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What are California’s benchmark wines?


I’m still enjoying Secrets of the Sommeliers. There’s a section where Rajat Parr is talking about “the key to memorizing and comprehending wine styles from classic regions,” which is “to establish a single benchmark wine that represents a region or style.” Then, in analyzing any other wine of that variety or style, you compare it to that classic wine.

For example, here’s Rajat’s thinking process for understanding Bonnes Mares. “Does it taste like Pinot Noir?…Then, does it taste like Pinot Noir from Burgundy? Does it taste like Pinot Noir from the village of Chambolle-Musigny? And, finally, does it taste like Pinot Noir from the Chambolle-Musigny vineyard of Bonnes Mares?” If it does, “For me,” Rajat says, “that wine is Domaine Roumier Bonnes Mares.”

There are, to be sure, not all that many “classic” regions throughout the world where such an approach is possible. Rajat limits them to a top tier including Burgundy, the Loire, Champagne, Bordeaux and the Rhone; also, German Riesling (Mosel, Rheingau, Pflaz, Rheinhessen), Austrian Riesling and Gruner V., and Italian Piedmont, Tuscany and Veneto.  He makes allowances for Spanish Rioja, sherry and albarino, port and vinho verde and, from the New World, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Aussie Shiraz, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Oregon Pinot Noir.

We can nitpick. I thought it would be interesting to take Rajat’s approach to “comprehending wine styles” and apply it to California. What are the classic grape varieties and wines, areas, producers and vineyards that represent “benchmarks” for the state? This is easy to do, in principle; hard, in fact, mainly because California’s history is so much shorter than France’s. Also, because in California, you can legally grow anything anywhere, as opposed (notoriously) in Old Europe.

Still, difficult as the task may be, it must be attempted, starting with Cabernet Sauvignon. I will concur with Rajat that Napa Valley remains the alpha and omega of Cabernet — so far. I consider Rajat’s Four Questions (does it taste like Cabernet? Does it taste like Cabernet from Napa Valley? Does it taste like Cabernet from the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley? Does it taste like the Hillside Select of Shafer?) and make my decison. Shafer Hillside Select: a California Cabernet Sauvignon that is a benchmark.

Pinot Noir. Rajat doesn’t consider California Pinot classic, although he does let Oregon into the club (which must make Paul Gregutt ecstatic). But that’s Rajat’s club. Mine is open to California Pinot Noir. Is there a wine that tastes like Pinot Noir? Does it taste like Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley? Does it taste like Pinot Noir from the warmer Middle Reach of the Russian River Valley? Does it taste like the Rochioli Riverblock Pinot Noir? Yes, four times. Williams Selyem Rochioli Riverblock Pinot Noir, a classic benchmark.

I’ll stop with Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, because there are other issues to sort out. Because you can legally plant anything you want anywhere in California, we can’t say (as they can in France) that the best Pinot Noir must taste like it comes from Burgundy (or the Cotes de Nuits, or Bonnes Mares). It’s in no one’s interests to set up beauty contests between the Middle Reach and Green Valley, or Philo, or the central Santa Lucia Highlands, or the Santa Rosa Road corridor of the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills, or the Arroyo Grande, or Carneros, or anyplace else. Ditto with Cabernet, which you can’t even limit to Napa Valley; and, even if you could, you would have to take into consideration the wide range of terroirs, ranging from Howell Mountain to the Rutherford Bench, from the flatlands of Georges III to the top of Atlas Peak, and so on.

Of course, Rajat could have taken the same approach to, say, Clos de Vougeot, Chambertin, Musigny, etc., as he did with Bonnes Mares, which would complicate and lengthen his process. But he would not have had to include Pinot Noir from anyplace else in France, which simplifies it; Rajat is limited to a relatively smallish growing area. It may be — I can certainly see the day coming — when we will have to begin including Cabernets (and Cabernet-dominated blends) from Paso Robles, Happy Canyon, parts of Sonoma County (of course) and possibly other areas, among the “classic benchmarks” of California; and, of course, we’re already there when it comes to Pinot Noir.

