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More California bashing in a beautiful new book


I revert quite often to the theme of wine’s “authenticity” in this blog, not because the concept is all that meaningful to me—it isn’t, in the sense I’ll get to shortly—but because it’s become the go-to meme with which others place wine into value tiers, usually to the disparagement of California.

We’ll call them the Authenticists, that nouvelle school of wine critics who claim that, in order for wine to meet their criteria of “authenticity,” it must be

–       made in a foreign country, usually Europe

–       with decidedly little technology or intervention

–       in a place with a medieval heritage

–       produced from a family whose winemaking traditions extend far back into history

–       and who live modestly, even quaintly

–       and it doesn’t hurt for them to have charming characters: a curmedgeonly Patriarch, a wise old Matriarch, a revolutionary son

–       the wine itself must be modest in alcohol

–       from an individual, usually old vineyard

–       and satisfy the Authenticist’s version of “connectedness” to the land

The latest author to celebrate these values is Terry Theise, whose 2010 book, Reading Between the Wines, is out in paperback from University of California Press.

The book, rightfully, has been touted for the beauty of its writing, something Theise, who imports wines from Europe into this country, wanted to accomplish; his preface lauds the “lapidary style” of writing, which is “polished and cut to the point of transparency…that allows the object to shine through.”

As an admirer of good writing myself, I support this aim.  That a wine writer should take the time to actually focus on impeccable writing is, mirabile dictu, a stirring antidote to this age of 140-character Tweets and wine “writing” that is characterless to the point of morbidity. Theise writes the way I like to read: with muscularity and attitude, precision and color, passion and intelligence. He must have left his editors at UC Press (who were the same as mine) with precious little to do because he gave them perfect copy.

But I want to look past the evident elegance of Theise’s writing to examine what it is he is saying, which seems to me dipped from the old, tiresome well of Authenticism. The indirect slam on California comes through in statements like “I don’t like Hummer wines,” in wholesale indictments such as “You’re picking overripe grapes because you’re scared they won’t be ‘physiologically’ ripe. Your wine has far too much potential alcohol, so you add water to the grape must [and] add…Mega Purple,” to anecdotes about the “connectedness” of Mosel winegrowers to their land and tradition in a way that implies that California winegrowing families possess no such connections, to assertions that the village of Zeltingen is “somewhere,” populated by “people who embody it,” as opposed to—what?—Los Olivos? Boonville? Forestville? which presumably are “nowhere,” and whose populace is disembodied?

Theise visits the grave of an old Mosel friend. “I love that he lies in the slate, the soil where his Riesling grew.” People like his friend “were the people of this place in the world. It’s no accident that there are almost no international consultants, the ‘flying winemakers’ from here. The Mosel gives its vintners all the stimulus they need.”

We are to conclude inferentially that California vintners have no connection to their land (tell that to the Seghesios, whose ancestors rest in Alexander Valley soil). That they are arrivistes without roots, lacking concern for their neighbors, uninterested in anything save hype and profit, who hire outsiders to tell them what to do and have no sensibility of their own. Theise tells a story of Mosel families who got up early one Christmas morning to help a neighbor pick Eiswein. “Afterward they gathered…for soup and Christmas cookies. And when they left they were all singing out Merry Christmas…”. “I ask you!” he cries in wonder at such communal love; “…being a Mosel vintner signifies membership in a human culture much deeper than mere occupation.”

There it is again, the insinuation that California (and the entire New World?) runs on “mere occupation” while the ancient, ennobled peasant-vintners of the Mosel have a spiritual connection to their land and culture that lifts their wines into some rarified category of Authenticism. Do California winemakers not help their neighbors, when help is needed? Certainly they do. They may even sing Christmas carols at that time of year. I could cite tales…And I would bet that the amount of money raised for charities, especially for field workers, in Napa Valley dwarfs anything in the Mosel.

