Have I developed a California palate?
I started my tasting diary on Feb. 16, 1983. I’d been seriously getting into wine the previous four years, and, infatuated with Michael Broadbent’s Great Vintage Wine Book, decided that, like him, I’d keep track of every wine I had. I even removed the labels and pasted them in the diary.
The first wine in Book One of my diary was a 1981 Morgon Beaujolais from Georges Duboeuf. It cost $6. I called it “delightful.” The second wine was from the following night. It was a Macon-Villages, also 1981, and it set me back all of $4. It was all right; I said it was a “good Chinese food wine.” The third wine was Kenwood’s 1980 Vintage Red Cabernet Sauvignon ($3.50). Kenwood’s basic Red and White wines were staples of the Heimoff household for a good part of the 1980s.
The fourth wine brings us to Germany: an off-dry 1980 Bernkastler Badstube, from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer ($3.99). I drank it with a cheese omelot. The fifth wine (and the fifth in as many days–I was basically a bottle-a-day man back then) also was German: 1981 Erben Kabinett, from the fine producer, Langguth, in the Rheinhessen. It cost $4. Number six brought me back to France, a 1979 Domaine d’Ormesson. For $3, it was another house favorite of mine. Here are numbers 7 through 10:
1979 Kirchheimer Romerstrasse Riesling Kabinett, trocken (price not recorded)
1979 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay ($12, pricy)
1976 Chateau Beauregard, Saint-Julien ($5)
1976 Wine and the People Zinfandel, Sonoma ($10)
I engage in this stroll down memory lane because I find it remarkable how catholic (with a small “c”) my drinking was back then. You will find in that tasting diary wines from all over the world, in every price bracket: Yquem and Leoville-Las-Cases at the higher end, cheap little regional wines at the low.
I tasted even more broadly throughout the later 1980s and into the early 1990s, after I began writing about wine and getting invited to events at which the great wines of the world were opened for me, including First Growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundy. But when Wine Enthusiast asked me to be their California reviewer, I found that I no longer had the time to indulge in worldwide tasting, swamped as I was with Cali wines. That remains the situation today. I try to get out to international tastings, and occasionally I’ll pull an older bottle of something Italian or French from my [small] wine cellar. But I’ll be the first to admit that my tasting is 98% California these days.
We all taste with the palate we have, which is not necessarily the palate we might want (to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld from a different context), so I suppose it’s no use lamenting that I might have developed a California palate over the years. If I have, so be it. Such a palate might be described as favoring full-bodied, higher-alcohol wines with overtly sweet, ripe fruit and, often, a generous cloak of new oak. One can say such wines trade finesse for power, elegance for audacity, subtlety for sheer razzle dazzle. Still, within this context one still can find enough distinctions of finesse, elegance and subtlety to make comparative judgments. Let us consider two Cabernet Sauvignons: Araujo 2007 Eisele Vineyard and Mockingbird 2007 Red Label. Both are expensive; both are from Napa Valley. Both have vast concentrations of sweet black fruits, but the former has impeccable structure and dryness, while the latter lacks it. I could see a Bordeauxphile trying both wines and objecting that both are candied and unbalanced. However, I am not a Bordeauxphile, and to my palate there is a big difference between these two wines, similar as they are to each other.
Does my California palate mean I can’t appreciate a good, dry Bordeaux? I don’t think so. But I will admit that when I taste Bordeaux (for example, at the annual Union des Grands Crus event in San Francisco), I often find it too austere and earthy for me; and when a Bordeaux does appeal to me, it’s because it’s Californian in style. This isn’t to say I think that California Cabernet Sauvignon is objectively better than Bordeaux. It’s just my taste. But it puzzles and annoys me when somebody says Bordeaux is objectively better than California Cabernet Sauvignon. Why do they have to make it a contest? Two different wines, two different kinds of people. Something for everyone.
When all’s said and done, I do worry that I’ve developed a California palate, but like I said earlier, there’s nothing to be done about it. Besides, it would be bizarre indeed if I–a California wine critic–didn’t care for California wine. I like it a lot, but, as a final note, I will concede (sadly) that too much California wine, red and white, is too sweet. I like sweet fruit, but I loathe a table wine that should finish dry but doesn’t. (I loathe an unripe wine, too.) That’s the risk of making wine in sunny California. The brix gets carried away. Too many winemakers either allow it to happen and don’t know or care, or else they think they’re catering to a consumer who likes soda-poppy wines. I don’t.