The critics, not committees, have classified California wine
In the Spring of 1969, Roy Andries de Groot, who turned to wine- and food-writing when he became blind, was sent to California by Esquire Magazine to write about the state’s wines, on the 200th anniversary of Junipero Serra’s planting of wine grapes in San Diego.
de Groot soon realized that what he really wanted to do was what he called his “immense project”: “a Classification of American Wines,” he called it, based on the sort of official hierarchy that had been developed by the French, in the famous 1855 Classification.
(de Groot also went on to classify the wines of the Pacific Northwest and New York State, hence his reference to “American Wines.”)
As he notes in his 1982 masterwork, “The Wines of California,” de Groot had pedigreed precedence for his audacious project. There not only had been the 1855 Classification, but, a century earlier, “in 1755, a first attempt had been made to rank the wines of Bordeaux,” he wrote, followed by another in 1833. So the project was neither as audacious nor as radical as it might have appeared.
Here in California, others have attempted, from time to time, to classify the state’s wines into quality tiers. Perhaps the most controversial has been Jim Laube’s 1989 book, “California’s Great Cabernets,” in which the Wine Spectator writer rather self-consciously established five “Growths” (just like the 1855 Classification), which he populated with dozens of wineries functioning at that time. It was a worthy effort—but one doomed to failure, as California, unlike staid Bordeaux, was in the process (and still is today) of sprouting new wineries like mushrooms after an Autumn rain. When Laube wrote his book, for instance, there was no Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Dalla Valle, Verite, David Arthur, Jarvis, Araujo. The book was destined for obsolescence even before it was published. (It does, however, remain an interesting read and is important as an historical document.)
de Groot established, not five, but four tiers in his classification, although he did not numerically denote them but instead used the adjectives “Great,” “Superb,” “Noble” and “Fine,” in descending order of quality. (The only wineries he put into the “Great” category were Heitz, Schramsberg and Stony Hill.) But, just as Laube’s book of seven years later was condemned to early obsolescence, so was de Groot’s, and for the same reason. As we look at his list today, we’re struck, not only by the non-inclusion of so many wineries that simply didn’t exist in 1982, but by others that were functioning at that time, but no longer are, or that continue to exist, but not at a very high level. The list, then, is sadly out of date, although like Laube’s book, “The Wines of California” makes for good reading.
I doubt that any wine writer will ever again attempt such a hopeless task as classifying the wines of California! But then, in this modern era of, say, the last 30 years, the public doesn’t need an official list. That task has been taken over, in practical effect, by critics. Can there be any question that California Cabernets and Bordeaux blends have been unofficially ranked already, through the reviews of Robert Parker, Wine Spectator and others? This ranking has the appearance of mathematical precision because it’s based on scores of the 100-point system. Thus, in order to determine the placement of any winery in the critical classification, all you have to do is look up its scores over the years, and that will determine its position in the hierarchy. Before you object that this is a pretty flimsy basis, remember that the 1855 Classification itself—which we all hold so dear—was based in part on the prices the wines had historically fetched. Since today, price and score are irretrievably intertwined, it’s not ludicrous to base a wine’s placement by its score: the highest-scoring wines will generally be the most expensive (although the opposite is not always the case!).
There’s one huge, qualitative difference, however, between an official classification, like that of 1855, and the unofficial one created by scores. The former can never change, or does so only agonizingly slowly (Mouton-Rothschild, originally a Second Growth, was not elevated to First Growth until 1973.) But the latter, unofficial classification is constantly morphing, as wineries come into and fall out of favor, reflected in their scores. The critical classification, then, has the advantage of a built-in resilience that makes it more adaptable to change and thus more descriptive of reality, as well as more useful. A critical classification can never become obsolete, by definition.
Where things get sticky, of course, is with the proliferation of critics. In 1855 the French had a single committee to make their classification. There was nobody to challenge it (although disgruntled proprietors always have complained about their placement). Twenty years ago we had only a tiny handful of critics to make their de facto classification, and few if any dared to challenge them. Today, everybody’s a critic. This is why we have the phenomenon of multi-source rating compilers, like CellarTracker, where consumers can track reviews from multiple sources side by side for the same wine.
What I find fascinating about the new order, with its proliferation of voices and the coming of age of a younger generation, is how impervious to change the old perceived hierarchy remains. In Bordeaux the First Growths still rule. In California, the Harlans and Screaming Eagles remain at the top, although they may have had to allow some room for a few other aspirants. Something about wine—or, rather, the way we perceive it—is remarkably conservative. I wish I had a time machine and could see what the top wines are fifty years from now. For some reason, I doubt if I’d be surprised.