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California wine, Blue Bottle, Led Zepp, IPAs and pot: What do they have in common?



For years the meme has been out there that California wine is getting bigger, badder and bolder—wine on steroids. Some critics decry this, which is their right; but consumers by and large do tend to favor this riper, fruitier style. But why is this happening? Is it really the Parkerization of wine, as many have alleged, or is something else going on?

An answer may be found by turning to another popular beverage: coffee. A recent article by Marcie Hanel in the October 2015 issue of Food & Wine, called “The Coffee Conundrum,” maintains that “today’s coffee [may be] too strong to drink” and quotes a well-known chef, Jonathon Sawyer, that “Coffee is so powerful now [that] you can’t have a triple espresso cortado followed by a pour-over [or else] your heart’s going to explode.” (Blue Bottle is the poster child for this phenomenon.) Marcie herself attests to the “skyrocketing” of coffee’s caffeine content; Chef Jonathon even compares coffee to “weed”, in the sense of its powerful extraction—so much more intense than it used to be.

“Powerful extraction…”. Hmm, that’s exactly the phrase critics of the California style use to disparage wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, not praise them. Let us grant that many of the things we eat, drink and use are more powerful than they used to be: not only wine and pot and coffee, but spirits: The current issue of Food & Wine has an article called “The Secret to a Richer Rum,” as if Rum isn’t rich enough!

Beyond booze, everything else in life seems to be getting plus-sized. Computer chips and all of the associated devices that use them are faster and more powerful than ever; Moore’s law applies to everything these days. Even in film we’ve seen an acceleration of “power” in the sense of more, and more graphic, violence and sexual activity. We see more or less the same thing in politics, where hyperbole and exaggeration have largely replaced reason, and in science, where technology is employed to peer further and deeper into the smallest and largest recesses of the Universe. And of course, with beer, we have the IPAs and the double IPAs, which a friend of mine once described as the beer equivalent of Napa Cabernet.

This penchant for “more” and “greater” obviously comes from the consumer; producers would not create and sell more powerful products if the masses weren’t buying them. When did Americans turn away from subtlety and embrace gigantism? Well, one synonym for “subtlety” could be blandness. Wine didn’t used to taste so good as it does today!

As I look back over the arc of my life, I can’t help but compare the placidity of the 1950s to the chaotic explosions of the 21st century. I can’t pinpoint when this penchant for power started; the advent of psychedelic drugs clearly was an expression of it (if not the cause), because drugs like LSD did “heighten” awareness far above the mundane level. Maybe it was that experience that created a craving for “more is better” among Baby Boomers, a heightened-everything craving which has been passed onto their children, the Millennials. Even heavy metal and thrash rock are more “heightened” versions of the rock and roll of yesteryear.

I offer this line of reasoning, not to justify the current trend towards richer, riper wines, but to explain it. Look at it this way: California wine—the majority of it, anyway—is pretty much on a par with Blue Bottle coffee, Led Zeppelin, IPAs and medical marijuana. That’s not bad company!

  1. David weintraub says:

    Led Zeppelin stands alone.

    All those other things do not!


  2. Bill Stephenson says:

    It isn’t “plus-sizing” but it does follow the “more is better” attitude.

    My daughter recently did contract work for the video newsmagazine “VICE”
    The segment she assisted on dealt with “Cannabis Coffee” which apparently is big in L.A. and spreading.

    I mocked it, like I do most fads. And even though she is much more open-minded she remarked that at the end of the day people were not just bumping into each other but into stationary items. Seems the caffeine accelerated movement but the cannabis diminished reaction and anticipation.

    I think I’ll keep my stimulants and depressants separate.

  3. Let’s not conflate “technological change” with “progress” or especially “improvement.”

    We now have better insights into plant physiology and breeding than we had back in the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s.

    We prize “old vines” (many from nutrient-poor hillside properties) for their low yields and restraint. The source of so many “classic” wines touted in your earlier blog piece.

    Many of today’s “extracted” wines come from young vines planted on highly fertile valley floor lands. They evince an almost “commodity”-like, terroir-neutral, interchangeable character.

  4. Loved this article and the questions it raises. But really… I would used Slayer instead of Led Zepplin at the rate that things are going. Big and bold, no matter if its red or white- its what makes me see the power in a grape!!! <3

  5. Jonathan King says:

    You had me up until Led Zeppelin. Worst.Band.Ever.

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