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A reader comment prompts me to again address the California bashers

22 comments

 

It is fairly common, in the anecdote-sphere (a universe parallel to the blogosphere), for knowledgeable people to say that superpremium California wine is nearly impossible to sell back East, or even east of the Rockies.

According to this take, nobody in America likes California wine anymore, except, possibly, Californians—and even they (or so it’s claimed) are having second thoughts. The culprit? According to the anecdote-spinners, it’s due to the “imbalance” of California wine, an accusation that usually includes alcohol levels, fruity extraction and oak.

The latest expression of this theory comes via a regular reader and valued commenter on my blog. I don’t know if he wants me to name him, so I won’t, but here’s part of what he wrote yesterday, on my “I weigh in on Jamie Goode” post. I will quote him in some detail, because his points are powerfully expressed, and, as I say, one often hears similar views expressed.

“Last Winter [he wrote], I counted the glass pours at three Michelin 1* restaurants while in Chicago, all of whom carry some California wines.  The breakdown for 54 total glass pours was 39 European, 9 Southern Hemisphere and 6 Domestic (of which some were Oregon, Washington and Midwestern).  That is marginalization [of California], and if the Lords and Ladies of Napashire dare not speak of it with wine writers or their neighbors and let the unsold cases quietly pile up in American Canyon awaiting the longed for Chinese buyer, you can damn well bet that it is coming up in conversations with their accountants.”

I’ll quote more of his comment in a minute. First, let me weigh in that my commenter is absolutely correct that Napa Valley winemakers and owners do not speak of their cases “piling up in American Canyon,” presumably at one of the wine storage warehouses along Highway 29. At least, they don’t speak of it to me. So my commenter is right about that. And although I have no certain knowledge that such is the case, the anecdote-sphere also contains numerous allegations that it is indeed the case: that is, cases and cases of unsold triple-digit Cabernet piling up someplace.

My commenter also wrote: there are a lot of good, well balanced and not excessive California wines that are probably being unfairly excluded from restaurants and wine bars.  Unfortunately, these exceptions that prove the rule are suffering for the sins of the last two decades of excesses in both winemaking style and hubris that came to define California and Napa Valley.”

The reason I’ve long been in such disagreement with the anti-California (and anti-Napa Valley) bashers is because, due to my recent job, I had the opportunity to taste so much great, interesting California wine. And while it’s true that there’s a lot of crapola out there, you can say the same thing about every wine country and wine region in the world. Let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater! I simply have tasted too many wonderful California wines to not realize that our state makes incredible wines; and I often pitied the bashers for not being able to taste all the good stuff I was privileged to try.

So my commenter also is correct when he states that the “good, well balanced” California wines are “unfairly excluded” from the conversation. But whose fault is that? And when did we arrive at this weird, bizarre situation where so many influential and apparently knowledgeable people—Americans all!—are so down on California wine?

It’s quite unprecedented for a large chunk of a wine-producing country’s cognoscenti to hate their own country’s wine. I can’t think of anything similar, in the long history of winemaking in Europe. If anything, the French (and, to a lesser extent, the Germans and Italians and Spanish) have been positively chauvinistic about their wines, as well they should have been; they were proud of what their nations contributed. I, too, am immensely proud of California’s contributions to the world wine scene. So, from an historical persepctive, does the situation here in the U.S.—with so much self-loathing–say something about California wine? Or does it say more about the people bashing it? “The question,” as Jesse Jackson, playing himself on Saturday Night Live, once said, “is moot.”

  1. pawineguy says:

    I could pick 3 restaurants in Philadelphia with scant CA representation too, but they would be French or Italian centric menus and wine lists… I could also pick the top 10 steak houses in Philly and find that the WBTG programs are dominated by CA wines.

    That’s why anecdotal evidence is often so terribly skewed. Yes, $100 Napa Cab continues to be a struggle, but aside from some of the big names with big press… it’s ALWAYS been a struggle. The market is minuscule for these wines and they face stiff competition from around the world. Wines at that price point pile up in warehouses all over the world.

  2. I also think it’s very difficult to generalize what is happening by looking at a single wine list in Chicago. Yep, that wine list has very few CA wines on it – and this is the case with many places in the US for sure.

    This is a ‘battle’ that has gone on and will continue to go on – between showcasing other ‘local’ or ‘national’ or providing customers with a ‘broad’ selection of wines.

