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Is liking IPAs really as uncool as liking California Cabernet?



I like beer, but didn’t have much of a chance to enjoy it when I was tasting and reviewing wine. Popping the corks on at least 15 different bottles a day, and then sitting there thinking and writing about them, took so much effort that I had little time or energy left over for any other kind of alcoholic beverage.

All that changed fairly dramatically a year ago, when I took my new job at Jackson Family Wines. Suddenly, I didn’t have to taste a gazillion wines anymore. (Not that I’d minded it—I loved, and still love, reviewing wine.) All the samples that had flooded my doorstep for so many years abruptly ceased.

Well, not 100%. Although Wine Enthusiast, and I personally, did our best to notify California wineries that I wasn’t working there anymore, wine still comes to me with some regularity. I always send it back, of course, but if you’re a California winery, and reading this, please take note: I DON’T WORK AT WINE ENTHUSIAST ANYMORE!

Anyhow, shortly after I started the new gig, I decided to get back into beer. Nowadays, you’ll always find a few bottles chilling in my fridge. Starting at 5 p.m.—Happy Hour, yay!–I like to have some in a frosty mug I keep in the freezer.

What kind of beer? It can be anything, but it’s often an India Pale Ale. I don’t claim to know much about beer, except that I like it (hey, if all there is on a hot summer afternoon is Bud Lite, count me in!). But I do know that I like that big, hoppy IPA style, which I also recognize as the California Cabernet Sauvignon-equivalent of beer: full-bodied, rich and heady.

This article, which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle’s Inside Scoop online portal, gives a nice summary of where beer trends are at here in the Bay Area. The author is Jon Bonné, who recently announced that he’s stepping down from his fulltime gig as wine editor of the paper, although he’ll continue a monthly column of some sort. Now Jon, as we all know, made his bones by coming out against the prevailing style of California wine, which is ripe, sunshiney power. Jon favors the In Pursuit of Balance style of lower alcohol wines that many in the IPOB crowd consider more classic and elegant than your typical Napa Valley Cab or, for that matter, Pinots that are riper than—oh, I don’t know, let’s say 13.8%. So I didn’t find it surprising that, in his article, Jon came out against “the hoppy amping-up of American craft beers” as evidenced by “the style that defines most IPAs…”. In fact—just to make sure that we readers understand that hoppy IPAs and big Cabernets are crimes against their respective beverage groups—the craftsmen who produce them, according to Jon, are profiting from a “follow-the-money argument,” which means, presumably, that the producers Jon doesn’t care for are venal.

Well, I’ll let those producers make their own rebuttals. Here’s Jon’s: “The arms race of oak, extraction and jammy flavors, which proved successful for a previous generation of Cabernet makers, is a direct parallel to the hoppy amping-up of American craft beers.” Both drinks are “flavor bombs”; neither is part of the “avant-garde” which Jon so assiduously courts.

I should think Jon might have modified his views following his recent visit to Paris—his beloved France, source of “balanced” wines, and original home of the avant-grade—where he discovered, evidently to his dismay, that “the French craft brewing renaissance is currently populated by hopheads, and obsessed with IPAs…”. I guess forty million Frenchmen can be wrong.

But the real point is that Jon has not served the California wine industry well. He dismissed a large part of its best wines, in many cases refusing even to review them in the Chronicle despite being sent tasting samples, and thus distorting reality to his readers. This has disturbed many California winemakers, who were afraid to criticize Jon publicly for fear of retribution. My own position has been consistent: It’s unprofessional for a wine critic to throw so many wines produced in his own home region under the bus by refusing to even taste them. It’s a fundamental axiom in wine criticism that you don’t have to like a wine in order to review it fairly. You review it within the context of what it purports to be. For example, I might not like Sherry (in fact, I do), but even if I didn’t, I’d feel honor-bound to recognize what a good sherry is, and then to give good sherries good scores.

Jon never gave so many California wines the chance to just be what they are, simply because of a number—alcohol percentage by volume. Instead, he trashed these wines with epithets like “fruit bombs” and “male swagger.” Such snarkiness may have made him a hero to IPOB, but not to many of our state’s winemakers, who might be forgiven for being happy now that he’s gone. Personally, maybe I can finally get into the cool kids’ avant-garde club even though I like Napa Cab and IPAs!

