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How to make California exciting


I wrote yesterday that the California wine industry has been a little less than exciting lately, and let me tell you, a lot of people disagreed with that. Hardy Wallace asked, “Steve- What would excite you?” Brendan, at, told me to “use your imagination [to] come up with a ‘wish list’ of sorts.” When I didn’t immediately respond, Charlie Olken weighed in. “Come on, Steve…List a few.”

Well, I’m not sure that any one thing would make California wine as exciting as it used to be, so instead of coming up with my own list, I turned to Facebook and asked my digital friends, “What are some of the most exciting, important things the California wine industry could do this year? Let your imagination soar!” As usual, they didn’t let me down.

I got dozens of responses. Here are some of the more interesting. I’ll comment in italics where I think it’s appropriate.

Pinot Noir is going to be declared ‘balanced’! [John Skupny]

Figure out Nebbiolo [Joe Herrig] Maybe toward the middle of the 21st century, but don’t hold you breath.

Blow up all the AVAs and recreate them based solely on geology/geography and not any political borders. [Joe Herrig] I could go along with this, but it’s not in the realm of reality.

Reduce reduce reduce: oak, m-l, SO2, mega purple, liquid oak, micro-ox, etc. 🙂 [Beau Carufel]

Overthrow the 3 tier system. [Chris Donatiello] Tom Wark is doing his best.

Open up direct shipping! [Brook Drummond] cf. above.

Define an information system that encompasses farming, production, marketing, sales and compliance and make it freely available (i.e. open source) [Randy Hall] I have no idea what this means, but it sounds good, so I’m in favor!

Turn Lake Michigan into wine and invite everyone in for a party. [Steven Doyle] I don’t know what Steven Doyle is smoking, but I want some.

Lower prices of high end Cabs. Uh, sure. LOL [Jack Bulkin] It’s already happening.

Stop thinking of itself as an “Industry”. I have no interest in wine as a product of an “industry”. ]Ned Hoey]

A little less EGO please…it’s Rutherford not Pauillac. [Pearsons Wine Atlanta]

Move to Ohio! We need the money! [Tom Day] Not until you get rid of that awful John Kasich.

Study and encourage the practice of sustainability at the winery level, [J.C. Milam]

Grenache! Please! [Stefan Blicker] There are some good Grenaches, but good Grenache will not be a game changer for California.

Prohibition is OVER – stop with all the ridiculous legislation and give marketers the ability to actually engage with their customers! [Brigid Joyce Harris]

Celebrate diversity of wine styles, from the austere and elegant to the big and bold and everything in between. [Christopher O’Gorman] I’ll drink to that!

Try to make some quality tempranillo. What I've tasted out there that is done here has been mediocre at best. [Nickolay Todorov] See my reply to the Nebbiolo comment.

For the industry to start taking the millennial wine drinker more seriously. [John Tyler Wines] Memo to Joe Roberts: make this happen. Now.

Convince the average consumer to have fun with their wine purchases and be more adventurous. [Valerie Reichel Moberg]

I have enjoyed how social media has made the wine community stronger..allowing for more support for what others are doing…spreading the word together so to speak. I am hoping more will use social media to interact with their neighboring winemakers and promote this great wine region together..not on an island. [Gloria E. Marckesano Schaefer]

All close their doors for the month of July. I have no idea why or what it would mean, but I’m pretty sure it would create a LOT of excitement. [Duane Bowman] Don’t they already do that in Europe?

Get our crop in without it being frost-damaged!!!! [Larry Schaffer]

Create a plan to go back to dry-farmed vineyards. [Stephanie Trotter-Zacharia]

How about all CA wines sold in carafes only, without labels, to be put onto tables around the country and just consumed . . . NOT over-analyzed . . . (-: [Larry Schaffer, ibid]

Adopt classification/quality certification standards (that have teeth) for reserve and grand reserve that consumers can trust and appreciate. [Rich Reader] I can get behind this one.

Find a spoken of the caliber of Robert Mondavi to speak for the need for qualitity wines. [Calstar Cellars] Robert Mondavis, unfortunately, don’t grow on trees.

