User ID:

Remember me
Lost password?

Thursday Thorns
The New York Times Throws California Sauvignon Blanc Under The Bus

By Stephen Eliot

“There you go again”. That famous phrase from Presidential debates is back. The NYT has once again attacked California wine. This time its target is Sauvignon Blanc.

Sauvignon Blanc is, of course, an easy target. A Wine Spectator writer once suggested that the variety should be abandoned worldwide. Yet, Sauvignon Blanc is one of the more food-friendly wines to be had, and, we here at Connoisseurs’ Guide agree. When well-made, it has enough character to stand up to moderately rich foods, but it is rarely so heavy as to demand boldly flavored dishes. It takes less precision in pairing than Chardonnay and it has more to offer in the way of interest than the legion of refreshing, but generally wispy, whites from distant lands that have lately been gaining a critical following.

It is rarely a wine of breath-taking complexity and excitement, even if a few such examples can occasionally be found here and there, but it almost always affords an eminently easy-to-drink glass. Shellfish, sundry white-fleshed fishes and lighter poultry all seem to find a comfortable fit. It is, in short, a wine that affords pleasure without making much in the way of demands. Certainly, there is an ocean of fairly boring stuff to be had from most of the world’s so very many Sauvignon Blanc vineyards, but the good ones remain high on our list of go-to white wines when we want something pleasant to wash down lighter meals.

California does well with Sauvignon Blanc, yet I have also long enjoyed the brisk and bracing bottlings of France’s Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume districts, and the better vibrantly grassy versions of New Zealand are similarly among my favorites. Those of California have always been tougher to categorize as being of one style or another, but given that the home-grown variety comes from a range of extraordinarily diverse sites ranging from Santa Barbara to Mendocino to the Sierra Foothills and all points between, I suppose that comes as no surprise. I do, however, find some amusement in the New York Times article today that takes a dim view of California Sauvignon Blanc for that very reason.

A stepchild that lacks identity is the knock this time out…at least, that’s how the article starts out. I would not disagree that a wide variation of style is to be had hereabouts, but given that there are California Sauvignon Blancs made for areas as cold as the Loire, as temperate as Bordeaux, as warm as the southern Rhône and as hot as Calabria, I am not surprised. If lacking a single, predictable style is a failing, then so be it. It is, however, a criticism that has gotten fairly monotonous; first Syrah, then Pinot Noir, now Sauvignon Blanc.

The NYT article, though, takes a turn away from its seeming introductory premise, and, in the end concludes that the inherent problem with California Sauvignon Blanc is that there simply are not many good ones to be had and that cynical winemaking is the fault. While the article’s author begins by commenting that a few years back California was doing a pretty good job, he quickly turns to the incredibly tired and boring refrains of too ripe, too oaky and overly manipulated. And we are left with a closing comment that “it’s hard to expect consumers to take a wine seriously if the producer itself does not”.

It is all silly stuff and nonsense, I think. Nothing has changed. California Sauvignon Blanc is the same as it always has been. If you liked it then, you will like it now.

Mr. Asimov and his tasters, who admittedly found some bottles they liked, thought their tasting of twenty local examples – and there were some very good names in the bunch -- was marked by a “distinct absence of excitement”. Well, beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, but the leap from likeable and unexciting to a stepchild so unloved by its makers that they no longer take it seriously and to a clear implication that Sauvignon Blanc is a yet another varietal in trouble in California has an all-too-familiar East Coast ring. There they go again, indeed.


Sauvignon Blanc
by Beth
Posted on:7/21/2011 10:38:12 AM

They obviously have never tried Mayacamas Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc!

Sauv Blanc
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/21/2011 10:59:28 AM

Chances are that they have not.

But, with the prevailing attitude now being that CA wine is to be thrown under the bus at every turn and whenever possible, it would not have mattered.

wine style and semillon
by George Vierra
Posted on:7/21/2011 4:26:57 PM

John E Murphy <> wrote in article <>... MAppellof wrote:

Robert Mondavi invented Fume Blanc in California, everyone knows that, by producing a dry wine from Sauvignon Blanc in the style of a Pouilly-Fume at a time when most California Sauvignon Blancs were off-dry (like most California Chenin Blancs). It became a huge success, and was the number one selling wine in American restaurants for a time. Meanwhile, George Vierra started Vichon Winery and invented Chevrier Blanc (later "Chevrignon"), a dry white blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, a la a white Graves. It soared in popularity, and . . . it replaced Mondavi's Fume Blanc as the #1 selling wine in U.S. restaurants!

And so, in the "if you can't beat 'em, buy 'em" school of economics, Robert Mondavi bought out Vichon. While Michael Mondavi ran Robert Mondavi, Tim Mondavi took over Vichon. Robert Mondavi, after buying Vichon, did make the same style of wine and did poorly in the market.

Somewhere along the line, Vichon left the Napa Valley appellation behind and began producing "Vichon Coastal" as an attempt to compete in the "fighting varietal/K-J" end of the market. A bad decision. The sales and popularity of Vichon never recovered. Recently, Robert Mondavi announced it was closing Vichon Winery in Napa Valley, and henceforth, all wines under the Vichon label would come from the Languedoc-Rousillon region of France!

Thanks, George
by Charles E. Olken
Posted on:7/21/2011 4:31:59 PM

Whatever happened to those Sv Blc/Sem blends?

The Aussies do make them, but in a light, youthful style that has nothing to do with the whites of Bordeaux.

Leave a comment below, but please limit your comments to 1,200 characters or less. We find it helpful to make a copy of our comments to be sure that they fit. In that way, you can edit them if they run long.

(Please note: your e-mail address will not be visible after posting)



Note: Refresh your browser to see your latest comments.

Having technical problems with the comment system? Click here.