    With regards to Napa in particular, are they paying the price for ‘hubris’? Perhaps . . . There are only so many $100 retail cabs one can have on one’s list. These are certainly not ‘affordable’ to most, especially on a by the glass basis.

    If you really want to get into the nitty gritty of this, forget about Napa – try to find something from Santa Barbara County on these lists! Yep, you might find the occasional chardonnay or pinot noir, but Steve, as you heard a few weeks back at the Wine Bloggers Conference, our area has so much more to offer, and, probably most importantly, are really reasonable prices, yet you rarely see any of the wines from here on these lists. And whose fault is that?

    Cheers!

  3. Bill Haydon is a “valued commenter” on your blog?
    Hayden has do e little more than attempt in insert his manufactured schadenfreude as frequently as he can. His contributions mark little more than the unsubtle blatherings of a carping ideologue

    The term anecdote-sphere is perfect

  4. Dear Larry, I’m going to be working (with Jackson Family Wines) to raise the profile of SBC and specifically Santa Maria Valley, which is so little understood by the wine media.

  5. No offense to the commenter, but that’s the fallacy of small numbers at work.

  6. Keasling says:

    Another $100+ bottle of Napa Cab is the problem, not the notion that Americans no longer fancy their high alcohol, overly extracted fruit and excessive oak.

  7. Bill Haydon says:

    I could almost hear Neil Diamond singing “Coming To America” as I read that last paragraph this morning.

    Larry,

    I looked at your website, and it seems that you are making some interesting wines. I also looked at their prices of $25/bottle for the whites and $35 to $45 for the reds, which admittedly is inexpensive for artisanal California wines, but utterly not competitive with an ocean of European wine, much of which has to actually pass through four tiers before reaching the consumer. I do want you to look at this from the perspective of Steve’s “gatekeepers” and consider how much great wine (red, white and rose) is made in the Southern Rhone, Languedoc-Roussillion and Provence. Much of it is hitting the shelves in the $15 to $25 range, and I’m not talking solely about that region’s versions of KJ or Beringer. Even benchmark small growers such as Gramenon and Fenouillet from very conscientious importers (Lynch and Rosenthal respectively) rarely nudge past the $25 mark.

    As for true Napa hubris, let me relay the story of an old friend. He produces a “Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon” and sells it in a heavy bottle with an overly artsy label for between 40 and 50 dollars a bottle with a story about secret vineyard sources. It’s frickin’ press wine and bulk wine. Contrast it with the small production (<2000 cases) St. Emilion Grand Cru Chateau that I picked off a shelf in Boston for $32: small production, Chateau bottled, organically farmed vineyard and aged in Barrique (1/3 new).

    As consumers become less and less intimidated and confused by European wines and appellations and younger "gatekeepers" are taking an active role in educating them, what is California's competitive advantage in the marketplace other than overly wrought paeans to provincialism and patriotism?

  8. Bill Haydon says:

    1WineDude, Just because something is anecdotal doesn’t de-facto mean that it is wrong. It may be anectdotal and unscientific, but anyone who has actually worked in the markets of Boston, NYC, Chicago, DC and even SF over the last half decade knows that it is representative of larger market trends. I have (excepting SF). Have you? Anyone who has been to Texas or Ohio lately and seen the growing cultural influence of the larger markets there knows that it is representative. Tell me, what amount of time have you spent schlepping Calijuice around and trying to get it onto the shelves of fine wine merchants and the lists of Michelin starred restaurants and trendy wine bars. What particularly in your experience gives you any insight whatsoever into how these wines are perceived and selling?

    Let’s be honest. Most of the commenters here have absolutely no clue as to what’s happening on the shelves and wine lists out in America. It’s not the wine writers job, and the California producers prefer to indulge in self-denial and blame shifting(it’s all the fault of the evil gatekeepers and middlemen–”box putters on and takers off” is how Mr. Wark describes them). If only your problems were so simple, but they’re not. You’re fighting changing (maturing?) American palates, utter uncompetitive pricing and a younger generation who have no use for the real gatekeepers (Fat Bastard and the WS).

    Tell you what. I’ll set up a day’s worth of appointments for Steve in NYC at all those Michelin restaurants and trendy Brooklyn wine bars that he thinks are soooo missing out by not buying Jackson Family Wines. He can take a bag of JFW in, and I’ll take a bag of Barbaresco, Muscadet, Chablis etc. At the end of the day, we’ll count up who sold what to whom.

