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California dreaming?

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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.

  1. Most of today’s wineries are the progeny of the pen, Steve.
    Better to homogenize than to be out of favor with the scribes.
    Back when all we had were the likes of Bob Balzer, Nate Chroman, Bob Thompson and Fred Cherry, our world was new and our winemakers, fearless. Some of us still are.

    BTW, why is it called “stagnation” in California and “tradition” in France?

  2. With respect, the bubble we live in is not the real world, and the rest of the US is still experiencing the excitement of discovery, the wonder of finding that wine goes well with life in every aspect. Travel much on market visits, or to attend festivals and events (now common in every nook and cranny) and things that are common to us are decidedly uncommon to that foreign land known as America. And what happened in the last decade on the winemaking side? Tremendous advances in vineyard practices, with lots of vineyards first planted in the late 70′s and early 80′s being replanted with greater understanding and more finesse. An astonishing appreciation and embrace of sustainability and all its practices, in every dimension. On the one hand, new understanding about techniques like micro-Ox and oak alternatives, and a return to tradition for higher end wines that can support winemaking at that level. The most important thing: nearly all wines well made, and becoming more accessible. An incredibly diverse landscape thanks to greater availability of and appreciation for wines from other world regions. Change is all around us, sometimes we just can’t see it. And sometimes, when something can be appreciated, and is, that’s not stagnation, that’s quiet satisfaction.

  3. Steve- There is so much excitement in CA right now- You’ve got to look harder, and under different rocks.

  4. Are you kidding me? To paraphrase Radiohead, in a stash of bio-char and seedlings, Randall Grahm has been born again. The idea (and economics) of planting a vineyard from seeds, which is what Randall is doing out in San Juan Bautista . . . utterly crazy & genius & ancient all at once. Working bio-char into the soil to aid water retention = fascinating and as far as I’m aware, untried in the history of California viticulture.

    Another couple of California winemakers, Pax Mahle and Wells Guthrie, are modern-day poets with wine as their medium. Take Wells, for example: bails on the higher-alc wines that earned him rave reviews for a more nuanced, balanced, food-friendly, and ageable finished product; grafts over acres of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir to Trousseau and other less-profitable grapes; travels non-stop around the country promoting not Copain wines qua Copain wines, but Copain wines as half of a great meal, where the pairing of the food with the right wine is the ultimate goal, as opposed to some 97 point rating for said wine in a foodless vacuum. Not to mention Wells’s committment to his lower-priced offerings (Tous & Voisins). As for Pax, over the past 4-5 years he’s been a leader (stateside) in the experimentation of concrete egg fermentors, extended skin contact for white wines, orangey-white wines, and supremely low alc Syrahs (12.1% and slamming is that 2008 Wind Gap Sonoma Coast Syrah).

    What about Alex Davis at Porter Creek (whose vineyards you wrote so eloquently about in your RRV book a couple of years ago), ripping up a hillside of underproducing vines, and planting the vineyard to a bizarre mix of peas and other plants for a year to give the land a chance to rest? (The pictures I have are awesome; plants are chest-high). Most other producers would have not let 2 weeks pass before re-planting the vines that’d been pulled. What about the trend towards wine in kegs? The trend towards insectaries as a staple of the vineyard? How about Red Car’s resurgence, taking their 14+%, 97-point Wine Spectator rating for their 07s and coming back with 12-13% wines from the same sites the next year? What about the incredible wines from Scherrer, Red Car, and others coming out of the Platt Vineyard, the new Vosne Romanee of Bodega? What about David Ramey making, of all things, Pinot Noir????? What about the trend towards extended-ageing of Syrahs, resulting in some incredible wines from Red Car, Donelan, Radio-Coteau, Agharta, and others?

    Or the likes of Radio-Coteau who have been and are continuing to stand firm in their commitment to make wines with no additions of water, acid, enzymes, color, tannins, or any other “mother’s little helper”, or velcorin, or cross-filtering, or RO, and are insisting that the vintage character show through along with the vineyard’s signature?

    What about the incredible Chardonnays coming from Hirsch Vineyards, which are fermented in a labor-intesive fashion (some in glass, some in steel, some in wood, then blended together), yielding wines that seem to stand up vertically on the palate in this layered but intensely focused fashion (esp. the 06 & 07 & in time, the 09)? Not to mention the new Pinot Noir bottlings they’ve been coming out with and are continuing to explore from the site?

    What about the likes of Ceritas, who are making Grand Cru-level Chardonnays, from renowned sites, with full on malo, but with little or no new oak and very low alcs? Or the new, extremely age-worthy Pinots from Benovia?

