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Even the New York Times now recognizes California’s diversity



When I read Eric Asimov’s statement that “The polarizing years of California wine are over. No longer can its styles be summed up in a descriptive phrase or two,” I thought: “What? They never could.” I mean, I never summed up California’s “styles” in such simplistic, reductionist phrases as (to quote Eric), “plush, concentrated cabernet sauvignon; lush, jammy pinot noir; buttery oak-bomb chardonnay; or extravagantly ripe, blockbuster zinfandel.”

Any individual wine might be describable in those terms. But to describe all the state’s Cabernets, Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, Zinfandels and whatever that way is just plain wrong. It was wrong ten years ago, it was wrong five years ago, and it’s wrong today. So it’s nice to see Eric finally coming around to that realization.

Of course, it’s been the conventional East Coast wisdom for years that California wine could be summed up in pat phrases. It was a smear, but I never was sure what their motive was. Even Eric concedes that this view of “a monolithic wine culture” was an “impression.” Impressions are not knowledge, but feelings. Impressions can be misleading, and it can be hard to separate impressions from their near-cousins, biases.

There are several possible explanations for this one-dimensional view. The first is that people simply didn’t taste enough California wines to know how diverse they are. They didn’t know that, even though there admittedly are a lot of oak-bomb Chardonnays, California has long had balanced Chards as well: Kistler, Failla, Rochioli, Marimar Torres, Morgan, Dutton-Goldfield, Chateau St. Jean, Gary Farrell, Williams Selyem, Hanzell, Mount Eden, to name a few. I could go through similar lists of balanced Cabernets, Pinots and Zinfandels, but it would take too much space.

Another explanation is that California’s recent string of cool vintages (2009 and counting) is resulting, per force, in wines of less fruity concentration, making them more appealing to a Europhile’s palate. This is certainly the conventional wisdom, and it may contain elements of truth. But, if California wines are leaner, or more elegant, or less alcoholic than they were, say, five years ago–to say nothing of less oaky, which would not have anything to do with the weather–it’s by very tiny degrees, certainly nothing so dramatic as to enable someone to proclaim the end of a “polarizing” era and the beginning of a–what is the opposite of polarizing?–more conciliatory one, in which the full diversity of California’s wines can be appreciated.

Anyway, I’m glad to see Eric, one of the nation’s leading and most important wine critics, who is in a unique position to guide America’s taste, come around. As they say, better late than never.

  1. Steve, it is wrong to describe any region in such simplistic terms. Yet, all regions (countries, states, appellations, even vineyards) have stereotypical styles. Right or wrong, they exists and often describe a majority of wines from said place. California, Bordeaux, Ribera del Duero all have diversity in their wines but they also have a broad general style. Yes, exceptions are easy to find, but stereotypes in the wine world are not smear or limited to the East Coast. In fact, your implication that this smear campaign was directed from the East Coast is a wrongheaded smear tactic! Same with saying someone has a Europhile palate. You have a California palate, yet I’m sure you are able to enjoy Old World-style wines just as much as Asimov can enjoy big CA wines. And I don’t think Eric has “come around.” If you read with an open mind, you’ll find that he has always been open to and cognizant of California’s divers wine styles…

  2. Bill Haydon says:

    I’m sorry, Steve, but those descriptors absolutely describe California–and in particular Napa Valley–wine over the last two decades. Of course there were outliers such as Steve Edmunds who stayed true to themselves and a philosophy of balance and food compatibility, and they struggled to keep from being swamped under the market tsunami of oak and alcohol. The overwhelming majority of the industry, however, was more than eager to worship at the alter of Robert Parker and craft wines meant to appeal to his grotesque palate. AND THEY WERE QUITE PROUD OF IT!

    Now that the market–and in particular those metro markets they hold most dear–are strongly turning against them and that they’ve recognized that the backlash is real, strong and here to stay, they are all reinventing themselves (that is the California way after all). “Oh no,” they say, “we were always about terroir and balance!” I don’t hold any hope for any true sincerity from Napa’s old guard in this regard. They’re just (belatedly) chasing after what the market wants. Some are truly changing their style. Some are just mindlessly trumpeting catch-phrases that they think will resonate with distributors in Boston, sommeliers in New York or Millenials in Chicago.

    Where I agree with Mr. Asimov is in recognizing that there is a new breed out there unburdened by any baggage of servitude to Robert Parker and truly believing in what they are saying. Scribe comes to mind. If they end up being the dominant narrative out of California, then there might be some hope for the place after all, and the projections of imports taking 50% of the US wine market by the end of the decade might turn out to be optimistic.

  3. Dear Bill Haydon, well you express your point of view articulately! I don’t agree with everything you say, though, because it seems to me you’re making an arbitrary and unprovable distinction between old guard producers who are aiming at the market and younger winemakers who are more sincere. I reject such easy comparisons.

  4. Completely agree with you, Steve. Seeing that Asimov column, my first reaction was, about time the NY Times admitted the existence of diversity of wine styles in California. My second reaction was: no, the proper time for that was when, 1973?


    Here are three NY Times articles about diversity of CA wines. Sure, the stereotypical California style is mentioned or alluded to in each, but Blake and Steve, you are wrong to claim that Asimov had never previously “admitted the existence of diversity of wine styles in California” or only just “come around.”

  6. Kyle, consistency isn’t necessrily NYT’s strong suit. Eric has had many nice things to say about California wines over the years, as we all know. That’s why I was flabbergasted to read his “polarizing” comment.

  7. Point taken. And I bet we can both agree that the “polarizing years of California wine” are NOT over. You, me, Eric, Blake and others will probably bicker about CA wine (or what we say about them) for years to come 😉

  8. Morten Hallgren says:

    Bill Haydon made an excellent point that cannot so easily be dismissed. Having pursued the route of “more is better” you eventually get to a point where the California wine industry has gone too far. Obviously distinctions need to be made among individual wineries and winemakers, but this is clearly an observation on a trend; not a monolithic block.
    The observation that a significant group of wineries are steering in a different direction is a sure sign that not everyone is happy with the evolution of the California wine industry over the last 20+ years. The days of presenting percentages of new oak, alcohol levels and color indices like the specs of a sports car are over. Eventually, the discussion about fine wine will be one of balance, elegance, harmony, nuances and distinction not one about who could do more!
    This is a most welcome sign for wine drinkers and wine writers on the East Coast, where the values previously listed were never completely lost.

  9. Morton, I see it as a natural evolution. Naturally a younger generation wants to do things differently. But the “change” is neither as pronounced as some are painting it, nor as widespread. Eventually the market will decide what winemakers make.

  10. doug wilder says:

    The fact is that Asimov is one of the most instrumental and visible voices for wines in America (sorry Steve, however I bought a bottle of Mumm Cuvee M last night because u gave it a 90!) However, his anointing of what he considers to be a ‘new breed’ of California producers leaves me a little puzzled (or is it filled with joy that these producers have finally been recognized elsewhere?) since I was tasting and recommending the likes of Matthiasson, Bedrock, Broc, etc. 5- 6 years ago, albiet to a smaller, geekier audience.

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