Theise is right to poke fun at “flying winemakers” and a mythical “Hubris Hill” $125 cult wine (no doubt a Napa Cabernet) produced by a hired-gun winemaker employed by a billionaire lifestyle-seeking ex-engineer or Wall Street mogul. Such people do litter California wine country, and Lord knows I poke fun at them all the time because they’re so easy to satirize.

But to throw the baby out with the bathwater—to imply that the state is inauthentic based on a handful of extremes—is unfair and ahistorical. I’ve struggled to understand California bashing for a long time, whether it’s our wines or our weather or our lifestyle (“San Francisco Democrats,” “brie-and-Chablis drinkers,” “fruits and nuts,” etc. etc. ad nauseum). I suspect it’s part envy, but I also try to see things from the perspective of the Authenticists. Look, last week I drank and loved an entire bottle of Melsheimer 2010 Reiler Mullay-Hofberg “Schaf” Riesling, from the Mosel. Low alcohol (7.5%), from a family who’s farmed their slope for five generations, over 200 years—a gorgeous, admirable wine, just the kind of “connected” vintners Theise loves.

But when I look at their picture on this website, I can easily see a bunch of Mondavis or Seghesios or Pedroncellis or Davies or Bundschus or Benzigers, or any of scores of California families whose love of their land and connection to their culture are no less profound than that of anyone in the Mosel. And I think: good writing or bad writing, Theise still is indulging in California bashing. It’s silly, it’s a trope too easily depended upon by writers, and it’s time to get over it.

  1. Wow… you could get out of Terry’s book the inference that he was slamming Calif wines/winemaking takes a pretty huge leap, IMHO. He is, after all, an importer of German (and Austrian) wines and you’d exppect to speak of those wines in glowing terms. They are unique and very special wines…unlike most others in the world. But to interpret his writing as a slam on Calif wines, or the rest of the wines in the world, takes an imagination that’s beyond mine.

  2. I agree with Tom. I loved Theise’s book for the quality of the writing and did not come away from it thinking he was down on CA wines in general. He certainly would grant that there are many family wine traditions in the U.S.

    Nevertheless he clearly endorses what you call “authenticism”–that it seems to me is the real issue. Should a wine’s origins matter? On the one hand, a good wine is a wine that gives sensual pleasure regardless of its origins. But the connections to soil, traditions, culture, geography,etc. contribute to the intellectual pleasures of wine.

    Surely there is room for both “authenticity” and the pursuit of sheer hedonism in the wine world. But there is nothing wrong with waving the flag for authenticity if that is where your satisfaction lies.

  3. Fame fame fatal fame….

    Perhaps when people say ‘californian wines’ they have in mind catchup, fast food, adam sandler movies, automatic cars, power this, power that, escalators and all the technology that can ever exist. Sorry folks, i can’t drink a wonderful AMERICAN wine without thinking “damn, how does THAT land make this delicious wine”?

    Yes, the propaganda works for and against all.

    As for europe customers like (link) the idea of artisan, no laboratory, terroir, purity, honesty, caterine deneuve films, french bistros, tapas, pasta della nonna….

    Well, a HUGE amount of european wine is worse than hogwash (including german sweet wine),a lot of food is incredible hideous, many films suck balls, there are shopping malls in europe too. Every time i drink a bad wine from Italia or Espana i catch myself thinking how was possible that such terrible wine was made in that great continent with so much tradition and knowledge??

    Tradition? You can’t build tradition in just 4 generations. That’s too fast even for the internet generation. In this case i’ll ask fans and farmers to wait their time (yes, bad wine was very common for the last 2000 years and good barolo is only a few 200 years old).

    Steve, i find these “bashing” posts just fascinating. It can connect everyone, everything to everywhere. The olive oil, coffee and beer (that i know of) industries don’t have the same power. Made my afternoon.

  4. Steve,

    Does the author specifically call out California? Maybe don’t read too much into it 🙂

    It is not uncommon that writers and critics immersed in european wines recognize the deserved long histories of producers on their side of the pond. Some of it makes for a great story. But in instances where US wines are discussed (doesn’t sound like it here) they more often than not get glossed over. How many ‘definitive’ 400+ page publications written by old world experts on the wines of the globe have you seen that devote a scant handful of pages to California, and even then cover only a smattering of the wines that may have wider brand recognition.