[This is Steve again] If all the above happen in the next ten years, California will indeed be an exciting place, probably the most exciting wine district in the world.

  1. Ron McFarland says:

    Steve – I would encourage more disclosure about the number of cases produced. Put it on the back label This is an interesting factoid that many consumers would chase. Not a guarantee of anything just a different marketing aspect.

  2. Some great ideas, some less then possible, some already happening, and a few that I totally disagree with.

    To Pearsons Wine Atlanta I would respond that it’s not EGO that builds a reputation, it’s hard work, continually producing a quality driven product, and the terroir. The region of Rutherford has consistently produced top tier wines that rival the wines of Pauillac. If an AVA doesn’t produce wines that you would deem of “Pauillac’s” quality, does not mean it is a region without merit; especially when it has proven itself on a large scale for many years.

    “Prohibition is OVER – stop with all the ridiculous legislation and give marketers the ability to actually engage with their customers! [Brigid Joyce Harris]” As a small scale winemaker and producer hearing someone else say this makes me smile a little inside, we need to open up the accessibility to wine, especially at the small scale, and especially when boutique doesn’t automatically mean $100.00 plus per bottle.

    “For the industry to start taking the millennial wine drinker more seriously. [John Tyler Wines]” We do need to quit over indulging at events like Zap, but I see Baby Boomers doing the same thing so I’m on board with this statement.

    “Celebrate diversity of wine styles, from the austere and elegant to the big and bold and everything in between. [Christopher O’Gorman]” As Steve said, “I’ll drink to that.” This would be my hope for the wine industry, or more to the point I’d love to take the pretentiousness out of wine.

    Lastly before I hijack a comment thread and write my own column I’d say my thought for making the wine industry more exciting would be more cross producing of wines, I’ve seen it sprout up lately and I’m trying it myself but I truly enjoy to go wine tasting in Napa or Russian River and randomly see an Oregon Pinot or a Lodi Petite Sirah. That would be the ultimate winery, we’re not taking our area too seriously knowing that other regions have a lot to offer.

  3. “For the industry to start taking the millennial wine drinker more seriously. [John Tyler Wines] Memo to Joe Roberts: make this happen. Now.”

    Ah, my friend – but there is only one group who can really do that, and it ain’t me! 🙂

    It’s the wine producers themselves. I already take those folks seriously (or, at least, treat them with the same general respect for their smarties and general lack of respect for their insecurities as I do every other generation).


  4. I have to add what I see as a big hole in California and that is the gap between wine and technology. Not in the growing or making processes, but technology needs to be more integrated into business systems and marketing efforts. Silicon Valley and Napa Valley need to find a connection.

  5. Ah, excitement, that is the topic, after all.

    What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar. And for as long as I have been at this biz, CA has not produced that commodity. Yes, there are plenty of value options, but they are either the rare wine from a less expensive appellation or somebody’s left overs that have been repackaged, perhaps even upgraded. Castle Rock does a heck of job with this, but we do not have yet, and may never have, a useful appellation whose wines are largely presentable and great values at the same time. That would be a game changer here.

    Finding the perfect closure would be a game-changer for us all. Short of that, what we have now and are likely to have are small increases in the quality of closures. Cork is better than ever. Screwcaps will solve their SO2 retention problems. Someone will develop some form of composite cork and screwcap. Think about the virtual absence of TCA in sparkling wine. Those corks have only one solid disk at the end. And those disks are a lot easier to clean up and make TCA free than whole corks.

    A change in wine laws, probably based around the reworking or reinterpretation of the 21st Amendment would be exciting–as several people have already mentioned.

    And so would the revamping of the too inaccurate and sometimes misleading AVA identifiers.

    I am not predicting any of those things, but it would take game-changing events now to make CA into the exciting place it was when it emerged from the vinous backwater and became important on the world stage. There are more stories to be written, and maybe a few of them will be real head-turners, but just as those kinds of tectonic shifts are no longer happening in Europe, so too are they less likely here. It goes with the mature territory we now occupy.

