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Are California wine’s glory days a thing of the past?

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Reading Men’s magazine’s list of the “Top 10 up-and-coming wine regions” and not seeing California on the list made me think, “Holy cow! California is no longer a new wine region but an old one!”

It startled me. I’m so used to thinking of everything in California as new: new cities, new citizens, new suburbs, new malls, new parks, new restaurants, new roads, new martini recipes, new ethnic cuisines, new ways of organizing society–the state itself is a State of Mind of Newness in all its exciting configurations, and has been for 150 years.

But California, evidently, is no longer considered a new wine region. Old, old, old! It’s the expletive word of American demographics. Nobody wants to be old in a youth-oriented culture, least of all a wine region whose appeal always has been that it is the refreshing alternative to stale Old Europe.

Can it be true? Is California really (what’s the opposite of up-and-coming?) a down-and-going wine region?

Let’s consider the facts. California’s wine industry dates from roughly the middle of the nineteenth century. (I know purists will argue it’s older than that, but the point is moot.) From that perspective, it’s one of the newer wine regions, compared certainly to Europe. But really, California as an important and emerging wine region dates only to the 1960s and 1970s, when the boutique winery movement began. So California’s wine region really is as new as a freshly minted coin–certainly far younger than Austria, South and South West France, Portugal, Galicia, Jerez and Italy, all of which appear on the Men’s magazine list.

Even Israel, Argentina, South Africa and Chile are certainly no newer than California, in terms of a wine industry. So we have to ask the question from a different perspective: When Men’s refers to “up-and-coming” wine regions, they must be doing so reputationally, not historically. In other words, Men’s is suggesting that California has become a little boring, while these other regions are exciting.

Why would Men’s come to this conclusion? Let’s dig. The editor of the piece, Paul Casciato, is an editor for Reuters, the British news agency. He is a Brit. The English long have had “airs” against the California wine industry. Paul’s specific title is Lifestyle Editor. He covered, for instance, last Spring’s Royal Wedding of Wills and Kate, and has written about the decreasing weight of ladies’ handbags and how middle-aged people “are the most likely to look for love online,” so we can conclude that he is not a serious wine journalist.

This is not to imply that the ten regions on Paul’s list do not produce excellent wine. But readers should understand a possible back story here, which is that publishers and editors love asking their writers to come up with Top Ten lists. They do it all the time. (Just look at a women’s magazine, like Oprah.) Readers love Top Ten lists (or, at least, the publishers and editors think they do). Crafting a Top Ten list isn’t hard. You can make a game out of it, like the old Mad Libs word game:

First, write a sentence that begins: “Here are the Ten…

Then choose an adjective: sexiest, ugliest, most expensive, weirdest, worst, best, likeliest, stupidest, oldest, rarest, most fun, most unusual, cheapest, funniest, most shocking…etc.

followed by a noun [singular or collective]: wines, travel destinations, places to live, fashion accessories, colleges, sports, cities, politicians, breakfast foods, tropical resorts, talk show hosts, wine writers…etc.

Then make an arbitrary headline: HERE ARE THE TEN UGLIEST TALK SHOW HOSTS or HERE ARE THE TEN STUPIDEST WINE WRITERS, and bingo! You’ve got a cover story in Men’s magazine!

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head when you guessed “up and coming” meant in terms of reputation and growing quantities of wine sold. I doubt the writer considers California “boring,” though — more likely “established.” I appreciate your blog very much. Thanks!

  2. Ah, but the Top Ten Ugliest AND Stupidest Wine Writers would be quite a list! :)

  3. p.s. – I don’t think CA’s days of glory are in the past; we just need to point out (more often probably) those producers who are doing the more exciting things. Matthiasson’s white wine is a great example, and if Hourglass ever does anything substantial with the Mablec they’ve got it will be quite an exciting treat…

  4. Glory chiefly comes from the media. They need something to write about, talk about, or video. They are always looking for something new, a story that they think no one has heard. So, you’ve got a better chance of getting a write up if you are a new winery, a young winemaker, a new wine region. The stories are much the same, just the names seem to change. No surprise California isn’t on the list. What writer would be so unimaginative to put California on the top of the list?