    I think there’s a lot of exciting things happening, my man.

  5. Interesting question you pose. Part of the answer is Agriculture and Real Estate. You could quibble that these factors are more about the industry than its end product, but the two are impossible to separate. The trends of the ’00 decade, and beyond, are rooted in ownership of the vineyards, and to a modest extent, the degree to which a segment of the consuming public cares. Plus, one could argue, the geographical distinction between California and the rest of the West Coast is disappearing (thank you, Climate Change and water policy?) – with the “region” extending from Baja on up through Oregon and Washington. So, two examples: First, the romance of the wine estate was marketed to the newly wealthy/second careerists/vinophiles, who either bought existing vineyards (or subdivisions thereof), or bought other ag land (e.g., in Sonoma, Mendocino, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Solano Counties, not to mention Willamette Valley) and developed new vineyards. Even the Real Estate Investment Trust became a tool for vineyard ownership. The recession slowed the trend, evidenced by the uptick in estate winery bankruptcies. Nonetheless, you can think of this trend as the proliferation of small vineyards. Second, there’s the buzz around sustainability. One may dare to hope that this trend is real, i.e., that growers and makers are serious, and consumers are, too. Here, California leads. The choices about what varietals to grow (by weekend farmers, their professional managers and/or bankruptcy trustees) and how the resulting wines are packaged (issues of closures and non-bottle containers) all have impacted the variety and character of California wines 2000-2010.

  6. Perhaps it is the press that has grown stagnant and in need of an infusion of excitement. The recession has indeed hit many of us hard and made the channels through which we sell our wines a bit narrower or disappear altogether, but when doors close others open.

    Ultimately, wineries still must be financially sustainable to try the new and exciting things they are doing. Many wineries I know are looking at ways to reinvigorate themselves. Consumers will ultimately be the arbiter of changes in the business but wineries must find a better way to connect with their customers. I think it is an amazing time in the business and I embrace the changes that will come.

    As the tools that allow us to connect with consumers become easier to use and incorporate and consumers become more savvy and better educated it is those that innovate that will capture those consumers. Wine quality has never been higher and competition has never been fiercer, but those that stay true to their beliefs, make excellent wine, and connect with their customers will be the winners.

  7. What I find most amazing about the industry today as a newcomer, sort of, is that I can travel to the east coast and a buyer will tell me about the climate in my vineyard, like I have never been there! Come on press, help us out a bit, instead of generalizing our growing areas, visit these places and inform the public in a more educational way. There’s more to a vineyard than warm and cool.

  8. David Cole says:

    WOW! I find that the times are so exciting right now in California wines. There are so many great wines being produced, new blends, new brands and personalities. Yet if you look in the publications, it’s the “same old some old”. Many of the “Old guard” have become friends of the writers, so they get the nice spreads. The other thing in the publications is that other countries are paying for large ads and getting write ups to reward those payments. So it may appear as if California isn’t doing things new, be we always find a way to make it.

    Come taste and meet some of the small California producers and you’ll be amazed at the wines you’ll drink, the personalities and the new trends that we are setting!

  9. Even in my limited experience, I think there are lots of exciting things happening in the wine industry. But I’m not finding much new, exciting stuff in the traditional rags. I love wine, so I still enjoy reading the magazines. The new stuff seems to be coming from the blogs.

    I’ve seen a similar trend in the guitar world. The traditional rags like Guitar Player and Guitar World seem to re-hash the same old, tired stuff, with the same artists being featured in their mags. But at least they’re now trying to establish a better online presence to compete with blogs like my own GuitarGear.org.

    Interestingly enough, after a visit to one of the major guitar mags, I realized that there’s almost a fear of coloring outside the lines with the traditional mags. They’ve assumed that their readers expect certain things, but their readers want more. Perhaps that’s what’s happening in the wine media. Luckily for us though, Steve, you write this blog where we get a better sense of “you.”

    I don’t know if I’m way off base here, but perhaps it’s the wine industry media that has to make a change.

  10. Brendan, I have to disagree with you. The reason the bloggers are excited is because they’re new to all this. Their excitement is personal and understandable, and it’s nice that it’s exciting others. But it doesn’t follow that there are exciting things actually happening in the industry.

  11. Let’s face it. Over the years, CA has become increasingly “defined”. There are not as many new areas proving themselves or as many radical changes in winemaking or in varieties.

    The Rhone Revolution is now two decades old. And while much of the excitement today still has to do with Rhone blends and the potential for Grenache and Rhone whites.

    Everything else is in slow motion, as often happens when planting slows down to a mere trickle and winery formation becomes just as slow.