  6. You want exciting? How about the nail biter of wondering every day if you will make enough positive cash flow to justify opening the doors tomorrow? Oh… you weren’t thinking that kind of exciting. 😉

    I note that very few of the suggestions were specific to California. Are people bored with wine in general? Or just with the negatives: things like industrialization, politics and regulation, festishism, and treating wine as an investment.

    Following Charlie’s lead, I humbly submit that the wine scene (let’s not call it an “industry”) in California is not as exciting as it was because it is no longer growing like it was. Back in the day there were not just new wines to discover, there were new wineries, whole new growing regions – and romantic stories to be told of success, and dreams realized.

    What really needs to happen is perhaps truly a tectonic shift – you know, the kind that collapses everything and forces us to start over. Maybe the return of Prohibition.

    Or maybe someone just needs to start producing a great vin jaune.

  7. “Figure out Nebbiolo [Joe Herrig] Maybe toward the middle of the 21st century, but don’t hold you breath.”

    I want to just take you a little ways off topic here, less than 100 miles. I attended a wine festival in Ensenada, in Baja California, last August, with over 50 labels being poured, most of them from the Valle de Guadalupe. Four of the wines were Nebbiolo; two were mediocre at best, but this was due to winemaking flaws. The other two were wonderful, maybe the best new world examples of the variety I have tasted. I found this really exciting as it is true that so far the variety seems difficult to do well with outside of its homeland.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I am helping a winery (Villa Montefiori) in Valle de Guadalupe, where so far our best efforts are Montepulciano and Aglianico. We are moving forward with planting Nebbiolo, based on what we saw in the tasting. So I will take the challenge…but would prefer to move the bar forward to 2025, not wanting to commit to holding my breath longer…

    So for those not familiar with Valle de Guadalupe: it has over 3,000 acres of Vinifera. Some white varieties, including SB, & Chard. Bordeaux varieties do pretty well. But for me it is the late season, very robust reds that excel (i.e. varieties that in this climate need until October to ripen). Mostly small, boutique wineries in the Valle. Packaging is quite sophisticated: there seems to be lots of Italian influence in the design. A vibrant wine bar scene exists in Ensenada. For those with no sense of the Mexican wine scene, prices can be surprising: lots of labels priced $30 to $40, some $40 and up, even a couple over $100. There are two wineries bottling over 1 million cases, and their wine quality is not to be dismissed. One of them (Cetto) has a Sauvignon Blanc that is fresh, and fruty, and they have a Nebiollo that is worthy of serious attention. So put on your bullet proof vest and go tasting south of the border!

  8. Um, sorry to say, but this all has the strong stench of curmedgeonism to me. Kind of like “Music ain’t exciting like it was in the 60’s” or “Ah Movies, they don’t make em’ like they used to.” What exactly was so exciting about the previous era of California wine? From reading the post and comments it sounds like the fact that it was new and growing gave it the feeling of excitement. More to the point it was just the era of your personal initial exploration of the subject. True excitement comes from being confronted with the unexpected. Thus first exposures are always remembered as more profound. Be it the arts, love, or any of the wonderful aspects of being alive seem to fit this pattern. Being extremely new to the wine making world, I would have to say that the present is the most exciting wine has ever been for me. Boring for you sure, you are an excepted expert on the subject who by definition should rarely be surprised by the subject. If you were in a state of constant surprise, one would have to question your supposed comprehension. I don’t want my critics and writers to be wide eyed nubians. That’s why I don’t submit my wine to Huel Howser for god’s sake!
    So don’t fret so much Steve. Except that yes, your acquired knowledge of the subject matter may have dulled your sense of excitement. But it serves the requisites of being able to properly judge and discern the merits of what you encounter.

  9. Dear Jason, thanks for an astute observation. I thought all that through before posting, and posted anyway. Maybe you’re right. By the way, who is Huel Howser?

  10. You don’t know about Huell Howser, Steve? As Huell himself would say “that’s amazing!!”

    Huell Howser does public television programs, Steve. I would suggest you look him up on YouTube since any written description probably wouldn’t do him justice.

