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Have I developed a California palate?


I started my tasting diary on Feb. 16, 1983. I’d been seriously getting into wine the previous four years, and, infatuated with Michael Broadbent’s Great Vintage Wine Book, decided that, like him, I’d keep track of every wine I had. I even removed the labels and pasted them in the diary.

The first wine in Book One of my diary was a 1981 Morgon Beaujolais from Georges Duboeuf. It cost $6. I called it “delightful.” The second wine was from the following night. It was a Macon-Villages, also 1981, and it set me back all of $4. It was all right; I said it was a “good Chinese food wine.” The third wine was Kenwood’s 1980 Vintage Red Cabernet Sauvignon ($3.50). Kenwood’s basic Red and White wines were staples of the Heimoff household for a good part of the 1980s.

The fourth wine brings us to Germany: an off-dry 1980 Bernkastler Badstube, from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer ($3.99). I drank it with a cheese omelot. The fifth wine (and the fifth in as many days–I was basically a bottle-a-day man back then) also was German: 1981 Erben Kabinett, from the fine producer, Langguth, in the Rheinhessen. It cost $4. Number six brought me back to France, a 1979 Domaine d’Ormesson. For $3, it was another house favorite of mine. Here are numbers 7 through 10:

1979 Kirchheimer Romerstrasse Riesling Kabinett, trocken (price not recorded)

1979 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay ($12, pricy)

1976 Chateau Beauregard, Saint-Julien ($5)

1976 Wine and the People Zinfandel, Sonoma ($10)

I engage in this stroll down memory lane because I find it remarkable how catholic (with a small “c”) my drinking was back then. You will find in that tasting diary wines from all over the world, in every price bracket: Yquem and Leoville-Las-Cases at the higher end, cheap little regional wines at the low.

I tasted even more broadly throughout the later 1980s and into the early 1990s, after I began writing about wine and getting invited to events at which the great wines of the world were opened for me, including First Growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundy. But when Wine Enthusiast asked me to be their California reviewer, I found that I no longer had the time to indulge in worldwide tasting, swamped as I was with Cali wines. That remains the situation today. I try to get out to international tastings, and occasionally I’ll pull an older bottle of something Italian or French from my [small] wine cellar. But I’ll be the first to admit that my tasting is 98% California these days.

We all taste with the palate we have, which is not necessarily the palate we might want (to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld from a different context), so I suppose it’s no use lamenting that I might have developed a California palate over the years. If I have, so be it. Such a palate might be described as favoring full-bodied, higher-alcohol wines with overtly sweet, ripe fruit and, often, a generous cloak of new oak. One can say such wines trade finesse for power, elegance for audacity, subtlety for sheer razzle dazzle. Still, within this context one still can find enough distinctions of finesse, elegance and subtlety to make comparative judgments. Let us consider two Cabernet Sauvignons: Araujo 2007 Eisele Vineyard and Mockingbird 2007 Red Label. Both are expensive; both are from Napa Valley. Both have vast concentrations of sweet black fruits, but the former has impeccable structure and dryness, while the latter lacks it. I could see a Bordeauxphile trying both wines and objecting that both are candied and unbalanced. However, I am not a Bordeauxphile, and to my palate there is a big difference between these two wines, similar as they are to each other.

Does my California palate mean I can’t appreciate a good, dry Bordeaux? I don’t think so. But I will admit that when I taste Bordeaux (for example, at the annual Union des Grands Crus event in San Francisco), I often find it too austere and earthy for me; and when a Bordeaux does appeal to me, it’s because it’s Californian in style. This isn’t to say I think that California Cabernet Sauvignon is objectively better than Bordeaux. It’s just my taste. But it puzzles and annoys me when somebody says Bordeaux is objectively better than California Cabernet Sauvignon. Why do they have to make it a contest? Two different wines, two different kinds of people. Something for everyone.

When all’s said and done, I do worry that I’ve developed a California palate, but like I said earlier, there’s nothing to be done about it. Besides, it would be bizarre indeed if I–a California wine critic–didn’t care for California wine. I like it a lot, but, as a final note, I will concede (sadly) that too much California wine, red and white, is too sweet. I like sweet fruit, but I loathe a table wine that should finish dry but doesn’t. (I loathe an unripe wine, too.) That’s the risk of making wine in sunny California. The brix gets carried away. Too many winemakers either allow it to happen and don’t know or care, or else they think they’re catering to a consumer who likes soda-poppy wines. I don’t.

  1. “We all taste with the palate we have, which is not necessarily the palate we might want” = great line.

    Great post overall. There is nothing wrong with having a California (or French) palate. Recognizing it and thinking about it is what is important. I wish Robert Parker would make a statement similar in thought to this. Well done, Steve.

  2. While wine tasting in Oregon recently, I found myself preferring the Pinot Noirs that tasted most like California Pinot. It’s easy to develop a California palate when that is mostly what you drink!

