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I’m often asked which California wine type do I think has made the best improvement over the years. All of them, I usually say, because I think it’s true: California wine is better than I ever remember it, and I’ve been drinking it seriously (I mean studiously) for nigh on 35 years. (Does anyone under the age of 50 say “nigh on”? It means “almost,” of course, and comes from the old German word “Nahe” for “near.” Nahe” is also the name of the German wine region. Can anyone explain this connection? If you can, you get a free subscription to my blog.)
The problem with comparing wines separated by decades of time is that the comparison can only be done in memory, which is fallible. Did I really think David Arthur 2009 Elevation 1147 (99 points, $150), which I reviewed this summer, was better than a 1978 Clos du Val Cabernet (price and alcohol level unrecorded), which I had when it was a few years old? I didn’t rate the latter wine; why would I, years before I became a wine critic? But, to judge by my notes in my Tasting Diary, I thought it was superb (“Gorgeous, beautiful, tannic, but opulent, full of fruit and glycerine. Wish I had waited another 4-5 years [to open]”).
That I found both of these wines superlative, separated by nearly 30 years, is evident, so how can I say that one was better than the other? After all, if the Clos du Val actually was better–and had I been scoring it–I would have had to give it 100 points! So this illustrates some of the pitfalls in saying “California wines are getting better.”
This question of “Are California wines getting better” also arises during discussions of “score inflation” that pop up from time to time. If my scores are higher than they used to be (and they are a little, as Wine Enthusiast’s database shows), a rational explanation is that the wines have improved. However, an equally rational explanation is that my “palate” has changed in some way that prompts me to rate the wines higher. Or perhaps something in my mind has changed, which then influences my palate. It’s hard to say. To further confuse things, there are plenty of people (the anti-high alcohol crowd) who argue that California wines actually are worse than they used to be. They might accuse my palate (and those of critics like me) of having become jaded by these ultra-rich wines, so that anything with finesse or subtlety doesn’t get noticed.
Let’s take a step back. Strictly objectively, you’d have to say that California wines are better than they used to be because they’re less flawed. Fewer bad corks, cleaner wines due to cleaner wineries, healthier rootstocks and plant material, more grapes organically or sustainably grown, and so on.
So you can see that the simple statement “California wine are better than they used to be” is not so simple after all. It’s rather like asking, “Is America better than it used to be?” People of different ages and backgrounds will have all sorts of opinions, but nothing is provable, the way a mathematical equation (2+2=4) is provable to everyone’s satisfaction.
Still, I’d say California wines are better than they used to be. Can’t prove it. Just my opinion. Sue me if you disagree.
Having said that, it got me thinking about what wine type has improved (or seems to have improved) the most over the years. The answer, obviously, is Pinot Noir, but we all know that. Is there another type that’s less obvious? Yes: white Rhône-style blends. I’ve given more high scores to them in the last several years than ever before. Why this should be so, I think, is due to grapegrowers’ ability to better farm these often difficult varietals, and to winemakers’ increasing understanding of how to properly blend this family of grapes, which includes Roussanne, Marsanne, Picpoul Blanc, Grenache Blanc and Viognier.
A California white Rhône blend should be rich, fruity and balanced, although it will seldom equal the opulence of a great barrel-fermented Chardonnay. But the best of them are able to support some oak. Firmer than Chardonnay, nuttier and more floral, with more backbone, they pair well with a wider range of food than does Chardonnay. Some of the better ones I’ve had lately have been Krupp Brothers 2008 Black Bart’s Bride Marsanne-Viognier, Tablas Creek’s 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc and 2011 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (a nice value), Adelaida 2010 The Glenrose Vineyard “Version,” Calcareous 2009 Viognier-Marsanne, Demetria 2009 Cuvée Papou and Kiamie 2009 White Kuvée. Interesting that so many of them come from Paso Robles. Could a cool vintage in a hot climate be just what a white Rhône blend wants?
There still aren’t many of these wines produced. Statewide acreage of Viognier, the most widely-planted white Rhône variety, in 2011 was only 3,020, barely one-thirtieth that of Chardonnay, so the wines must necessarily be rare. Nor do they command particularly high prices, except for cult examples like Alban and Sanguis.
Still, the winemakers committed to making these wines are passionate. White Rhône-style wines haven’t made much of a dent on the national radar, yet; but sommeliers are well aware of them, and so are critics. They could be the Next Big Thing in white wine.
My digital friend Alfonso Cevola posts on his blog, On the Wine Trail in Italy, about how an Italian culinary and wine education school, the Alma Wine Academy, is selling a “Master Sommelier diploma” for 1,044 Euros (about $1,354). This so-called Master Sommelier certification, it need not be added, has nothing to do with the real Court of Master Sommeliers, the U.K.-based organization whose tough examination parameters entitle 129 North Americans to add the prestigious letters M.S. after their name.
