subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

Ranking California wines

6 comments

I do a lot of reading in these shelter-in-place days. In fact, I’m cannibalizing my library—reading the same books over and over. One that I started yesterday is an old standby: The Wines of California, The Pacific Northwest & New York, by Roy Andries de Groot (1982). De Groot, a kind of minor James Beard, was a New Yorker with a reputation for being a gourmet and wine lover; he also was blind. In this book he developed what he called “the first classification” of the vineyards and wineries in the three states, a task he modeled after the 1855 Bordeaux Classification.

What is striking about The Wines of California is how dated it is. De Groot used a numerical rating system based on 50 points, and classified the wines into eight tiers; the top ones he called Noble, Superb and, at the pinnacle, Great. A good many of the wineries he included no longer even exist. Others, such as Beaulieu, have undergone corporate changes and are no longer what they used to be. And obviously, there are now hundreds of wineries in California alone that didn’t exist in de Groot’s day. For these reasons, de Groot’s classification is of no value today.

But it does make for interesting reading. I have to give him credit for at least attempting the task. Forty years ago, when de Groot was compiling his research (which meant traveling the country tasting wine), he had no reason to think that the wine industries of California, the Pacific Northwest and New York would not settle down and become as fixed and immutable as in Bordeaux itself. Bordeaux, after all, had remained relatively stable for 400 years of turbulent European history; there had been minor shifts in chateau ownership and vineyard holdings, but for the most part, the wineries and vineyards of Bordeaux in 1980 were much as they had been a hundred and fifty years earlier.

California looked to repeat the pattern. There were a handful of high-quality wineries of longstanding pedigree (Inglenook, Beaulieu, Louis Martini, Charles Krug) and, more interestingly from de Groot’s point of view, there had been a rash of new “boutique” wineries from the 1960s onward: Joseph Heitz, Robert Mondavi, Burgess, Carneros Creek, Fisher, Matanzas Creek, Chateau Montelena. De Groot was well aware of the burgeoning nature of California wineries: how relatively easy it was for a young winemaker, especially one of means, to plant a little vineyard and start a winery. Still, he believed that the California wine industry was settling down, the same as Bordeaux had, and that the U.S. consumer needed a reliable guide to choosing its wines.

De Groot had a good palate and a deep understanding of viticulture, enology, cuisine and history. Despite the book’s datedness, it’s fun to read for the snapshot it gives us of what the wine landscape looked like in the early 1980s. But it also is an object lesson in what not to attempt in a wine book. No wine writer in his right mind would attempt to classify the “wineries and vineyards” of California today; if one were to try, no publisher would be interested, for such a book would be an anachronism before the ink was dry.

De Groot noted, correctly, that the 1855 Bordeaux Classification had been based partly on the prices then obtained for the wines, and partly on the wines’ reputations among people of knowledge: brokers, mainly. Today, we still unofficially “classify” wines based on the same or similar criteria. Ask someone with a fairly good understanding of California wine what the “top” Cabernets are, and he will likely include Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate, Bryant, Abreu, Phelps, Diamond Creek, Dalla Valle and perhaps a few dozen others. Has that person tasted all these wines? Probably not. Few have. He will have based his conclusions on what he’s heard of the reputations of those wines as well as what he knows of their prices.

That’s the way human judgment works. Reputation is everything. The Bordelais proprietors of the 19th century knew this as well as the owner of Screaming Eagle knows it today. Their methods are similar, although the details have changed. You have to identify the tastemakers and then get them to authenticate your product. You spread the news via word of mouth or, in these modern times, through print media and social media. You induce the best restaurants to carry and promote your wine. You introduce the notion of scarcity: there’s not much of this, folks, and everybody wants it, so you better get yours while to can.

Back to Bob Thompson’s “rabbit hutch.” Just as it’s nearly impossible to take a census of, say, 1,000 bunnies in a pen, because they’re reproducing so fast, so it’s nearly impossible to count the number of wineries in California. Some are “virtual” wineries, possessing no “bricks and mortar” facilities, merely buying grapes, must or finished wine from someone else and bottling it under their brand. The same wine might appear under a dozen labels. There are probably fewer wine brand startups these days, with the pandemic; but before the era of the virus, the explosion of labels, some tiny to the point of vanishing, was significant, and the explosion likely will begin again once the pandemic is over (may it happen soon).

All these factors mitigate against formulating a new classification, but somehow, we humans end up classifying wineries anyway, in more indirect, subtler ways. There’s something in our brains that longs to create order out of chaos. We’re uncomfortable with thousands of winery brands in California; it’s too messy and incomprehensible. So we classify and rank and compare in any way we can and, as the saying goes, perception is reality. Is Screaming Eagle really the best Cabernet in California because it’s the most expensive? No. But if enough people—people who count, that is—think it is, then it is.


  1. Stan Brody says:

    nice read… I’ve long been opposed to the crutch of the “rating” systems… Should two “critics” taste the same wine, sitting at the same table, one giving it a 100 points, the other 90.. Whose do you accept!!! wine is a living creature evolving in the bottle and in the glass… Ratings are nothing more than one person’s opinion at that moment in time…

  2. Stan Brody: True! Thanks for your comment.

  3. Wine critics are like film critics. One needs to calibrate the critic against your own preferences. There are film critics who recommend films that I will never watch, similarly there are some that I like their perspective. Same with wine critics. To the respondent who asked which critic do you choose – the one that you have calibrated.

    Cheers,

    Richard

  4. Bob Henry says:

    What Steve did not mention — but I will — is this book is worth is price of admission (< $10 used with shipping) simply for the profiles of selective California wineries.

    One example: Joe Heitz of Heiz Wine Cellars.

    [It was my intention to proffer a link here to Amazon's "Look Inside" function or Google Books' "Search inside" function to display the Table of Contents. Alas, neither company has provided that feature for this tome.]

  5. Bob Henry says:

    In James Laube’s book titled “California’s Great Cabernets,” he sought to establish the equivalent of the 1855 Bordeaux Classification for our state.

  6. A California classification would be a victim of its own lack of history at this point in time. It would be a victim, too, of its size.

    Ridge Montebello and Harlan Estate are 112 miles apart. Ch. Petrus is only 40 miles from Ch. Margaux, and they’re part of 2 totally different classifications.

    The classification of 1855 was a ranking of site (historical prices also, to be sure); each piece of ground that made up the First Growths was (and is) hallowed. The estate owner and the winemaker mattered little.

    Again, in California, some of the greatest wines are blends from several vineyards, and the sites have changed over time.

    The “classification” game is like arguing who the greatest rock ‘n roller of all time is. While I know it’s Bruce Springsteen, a reasonable argument could be made for someone else.

    Steven Mirassou

Leave a Reply

*

Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Categories

Archives