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California Shame
By Paul Lukacs
Feb 9, 2016
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California can produce some of the finest wines in the world, but, sadly, fewer and fewer wines being made today achieve that goal.  This is especially true when it comes to value.  In fact, most Golden State wines priced under $20 a bottle taste woefully disappointing.  Given the high quality of many imported wines in this price category, coupled with the evident potential of the state’s vineyards, the perplexing question is…why? 

Back before the wine boom started in the 1970s, California produced some fine value-priced wines.  The best-known example was E & J Gallo’s “Hearty Burgundy,” a wine that had nothing at all to do with French Burgundy but that satisfied literally millions of consumers.  A mélange of grape varieties, mostly Carignan, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel, with most grown in Sonoma County, it was medium-bodied and genuinely dry, with no evidence of exposure to oak.  Gallo reintroduced the name a couple of years back, but the current rendition tastes extremely different.  It’s now made from a different assortment of grapes, including Syrah, Sangiovese, Pinot Noir, Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon, all grown mainly in the searing Central Valley.  And it now tastes noticeably candied, with cloying, sappy flavors and oaky undertones that come from wood chips or sawdust (not actual barrels).  So what happened?  And again, why?      

One answer is that consumer tastes shifted.  As more Americans embraced wine, California wines became ever sweeter--a logical development in the country that first championed sugary soft drinks like Coke and Pepsi.  The sweetening of California wine transcends price differences, as even super expensive “cult” wines taste more syrupy than they did twenty years ago.

At the value level, sugary-tasting wines prove especially problematic.  Odds are that the grapes were not sourced from prime vineyards, that yields were high, and that the winemaking involved a fair amount of manipulation.  The result is a wine like Gallo’s new rendition of Hearty Burgundy--inexpensive (a bottle costs a mere $5), but unappealing.

Another explanation for what has happened to California wine already has been hinted.  The advent of technologies that enable winemakers to concoct products that consistently hit certain stylistic targets means that a great deal of today’s inexpensive wine is overly manipulated.  Do you want more color in your red wine?  Add some.  Less piquant acidity in your white?  Take some out.  More alcohol?  Remove leaves from the vines so as to increase sun exposure.  And above all else, pick later, when the grapes are riper . . . and to out-do your neighbor, pick later still.

All this, however, raises the most important question:  Why do so many winemakers aim for this particular style?  Who has decreed that American consumers (who purchase most California wine) want to drink something sweet and candied, with lots of alcohol but little or no individuality?  

The answer is no one, or no one with any experience with wine made elsewhere.  California wine production in the twenty-first century has become remarkably myopic, focused on itself and itself alone.  This narrow vision has harmed wines at all price levels, but none more than those that purport to offer value.

Forty years ago, California vintners proved that they could produce wines that equaled the finest in the world--specifically, white Burgundy and red Bordeaux.  The remarkable thing about the famous Paris tasting of 1976 was not so much that a couple of Napa Valley wines won, but that the judges could not differentiate the American wines from the French ones.  Winemakers from both places aimed for the same stylistic target, one bound by tradition and over a century’s worth of success in the marketplace.  For the next twenty years, that was the target that virtually all California winemakers pursued.

Then, starting in the mid-1990s, impelled in part by the high marks that some misguided critics gave wines from the hot 1997 vintage, many vintners abandoned the time-honored models they had been using and went in a new direction.  Like trapeze artists without a net, they tried to soar ever higher, meaning in this case that they pursued rich, ripe flavors at the expense of anything and everything else.  The new stylistic model dictated that good wine needed above all else to be made with super-ripe fruit.  Indeed, California vintners invented a whole new definition of ripeness--not just sufficient sugar, but what they called “phenolic ripeness,” with even the skins and seeds in the berries tasting sweet and showing no sign of astringency.

This new California style proved successful in the marketplace.  It was not necessarily more so than the more traditional style that had attracted many new consumers earlier, but the wines certainly sold well.  And no longer was a vintner’s goal equaling Burgundy or Bordeaux.  Instead, it now was besting his or her neighbor.  For there now was a definite California style, one that sometimes was even emulated elsewhere given the buying power of the American dollar.  

I remain unconvinced that the California style works even with high-priced wines.  In my view, the lighter, more traditional wines (especially the Cabernets) made in the 1980s and early 1990s are the best that California has yet produced.  That, however, is a matter of personal preference.  If you like bigger, bolder wines than I do, you likely will prefer today’s renditions.

The issue with value-priced wines, however, is not simply a matter of individual preference.  That’s because a remarkable number of California wines in this category taste flawed--not chemically so much as holistically.  They are unbalanced, with the whites deficient in acidity and the reds lacking structure.   And they invariably taste too sweet, the grapes having been left to hang on the vines for too long.  Put plainly, they will disappoint you far more often than they will please you.

Tasting through a range of these wines (and I recently had to suffer through about 800 of them over a three week span) not only reveals their evident flaws but also suggests that the people responsible for them--not so much the winemakers as the marketers and company managers behind them--have little respect for the American wine-buying public.  These are concocted, overly manipulated beverages designed for consumers who have little experience with or knowledge of traditionally styled wines. 

So why do these wines continue to sell well?  I refuse to believe they are what consumers really want.  I instead think that they too often are all that consumers know.  Most American wine buyers prefer to purchase domestic wines.  They do so for all sorts of reasons, virtually none of which have anything to do with wine quality.  And these are the wines that the market gives them.  So people drink them, enjoying the typically heavy wallop of alcohol, and putting up with everything else.  Sometimes they rebel and turn elsewhere (witness the current cocktail craze).  But more often they make do.  What a shame.  They--no, we--deserve better.