It’s a funny time in the California wine industry. There’s a sense of becalmment, as if the industry were passively holding its breath or tiptoeing past a graveyard, unsure of what’s next, in a kind of dreamlike stupor.
Partly this is because of the Recession. It hit California hard, very hard, harder than most wineries are willing to admit. It almost feels like the industry has a case of post-traumatic stress disorder: it received the equivalent of a concussion from an explosive device, and is in that stage where it’s feeling its limbs and head, probing its body, checking for open wounds, to determine the extent of the injury.
The industry has become conservative. I don’t mean politically, I mean dynamically. You don’t feel the great rush of excitement that swept things along from the 1970s-1990s. People don’t want to fix something that isn’t broken–they don’t want to take too many chances, so they stick to the same old same old varieties, tinkering around the edges to push quality, but for the most part, stuck in a rut. Here and there, a few vintners, mostly young ones, are playing with “alternative varieties” (a loathesome term), but they’re outliers, the exceptions to the rule.
Am I wrong? Name a few really exciting things happening in California. Are alcohol levels dropping? That’s been the big buzz this year. It may well be true, but it may well not be. Years will have to go by before we know if it’s a permanent change. And even if alcohol does notch downward, what’s the big deal? The fevered speculation that’s accompanied something that may not even be real, moreover, is evidence of an ennui in the industry, not to mention the media. With so little actual news to report, the wine media (we) have become the equivalent of the Washington, D.C. press corps, reporting on rumors, gossip, anecdotes. We need something to write about, so we drum up issues and then get all excited about debating them.
But this isn’t about the wine media, it’s about the industry. Maybe it was inevitable that it would enter a period of retrenchment, after the heady decades that followed the boutique explosion of the 1960s. That kind of momentum probably never could have been kept up. Even without the Recession, I suspect California would have become a more cautious place. If you look back at the period 2000-2010, did anything major happen? Yes, we had the rise of social media, which has provided many of us with interesting fodder for columns. But that had little or nothing to do with the wine industry itself–at least, it had little to do with the wine-side of the industry. It may have had a great deal to do with the marketing side of the industry. But I’m talking here about the wine side.
Of course, paralleling this curious passivity is another phenomenon: the owners of the older boutique wineries are passing from the scene, and their children are slowly but surely taking over. Will they bring change? Will they re-inject that sense of excitement and breakthrough their parents experienced? It’s difficult to say right now; I’ve tried to peer into the future and it’s cloudy. The children may turn in a conservative way, anxious to protect the family legacy and not upset longstanding tradition. We’ve seen this in Old Europe over the centuries. There have been very few tradition busters there, and when they do pop up, they’re celebrated as eccentrics and rebels, not the mainstream. Are there any rebels in California of importance? I can’t think of one. (Randall Grahm ceased to be a rebel years ago, with all due respect.) Everyone is just sort of in orbit around the center of gravity, which is the status quo. Some get touted for one thing or another (no new oak, alcohol below 14%, no malolactic fermentation, whole cluster fermentation, exaggerated forms of racking), but these are just variations on old themes.
From my immediate point of view, the wines continue to get better and better, which makes my job all the more pleasant. But taking a long viewpoint that encompasses decades if not centuries, I see a broad era coming to an end. That era extended from the founding of the California industry in the 19th century up until the boutiques and the international acclaim of California wine. With the coming of the Millennium, something has changed. It’s hard to define history when you’re in the middle of it, but I hope that what’s happening now is not stagnation, but simply California hunkering down, brooding in silent self-reflection, planning its next big move.