The California style is better with our modern, rich foods
For some reason I bookmarked this Decanter “tease” for an article two years ago (the full article requires a subscription), then forgot all about it until this past weekend, when I was cleaning out my old bookmarks and happened to read it. In the afterlight of what we know since then, it makes interesting reading.
We’ll start with Oz Clarke’s statement that “There is no style revolution in California: low acid, velvet tannins and high alcohol is [sic] what Americans want from their wine and California winemakers will continue to feed that need.”
Well, Oz made this remark before it was clear there is a “style revolution”, so we’ll give it an accuracy rating of 87 points. While it’s true that Americans do like the big, fat, rich, ripe California style, it’s equally true that increasing numbers of winemakers are consciously attempting to make their wines leaner. Which does not mean “lean.” We see this most certainly in a wide swathe of Pinot Noirs that are below 14%, and sometimes nearer to 13%, as evidenced by Jasmine Hirsch’s and Raj Parr’s “In Pursuit of Balance” movement.
We see it also in other varieties (including Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon). So Oz said something that was mostly true, but not entirely; and cooler vintages may also be tipping the scale toward leaner wines.
However much Oz was or wasn’t correct, the larger issue centers around an inherent assumption: that there’s something fundamentally suspect about “low acid, velvet tannins and high alcohol” in table wines. For, if you think about it, that assumption is the context of the conversation: Just as the statement “Americans drink too many sugary sodas” implies the context of widespread obesity. “Too many sugary sodas” wouldn’t be a problem if so many people (including kids) weren’t so fat. We can all agree on that. But what is the negative implication of “low acid, velvet tannins and high alcohol”? There is, in fact, none (unless you say that higher alcohol wines get people drunker faster than do low alcohol wines; but this isn’t a qualitative critique of the former, just one of degrees, since low alcohol wines [and beer] can get you drunk too).
In fact, isn’t it possible that, if winemaking had originated in the New World instead of the Old, the standard for wine would be a 15.2% alcohol, low acid, velvety Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon? In which case we might just find the upstart German and Italian wine too acidic and lean. One can envision, under such a scenario, a group of vintners and somms, perhaps located in Geisenheim or Florence, calling themselves “In Pursuit of Balance” and promoting wines of higher alcohol, greater ripeness and softness and increased youthful appeal. Stranger things are imaginable.
And what of food? Much has been said and written that our California style of wine is undrinkable with food; the conceit there is that the wines are so strong, they fight with the food, whereas wine traditionally is supposed to take a back seat to food.
Is this really true in your experience? It isn’t in mine. I suppose if you ate the kinds of bland, plain things Englishmen ate in the 1800s, a Shafer Hillside Select might not be the ideal accompaniment. When George Saintsbury relished “boiled Turkey” at a dinner partly held at an unnamed date, but probably in the early twentieth century, with it he drank “1878 Lêoville”, whose alcohol level cannot have been much higher than 12%, and which must by then have been a dry, somewhat light and earthy wine. But we don’t eat “boiled Turkey” today. Instead, we gorge on “Niman Ranch Hangar Steak with San Marzano Tomatoes, Garlic, Arugula and Parmigiano-Reggiano,” to take but one item off the menu from Oenotri, the Napa restaurant; with it I might order a 2008 Staglin (alcohol 14.9%) or Anakota “Helena Dakota” (14.8%) off the list and be perfectly happy. In fact, something lacking in body might falter and be wiped out beside that dish’s mouth-filling richness. So, once again, you have to take these things in context.
I got so infatuated with the thought of food and wine pairing that I Googled “Boulevard,” one of my favorite San Francisco restaurants, to find additional main courses that call for rich, opulent wines. With “California lamb T-bone, wood oven roasted, served off the bone with grilled Monterey artichoke, olive panzanella, pancetta-mixed faro, lamb juice, mint and orange (a dish that would have blown Professor Saintsbury’s mind) I could easily see myself drinking a Patz & Hall 2010 Chenowith Ranch Pinot Noir (14.8%) and smiling all the way. An old, dry, 13% Bordeaux or Burgundy? No, thanks.