Saying that California wines taste rich and ripe belabors the obvious. Everyone knows it already. What I like to call the “flamboyant style” has become so ubiquitous in the Golden State that people really only take note when a wine does not display it, or does not display it as much as other wines do.
One hears talk these days about California wines becoming more restrained, but while a stylistic shift can be discerned in some whites, particularly some top Chardonnays, the pendulum has barely swung when it comes to reds. Whether made with Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah, or Zinfandel, the overwhelming majority of California reds remain overtly fruit-forward, with sweet rather than savory primary flavors, secondary ones that come mainly from barrel aging, high levels of alcohol, dark colors, and soft, almost scarce tannins. They taste showy and extravagant -- in a word, flamboyant.
Some commentators credit geography for the prevalence of this flashy style, their contention being that soils are rich and the climate hot in much of grape growing California. In this line of thought, nature, not human decision making, yields one sort of wine rather than another.
Yet in the 1970s and 1980s, the first two decades of the ongoing California wine boom, this style was nowhere near as pervasive as it is now. Back then, the state’s best vintners aimed to fashion wines that were more firmly structured and less blatantly sweet than those that dominate the market today. They worked with old-fashioned foreign benchmarks, particularly French ones, and they measured success by how faithfully they could emulate those imported models. That, after all, was the real story of the now famous 1976 Paris tasting -- not that some American wines ranked ahead of some French ones, but that the judges could not identify which wines came from which places.
Other commentators attribute the predominance of today’s flamboyant red wine style to the power exercised by certain influential critics, most notably Robert Parker of The Wine Advocate. Since he preferred the new, flashy style, runs this oft-repeated argument, he gave wines displaying it his highest scores or marks. And since high scores meant more placements on restaurant wine lists and retail store shelves, more and more vintners followed suit, making wines that they thought would appeal to what by the early 1990s had become the world’s most influential palate. California red wine became, in a word, “Parkerized.”
The problem with this line of thought is that Mr. Parker did not always prefer fleshy, flashy red wines. Back in the 1980s, he reserved his highest praise for tauter, more restrained wines -- Cabernets that displayed finesse even more than brawn, Zinfandels made in what then was called a “claret” style,” and on rare occasions (rare because at that point most examples were downright awful), Pinots that were light in color and lithe on the tongue. Perhaps his preferences changed, but perhaps too the market shifted, and the wines being made by California’s top vintners were evolving stylistically at much the same time.
That seems to me the most plausible explanation. The emergence of a distinctive California style of red wine owes something to growing conditions and something to critical preferences, but more, much more I think, to decisions deliberately made by the state’s vintners. Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, more and more of them began to intentionally fashion flamboyantly-styled red wines -- in part because new winemaking and grape growing techniques allowed them to do so, and in part because a new generation of consumers liked these wines and was willing to pay serious money for them.
This was the period in which one first heard winemakers use the term “physiological ripeness,” meaning not just sugar levels in the grapes at harvest but also the state of the individual berries, including the texture of the skins and the color of the seeds. It also is when people started to talk about “managing” tannins, meaning making powerful wines that did not feel astringent or pasty when you drank them. And it’s when market research revealed that, even with fancy expensive bottles, people tended to drink wine within a few days if not a few hours of when they bought it.
What kind of wines would appeal to wine drinkers who had money to spend but who also had little experience with fine wine? The answer was obvious -- wines that tasted rich and ripe but were accessible when young, wines with supple textures but a sweet, ripe profile, wines fairly bursting with a jelly jar of fruit flavors. No wonder the 1990s saw an explosion of interest in Merlot, then advertised as a gentler version of Cabernet. No wonder too that wines made from other red grapes gradually became softer, suppler, sweeter, and palpably but, to be honest, sometimes also vulgarly seductive.
No single wine better represents the emergence of this flamboyant style than the St. Clement Winery’s Orropas, a Meritage blend first made in 1991. It carried a Napa Valley designation, and though never as costly as any of the so-called cult wines then beginning to come onto the market, it also carried the prestige that comes with a high price tag. It thus was clearly designed to be perceived by consumers as something special. But it also was designed from the very start to be fully ready to drink when released, a special wine made even more special by virtue of being user-friendly. It was not meant to be cellared, not even to be savored. Instead, it was meant to be enjoyed quickly, meaning right away.
St. Clement was then owned by the Japanese company, Sapporo.
Orropas (the corporate owner spelled backwards) was intentionally fashioned in a style thought to appeal to wine drinkers without extensive experience drinking red wines. The winemaker at the time was Dennis Johns. Self-taught, he made what he liked to drink and thought others would too. As he told an interviewer, the basic idea behind Orropas was to fashion a new wine with “sweet, ripe flavors at the core,” and so to give the public “an appreciation of its youthful, fruity qualities.” There have been subsequent changes of ownership at St. Clement, and a series of winemakers have followed Dennis Johns, but Orropas has remained just that -- a juicy, sweet, soft red wine that exemplifies, for good or ill, what California red wine has become over the last twenty-five years.
Admittedly, no one talks about Orropas as an iconic wine, even an iconic Napa Valley one. It lacks the history of a wine like Beaulieu’s Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet, the ambition (and pretense) of a wine like Opus One, the aspiration (and exclusivity) of a wine like Harlan Estate. Yet as much as any other single wine, Orropas initiated a fundamental change in winemaking style, one that has become so widespread as to seem permanent. It is California red wine, par excellence. Thus it is a California icon.
But if wine’s long history teaches us anything, it is that nothing having to with this beguiling beverage is in fact permanent. Human decisions, not geographic realities or critics’ preferences, led to Orropas tasting as it does. Human decisions thus may well lead to other wines that taste very different in the future. California red wines today exemplify a single style. Perhaps in time, they will become more diverse, something that to my mind would be all to the good since diversity is precisely what makes wine and its appreciation endlessly fascinating.