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There’s no danger in bashing California wines, which is why people do it


A few days go I blogged that there’s a certain sameness to much of California wine–the same top 5 or 6 varieties, made in the same style–and I was willing to take some of the blame, as a critic who bears some responsibility for what people drink.

Then a reader who identified himself as Blovinum commented, “I agree to you that America and much of the world is a homogenized society (so in wine) and 2nd. I agree to the statement that you as a critic is in a part responsible for that fact. But man himself is the reason why there is, like I call it, a ‘Coca-Cola taste’. Everyday, everytime the same preferences, whatever it is. Most of us behave like a cattle in a flock. No individuality, no self-confidence in the own sense of taste and no courage to discover ‘new land’.”

I replied, “Dear Blovinum, I completely agree with your analysis of humanity! It seems to be in our genes to obey the herd mentality. I’m sure there are solid reasons of survival for banding together, as opposed to each of us going our own way. If you’re out there on the edge of the crowd, it’s easier to get picked off by a hungry wolf.”

The reason this is such an interesting point is because it has to do with this ongoing discussion in the wine community about wine style. You know the outlines: On the one side are those who like lower alcohol European wines that, they say, show terroir, while on the other side are those who enjoy the big, rich, fat California style of high alcohol and fruit, which makes (some say) all wines taste more or less alike, at the expense of terroir.

Now, I don’t know any fans of the California style who bash European wines as being too thin–I certainly don’t. The bashing seems to be one-way only, from the Europhiles. I’ve written plenty about this, so I don’t want to reprise the whole megillah again. But I do want to take a deeper look at why so many people around the world love the California style–and why a tiny minority doesn’t.

We humans do have it programmed within us to behave like what Blovinum calls “cattle in a flock,” and for the reason I stated. Our ancestors were smart, but they also were physically slow and weak. That made them vulnerable to predators, like saber-toothed tigers and wolves. They learned consequently to stick together, like antelope on the plains of Africa, to better protect themselves from being eaten.

That’s one reason for the herd mentality: People in general don’t like to stick out. The nail that sticks out gets hammered down, as the old saying goes. There’s something else: Humans have a sweet tooth. Chimps use twigs as tools to dig honey out of a hive. Sugar tastes good, of course, but the reason Mother Nature made it taste good is because sugar in its various forms is necessary for brain function. Sugar tastes good for the same reason sex feels good. Both are necessary for the species’ survival.

So if you add the herd mentality to this fondness for sugar, you have a lot of people who find a rich, fruity, slighty sweet California wine delicious. Including me.

That explains why wines the world over have been getting riper: Once advances in viticulture and enology made it possible, it only made sense for winemakers to produce wines that appeal to these built-in tastes. It’s a wonder that wine has been as popular as it was over the course of thousands of years of human culture, when so much of it must have been brutal, nasty stuff. That’s why the Greeks and Romans so often sweetened it with honey or resin. People drank wine even though it didn’t taste very good because they enjoyed its psychedelic effects.

What this explanation doesn’t fully account for is the violence with which the anti-California crowd attacks our wines. This gets us back to those iconoclasts who fancy themselves as refusing to go along with the common herd. They see themselves as independent minds, going against the tide of popular taste, ardent defenders of ancient values against a mindless rabble. They are, in other words, on the edge of the crowd. That’s no longer a dangerous place to be; there’s little risk of a wolf picking you off if you bash California wine.

  1. Steve,

    instead of wine think of sweets/candies and those pastries a la snacks. There is a big difference between the candies made in europe and the candies made in the “new world” (USA included). Wanna guess what the difference is?

    A very high sugar and salt content. This very high proportion of salt and sugar makes the taste buds to lose their total discerning capacity. They (we) get lazy to feel all the possible great tastes these sweets have. Want more? Food. Specially in the american food the excess of gravy, fat, salt and sugar twist and hide flavors that could be previously identified and enjoyed more.

    Damn, even the coffee in the USA (yeah!) needs to be loaded with artificial aromas. Try to sell the real deal and you’re out of business.

    Far from saying the european food, wine and candies are perfect a greater number of candies, wines, food offer more taste than their new world (USA heavily included) counterparts.

    As a world citizen and wine dealer and lover i suffer when i see my customers, friends and relatives can’t grasp the awesomeness of a decent chianti, a barolo, a nice red ribera, a pinot from bourgogne or a just good bordeaux.

    For them the wine world is just a fruity alcoholic oaky bomb, poorly made. Everything else is plain or dull.

  2. And all of a sudden I hear Mary Poppins, “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”….

  3. Carlos, you have some preconceptions about America. It’s a huge country. We have a lot of crappy food and candy, and yes, a lot of Americans eat horribly. But America also has some of the best food in the world. One just has to choose carefully.

  4. Steve, i like trader joe´s and whole foods and so do most of my friends. But 95% of the country eats at kmart, taco bell, etc. etc. It’s not prejudice, just statistics.

    I always defend the thesis that given the same environmental conditions people anywhere will behave the same way. The excess of consumerism can be seen all over where people get cheap/easy credit. Americans are the (unfair) solo reference in this case.