The Court issued a statement denying any link to the Alma Wine Academy and said it is “currently seeking through legal channels to clarify the situation.”
Alfonso learned of this through a post on a blog called Just a Good Little Wine, entitled My Master Sommelier Thesis: Josko Gravner’s Ribolla gialla and the orange wines in the U.S. market. In it, the blogger, Cristina Coari, says she is “proud to announce I’ve recently got my Master Sommelier diploma” on the basis of her thesis on “orange wines…whites so defined by the Americans for their amber and orangish color. Today, this type of wines [sic] are produced all over the world, from France to California, from New York State to Australia, from Georgia to of course Italy.” In her thesis, Cristina writes, she studied the market potential for these wines. Unfortunately, her thesis (available on her blog through a link) is in Italian, of which I speak not a word, except Ciao! and various food terms.
At first I thought Cristina’s post was a put-on, but then I Googled “orange wines” and got quite a few hits. Here’s one that calls orange wines “a current favorite of hipster sommeliers.” Here’s another, from Imbibe Magazine, that describes orange wine as “White wine that has been left to get chummy with the grape skins and seeds,” a technique uncommon in the vinification of white wines. Its introduction in New York State, by Red Hook Winery, “kicked off a whole new facet of New York winemaking and inspired other New York producers,” according to the author. And here’s one, from 2009, from our own Jon Bonné, at the S.F. Chronicle, that calls orange wines the “ultimate reactionary drink.” Jon said that 2009 “seems to be their breakout year,” but I don’t think it was. I haven’t come across any orange wines in California, haven’t heard of them, and if there’s any breaking out, it’s failed to come to my attention.
Incidentally, I looked up Josco Gravner (the subject of Cristina’s thesis) in Wine Enthusiast’s database and found a 2008 review by our Italian bureau chief, Monica Larner, of his 2003 Anfora Breg ($120), a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Riesling Italico. She loved its “deep golden color and intense aromas of caramel, butterscotch, mature apricot and chewy caramel,” and gave it 92 points.
Have you heard of orange wines? Are you a somm who serves them? Know any Cali winemakers who make them? Let me know.
It’s really an accident of history that we here in the U.S. and in California decided to name wines by grape variety rather than by region.
We have Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Petite Sirah, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and so on. In Europe, of course, it’s a different story. There (for the most part) they named wines after the regions they came from: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Sancerre, Champagne, Chianti, Barolo, Rheingau, Ribero del Duero, etc.
The reasons why California went the varietal route as opposed to the regional route are many and complex. It made sense to men like Frank Schoonmaker, in the 1930s, following the Repeal of Prohibition, to get away from the false and misleading names of California wines like “Claret,” “Burgundy”, “Port” and “California Champagne”, and take a more honest varietal approach. Their hearts and minds were in the right place: simple, candid truth-telling on the label.
Unfortunately, it seems not to have occurred to them to name California wines after their regions. Think how everything would be so different if we’d chosen names like Oakville, or Glen Ellen [the town, not the wine brand], or Salinas Valley, or Geyserville, or Los Olivos, or Oakley, or Edna Valley.
If that had happened, we might have developed a regional-varietal family coordination like they had in Europe. Instead of having Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs, Petite Sirahs, Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs, Tempranillos, etc. with an Oakley appellation, the pioneers of post-Prohibition viticulture and enology might have figured out that a red blend based on 2, 3 or 4 varieties worked best for their climate and soils. You’d be able to say “Oakley Red Wine” and know exactly what that meant, same as “Pauillac” means a Cabernet Sauvignon blend. As things now stand, however, “Oakley Red Wine” could be anything.
Red blends have become quite the thing lately, with more and more wineries mixing varieties willy-nilly. Some of them aren’t very good, and I get the feeling the wineries do it because they had the grapes or bulk wine available and couldn’t think of anything better to do except to stick them in a big tank and call the resulting wine some wacko name. Marketing departments also get involved, perhaps advising their employers that problems with existing varietals suggest staying out of that game. For example, the market’s already crowded with Cabernet. Syrah doesn’t sell. Nobody wants Zinfandel anymore. No one’s ever heard of Tempranillo. And we can’t call lit Moscato because it’s not. And so on and so forth.
However, there are some really wonderful blends out there. To mention a few, Seghesio San Lorenzo Estate, which is Zinfandel and Petite Sirah; Krupp 2009 The Doctor (Tempranillo, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Cab Franc); Chateau Potelle 2009 Explorer The Illegitimate (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel and Syrah), Shafer 2009 Relentless (Syrah, Petite Sirah).