Another difficulty in California, as I earlier said, is its briefness of history. Take a wine like Evening Land’s Occidental Vineyard Pinot Noir. It is extraordinary, classic — but since they’ve only released a single vintage (2007), can it be a benchmark?

I don’t take precisely Rajat Parr’s approach to analyzing wine. But it is a useful, instructive one. What do you look for in judging a glass of wine? What benchmarks exist in your head? Whether or not you use a 100 point system, or puffs, or stars, or some other icon, or just a vague feeling in your mind, how do you calibrate wine quality?

  1. Hi Steve,

    I would add one more classic to the list: Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel. My reasons – Old vines, heritage and a classic “terroir”.


  2. Derek, good point.

  3. Sanford Pinot Noir has to be a benchmark California wine.

  4. There are tens of listable standards for CA wine. Raj Parr may be a smart guy, and a good guy to boot, but he obviously pays more attention to Bonnes Mares, for which Domaine Dujac is my standard, than he does to the wine area in which he lives.

    We just talked yesterday about hypocrisy. His failure to understand the ten standards for Pinot Noir, including more than one for various parts of the Russian River Valley, not to mention Anderson Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands, Sta. Rita Hills, etc, etc. is disappointing. His failings, and they are exactly that (he lives here for goodness sake) do not rise to the level of hypocrisy. Raj does not deserve any kind of tag like that. But, to suggest that he has no standard for CA Pinot is more than a little odd.

    You have described the most interesting CA architype, but as you point out, it is not the architype for all CA places. SLH has its own–and if one were to be really specific. There are architypes for wines from the cool, lower end like Morgan’s Double L Pinot and from the hotter uplands at the southern end of SLH, of which Pisoni is the archetype.

    The denial of the existence of such standards by a noted and respected sommelier will continue to fuel the fires of those who claim that there is no terroir of value here. You think he is wrong. Derek thinks he is wrong. I can point to lots and lots of examples. But I don’t see where we need to add more than is already listed to here to prove that experienced CA tasters know better.

  5. Charlie, I figure Rajat is just wired into the old Euro model. It’s going to take a while for it to find its proper level of relevance. Perhaps the Millennials and bloggers, who are not as infatuated with Old World models, will level the playing field.

  6. Let’s not forget Petite Sirah.
    Sonoma Mountain also shows tremendous potential for Cabernet Sauvignon, i.e. Peters Family, Laurel Glen (one of my favorite Cabs in CA), Arrowood RS & MR…
    Still, “benchmarking” critical dimensions are: typicity (patent/plain pattern recognition); perenniality/track record; robustness and consistency.

  7. I read recently that Napa Valley is the home to over 700 wineries. With so many wineries in a relatively small area, applying Rajat’s criteria would require:

    Does this wine taste like Cabernet?

    Does it taste like Cabernet from Napa Valley?

    Does it taste like Cabernet from the Oakville District?

    Does it taste like Cabernet from the Oakville District on Oakville Crossing Road?

    East end or west end?

  8. An interesting post and interesting discussion. I wonder though if using the same sort of benchmarking in California as one might use for the wines of Burgundy is almost as inappropriate as it would be to expect any Pinot from California to taste like one from Burgundy.

    Steve brought up the point of California’s shorter history of wine growing. That’s important but perhaps even more important is the diversity of terroir even within fairly small areas such as Napa Valley. My understanding is that there are more different soil types in Napa Valley alone than in all of France, or so I’ve been told. Then, one needs to take into account the two mountain ranges, the river, and the decreasing influence of San Pablo Bay cooling from south to north.

    In short, I think that identifying specific benchmarks in some parts of California (not all) is much more complex than it would be for the most celebrated areas of France and that the ability to apply those benchmarks over wide swaths of vineyard land here is more limited.

