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Does California know its own wine history?


Eric Asimov, at The Pour, says it doesn’t. He took a swipe at us the other day. “One thing that has always bothered me about the California wine industry,” he wrote, “is how disparaging it is of its past. Oh, of course there are exceptions. Everybody today will talk about how great and influential Robert Mondavi was, and deservedly so. But these same people will dismiss Mayacamas or Chateau Montelena as ‘Old School.’”

I’m not sure who this “Everybody” is that Eric refers to. Maybe, on his periodic jaunts to California, he just hangs out with dummies. The California wine industry I know has tremendous awareness of, and respect, for its history. As a member (in good standing, I hope) of that industry, I’ve written a couple books that are history heavy, and one of their more appreciative audiences has been winemakers, older and younger. Working as they do throughout California’s wine regions, winemakers are well aware of the giants, living and dead, who preceded them. And I’ve never met “these same people,” anywhere in the industry, whether it be on the production, sales, marketing or P.R. side, that would ever call Montelena or Mayacamas “Old School.”

A strange aspect of Eric’s commentary was his suggestion that the Napa Cabernets he likes are somehow more historically connected to the past than the ones he doesn’t. We all know he doesn’t like wines that (for lack of a better word) we can call Parker-esque. He listed Frog’s Leap and Clos du Val, among others, as making Cabernets that surprised him with their “unexpected subtlety.” I guess Eric’s expectations for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon are so low that he’s astonished when he finds something balanced. Well, I’ve given extremely high scores to Frog’s Leap and Clos du Val, but to be completely honest, I don’t find them all that different from, say, Harlan, Colgin, Staglin or Araujo, in terms of satisfaction. It’s like the difference between (for example) Haut-Brion and Margaux — degrees of texture and firmness, yes, but both Bordeaux-esque in classicism. I never heard of anyone who liked Haut-Brion but didn’t like Margaux, although one might prefer one over the other. Great Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is like that. It’s not necessary to bash anything Michel Rolland has a hand in just because you like Clos du Val.

  1. A quibble: “He took a swipe at us the other day.” Us? So, you are the California wine industry? I thought you were an independent journalist, but with this remark, you’re telling me otherwise.

  2. Jack, sure I’m part of the California wine industry, and a proud one. Why would you exclude journalists? That doesn’t mean that journalists aren’t independent and critical. I am. I tell it as I see it. That’s my job, and it’s a vital one to keep ’em honest. But I’m still part of the industry, which I define as comprised of everyone whose main job has anything to do with wine.

  3. Steve, the conversation in Eric’s column and so far here does not touch on one point that has been made over the years among vintner members of the California wine industry, especially when comparing themselves to their counterparts in (e.g.) France – and that is there are no AOC-like rules we must follow in growing grapes or making our wines. This freedom allows anyone to make the kind and style of wine they want – whether it is to aim for restraint and finesse, scores be damned, or to chase scores anticipating a particular critic’s palate…or whatever. Many Napa Valley vintners I know proudly talk about finding their own style in their particular location, not producing a New World or Old World style of wine. The contention that an appellation such as Napa offers a “prevailing style of plush, oak-laden overwhelmingly fruity and powerful cabernets” (Eric’s phrase) implies some kind of herd mentality. I hear no thundering hooves. And I agree with you, we are very much aware of, and proud of, our past. To suggest oterhwise is nonsense.

  4. Jeff, good points. Fascinating stuff. I, myself, have written about a certain sameness to Napa Cab, but maybe that’s the terroir expressing itself. That’s why I include the winemaker (including consultants) as part of (or in addition to) terroir. I do think that Napa’s too easy to bash and that Eric has a tendency to do it. Then again, I live here, and I tend to feel protective of California wines.

  5. Morton Leslie says:

    It’s interesting what Eric Asimov considers to be California’s history or its past. Frog’s Leap? Clos du Val? Mayacamas? Sorry John, Bernard, and Bob. You are so old we’d forgotten about you until we were reminded by an New York expert on California wine history. We didn’t realize California winemaking went all the way back until the mid-1970’s. We thought you guys only existed in history books or treatises on how not to make wine.

    I love it when journalists forget about certain established wineries, never write about them, and then in a blinding epiphany realize there are other wineries besides Colgin and Harlan. Of course, it wasn’t the wine journalist that forgot the obvious. It was all those winemakers in California that were so ignorant of their own region.

  6. Morton, Agoston Harazsthy is smiling down on you right now.

  7. Winemaking in California goes all the way back to the 18th century and the mission days. Then in the 1850’s the Gold Rush brought immigrants to the foothills, and they brought their vines with them. I’ve been told that foothills wineries did a huge business in the 19th century (as well as the southern counties), but there seems to be little written about this. I would love to see someone write the history of wine in all of California. (And if someone has I would love to be enlightened!)

  8. Dear Jefe, there are many great books on the topic. One of my favorites is Leon Adams’ “The Wines of America.” Thanks.

  9. I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it 🙂 I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post.
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