  9. pawineguy says:

    “Contrast it with the small production (<2000 cases) St. Emilion Grand Cru Chateau that I picked off a shelf in Boston for $32: small production, Chateau bottled, organically farmed vineyard and aged in Barrique (1/3 new)."

    If it's small production from an organic estate it MUST be delicious!!!! And conversely purchased fruit… yuck! More people selling stories instead of fermented grape juice.

  10. PAWG–

    You have hit upon the big flaw in Mr. Haydon’s continuing rant. He equate process with quality, and paint CA with a broad brush.

    I have just returned from a vacation in NYC. I saw CA wines on the up-scale wine list in Manhattan and on the list in Brooklyn. What I see and what he sees at one wine bar are not proof. Beyond that, he is taking what he thinks is trend data and extraopalting it into the future in a straight line. Things go in cycles, and even if CA is not in the up-cycle in some places, it is not drowning in unsold wine.

    Or to put trend data another way, I see far too many young wines coming to market early because the wineries feel they must maintain their places in the market than I see wines with backed up vintages. Sure, some of those latter exist, but it is not the rule despite Mr. Haydon’s anecdotes.

  11. Bill Haydon says:

    Charlie, so you’re saying that your few days of vacation in NYC somehow give you real insight into the market, more than someone who lives and works in the wine business there? Ha-Ha. And you “saw” some Cali wine on a couple of lists. Good for you, but who is dealing in the anectdote-verse now? Also, I never said that Cali wine was non-existent. I said that it has been increasingly marginalized, and it has.

    As for process vs. quality, I’ve never said that they are the same thing. That St. Emilion, however, was a very good wine and an exceptional value relative to any Cabs or Bdx blends with a Napa Valley AVA coming out at the same price. Perhaps you are so enamored with California over quality that you’d rather pay more for some brew of bulk juice and press wine than a genuine, high quality estate-bottled wine from overseas. That’s your choice. It, however, just isn’t one that much of the market is making.

    And I’m not seeing some trend or cycle that will ultimately swing back in Cali’s favor. Be honest, the golden period of California cult wine was but a blip in the history of wine drinking and even in American wine drinking rather than something that has cycled back and forth over time. Rather than come back to it, people are viewing it as a transitory period of bad taste and excess, more similar to 70s leisure suits….best forgotten. We’ll see how high end Cali wine does, but they have monumental long-term and systemic hurdles: increasing number of America palates appreciating wines that Cali is not terribly good at producing, inabilit to offer competitive prices and the loss of influence of their biggest cheerleaders (RMP and WS). Good luck with that. But hey you saw some Cali wine on a couple of lists in NYC, so you got that goin’ for you.

    I’m easy to dismiss. I don’t like most of the wines coming from California, and I had a lousy professional experience that left me less than enamored of the culture of Napa Valley. I’m a hater; guilty as charged. Like I said, I’m easily dismissed. Your real problem is with the mass of wine professionals and consumers who don’t really have anything personal against Napa and California at all. They just find it boring to drink and unfashionable to sell. That’s your real problem, and it’s going to be a lot harder to solve than shouting down some “hater” on a message board.

  12. One thing is for sure. Shouting you down is useless. Showing the narrowness of your position is priceless. And having you admit to your status as a hater makes my day.

    I would think that your comments, which are not all nonsense, would be lot better received if they were not couched in such denigrative language. I hope that is not asking too much of you.

  13. Thank you, Charlie. I’d written two responses and deleted each before sending. I’m afraid that Mr. Haydon is past the point of redemption here. After this thread, I can’t say that I have any respect for what he might have to say in the future–too much bile, too much poison. The “hater” comment was priceless, stunning actually, and more than a bit sad.

    I’m a wine consumer only and not in the trade. I enjoy the topics and insights that Steve has to offer. I’d hate to lose any of that.

  14. Dear kcphillips, thanks for your comment. This is another opportunity for me to remind readers not to post comments that are slanderous, libelous or insulting to others.

  15. pawineguy says:

    Bill,

    You didn’t even read Charlie’s response, where he clearly states that his seeing CA wines on those lists “are not proof.” He was clearly making the point that none of this anecdotal evidence is evidence at all.