    Of course, some of the concern about “lack of terroir” in California wines can be blamed on certain winemaking practices, such as overuse of oak. And there may also be some confusion because of the greater role that ripe fruit plays in the wines here. But, part of the issue may also be that terroir here can vary so much over so little distance that people interpret the great diversity as a lack of terroir rather than the multiplicity of terroir that actually exists.

  9. Nice Friday post, Steve. CA benchmarks in my head? Here are a few that come to mind that I will sample over the weekend just to make darn sure:

    Duckhorn Napa Valley Merlot
    Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
    Goldeneye Anderson Valley Pinot Nor
    Kistler McCrea Vineyard Chardonnay

  10. @Charlie With all due respect, I have to believe you’re being harder on Raj than he deserves. He, unabashedly, has a love of Burgundy. He isn’t shy in proclaiming it. It is his (and most somms) gold standard – the benchmark – for what a wine SHOULD be.

    However, he has entirely discounted New World wines. While I haven’t read the book, I know that Raj does not discount California’s capability of making world class wines. After all, he DOES stamp his own name on bottles of Pinot Noir, Syrah and Chardonnay made in the Golden State. While he hasn’t been an evangelist for his home state’s wines, he also doesn’t completely discount their quality. Like Steve writes, it’s the proven track record of Burgundy’s rich history that Raj loves so much.

  11. Carol – Heitz M.V. is atypical of most of the Oakville Cabs. in my opinion so it would be hard to call it a benchmark. A good wine, yes, but not a wine, that you will understand others by comparison. Well, maybe whether they express eucalyptus-like aromas. And Duckhorn Merlot another good wine is sourced from so many places and doctored with Cab, so while it represents something for comparison, it does not represent anything specific regarding Merlot and Napa Valley.

    But I’m not sure I understand the logic or utility anyway. So you know what Pinot tastes and smells like, you know what Pinot in the Anderson Valley is like, you know what Pinot in Philo in the Anderson Valley tastes like. What good does to pick a wine a benchmark if you are able to discern the differences between styles of Pinot from Philo from Anderson Valley. Seems like this is just another way of stating a rather narrow view that a particular wine is what all wines should be, which in my view is the kind of thing to which wine snobs often aspire.

  12. Morton, maybe Carol meant Duckhorn Three Palms Merlot, which is always very distinctive. Tannic, too. Anyway, are you saying that Rajat Parr is a snob?

  13. Well, heres another benchmark for CA that needs to be considered — Paso Robles Grenache and blends. I just tasted thru there last weekend, visiting 8 wineries and tasting 17 different 100% or Grenache predominant wines (spitting of course) from 3 vintages (2006-8) as well as a couple of 09s from the barrel. Without exception — all were very good to exceptional and had a unique combination of bright but ripe fruit and solid acidity (due to the limestone soils I was told more than once). Like Mr Parr I have my bias–I am an unabashed fan of grenache from all over the world but I am now convinced that the benchmark style for California should be from here

  14. and they very next blog I read after posting the above blog was this….. go figure

  15. IMHO, the difficulty with benchmarking (which can lead to the false conclusion that CA lacks terroir) is more due to viticultural practices than to standardized winemaking methods and/or “briefness of history”.
    Terroir-driven, or soil-driven, wines are contingent upon vines with deep root systems; to develop its typicity and to avoid significant vintage variation due to weather variability. Excessive soil fertility and irrigation induce roots to spread laterally, restricting them to the topsoil, and depriving the vine of reaching the water table and deep soil mineral nutrients; which impart the local, or typical, taste/character to the grapes and facilitates the synchronized development of sound enological constituents; i.e. Brix levels, acidity and tannins.
    While dry farming is not feasible in most CA viticultural areas, for a “local character” (or a sense of place) to stand-out, it may be necessary a certain degree of water stress, judicious plant nutrition and controlled yields.

