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The U.S. East Coast versus West Coast Palate
By Ed McCarthy
Jan 29, 2013
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Is there a difference in the palates of wine drinkers living on the East Coast of the U.S. as opposed to those west of the Mississippi River, especially those on the West Coast?  In other words, does geography make a difference in wine tasting?

Judging by my own experience and observation, I believe that many wine drinkers living in the East Coast cities, such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C., do taste and/or appreciate wines differently from those on the West Coast.  Not really because of their different geographic locations, of course, but more so because of the wines that each group has been exposed to in their environment.

For example, let’s consider the columnists of our own publication, Wine Review Online.  It is no coincidence that the three columnists on the East Coast, Michael Apstein, Michael Franz, and I, write primarily about European wines, especially those from France and Italy.  And conversely, those columnists living in California write mainly about California wines.

We all tend to write about what we know and like.  Many of us on the East Coast have had more exposure to French, Italian, and Spanish wines than those from California, and we have formed our own palates accordingly.

There are fundamental differences in the mainly cool-climate wines of Europe--also known in wine parlance as Old World wines--than
in the warmer-climate wines of California, South America, and Australia, the so-called New World wines.

Wines from many of the major wine regions of France, Italy, and Germany--for instance, Burgundy, Champagne, the Loire Valley, Piedmont, Tuscany, and the Mosel--because the vineyards are in cooler regions, produce distinctly different wines than those wines from the warmer-climate New World regions.  The European wines tend to be very dry, high in acidity, subtle, and not so high in alcoholic content.  Often the red wines in these regions are slightly bitter and quite tannic, especially when they are young.  Those of us who grew up drinking these wines usually develop an appreciation of this type of wine.  Conversely, we tend to find many (but not all) California wines too rich, too ripe, too fruity, and/or too high in alcohol--apparently a result of their being made in a warmer climate, from winemakers with a different winemaking sensitivity, born in that climate.

I know that I am dealing in generalizations about wine; many exceptions exist.  I would never dismiss all the wines of a major wine region.  I am a fan of California’s cooler-climate wines; for example, its Pinot Noirs from the extreme Sonoma Coast, aka the “true Coast,” and many of California’s sparkling wines, such as Roederer Estate in Mendocino and Schramsberg from its various cooler vineyard sites.

Not all West or East Coast writers can be categorized to fit into one box of wine preferences, either.  Take Robert Whitley, Wine Review Online’s founder and publisher, who originally worked in Washington D.C. before moving to California.  Whitley travels extensively in Europe, and writes about Bordeaux wines with as much passion as he writes about California wines. Mary Ewing-Mulligan MW, a WRO columnist from the East Coast, writes about (and enjoys) California wines frequently, but she also loves Italian wines.

I have found that, as wine writer, it is easier to specialize in wines for which you have a passion.  Michael Apstein, for instance, specializes in Burgundy.  I concentrate on Champagne and Italian wines--especially those from Piedmont. 

Of course, most wine journalists can write on many diverse wine topics.  But it’s more fun to write about the wines one likes.  I must confess that I have a difficult time praising over-the-top, over-ripe, soft, over-oaked wines, no matter where they are made.  Many California wines, but also some modern Bordeaux, fall into this category.

Internationally, the prevailing image that many wine producers and the foreign press seem to have about the American palate is that we generally favor big, fruit-driven, ripe wines red and white.  When  influential U.S. publications such as The Wine Spectator and Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate award high point scores (95 to 100) to such wines, it only enforces this image abroad. 

This has undoubtedly influenced the wine production of certain regions.  I’m thinking specifically about the “international” winemaking methods employed in some wines of Italy, particularly Tuscany (and the popularity of Sangiovese clones that make richer, fleshier red wines).  The liberal use of new oak barrels for ageing and the addition of international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and/or Syrah in Tuscan wines are two such methods.  The same methods have been used in many wine regions of Spain, and to a lesser extent in Greek wines.  Even Bordeaux, especially St.-Emilion, has changed its style of wines and has become more international.

Of course, not all wines in California are being made in what I call an over-the-top style.  Consider some leading California Cabernet Sauvignons, such as Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon; also, the Cabernets of Trefethen Vineyards, Smith-Madrone, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, and Chateau Montelena, to name a few of the top exceptions, exhibit notable restraint and subtlety.  But unfortunately, at least to me, this style of winemaking is still very much not the major trend in California winemaking.

I have noticed the same, “over-the-top” tendencies occur in many wines of Oregon--with Eyrie Vineyard a notable exception (bless them!)--and, to a lesser extent, in Washington State’s wines.  But the fact that exceptions exist along the U.S. West Coast means that restrained, subtle wines can be made there if wine producers are so inclined.  And let’s not blame global warming (although it certainly doesn’t help) because the big, ripe, high-alcohol style of wines began well before global warming.

I can remember some of the wonderful Cabernet Sauvignons being made in California between 1968 and 1978.  Forgive me for the over-used expression, but these Cabernets (Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, Robert Mondavi, BV Private Reserve, Ridge, Mayacamas, Chateau Montelena, Stag’s Leap Cask 23, Joseph Phelps Eisele Vineyard) were world class indeed.  I still own some of them, and many are drinking beautifully even now.  Some time in the 1980s, things changed in California--at least for me.  Yes, I do remember some 1985, 1986, and (even as late as) 1991 Cabernet Sauvignons that I have enjoyed.  But the Golden Age of California ended there for me.

Of course, no rights or wrongs exist when it comes to personal preferences in wine drinking.  As for me, I enjoy carefully selected Barolos, Barbarescos, and Chianti Classicos from Italy along with some wonderful Italian white wines from Alto Adige and Sicily; from France, some great Chablis from the cooler vintages (such as 2008), carefully selected red Burgundies, well-aged Bordeaux, and, always, Champagne.  I am a happy East-Coast-palate wine drinker.