  3. Carlos Toledo says:

    Parker and his clones have won.

    We’re doomed to taste the overly fruity, high alcoholic, oaky, artificially created and picked yeast, laboratory-like wines for the rest of our lives…or maybe i’ll move to Italia and grow my own vines….

    Well, if McDonald’s is changing some of their “meals” (less sugar and salt), maybe not all is lost yet.

  4. It’s tough to appreciate other regions’ wines, as my wife and I are doing now in the Midwest, when so mnay of us do indeed have the Ca palate.

  5. Steve – I really like the “we all taste with the palate we have…” line as well. So true.

    We discuss the context of tasting, not always recognizing that context includes everything else we have ever tasted. Each of us has an internal standard candle, or an ur-form, against which we evaluate everything else we taste. Most of us have multiple points of reference, and to make it even more complicated our internal references probably change with time, evolving with increasing exposure and experience.

    As a producer I worry about developing a “company palate.” Consequently I rarely drink my own wines for enjoyment, and I make a conscious effort to taste a wide range of other wines and styles of those wines. However I admit that I don’t taste wines from all regions in reference to my own. Because of the varieties I work with I tend to focus on California, France, Oregon, Washington, and to a lesser extent, New Zealand. But I can find enjoyment in wines from anywhere. Still – what I find enjoyable is largely influenced by what I have found enjoyable in the past. Epiphanies are rare for me these days.

  6. @John, “context includes everything else we have ever tasted. Each of us has an internal standard candle, or an ur-form, against which we evaluate everything else we taste.”

    This is a very interesting point John and why I am not a big fan of the hundreds of wine review blogs that pop up. I am all for wine blogs as a great tool to learn, but not as a great tool for a consumer to get reliable information from.

    People pick on some Critics because they can taste through two dozen wines in 5 minuets and sort and score them. The main reason they can do it is palate memory as you suggest in your comments. They have thousands of wines in their palate memory so that they know, “hey I like this or don’t like this,” much faster than a novice could. I am not saying this is a good thing, it’s just helps explain how they do it.

    I am now starting to come up on hundreds of wines tried (maybe 300-400), and only now do I feel like I am sorting things out a bit. Even if you break that down though, I have probably had 100 Syrahs, a bunch of Pinot and Chardonnay, and the remainder is split between dozens of varietals. This is why I don’t bother reading a 3 out of 4 stars review, or however they score it on some blog, there isn’t enough reference points. Let me know when you have hit a few thousand wines tasted, or at least several hundred of one varietal or region. Wait, who am I kidding, I probably still wouldn’t care! 🙂

  7. I think your CA palette is pretty obvious though there is nothing wrong with that. As long as one knows to read your reviews in that context there isn’t a problem. I’m a pinot lover who prefers Burgundy and the Willamette Valley over Sonoma & CA style pinot. Reading your reviews, with the adjectives you use, in the context of your CA palette I can usually tell if I will like it or not. (Call it the WE discount factor.)

    When it comes down to it all wine reviewers have relative scales compared to ones self. You just need to know the adjustment factor to make the review of any value.

  8. So, two questions Steve. One, do you think you’d be able to better critique CA wine if you had more time to continue tasting from other regions of the world? And, as part of that, do you think it would better help your readers gain more context into your reviews, since most likely, they drink more than CA wines? And second, what was your preferred method for removing labels from bottles. Don’t know why I never thought of this.

  9. Terry, that was 3 questions! Anyhow, (1), I don’t know, since it’s a hypothetical. (2) Ditto. (3) Most labels would come off with a warm water rinse. Some labels never came off. I used to complain to wineries that used hard glue. Sometimes they sent me the labels separately.

  10. Steve,

    Great post but I do not think you or any other reviewer needs to explain their palate. Would we have asked Siskel and Ebert to explain why they do not review Bolywood movies or French Film Noir movies more often? Besides, life is too short to try and be someone else… your “We taste with the palate we have” sentence is so true! I wouldn’t mind something along that line on my toombstone.

    I used to love the journal I had with wine labels I soaked off bottles I drank. At the time, wineries were using glue labelers with a glue that was not waterproof. Problem was that labels soaked off in ice buckets or where humidity was high and besides, setup time on glue labelers was a bitch. To make a long story short, most everyone switched to pressure sensitive labeling or to ice-proof glues that do not neatly soak off. Sorry Terry.

  11. Yikes – Don’t know why that comment just published itself!!

    As I was trying to say: I have friend who has been in the wine biz his whole life and he always complains about CA wines. I just tell him: We make the best California wines in the world here. Stop trying to compare them to any other wines.


  12. Neil Barham says:

    Well I thank my genes for providing me with the opposite palate. My palate feels overwhelmed when my mouth is filled with, a mouthful of most Cali reds.

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