Is it good or not so good that California went down the varietal path instead of the regional one? Hard to say. The government developed a system of American Viticultural Areas that kinda sorta looked to the French appellation system as a model, but differs from it in that the Tax and Trade Bureau doesn’t have any quality standards for an AVA. So really, an appellation doesn’t mean very much. Still, it’s fun to play “What if?” And there’s this, too: some of our better appellations have become so varietal- or varietal family-specific that they’re practically synonomous. Say “Napa Valley red wine” and most people will think of Cabernet or a Bordeaux blend. Say “Santa Rita Hills red wine” and most people will think of Pinot Noir. Say “Amador County red wine” and most people will think of Zinfandel. So, in a way, despite the fluctuations and randomness of human decision making, grape variety and region find each other in a most serendipitous way.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there is no “breakthrough variety” of wine that’s going to suddenly make the Central Valley of California the new, umm, hot place to grow grapes.
The Western Farm Press reported yesterday that San Joaquin Valley growers “gathered in Fresno recently” to brainstorm “what the future could hold in terms of new varieties that could be used for blends or could even rival other accepted varietals that include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Sauvignon Blanc.”
(For non-Californians, the term “Central Valley” refers to both the San Joaquin Valley, in the south, and the Sacramento Valley, in the north. Both are the hottest winegrowing regions in California, with temperatures routinely topping 100 degrees in the summer.)
The Press article quoted a Constellation winemaker, Oren Kaye: “We haven’t found that shining star yet,” but winemakers are looking at everything from Durif, Tannat and Fiano to Sagrantino and Marselan Noir, as potential “breakthrough” wines with their “own signature style.”
Central Valley winemakers and business interests have been looking for that “shining star” wine for decades. Twenty years ago I went to a seminar on this very topic at U.C. Davis. They had some pretty good wines, as I recall: the Port varieties, vinified dry, were quite appealing, and there were some Sicilian varieties I liked. But Touriga Nacional or Nero d’Avola haven’t exactly become household names in America.
There are solid reasons why consumers won’t budge beyond the current dozen or so varieties that dominate the market. (The Press article states that “Fewer than 10 wine grape varieties account for 80 percent of the varietal wine grapes grown in the United States.”)
1. Consumers are conservative about the things they buy. Once they come to trust a brand (or service provider or wine type), they tend to stick to it. The nervous uncertainty caused by the economy further exacerbates this cautiousness.
2. The wine industry has proved exceptionally incoherent when it comes to marketing. The article glides over this difficult by merely pointing out that “The challenges for new varieties include difficulty in mass marketing.” That’s putting it mildly. Proctor & Gamble and Apple know how to mass market a new product. The wine industry does not.
3. Consumers are happy with the choices they already have. They’re not looking for anything else (except, maybe, less expensive wines). You can’t sell somebody something she’s not looking for.
I know, I know, you’re asking “What about Moscato?” Yes, it’s true that Moscato came out of nowhere, and I think researchers are going to be studying that phenomenon for a long time. Putting aside the theory (highly debatable) that hip-hop can create a trend (maybe it happened once, but lightning isn’t going to strike twice), I think Moscato’s popularity is because the variations of that variety have long been some of the most popular wines in Europe, providing clean, crisp, refreshing and slightly sweet alternatives to dry white wines. That niche hadn’t been filled in the U.S. Moscato just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
The Central Valley has a role to play in American wine. It can provide inexpensive, high-quality everyday versions of the popular varieties, with California appellations. No shame or guilt in that! Central Valley growers should be proud of the role they play in helping tens of millions of consumers drink good wine everyday.
As for all those researchers looking for “the breakthrough variety,” there’s certainly no harm in what they’re doing, and if they manage to make some pretty good wines along the way, great. The fact that they’re unsellable is unfortunate, but it’s part and parcel of the marketplace. If you ask me, they should get over the concept of a “variety” and experiment with blends, red or white. Give them an appealing name, great packaging, an affordable price and a bit of a story line, and then put the marketing muscle of, say, a Constellation behind them. And when I say an appealing name, I don’t mean something pandering and trendy, like anything with the word “bitch” in it. I mean something tasteful, that’s meant to last.
This is a very interesting read, as anything Randall Grahm writes tends to be. Randall raises multiple issues but the germ of his thesis is that we, the wine-buying public, are locked into a chocolate-vanilla-strawberry straitjacket of a few famous varieties that may, in fact, not even be the grape types best suited to our soils.
This is a very old Grahmian argument; indeed, Randall was making it more than 20 years go when I first met him. As an argument, it’s a strong one. It takes no great intellectual effort to imagine wines whose varietal names you and I have never even heard of offering pleasure, complexity and value when grown and produced in California. That’s the easy part–it’s tantamount to the thesis that there will be actors we’ve never heard of coming up in future movies to rival Angelina, Brad, Meryl, Leo and Cate. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that.