    So, yes, things are far less dramatic because the pace of change has slowed. It was inevitable, of course. It is not a new phenomenon. It is a repeating phenomenon.

    There is change of course. That is also a repeating phenomenon. Will Tempranillo emerge? What about all the other lesser varieties? Does their slow but noticeable increases signal a trend or just a blip on a slow radar screen?

    But, the bottom line is this. CA is now a middle-aged place. Change will no longer come at the same pace it did in earlier times.

  12. Charlie, we’re on the same page as usual!

  13. Steve- What would excite you?

  14. Great question. I am going to take a small stab at it for myself. I hope that you will do likewise Steve. Just a few ideas for things that would be eye-opening.

  15. David Rossi says:

    I find it hard to argue against your premise and find that those comments above that try to are talking about individual producers as opposed to the macro California view. The wine “goldrush” is over in California and what we see is a bigger, better, and more mature industry. The excitement comes from consumer trends of American’s drinking more wine, channel conflicts with direct shipping, other states building more and more wineries, and emerging countries in the wine biz(China, India). While California is affected by these trends it doesn’t drive the trend.

    I guess the saving grace is that at least we aren’t grubbing up thousand of acres of vineyards like France or watching a collapse like in Austalia.

    I guess we have to look towards those individual stories for the excitement.

  16. Do you think corporations are another big reason why things are more conservative, Steve? Most large wineries, from what I’ve noticed, are owned by corporations these days. Those are also the wineries with the majority of shelf space in grocery stores and discount beverage stores.

    We all know corporations don’t take a lot of risks. Consistency is the ideal, even more so I think in food and beverage. I would assume these big companies would prefer to keep things the way they are, at least until their sales start declining. They’re probably more than happy to watch the small independent wineries experiment and then jump in when they notice something is becoming more than just a trend.

  17. I just tasted through some Cal-Itals that didn’t make me cringe at the thought of it – and they actually blew me away. As a buyer my experiences never stop illuminating me. What is interesting to me is that as a self-professed lover of Old World wines, I have never been more attracted to California wines as I have now (I find myself choking on those words as I type them). Sure, bloggers who don’t have much industry experience are going to exhibit more excitement because as with anything new, it is going to be (hopefully) an exhilirating experience. And we need that neophyte perspective in order to keep us more savvy wine geeks from getting jaded and snobbish. The winemakers I talk to from California seem to be enjoying themselves more, and are daring to push the envelope a bit more. I can see your point of view Steve, because it is so easy to take the industry for granted. Innovation is out there. Change is out there. Excitement is out there. Like Hardy said, you gotta look for it.

  18. k2, I guess it’s a matter of degrees. If “you gotta look” for change, then it seems to me it’s pretty subtle change. Large change washes over the landscape like a tidal wave; you don’t have to look for it because it’s all around you. I think Charlie Olken got it right: The California wine industry now is middle aged. It doesn’t move as quickly or as energetically as it used to. That’s not a criticism, and if you re-read my post, I said that I hope California’s greatest days are ahead. I just believe we should recognize that one era has ended and we’re now embarking on a new one.

  19. Brian, corporations are funny birds. Granted, they’re loathe to take risks. But on the other hand, they’re very good at figuring out ways to beat the competition, so if they believe taking a risk will increase profits, they will. But overall, you’re right: the small independent wineries are where most innovation occurs.

  20. Hardy, I don’t know. If I could predict what would excite me, it probably wouldn’t. That’s the thing about excitement: it comes out of nowhere and blows you away. If I really let my imagination run amok, it would be exciting if wine in America reached a whole new level of popularity following the Recession. That might spark real innovation and creativity. But I don’t see it happening.

  21. Steve, regarding your response Hardy, wouldn’t wine journalists such as you have influence helping to create some excitement, such as a commentary on what would be exciting. Not saying that you predict would be exciting for you, but I suppose for lack of a better term, use your imagination in what would infuse some excitement in the industry; come up with a “wish list” of sorts.

  22. Brendan: Hmmm…..

  23. Come on, Steve. I started with a few items on my own. List a few. It does not have to be long, but there are things that could happen, or that you wish would happen, that would have a high excitement quotient.

  24. John Roberts says:

    I agree with Mr. Dawson above. There’s a lot of excitement and risk, and creativity and humility. I think the world you are describing is Napa Valley. Napa is becoming the convalescent high-end ward of the wine world. Young new-comers are priced out and land is scarce where the land and it’s name are sacred. The aristocratic and their imitators, that is who is successful there and as you said, there’s little room for risk. Sonoma Coast is exciting, Syrah is exciting, and there was always be rock star wine-makers and earthly wines.

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