    The reality is that CA wines are currently maintaining market share, they offer a diverse range of styles, and many Americans continue to enjoy high alcohol, high extraction wines. At the high end of the wine market, everyone has suffered, not just Napa wineries. And anyone who truly has a global grasp of the wine market, and evaluates wines for potential US distribution, knows that “new owner hubris” exists all over the world, with wealthy men and women producing their first wines ever at $100+ per bottle… that is NOT a CA phenomenon.

  16. Brian M says:

    I would like to add some food for thought. Let me preface this with the fact that I live in NYC and I’m not in the wine trade (but I am a connoisseur). I frequent many wine bars around the city and dine at everything from the top establishments down to the unknown “cool-kids” places.

    Recently, my firm hosted a dinner of 15 people at a top steakhouse in the city to celebrate a recent transaction. Since I was the only ‘wine guy’ on my team I was asked to select the wines. Holding my preferences aside, I was looking for a good CA cab for our red since our client is from California. I had to go with a Grand Cru Bordeaux instead. I learned from the sommelier that for most of the CA cabs (all Napa) there wasn’t enough bottles in the cellar for a party of our size. (FYI, I was not looking for vintage, aged wine.) When I asked if we happen to come at a odd time, the sommelier told me that they don’t keep a deep inventory of CA wine because it turns slowly. While this is only one experience, it does demonstrate that placement on a wine list doesn’t necessarily mean the wine is selling or that the establishment has a deep inventory.

    In my journeys through the wine bars of NYC it is my experience that CA wines are less than prominent than what you would expect. But people who go to wine bars are usually looking for something different or new, nothing typically found at the wine or liquor store (no supermarket sales here), so that might not be a good indicator. Since I have zero insight into retail outside of what I see on the selves, I can’t and won’t comment on what sells and what doesn’t.

    Anyway, that’s my $0.02.

  17. doug wilder says:

    Steve, It may come down to brand identity. I find that this issue has been around for a long time. I worked in a landmark wine shop in San Francisco for 9 years at the start of my career. I thought at that point I knew a lot, yet once I moved to St. Helena to join a well-known specialty retailer I was astonished how few of the 1300 wines we sold actually showed up less than two hours away (at one of the top stores in the City). It took a while to fully appreciate the vacuum of recognition many of these brands were subjected to because of their size. To illustrate, I recall one new producer I started getting behind suddenly decided to offer single cases of their wine to far-flung accounts around the country rather than developing a core retailer close to home. Without the supply to create a deeper market penetration (or a drumbeat of national press) very few “super-premium” wines will develop a foothold. Covering more area requires exponential scaling. Couple that with the long-established European wine preference on the east coast and the creation of eclectic wine lists and it is easier to understand.

  18. Quality of California wine is without question. And it isn’t all overblown and super-expensive (I’ll cite Fred Scherrer’s wines as perfect examples). As far as presence in the market, I think the super-premium category is brand-driven. I struggle to sell no-name high end wines, whether they are from Napa, Burgundy, Tuscany, Walla Walla, or Rioja (perhaps I’m just a bad salesman?). I feel that- at that high an outlay of cash- the consumer is seeking some level of caché, and that doesn’t come with an under-the-radar producer.

    Furthermore, in the restaurant scene (at least in Atlanta, a tradition beer-and-cocktail town, where the lean is to spend $5-15 on a single-serve drink), by-the-glass absolutely dominates, so there is low turn on anything over $20 wholesale. Again, regardless of provenance.

  19. Dusty Gillson says:

    Just as an aside, and to the comment of first time producers charging $100+/bottle, I find that if I am spending that kind of money on any wine it tends to be the bottles that have crept to that price point over many years (Mondavi Reserve, Rochioli West Block, Montelena Estate Cab, etc.). These wines have earned their prices, whether everyone agrees on that or not.

    Good article and mostly good discussion following.

  20. Bob Henry says:

    Bill:

    “. . . what is California’s competitive advantage in the marketplace other than overly wrought paeans to provincialism and patriotism?”

    Let me suggest these advantages:

    Research studies on consumer packaged goods consistently demonstrate that a consumer will only “lavish” 3 seconds on perusing the graphics and reading the text on a product label before making a “consider” / “not consider” purchase decision.

    California wines have labels are written in “American” English.

    The labels cite grape names (largely) known to Americans. There is no need for a geography lesson. (Consumer: “I want Chenin Blanc. What’s a ‘Vouvray’? I want Chardonnay. What’s a ‘Chablis’? I want Cabernet. What’s a ‘Bordeaux’?”)