    The same applies for food. Offer a child a piece of apple and some kind of puffy cheese. From Albania to Zirkstain or something with a Z the child will go for the puffy cheese.

    I have time. Before long i’ll be back to the west coast for a long stint and then i’ll be able to cherry pick wines and then be able to say something…for now thanks for the opportunity.

  5. The convenient thing about CA-style wines is they do not require one to exercise any intellect to appreciate.

  6. scott, that is a bon mot worthy of Oscar Wilde!

  7. Well done, Steve. You have brought out all the biased, unthinking, unexperienced europhiles who simply hate American anything.

    I spent two weeks in France last Spring. Unless one spends megabucks, the food is heavy, uninteresting and expensive by American standards.

    Sure, we went to a great ** restaurant, but then it was no better, no more pure than Manresa or Commis or Cyrus or the French Laundry.

    The point is this. The worship of Europe is so far overdone in these conversations as to be laughable. There is boring food everywhere. There is unbalanced food everywhere. Here is a meal we had in one of the Loire Valley’s best rated artisanal restaurants. 1st: Fois gras. 2nd: Veal in a thick cream sauce served with au gratin potatoes. Dessert: A rich chocolate dessert. I don’t know about too much sugar in this meal, but eating like that will overcome the French Paradox in a couple of weeks.

  8. I’m with Charlie. I can’t speak for the whole country, but the food in Portland is healthy, creative, and affordable. Supporting local farms and local wineries is the norm. And the majority of local wines are subtle and deep.
    The existence of McDonalds does not diminsh the quality of American Cuisine, any more than mass produced Perrin wines at Trader Joe’s diminish the brilliance of Vieux-Telegraph.
    Alas, I believe the Eurucentric bashing of new-world wines is a remnant of long lost aristocracy…

  9. Steve, there’s no danger in bashing any wines from anywhere! Why is California so special? It has nothing to do with the herd instinct; it has everything to do with attacking the front runner. California is the Lance Armstrong of wine, plain and simple.

  10. Kurt Burris says:

    I’d rather bash Central Asia than CA or Europe. In case of point, I’ve never had a wine from Uzbekistan that I thought was worth a damn. I don’t know about the puffy cheese though. Steve: There are plenty of people ripping the “natural” wine movement that may be as ignorant about natural wines as some of those ripping CA are about our wines. And as I am about Uzbekistan.

  11. Gabe and Charlie are spot on! As to the “sameness” criticism of California wines, I had a rather striking anecdotal counterpoint experience tonight drinking a Krupp Stagecoach Syrah right along side a Jaffurs SVD Santa Barbara Syrah (don’t recall the vineyard). Those two wines could not have been more different if they were made from across the globe from one another. One was meaty, smoky, and leathery. . . really wound up; the other was somewhat elegant and much fruitier, but still well balanced with softer tannins.

    To some degree, I feel that accusing one wine region of “sameness” is like accusing a band of a “sameness” among their many songs. Would anybody like a band with no discernible style continuity whatsoever?

  12. Steve – I probably qualify as one of those Europhiles (Certainly Charlie Olken would put me there ;-). But I think the argument is more about balance than geography. There are wonderful California wines that don’t tip the scales at 15% alc or higher, and show elegance and subtlety, yet they are still “riper” and “fruitier” than a typical European wine. They are harder to find and more expensive than average (the Whole Foods vs Kroger analogy perhaps), but they are worth seeking out.

    Overbalance is not exclusively a California problem. For years I had given up on most Aussie reds because they would burn my tongue after a glass or two. This week I’m tasting several that are delicious, balanced at 14.5% and often under 14%, yet they still have that jammy (sweet), minty quality that makes Aussie shiraz so wonderful. I also tasted a couple at 15% and higher that in my opinion were firebombs rather than fruitbombs.

    You’re correct that the big style succeeded in part because people like it and because it was promoted by critics – that style of wine impresses particularly when all you’re having is a taste or a glass rather than an entire bottle. But it also succeeded because of evolving vineyard practices and definitions of ripeness (away from a simple reliance on brix and more on physiological ripeness, which skewed sugar levels higher.) Today, the movement toward balance is being promoted not just by carpy Europhiles like myself but by vintners who are learning how to get their grapes ripe without sending sugar/alcohol levels over the top.

    So where you see a noisy and inconsequential minority on the East Coast, I sense a pendulum swing back toward the middle – not to “thin, European style” wines that we used to denigrate as “food wines” (Hi, Charlie!) but to something in the middle, combining ripeness with restraint. Equilibrium. Balance. And if more winemakers follow that movement toward the middle, there will still be big, powerful wines for folks who prefer that style.

  13. Martin Slavin says:

    Amen to you! I had a Napa winemaker tell me that he was tired of tasting pine forest whenever he drank Bordeaux. CA wines get ripe, and the greatest of them taste like they come from California. Thanks for standing up for us.

  14. PaulG, I prefer to think of California as Buster Posey, not Lance Armstrong.

  15. Hey, does anyone think this herd instinct thing is why certain people have come out so aggressively against ‘natural’ wines? Even though these wines represent something like <0.01% of all wines sold. Maybe they feel that natural wine producers and retailers are somehow endangering the whole herd that is the wine world?


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