in the vineyard.

  20. Mr. O’Connor–

    Bunkum. I don’t judge wines by statistics. I judge wine by character.

    And, for your information, I worked twenty years as a professional economist before and during the first ten years of my winewriting career–so please stop with the “I know better than you nonsense”.

    You continue to deal with generalities. I deal with reality. It is the difference between seeing 9.7% unemployment as a measure of the US employment situation and seeing each unemployed individual as a unique case. I have one neighbor who was out of work for six weeks. I have a close friend who has been out of work for over a year, and at his age, may never have the chance to go back to work at the executive level he enjoyed for decades.

    You have forgotten that it is possible to make wines in southern Carneros along the Bay and get a very different result from the wines one gets back away from the Bay up in the hills and folds of northern Carneros. You have forgotten that the Russian River Valley runs from the Pacific Ocean to Healdsburg and up in the Chalk Hill AVA, and that the conditions at Freestone that allow high-acid, under 14% alcohol Chardonnays to be wonderful wines are not part of some average or median or tail or any other economic measure. They are the reality that is possible and is being achieved.

    So, when you generalize, you forget that individual wines are not generalizations. And, thus you drag the possibilities down with your overly broad generalization. That is what is wrong with the “all CA wine is dense ripe, thick, viscous, low in acidity” argument. It simply ignores reality.

  21. Mr. Olken:
    It really perplexes me, this deep, self-imposed prejudice against low acid red wines in California. Emile Peynaud in “Knowing and Making Wine” (Wiley; pg.89) asserts that “great red wines that show well are always supple, fat wines with low acidity; which is precisely what makes it difficult to produce them successfully”.
    Having said that, I will respectfully ask you to take a look at California’s, so-called cool wine regions, solar radiation and temperature historical data, and see for yourself that I am not giving you an opinion, or an analytic evaluation, like you are. I’m talking about official facts.
    Carneros has an average daily horizontal solar radiation of 7,300 Wj/day/m2, for the month of july; Santa Maria has 7,200; Lompoc-Santa Rita Hills, 7,250; Windsor-Chalk Hill, 7,450. Compared to 6,000 in Bordeaux and 5,680 in Chablis. But there are always exceptions (tails); vineyards with heavier, water-retentive clay soils and sub-soils, can retain tartaric acid in grapes longer.
    I could list dozens of statistical indicators that compare alcohol, acidity and tannin potential for these areas, but it seems easy enough to grasp intuitively that those are hugely different geographical/physical realities. Hence, tastes aside, it’s on the verge of comedy to compare the intrinsic structure of Californian wines with Bordeaux and Burgundy wines.
    It does not preclude, though, that (with some intervention in the vineyard and in the cellar) you make perfectly balanced red, even white wine, in a drier, warmer, sun-drenched Mediterranean climate.
    It was never my intent to evaluate any wine in particular. That’s your job, not mine. But I can assure you with almost statistical certainty, that the specific type of wine you described in your comments does not express California’s true vocation, and is certainly not what California can do best, on a consistent and competitive basis.

  22. Julie Crafton says:

    Steve,

    Really enjoyed your take today on the A.B.C (Anything But California) crowd – made me chuckle.

    I’m looking forward to the Green panel tomorrow at Spring Mountain; it should make for some very interesting discussion. I found one of the most relevant take-aways from the recent UCLA article to be the fact that there has yet to be a clear relationship drawn for the consumer between “green” vineyard practices, which often inherently mean more attention is being paid to the care of grapes, and wine quality. Of course, there is the question as to whether that relationship exists…I would argue it does.

    Would be interested to hear your take on this tomorrow.

  23. Julie, I’m not as sure as you that there’s a relationship between green growing practices and wine quality. But we’ll get into that tomorrow. Thanks.

  24. Samantha,

    Now I feel really bad. From this day forward, I vow not to make any blog comments ever again (for which, I am sure, Steve will be eternally grateful). I am sooooo sorry.

    Richard.

  25. Just shows to go that before you hit the “send” button in this age of the internet, read what you wrote 10 times and think very carefully.

  26. Richard,

    Awe kid, not to worry we are all good. Hell the HoseMaster calls me Drunky Skunky, Charlie Olken wishes ill will on my beloved Lakers and I still love them…a little snippy misunderstanding like this is nothing! My husband may still hate you but that is only because I interrupted hockey to stomp my little, “That guy isn’t playing nice” feet. Hell man you even got Steve to say he respected me and junk. Fist pump, hugs…I would high-five you but I simply don’t do that.

  27. The people I know that are anti Cali wines tend to be extreme douchebags. Just sayin. Can’t we all just drink some wine and quit bitching about where it came from? Good wine is good wine is good wine. I bet they hate Apple pie and baseball too. We like it all over at Basic-Wine-Info.com

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