    I have not read the book, but doubt it will have much to do with changing the affections each camp has for the wines they enjoy. I can only hope that more writers don’t take the approach of dismissing all other approaches in the world of wine to defend their own outlook. It is unsavory, and unneccesary.

  5. Steve, this seems all inference to me. He could just as easily be talking about modern winemaking styles in Bordeaux, not the New World. I agree about his book being a fantastic read – it was one of my top picks when I was a judge in the georges duboeuf wine book of the year awards a couple of years ago.

  6. “You’re picking overripe grapes because you’re scared they won’t be ‘physiologically’ ripe. Your wine has far too much potential alcohol, so you add water to the grape must [and] add…Mega Purple,”
    Define overripe. What’s wrong with Mega Purple? It’s the bondo that keeps Californian winemaking running!
    From this statement it appears that he is lumping California wineries as a whole in with Central Valley California wineries and their practices(there are no flying winemakers out there).
    But I think there ws a well reviewed/bashed film called Mondovino that showed several well-known European wineries employing a well known flying/driving/chain-smoking enologist to help them make their wine. What about that?

  7. Richard Mansfield says:

    For that matter, tell me why all the enological tannins and fining agents come from Europe? I also remember well when the German reds had their color augmented with “Deckrotwein” from Spain – before Weinsberg and other breeding institutions developed teinturier varieties to lend color to their elegant reds.

    I love a great Assmannshausen Spatburgunder, or a Dornfelder from Wurttemberg, or even the lively and fun Trollinger – important is how they taste, not what procedures were used to make them, not whether they had “megapurple” or a “Teinturier” to boost their color, or had tannins added to bring them into balance.

    And don’t forget that the Europeans were practicing thermovinification well before the “flash detente” made its belated way to California in order to make help their reds hold what little endogenous color they might have.

    Any winemaker, be they part of a small family operation or a large cooperative/megawinery wants to make great wine. Their jobs depend on it, their futures and their families depend on it. We have these tools to give the consumer an enjoyable experience when they uncork their bottle.

  8. Hey Steve.

    I talked to some people who studied at UC Davis and they all had to badmouth american way of making wine.

    Damn, what’s going on with you guys, Cali winemakers? You do need some better PRers to undo the damage. Fame and reputation are easy to stick on and tough to fight against.

    Perhaps the industry is so huge you can scoff at the rest of the world and you couldn’t care less for what people think and say, even the ones who study inside your area. I’m confused.

  9. george kaplan says:

    As for Hummer wines, I must say I prefer slightly less than hot coffee, with milk.

  10. Steve,

    Humans are funny! They seem to have this irrepressible urge to generalize from specific instances to a whole category! The case in point being: “There are many old traditional Nth generation family winemakers in Europe, therefore all wine out of Europe is like that”, and “There are many big, hi-tech, modern wine corporations in California, therefore all wine out of California is like that.” No mention of the hi-tech corporations in Europe. And no mention of the traditional winemakers in California.

    Another example, closer to my heart, is Tom Wark’s latest natural-wine-bashing post of a few days ago, where he quotes the words of an individual and generalizes them to a “Natural Wine Movement” (while managing to be insulting, disparaging, and paternalistic at the same time. Well worth a read just for that reason, btw!)

  11. John Roberts says:

    Terry wasn’t bashing California wine or wine from any specific region, that’s his point! He is criticizing, tacitly, a way of making wine, a style, a mode of operation! The book was beautiful, yes, we all agree. But more than this, his praise applies also to those whom you mention! The Rochiolis, the Mondavis and Ken Brown, Caymus family, Sebastianis and all those families that have been in Dry Creek for decades…haha.. it is the particular we are celebrating here. And yes, he succumbs to hubris himself, of course, but this needn’t obfuscate the main point.

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