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New and Old in California
By Paul Lukacs
May 13, 2014
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There has been a lot of talk lately about a new style of California wine--one allegedly marked as much by restraint as by exuberance, with nuanced subtlety valued over simplistic flamboyance.  Winemakers are said to be ready to scale back alcohol levels as well as the overt flavor of charred oak, and to abandon the sugary sweetness that comes from excessive ripeness.  They supposedly want to be less intrusive, and so to allow both the grape and the site where it is grown to express themselves in the wine.  It all sounds great.  The only problem is that very few contemporary California wines provide evidence that any of this is actually happening. 

To be sure, a small group of artisanal Golden State vintners are advocating this style.  But the overwhelming majority is not, or at least they are not producing wines that display it.  This is especially true of the wines made by the ever increasing stable of producers that are owned by large corporate conglomerates.  Their wines by and large continue to be made in a lush, oak-driven and super ripe style, one that disdains intellectual challenge and trumpets sensual indulgence.

Many different factors have contributed to the dominance of this flamboyant, hedonistic style.  The influence exerted by certain well-known writers is certainly one, but just one.  Equally important is the fact that American wine drinkers, who constitute the primary market for California wines, tend to be unacquainted with other wines, especially with the classic European models for those made with the most popular grape varieties.  These consumers know the California style, and they are willing to spend money to drink it.  So too with a great many winemakers--who know what their neighbors are doing but often are unacquainted with wines made elsewhere.

Add to these factors the replanting that occurred throughout California in the early 1990s, the introduction of new technology that enabled vintners to make wines to a predetermined formula, and the focus on physiological ripeness that became something of a craze at much the same time.  No longer did people have to put up with aggressive tannins or assertive acids, both of which can seem off-putting to drinkers who are new to wine.  No wonder so many winemakers were quick to embrace soft textures and intense flavors rather than piquant vivacity and delicacy.  Wines with those characteristics were easy--easy to drink (especially in lieu of cocktails), to understand, to make, and most significantly, to sell.

It’s important to remember, however, that this style, while now well established, is in fact itself relatively new.  It only emerged about twenty years ago, and it only became dominant following the rise of so-called “cult” wines that few people actually tasted but that many winemakers emulated.

Before the rise of this style, the most ambitious California winemakers consciously emulated the most prestigious French wines.  This was particularly true with the two grapes that became the state’s calling cards in the international world of fine wine--Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.  (It has never been true, at least on a wide scale, with Pinot Noir.)  The rise of California wine, and in large measure of American wine in general, started in the 1950s and 1960s.  And it was led for the most part by vintners who deliberately aimed to make wines that tasted like their classic French antecedents.

In the now famous Paris tasting of 1976, an event that brought California to the attention of serious wine lovers both at home and abroad, the winners’ great achievement came less in being slightly preferred by French judges than in being indistinguishable from the great crus of Bordeaux and Burgundy.  The judges simply could not tell which wines were French and which were Californian.  In terms of style, the new wines tasted, well, old.

Those wines, according to some of the judges’ comments, were “elegant” and “tender.”  They exhibited “a fine balance” and tasted “très complet.”  Put another way, they tasted as commentators who wish for a new style of California wine today want wines to taste--graceful, subtle, with tannins one actually can feel on one’s tongue, and acidity that gives the primary fruit flavors in the wine verve and freshness.  So when people talk about a new California style, talk that to date reflects their own desire more than any extant reality, they actually are talking about an old one--the style that first made California famous.

It’s not hard to understand where this desire comes from.  Any wine-savvy drinker who has tasted classic red Bordeaux or white Burgundy knows that those wines display more than fruit and oak.  Whether one calls it minerality or earthiness or something else, savory elements harmonize gracefully with the more forward fruit, allowing the wines to provide a myriad of sensory impressions, what connoisseurs often designate as “complexity.”  California Cabs and Chardonnays used to display such complexity, or at least they aspired to do so.  Sadly, very few share that aspiration today.

Though I too wish that things were different, my experience shows me that contemporary California wines, especially when made with these two grape varieties, remain stuck in the rut of “the bigger the better.”  By and large, the Golden State wines made twenty years ago were better than those being made today.  Back then, full ripeness and brute power were not prized as highly as they are now.

Opponents of this style clamor to be heard these days, with some going so far as to suggest that a stylistic “culture war” is about to break out across the state.  But the wine drinking public pays them little heed.  Grape varieties that have no defined California identity--Syrah, for example, or Sauvignon Blanc--may be yielding distinctly different sorts of wines, but the varieties with well-defined identities such as Cabernet and Chardonnay remain largely monolithic.  So too with today’s darling of the critics, Pinot Noir--a grape that yields wines that taste candied, sappy, and all in all unpleasant when deliberately made to taste big, as it so often is in California.  In this culture war, then, no matter what one might wish, no shot has been fired yet.