The problem, as Randall so correctly perceives, lies in the “agora,” or marketplace, which is exactly where the straitjacket has been fitted. Whether to blame consumers for “a severely Attention Deficit-afflicted” disorder, or simply to recognize that human beings generally dislike and are uncomfortable with overwhelming choice, isn’t so much the issue. Either way (and the answer is ultimately unknowable), Randall is correct that the marketplace likely will not reward someone who introduces Sagrantino or Aglianico but instead will probably punish them, in the only way the marketplace knows how to punish: with profound indifference.
Thus Randall’s dilemma: for decades he has tried to thread the needle, the thread being the wines “of terroir” he wants to make, the needle’s eye being the narrow gate of the market, to which many [varieties] are called but few [varieties] are chosen. I commiserate with Randall. I wish things were different. I wish American wine consumers were more liberal when it comes to varieties and blends, more adventurous, more willing to take “risks” that aren’t really risks at all, but just seem to be. Randall is also correct when he notes that more people would rather drink a mediocre wine whose varietal name they know, than a good wine whose varietal (or proprietary) name they don’t.
All right, that’s the reality of the implacable laws of supply and demand, but what role can wine writers play in all this? If you believe (as I do not) that wine writers no longer have significant impact on the market, then the answer is: not much. If, on the other hand (as I believe), wine writers still have enough clout to perturb markets one way or another, then what Randall (and people like him) can do is to reach out to writers with new, interesting wines–I mean compeling wines that writers will want to write about, not simply because they’re new and different–and certainly not simply because they were made by Randall (who gets a lot of mileage from the media for that very reason)–but because they really do express that terroir he speaks of.
The problem is that most of the time, when winemakers talk about their wines of terroir, the wines are not very interesting. I don’t mean high-end winemakers crafting Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs, Cabernet Sauvignons and Zinfandels from great sites. Those wines are fantastic, precisely because the winemakers have found great pieces of land in which to grow them. But that’s not what Randall’s talking about. He is, it seems to me, a bit curmudgeonly when it comes to giving credit where it’s due: namely, to the great varietal wines that the agora has embraced (rather than mourning the wines it has not). Randall may choose not to make these popular varieties, but that doesn’t mean they’re not great wines. He’s simply decided to go in a different direction.
I would welcome sitting down with Randall and having him educate me through a range of the kind of obscure wines he loves and that could or do grow well in California. I’m more than ready to recommend them, to push them, to alert the public that they should know about them and be buying them. But–and it’s a huge but–the wines have to truly be good. Like I said, they can’t simply be different and “made by Randall.”
No 100 point wines this year, but who cares? What a list this is. Diverse both type-wise and regionally. Four wines from Napa Valley, four from Sonoma County, one from Santa Barbara, and that North Coast bubbly from Schramsberg. A bunch of Cabernets, a Pinot Noir, a couple sparklers, even a dessert wine. I round the list out with the Qupe Syrah, at 97 points, because although I had 9 other 97 pointers, the Qupe was First Among Equals. All of these wines are fantastic, world class; they would easily hold their own against peers from any wine region on earth. All are ageable, I’d lay odds on the Von Strasser and Williams Selyem being still fine in 15 years. Maybe they’ll all be fine in 15 years. If I’m around in 15 years, maybe someone will be nice enough to treat me to a tasting of these magnificent nectars of the gods.
Venge 2008 Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville. $125, 275 cases, 14.9%. Score: 99 points.
Stonestreet 2007 Rockfall Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley. $75, 212 cases, 14.5%. Score: 99 points.
Williams Selyem 2009 Precious Mountain Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $94, case production unknown, 14%. Score: 99 points.
Araujo 2007 Eisele Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. $275, case production unknown, 14.8%. Score: 98 points.
Verité 2006 La Joie, Sonoma County. $300, 1,201 cases, 14.7%. Score: 98 points.
Von Strasser 2008 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain. $125, 278 cases, 14.2%. Score: 98 points.
Dolce 2006 Semillon-Sauvignon, Napa Valley. $85/375 ml., 3,300 cases, 13.8%. Score: 98 points.
Schramsberg 2004 J. Schram Rosé, North Coast. $130, 1,000 cases, 12.7%. Score: 98 points.
Iron Horse 1997 Joy! Blanc de Blancs, Green Valley. $179/1.5L, 50 cases, 13%. Score: 97 points.
Qupe 2006 Bien Nacido Vineyard 25th Anniversary X Block, “The Good Nacido,” Santa Maria Valley. $100, 190 cases, 14.5% Score: 97 points.