I write about West Coast wines for London-based Decanter magazine. Its editors and many of its contributors live in the United Kingdom and are, naturally, Euro-centric in their tastes, having been weaned on Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. Wines made in the United States have to go the extra mile -- make that kilometer -- to impress them.
After Decanter published its California Cabernet Sauvignon report in the January 2009 issue, based on tastings conducted in fall 2008 in London (which I did not attend), it was with some trepidation that I turned to page 82 to see how the 2005 California Cabs fared. Literary blood soaked the paper.
"This is a new nadir in the history of Decanter's California tastings," wrote Adam Lechmere, who interviewed the judges but was not himself a taster. "Our panelists, to say the least, were not impressed. They found the wines 'overblown;' 'over-alcoholic;' 'manufactured;' 'soupy;' 'hot;' 'jammy;' 'conformist;' 'correct-but-dull;' 'spirity' and 'flabby.' Tasters were bitterly disappointed."
Now, I don't enjoy wines that I describe with any of the above adjectives, and there indeed are plenty of over-the-top Cabernet Sauvignons made in California. While some of the state's finest Cabs were not submitted to Decanter, others were -- measured, balanced wines which to my palate met none of the aforementioned negative descriptors, yet obviously displeased the London tasters.
Although the Decanter panel didn't give any five-star awards (its highest rating) to the 168 California wines sampled, 16 received four stars (highly recommended) and 120 won three stars (recommended). Considering that 81% of the wines earned "recommended" status, they couldn't have been that bad, could they?
In comparison, of the 55 Medoc crus classes (Bordeaux) wines from the fabulous 2005 vintage that were reviewed in the July 2008 issue of Decanter, a record 25 earned five stars.
This got me thinking more about the European vs. American palate, and the valid reasons for the apparent chasm in taste.
For Cabernet Sauvignon- and Merlot-based red wines, most critics in Europe, particularly those in the United Kingdom, have been weaned on Bordeaux. Their parents drank Bordeaux, their grandparents drank Bordeaux, and their own children do or will drink Bordeaux -- it's simply how it's been for centuries, with Great Britain the major sales outlets for the Bordelais.
America, on the other hand, doesn't have a deep wine-drinking history; only in the last 35 years or so have consumers begun to embrace fine wine in large numbers. Before that, when we did drink wine, it was mostly Mateus, Lancers, Blue Nun and Boone's Farm; only in the 1960s did premium California wine begin to reach the mainstream.
Generally, Europeans develop a taste for less fruity wines, with firm structure, some herbaceous notes, and gritty tannins that require bottle aging to soften into drinkability. Few drink Bordeaux when it's released because it's simply too tight in its youth.
Europeans also tend to drink their wine with meals; the thought of having a glass of claret -- the British term for red Bordeaux -- before dinner never occurs to them.
Americans also don't limit their wine consumption to meals, so a wine with a big personality can indeed be enjoyed as a cocktail, without the drinker appearing to be uncouth. Many of us are impatient and into instant gratification, drinking Cabernets that my European friends would cellar for at least five years. Who cares? We like what we like.
Like Europeans, Americans drink largely from their own back yards. In the U.S., California wine is ubiquitous, varietally labeled and comfortable to those who don't speak French, and it comes in every style and flavor imaginable. We embrace the sunny, juicy wines made in California's accommodating climate. We love what we know and know what we love.
Again, there are California Cabernet Sauvignons that are ultra-ripe, sweet, alcoholic and soft, and I personally don't care for such wines. Yet for every one of those, there is a balanced, elegant and age-worthy version on the shelf or restaurant list. And for every one of me, there is a consumer who adores the big, rich, luscious versions of Cabernet Sauvignon that the British detest so much.
Wine critics exist to help folks find wines that suit their individual tastes. The skilled ones are able to set aside their personal preferences on style and varietal and evaluate wines fairly on their quality, interest, balance and complexity. We put our impressions in writing in a way that, we hope, explains the character of each bottle to potential buyers, so that they will get the type of wine they want and expect.
I'm a lifelong Californian, yet I appreciate a dry Alsatian Riesling as much as I do one from Anderson Valley. A well-made Medoc cru classe has characteristics I wouldn't find in an Oakville Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and vice versa, yet I can enjoy them on equal terms.
After reading Decanter's Cal Cab report, I thought of the columnists at Wine Review Online -- all extremely knowledgeable, widely traveled and constantly tasting wines from around the world. We are a democratic bunch, appreciating well-made wines even if they aren't the ones we would choose to have with dinner. Our job -- and pleasure -- is to separate the wheat from the chaff, no matter where the wheat is grown, and to do it as fairly as possible.
Perhaps Decanter's panelists were gluten-intolerant when they tasted the 2005 California Cabernet Sauvignons. Their results demonstrate the cultural differences in wine appreciation here and abroad, and not that there is anything necessarily wrong with California Cab. Lechmere ended his review of the Decanter results thusly: "Yet judged on their own merits, California Cabernet has work to do to convince a European audience."
Like any other wine region in the world, California has a mix of great successes, gaudy excesses, simpleton wines and everything in between. So does France. France's biggest market is Europe, California's is the United States. By all accounts, California Cabernet Sauvignon has convinced the one audience that really matters -- the American consumer.
Email Linda at email@example.com.