  1. It’s an interesting comparison for me: I don’t really have a dog in the IPOB vs. Big Cab fight, but I’ve been griping for years about the (now-fading) macho, GIVE ME MORE HOPS culture in craft brewing.

    Though I think really, my position ends up being the same on both. I can appreciate all kinds of wine and all kinds of beer. I even enjoy the occasional hop monster, though it’s pretty much a one-and-done thing, as they make poor “session beers.”

    It was just disappointing that for years, it seemed like the hopheads were taking over. Craft breweries could barely be bothered to put out a well-made traditional style, they were so busy one-upping each other on the IBUs (International Bittering Units). “Other IPAs are hopped for 60 minutes? Amateurs! Try our 90-minute IPA!” “Oh yeah, well, our IPA is so strong, we call it a Double IPA!” “We have some much hops in our Double IPA, we had to double the malt just to bring it back into balance!” Bars that bragged about their great tap selection would have the majority of their taps devoted to IPAs. If you asked the bartender for a recommendation that isn’t an IPA, it turned into the Monty Python sketch with the Vikings and Spam. (“Well, there’s the Slightly Wimpy IPA — that’s not got much IPA in it!”) And while I never paid too much attention to reviews, whenever I’d see a shelf-talker promoting some beer as having 97 points from some magazine, guess what style it was?

    As Bonne notes, the trend has swung back a bit in recent years. And while I’m not a huge fan of sour beers or saisons, which are the new fad, it’s nice to see more diversity in beer selections.

    I guess I’ve never seen the wine situation as being equivalent. Those who can’t stand the supposed “fruit bombs” have always had plenty of other options, from the rest of the world even if Napa Valley has completely gone over to the Dark Side. Indeed, some of them enjoy stopping by blogs to proclaim that the revolution has come already and none of the cool restaurants even carry Napa wines any more, and all that “Calijuice” is languishing in warehouses and the emperor has no clothes etc. etc.

    So the criticisms have always sounded to me more like “the rest of you aren’t drinking the stuff I think you should drink” as opposed to “I can’t find enough of the stuff I like to drink.”

  2. Bob Henry says:


    Beer was my “gateway drug” to fine wine appreciation.

    This underage imbiber would bribe upper classmen in my college dorm to bring me back from their sojourn to the local liquor store an interesting six-pack of European beer (bier).

    And that’s how I discovered exemplars of great styles of beer.

    Pilsener — Pilsner Urquell
    Lager — Paulaner Munich
    Ale — Newcastle
    IPA — Samuel Smith
    Oktoberfest — Spaten
    Bock — Aass
    Doppelbock — Salvator
    Stout — Guiness [actually I already knew that brand: my grandfather worked at the brewery because immigrating to the U.S.]
    “Steam” — Anchor

    And in my humble opinion, the greatest bier in the world was Christoffel Blonde Bier from the Netherlands.

    Double-hopped and unpasteurized and sold in 330 ML ceramic hinge-top bottles.

    Alas, the private equity firm that owned the brewery shut it down, laid off its employees, and is trying to shop the recipe to another brewery.

    Last imported to the U.S. by the Shelton Brothers out of Massachusetts.

    I used Wine Searcher to buy the last remaining bottles in the U.S.

    But enterprizing souls can still find some in the Netherlands . . . and in Moscow. (Must have been a fave of the Russian oligarchs and plutocrats.)



  3. Bob Henry says:


    Stout — Guiness [actually I already knew that brand: my grandfather worked at the brewery BEFORE immigrating to the U.S.]

  4. Here, here on the Jon Bonne comments! I could barely read his book and when I saw him speak about it I was even less enthused. For both beer and wine, we need to accept and embrace the variety of styles “out there” and stop maligning other camps. It’s so Junior High!! There’s a style for everyone, and while I concede that alcohol is extremely important to consider when you’re doing food and wine pairing (just because high alcohol can set your mouth on fire if you have it with spice!), insulting IPA or California wines because they aren’t to your taste is just lame… and VERY uncool.

    Great piece. Thank you for it. Off to grab an IPA.

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