    California wines are made in abundance. What a consumer buys and likes today can be replenished on a future shopping excursion. (How many times can a consumer buy the same St.-Emilion Grand Cru whose production level is < 2,000 cases for the entire world? A stocking wine merchant or restaurant gets — what? — a case or two on allocation? Potentially, that satisfies all of two store patrons if they buy in case quantities for their wine cellars.)

    California wines have large multi-state distributors (e.g. Southern Wine & Spirits, Young's Market/The Estates Group, Wine Warehouse) with a veritable army of "boots on the ground" sales reps widely securing retail store shelf placements and restaurant wine list placements.

    California wines "may" have some national or regional paid media advertising and PR campaigns assisting in "pulling" the brand through the channels of distribution.

    California wines pour at high profile charity events — "burnishing" their brand reputations.

    The economies of scale in domestic production carry over into sales and marketing advantages.

    By contrast, imported European wines are comparatively disadvantaged.

    And finally on the subject of restaurant and wine store sales anecdotes, 1WineDude is correct: the sample size of your and others' observations is unscientific.

    I invite those interested in this subject to check out this tome on the subject (which also has a great section in one chapter on debunking 100 point wine scoring scales):

    "The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives" by Caltech lecturer Leonard Mlodinow.

    Link: http://www.amazon.com/The-Drunkards-Walk-Randomness-Rules/dp/0307275175

    ~~ Bob

  21. Bob Henry says:

    Bill,

    A subject that I find underdiscussed on both sides of The Pond is the 2003 vintage red Bordeaux.

    As a result of a horrific heat wave that year (responsible for the premature deaths of countless French residents who lacked home air conditioning), the wines were more akin to “Cali-fruit bombs.”

    If global warming is corroborated and continues, red Bordeaux will start to take on characteristics more akin to California wines.

    How will that affect the arguments made about “tradition” and “typicity” and “terroir”?

    To resolve their growing cognitive dissonance, will future Bordeaux producers declare a “new normal”?

    I invite your valued thoughts.

    ~~ Bob

  22. Bob Henry says:

    Excerpts from Decanter
    (May 24, 2013):

    “Red Wines May Have Premature Oxidation Problems, Say Bordeaux Researchers”

    [Link: http://www.decanter.com/news/wine-news/583929/red-wines-may-have-premature-oxidation-problems-say-bordeaux-researchers

    By Jane Anson
    Reporting from Bordeaux

    Denis Dubourdieu, professor at the faculty of oenology (ISVV) in Bordeaux and author of a leading study into premature oxidation in white wines, told Decanter.com, ‘Ten years ago, many people were aware of the premature oxidation problem in white wines, but didn’t want to talk about it. For me, it’s a similar situation now with red wines.’

    Dubourdieu points to the 2003 vintage as the most obvious example, although any very ripe vintages – such as 2009 – could be at risk. ‘And it is not limited to Bordeaux – any region that makes long-living red wines, from Tuscany to Napa, should be aware of the potential issues.’

    Red wines have greater natural protection against premature oxidation, as the tannins and phenolics are natural buffers against oxygen. ‘But I have seen issues with a number of classified wines that are potentially storing up trouble for later,’ warns Dubourdieu. ‘The Right Bank is the worst affected because Merlot is so vulnerable.’

    The warnings signs of premox in reds comes through the appearance of certain aroma markers such as prunes, stewed fruits and dried figs, and is often linked to a rapid evolution in colour, as with whites.

    Dubourdieu, along with Valérie Lavigne and Alexandre Pons at the ISVV, has found two specific molecules – ZO1 giving the prune aroma and ZO2 giving a stewed fruit smell – that develop rapidly in the presence of oxygen.

    The causes are numerous, Dubourdieu believes: harvesting later in a bid for riper grapes with low acidity, and winemaking practises including too much new oak barrels, or low doses of sulphur dioxide particularly when coupled with a high pH (over a pH of 4, SO2 loses almost all of its effectiveness).”

    . . .

    ‘These are practices that winemakers are doing with the best intentions,’ Dubourdieu said. ‘Riper grapes, new oak, low sulphur use – these are all things intended to improve the wine and to benefit the consumer. But I would prefer to warn winemakers now that it’s possible to go too far, rather than say nothing simply to be politically correct.

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