  11. Steve,
    As a Northern Californian, I’m shocked you have never experienced the glory of Huel Howser and “California’s Gold”. It will air on KQED around 2 am or so. It features Huel visiting various tourist locations around California. Every episode features him being shocked and amazed by everything he sees. Here is a classic example.

  12. You can find California Gold each night on KCSM at 7:30 p.m. and Huel also has several variations of the program, including California’s Golden Parks etc. It is not widely known that I do a fine example of Huel after being introduced to some California Gold of my own. And, you get to pick between young Huel and the Huel of today, because he’s been doing this for a long time and programs air from the beginning, so you get to see him age through the years, never losing his enthusiasm.

  13. Putting Abe Schoener’s picture on the cover of the Wine Spectator, now that would add a little excitement. Great ideas for data management and marketing, not so much.

  14. Tom wark says:

    Working to make wine more exciting to wine geeks really isn’t necessary. We already are excited by wine without any help.

    Want to make wine exciting for the masses? Get a high quality drama produced on HBO that takes place in and around the Napa or Sonoma wine region, get Robert Downey Jr or Laura Linney to star in it and watch the excitement about wine explode. IRS all about pop culture.

  15. Bruce Cakebread says:

    Now is the most exciting time to be making wine in Napa Valley. Over the last 50 years we have gone through the experimental phase of 60’s and 70’s, we have replanted due to phylloxera in the 90’s to have mature vineyards that are now 10 to 20 years old, mostly planted in right site with the right variety. We have more winemakers that have 20 plus years of experience than at any other time. We also have the influx of new winemakers that bring new ideas to challenge current thinking of grape growing and winemaking which is healthy. To me that mix of experience and new ideas to the winemaking scene along with mature vineyards makes it an exciting time to be in Napa Valley.

  16. I am not sure that the “exciting” scenario you speak of can really come back. Look at California as a startup company. And in the world of wine we pretty much are that. Well the last 50-60 years have been a fun wild ride like any successful startup long crazy hours playing a bit fast and loose with growth growth growth and in many cases making money hand over fist while at other moments losing our shirts but all in all we have come out in pretty good shape with a successful business. Suddenly our market has softened and we have a nice business humming along why do anything crazy to mess it up. Just keep fueling the tank and perform a little maintenance here and there and let it run. It happens in business all the time when you think you have nothing to lose you are willing to let it all hang out once you get big enough, happy enough and more comfortable, why risk it.

    The next big shake up can and will most likely be the end of the three tier system. Although I doubt it will be soon. This will change the landscape quite a bit but it may not be the golden egg everyone believes it will be.

    At the end of the day domestic wine consumption is up so we should ne happy. We need to keep selling wine as a lifestyle and not a luxury. Just think if we could get one out of every ten cases of beer purchased to become a bottle of wine. That would be a windfall like no other for wineries big and small.

  17. Chuck Hayward says:

    Unfortunately, game-changing is not what can be done right now. Like percentages (adding 1 to a base of 1 = 100%, the same to a base of 100 = 1%), the wine industry today is a mature business and changes will come in terms of fractions and increments. The time of “game-changing excitement” is beyond us.

    The problem is we want to find that one thing that will change the world. Our future attempts at creating excitement will not come from just one thing but from many small, focused ideas like those generated by Facebook. Take all those small changes and add them together, now that can be exciting! Like they say, “let a thousand flowers bloom.” When you spend time looking for that one flower, you miss the other 999.

  18. Dear Bruce Cakebread, I couldn’t agree more that it’s an exciting time in Napa. Certainly the wines are the best I’ve ever experienced. All the same, I started thinking some years ago, how much better can Napa Cabernet get until it’s basically perfect, beyond which it cannot get better? So are you talking about wines that are perfect getting better, or a general raising of quality across all Napa wineries?

  19. I agree with Lori Narlock.

  20. I think the game -changer will be the Tempranillo Advocates Producers and Amigos Society Grand Wine Tasting at Fort Mason on June 5th. We will celebrate all of the Iberian Varieties grown in California. Also, watch for events Celebrating “International Tempranillo Day.”

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