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'Shock' Treatment
By Robert Whitley
Sep 10, 2008
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I have just come from the movie 'Bottle Shock,' which is loosely based on the now infamous Paris tastings of 1976. While the movie had its moments, what I took away was a reminder that acceptance of California wine was not always a slam-dunk.

The pioneers of the modern Napa Valley struggled mightily for recognition. For one thing, we were not a wine-consuming nation. Certainly not along the same lines as the countries of Western Europe, considered the center of the cultural universe at the time.

If you drank wine in that place and time, you were probably from a wealthy and well traveled family. Most likely what you drank was French. And if you weren't a complete snob about it, you were the exception. California wine figured into the mix, but it was so bourgeois. After all, it was sold in jugs with screwcaps!

That was then and this is now. You might say we've come a long way since Jim Barrett of Chateau Montelena sent his Chardonnay to the Paris tasting fully expecting to get his comeuppance. Wasn't Montelena recently sold to a French company for gazillions of dollars (quite a bit less in Euros)?

Of course, we now know the Montelena Chardonnay bested the cream of white Burgundy and a Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet knocked off some pretty fancy Bordeaux, results that stunned not only the all-French tasting panel, but the greater world at large.

It was the beginning of the end of the French domination of the American wine market, and the end, too, of the stereotypical wine snob. If California could beat France at its own game, then it must be OK to order California wine from a wine list. You can only imagine what a relief that must have been to the average customer, embarrassed at the possibility of mangling the pronunciation of Chassagne-Montrachet.

Chardonnay isn't such a tongue twister. The French have yet to recover from this massive shift in American wine-buying habits. Of all the French wine purveyors, only the great Champagne houses have managed to hold their share of the market.

But that's not the end of the story. There is a lesson here for purveyors of California wine, as well. Once firmly established, California's grip on the market came under assault, first from Australia, then Chile. Argentina and New Zealand soon followed. The Italians, fueled by a renaissance led by Antinori and Gaja, got in on the act. Spain is now trying to be a player, too.

Who can forget our scoffing at the earliest Chilean imports of cheap Cabernet Sauvignon? Or our mirth at some of the more outlandish Aussie labels (think 'Dead Arm' Shiraz)?

Look around today and what do you see? There is an Argentine Malbec -- Acheval Ferrer -- that retails for $90 at one of my favorite wine shops. And they can't keep it on the shelf! Red wines from Priorat (Spain) and the Douro (Portugal) are all the rage in trendy wine bars. New Zealand Pinot Noir is every bit as hip as the latest and greatest from the Russian River Valley.

The Languedoc, once France's most important wine region, is on its way back and showing up on shelves near you. And I'm not talking about the cheap Vin d'Pays wines that have held the region down lo these many years, but top-notch AOC reds made from ancient head-trained vines.

Prosecco from Italy's Veneto is positively on fire. Picpoul de Pinet, a crisp white from southern France, is making inroads, too, and the prices are ridiculously low (if you pay more than $12 you've been robbed). Its competition comes from Austria's Gruner Veltliner and the wonderful Albarinos of Spain's Rias Baixas.

My point is simple. We have seen the end of smugness and wine snobbery. The secret's out: Great wine is produced the world over. The French don't have a lock on it. California doesn't have a lock on it.

To compete in today's vibrant wine market, wineries must challenge themselves and always be aware of the world around them.

I remember a conversation several years ago with a winemaker at a well-known Napa Valley winery. He sniffed at a headline in that week's San Francisco Chronicle wine section that proclaimed a consumer trend toward more food friendly white wines. Pinot Grigio was the consumer darling at the time.

'Sure, its numbers seem to be on the rise,' he said, 'because it's coming from nowhere. This is a Chardonnay and Cabernet world.'

And I remember a time when everyone thought it was a Bordeaux and Burgundy world. Seems like only yesterday.

Email Robert at whitleyonwine@yahoo.com.