    We (California)had our day as the new kid on the block, took no effort to gain the spotlight. It will be someone else’s turn unless we keep renewing and re-inventing ourselves. Given most of the new stories seem to be the same old stories re-cycled with new names, it shouldn’t be too hard to keep the spotlight with a little creativity and some “new” stories.

  5. In real estate it’s location, location, location; in journalism it (should be) context, context context. Thanks for your work in providing some of that context for your readers.

  6. @Morton: “…media… need something to write about, talk about…” You have hit the nail on the head, sir! Pity the writer, staring at his computer screen, deadline looming for 1,500 words in a couple of days and nothing – nothing! – coming to mind. He pages through the hundred press releases in his file, says to self: “hmmm… never heard of this wine region, or this, or this… AHA! I can do another “Top 10 Up-And-Coming” piece! SAVED!”

    Lately the moment I see a “Top 10″ article or one with “up-and-coming” in the title my eyes glaze over until I have skipped to the next piece. If I see too many of these in a publication I don’t renew my subscription. When I see a related headline that is sufficiently ugly and/or stupid, I cancel.

    Unless it’s Cosmo, and the title is “Top 10 Up-And-Coming Things Your Man Wants You To Do To Him.” That’s at least good for a laugh. Come to think of it though, haven’t seen as many of these since Tina Brown left. How soon before we see a “Top 10 Up-And-Coming” from Newsweek?

  7. Regionalism would be on my top 5 most interesting regions. That young generations are gravitating towards a connection with the things they buy, and you can get that in Napa, Burgundy, Paso, or Walla Walla. California is more exciting than ever given the diversity Steve pointed out. It’s in our blood.

  8. I share your disdain for Top 10 lists, and this one appears to be as arbitrary as any. However, I would like to point out that the list was made by Brian Freedman, a Philadelphia-based writer, and Paul Casciato appears not to have changed a word in picking it up and putting it on the Reuters wire. Is Freedman a “serious wine journalist”? Hmm. Isn’t that phrase an oxymoron?

    The piece on the askmen.com site: http://bit.ly/vI4tzF
    Freedman bio: http://www.brianfreedmanphiladelphia.com/bio.php

  9. What if the California wine scene no longer seems exciting? What if the reputation is being shaped by high alcohol, low acid, monolithic wines?
    I think there is good reason to reevaluate the wine scene in California. After all, just how much flabby Chardonnay and alcoholic Cab. Sauv. do we need? More thoughts should be given to the Mediterranean grape varieties better suited to the growing conditions . Not only would they create more excitement among wine drinkers, particularly the younger ones, it also might actually make better wines! Obviously certain producers are already thinking along these lines. This is why the internal debate is already taking place. This article just confirms the need for it.

  10. The absurdity of this list may not have a limit. Italy, Portugal, Southwest France? Emerging? I need a new definition for “emerging”. One wonders what those who lived the good life during the Italian Republic would think of this list.

  11. I think it is clear some of these regions are producing wines that put a ‘fresh face’ on value, alternative varieties, or both. There are hundreds of options out there and marketing and PR initiatives (especially from within the eurozone)and SA are everywhere. Likely, as pointed out, a lifestyle writer is looking for an angle different than you would look for, Steve. You identify ‘up and coming’ new producers within the boundries of the ‘established’ region all of the time.

  12. Tom: in fairness to the writer, the list was “up-and-coming,” not “emerging.” But you’re right: either way, it’s pretty dumb.

  13. It’s a pretty stupid list because seven of the ten items on that list are not regions, but countries that contain many regions each. In the case of Argentina, for example, why not list Salta or Rio Negro instead of the whole country. Seems like lazy writing to me. The explanation that the author is a Lifestyle Editor makes a lot of perverse sense.

