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California Should Not Try To Make European-Styled Wines

By Charles Olken

I object. I find myself being attacked for liking California wines, and I object. Put simply, California is not Europe, and the European models are not the be all and end all in wine grape stylings. They are unique, often exciting, manifestations of the chosen grapes for their areas, but what comes out of the Mosel or Chablis are not and cannot be the specific models for what we make in California—or Oregon, Washington, Australia or anywhere else in the world.

The discussion, over on Steve Heimoff’s eponymous blog, started out simply enough with his thought about what is and what is not terroir. It is useful discussion and the subject of both pseudo-scientific analysis by folks like Heimoff, myself and most others who discuss the subject, but lately also from those who would attempt to determine how site affects wine versus grape versus the hand of man in a scientific manner.

I have always come down on site as the factor of the first order, but quickly add in the combination of grape since it is the combination of site and grape that allows man to create real vinous beauty. Put another way, one cannot make great wine from the best varieties planted in the wrong sites or from the best sites planted to the wrong grapes. Try growing Syrah in the Mosel. Try making Riesling in Bordeaux.

The problem here in California is that we have our own unique sites and they rarely produce wines that mimic those of Europe. That does not make them inferior. That makes them different even when they are similar. We can make wines that the best tasters cannot tell apart, but it does not make them the same. When a Burgundy expert identifies Dehlinger as a red from that part of France or a group of chateau owners pick a California wine as the best in a tasting of Cabernet Sauvignons from both countries and think it is Chateau Latour, that does not change the essential equation.

And here is the rub for me. There are people in the world who claim that California cannot make good wines precisely because we are not France or Germany. Most tasters with an open mind know better. The burgeoning numbers of winemakers who work on both continents know better. So why do some folks not know better? After listening to them for days now, I finally have come up with the answer to that question. They do not want to know better. Tant pis. It is their loss.


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No Subject
by William Goetz
Posted on:6/7/2014 7:30:49 PM

Bravo Charlie! The answer seems quite simple.  If you don't like the style of wines produced in California, and prefer the style produced from the same varietals in Europe, then, by all means buy and drink European wines and stop complaining.  You have a choice.  Cast your vote with your wallet, and leave those who are happy with the domestic wines they're drinking ALONE.

European styles
by David L Price
Posted on:6/8/2014 9:55:00 PM

Yes, it's only you and me and a few other who like California wine, Charlie.  After all, "U.S. wine exports , 90 percent from California, reached $1.55 billion in winery revenues in 2013, an increase of 16.4% compared to 2012 ...", according to the Wine Institute. Are they using California wines to water their plants? 


No Subject
by Sean Mitchell
Posted on:6/11/2014 5:06:11 AM

Substitute "California" for "South Australia" and a similar line of discussion appears in (or about) Australia too. The proposition that wine must taste a particular way to be valid (a sort of "wine totalitarianist" approach) or that warmer climate regions should somehow produce wine styles that their climate/soils/grape varieties planted etc are unsuited too without substantial interventions in the vineyard and winery (i.e. rather the opposite of a terroir based approach), doesn't pass the common sense test in my view. 

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