  16. Brian Miller says:

    At the State Fair competition this year they experimented by asking the judges to categorize each wine by style, in addition to granting awards (Chardonnay only this year). The judges generally found the exercise helpful in that they could assess how well the style was executed, even if it was not a style they preferred. Some judges recommended that they be given a list of benchmark wines as examples of each STYLE, for example a Rombauer Chardonnay as a benchmark for a big oaky/buttery type.

    Anyway, Mr. Parr said “the key to memorizing and comprehending wine styles from classic regions,” which is “to establish a single benchmark wine that represents a region or style.” So we could use the benchmark for the style, not necessarily a specific region of California.

  17. ANdy, my experiences with Paso Robles Grenache have been less positive than yours. But I am a big fan of Paso Robles red blends in which Grenache’s divots can be filled in with other varieties. Depending on the site, those can be Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Petite Sirah, even Zinfandel.

  18. The big problem with Raj’s reasoning is that it’s tautological. Does it taste like what it should taste like? Than it is what it is.

  19. A benchmark wine should represent a region or style, but I don’t see how real benchmarks can exist when such a myriad of winemaking and viticultural practices (not to say grape varieties) are applied in any one California appellation. In Europe, where winemaking and viticulture are more or less standardized (or even prescribed by law), the influence of terroir can stand out. The identity of wines can be recognized (or narrowed down) in a blind tasting by the characteristics of terroir. But how can anyone recognize two wines coming from adjacent vineyards in the same district if the winemakers pick at radically different levels of ripeness, elevate the wines differently, age in different varieties of oak?

    Schaefer is a great wine made in Stags Leap. And Stags Leap terroir certainly influences the outcome of that wine. But I submit that an experienced wine taster, encountering a Schaefer Hillside Select in a blind tasting uses his/her memories of Schaefer wines in narrowing it down rather than first discerning the qualities of Napa Valley and then recognizing some imprint of the particular Stags Leap terroir and moving on from there.

  20. Gerald:

    Well put.

    Raj’s method seems like one created specifically to pass a test…an organoleptic mnemonic.

  21. Of course, Shafer Hillside Select is a real outlier in the SLD. It has its own style that is more Shafer in style than anything else.

    But there are many SLD wines that are identifiable as SLD wines. Gerald is, of course, correct that the freedom felt by CA and West Coast winemakers does allow for a wider range of experiences. Still, just as there are a whole bunch of Pinot Noirs that are very similar to Williams Selyem Rochioli (see WS Westside Neighbors, for example) and thus identficable as to place, and thus as to terroir influence, so too are there identifiable SLD, SLH, SRH, SMV, West Rutherford Bench, etc wines.

  22. I sometimes feel like these discussions about terroir are like the medieval debates about the true nature of Jesus.

  23. I rather fancy that they are part of the metaphysical reality.

  24. Greg Brumley says:

    There’s a bottom-line question to this subject:

    Do 99% of wine drinkers care?

  25. Greg: Probably not!

  26. Just FYI: Napa County is located within a global Mediterranean biodiversity hotspot, and is one of 10 localized areas in California. Napa, for its size, is the “hottest” hotspot in California (the richest around Mt. St. Helena).

    Gerard is certainly correct IMHO about benchmark implications that come with the freedom to plant what you want where you want – no viable way for successors or scientists to track the planting/clonal/rootstock/vine density/age/budburst/veraison/sugar and so on.
    What does that have to do with whether Raj likes Burgundy or not? Nothing.
    As to calibrating wine quality, given that most of Napa and Sonoma (lesser south) are first generation (post-phylloxera) vines and acknowledging Steve’s strong anti-terroir sentiment, I’m not at all sure it’s benchmark time. But I’d be happy to share a bottle anytime.

  27. I’d go for the:

    2005 Sean Thackrey “Orion” as a benchmark Rhone Blend from California.


  1. 2008 Bogle Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, California « Winefan73's Blog - [...] What are California’s benchmark wines? ( [...]

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