  14. California being excluded from the list just means they are proven (tried and true). That is not a bad thing considering that the U.S. is a newbie in the wine world.

  15. Filing the exclusion under the tried and true is simply a refusal to consider that the winds have changed and that the more savvy and educated American wine drinkers are now looking for more. There certainly are excellent wines produced, but the stereotype that defines the industry, especially outside the country, is no longer necessarily favorable!

  16. Morten, I guess that’s one way of looking at it!

  17. Steve,
    I think you’re giving too much credibility to…yawn….just another top 10 list.
    They missed a lot of areas, like Georgia, Jura, Savoie, jeez..even Slovenia.
    I would say over the last few yrs, as young winemakers pick up the craft, some really exciting new wines are showing up. Skin contact whites and orange wines are a whole pretty much unexplored genre. The way Lodi has embraced Iberian varieties is exciting to watch. The Friulian movement led by Matthiasson/Vare/Massican/Ryme/ForlornHope/ArbreGarbe and others. Exciting things being done w/ Nebbiolo. A lot of interest in more obscure varieties…like MattRorick’s StLaurent. Jeez….they oughta be planting Lacrima di Morro d’Alba all up and down the NapaVlly. MtVeeder Mondeuse. Some of the focus on lower-alcohol/more restrained wines.
    These are very/very exciting times for Calif wines and it’s fun to be a keen observer of the things going on these days. So Calif didn’t make this Top10 list. BFD as we say in Kansas.
    Tom

  18. TomHill, thanks for the input!

  19. I think it is fair to say that California has established itself as a legitimate wine region on the world stage, and so I can understand omitting it in an “up and coming” list–in many ways it has joined the “establishment” along with Bordeaux, Burgundy, Piemonte, Tuscany, etc. The California wine regions have started to mature and have formalized an internationally recognized style. It may be recent, but California has arrived. Given that, there is a new wave of “up-and-coming” producers within California that are exploring different expressions of our terroir and different winemaking techniques (Tom Hill mentioned some great examples). Wines are being made that reflect our terroir in totally different ways, and it’s truly just the tip of the iceberg. Many new winemakers are throwing out the conventional wisdom and exploring the possibilities. I think the reputation of California will be very different in a few years. It will hopefully be recognized for the diversity of it’s wine regions and styles. I say “hopefully,” because it really depends on the courage and innovation of the producers to push the limits of our incredible potential.

  20. Brad Alderson says:

    Look at the wine and food magazines in the US and see how often or more numerous wines from anywhere but California are the focus. California too many wines from California are too commercial or too overpriced or too over ripe. We do have values but they are from regions that are off the radar.

    Brad

  21. Awesome comments from Tom Hill, Steve Matthiasson, and Brad! I would just add to Steve M’s comment that we also need consumers and critics with courage who will spread the word.

  22. As far as glib top-10 lists go, this one is pretty good. It’s highlighting regions that have not been assimilated into the wine magazine marketing bonanza. Because let’s face it, wine magazines are selling a lifestyle as much as wine. Even Wine Enthusiast; it’s just their lifestyle correlates to $40-$50 bottles. WA and WS sell a $100-$500 bottle lifestyle.

    How do you turn wine grown on the Austria-Italy border into a lifestyle? Or the Douro? You don’t. I think the article would better be titled “Wine Regions That Do Not Fit The Wine Media’s Narrative But Are Gaining Market Share Based on Quality Instead of Glam Marketing.” But that would not do, of course.

    CA wine has lots of interesting things going on in the coastal regions. But the glam lifestyle image pitched by Napa is still the hegemonic perspective. When you try to follow the Bordeaux approach, you naturally cannot be hip. You become a profit/image machine.

  23. ah, but who really reads Men’s mag – or really cares…

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