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Are California Wines Worse Than Ever Before—Or Better

By Charles Olken

For years now, there has been a rising chorus that has been telling us that California wines have lost their ways, and that only a few “johnny come lately” winemakers know the truth and are going to pull our chestnuts out of the fire. California wines, we are told, are a drag on the market. California wines are backing up in the warehouses because no one except a few dunces locally and in Omaha will buy them. California wine is no longer welcome, we are told, in New York or Chicago. It has been replaced by wine from the south of Spain and the north of Italy and the Greek Islands and anywhere in the Old World, because the know-nothings in the New World really never knew how to make wine and now they are proving it by making overoaked, overripe, too hot, prune juice and fruit bombs.

Everyone who is anything knows what is going on, and that is why even in San Francisco, you find restaurants like Commonwealth and 1760 and a host of others that would not sell a California wine if their lives depended on it unless those wines were made by the new kids on the block.

All of this Sturm and Drang, of course, is self-serving. It is a way of saying, “we are classicists” and cannot accept variations on the theme. Take Pinot Noir, for instance. There is a classic model for Pinot Noir because, until the grape migrated to the New World, no one in Europe save for the Burgundians had any reasonable idea how to make the grape into exciting wine. Hence, Burgundy not just as the classic model, but Burgundy as the only model.

Enter California and New Zealand and Australia, and, lo and behold, with no centuries-old rules to keep them from learning new tricks, good Pinot Noir sprouted in those places. At first, they were accepted as new and wonderful, but sooner than later, the classicists raised their voices and the notion of good but different became different and too ripe, and therefore, not so good.

Okay, I am guilty of the same things in my life. We all are at times. We get used to things. We speak of the good old days. We even train our kids to think of the good old days. Most of them ignore us, of course, and as I write this, I am wondering how many people reading these words ever saw Chuck Berry live or Dizzy Gillespie in his prime?

So, here is what is bugging me. The San Francisco Chronicle issued its annual Top 100 Wines, and then proclaimed that the Golden Age of Wine had finally arrived in California. And I got a response to my editorial comments about the WSJ denigrating Zinfandel in which the respondent claimed to be on the side of the angels and they went on to say that he just discovered that California wines do, in fact, age in the bottle. I may have been a little bit short with him, and, if so, I apologize. Discovery is a wonderful thing, even when you think you have just invented the wheel.

All I ask is a little humility. Please don’t think that because you are in you mid-30s and someone gave you a wine column, that you are in the midst of discovering the world is not flat. Generations before you knew that. Sure, it’s new to you, this notion that Zinfandel can age. Sure, its new to you that there are lighter styled wines being made in California. Their existence may be a discovery to you, but they were there all along. You just did not know it.

Is California wine better than it has ever been? It is if you just discovered that Russian River Pinot Noir can be ethereal. It is if you have just discovered that not all Chardonnays taste alike. It is if you have discovered that a batch of new wineries making lighter wines did not invent acidity.

But it isn’t if you still think that all California wines are 15% alcohol and higher. It isn’t if you won’t put California sparkling wines on your restaurant wine list because you still think that they are all low in acidity and too sweet. And it isn’t if you have never heard of the wines of Cathy Corison or Bill Dyer or Steve MacRostie or Joel Peterson or Paul Draper or David Ramey or Larry Hyde or Dan Lee or Susan and Jonathan Pey, Dan Goldfield, Greg Bjornstad, Merry Edwards, Bob Cabral. It isn’t if you have never tasted the wines of Dry Creek Vineyard, Marimar Estate, Cuvaison, Testarossa, Gary Farrell, Saintsbury, Truchard.

California wine may be better than ever, but it is not better than ever because a handful of young winemakers have been discovered and anointed as the new gods of wine. California wine is better than ever because we keep learning, we keep trying to make things better and we are succeeding as we have been for decades and decades.

And if you are of the opinion that California wine is worse than ever, then you have not yet tasted broadly enough and with an open enough mind to discover the winemakers and wineries who have been making a difference here for decades. “Better than ever” has been here all along. Welcome aboard.

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Get Off My Lawn!
by Blake Gray
Posted on:12/16/2014 7:23:54 PM

California wine is better than ever because widespread technology and experience allow winemakers to make wines they dream about, and those dreams are diverse.

Just enjoy it, Charlie.

No Subject
by Randy Caparoso
Posted on:12/17/2014 12:34:42 PM

Thanks for the reminder, Charles, and ditto, Blake.  Anyone with a functional nose, mouth, two eyes, ears and a brain clearly understands that California wines are better than ever.  From my perspective, wines from the '60s and '70s (which I was weaned on) don't even begin to compare with what we've been spoiled with over the past 10, 20 years.  

If anything, we can track stylistic choices made by growers and producers through recent decades.  Style choices should never be confused with qualitative assessments.  We may not like many of the choices made during the past 10, 20 years (speaking for myself, at least), but it's still amazing that that those choices are at producers' disposal.  

It may be hard to believe, but just 40, 50 years ago people could not even conceive of the places where fantastic California wines are now being grown and made.  40, 50 years ago winemakers and growers had just a fraction of the knowledge and technology readily available to them today.  It is now more a matter of evolution:  California wines continuing to evolve along with consumer tastes and awareness of what's already possible, given the industry's multitude of choices.

OH! The Truth Hurts!
by Rich
Posted on:12/17/2014 12:44:37 PM

Thank you Mr. Olken for "exposing" a truth that everyone but, apparently, the people you have directed your expose toward.  And, like Miles in "Sideways" whose total obliviousness about Chateau Cheval Blanc being a large portion of Merlot, these youngish newbies have obviously lost track of the fact that mny of the highest ranked/rated wines from Bordeaux, Rhone, and even a few from Burgundy, were fruit and alcohol bombs for their day.  They may not have had the alcohol level of today's Napa Cabs, but certainly some of the top wines (Chateau Margaux, Lafitte, etc.) were topping the 14% level.  So, when someone starts to complain about high alcohol, I immediately tune them out.  And, after all, that's what we're talking about - high alcohol.  They don't like it because? they can't drink an entire bottle?  Or they've just decided that like any good Berkeley liberal, they know what's better for us than we do?

Sorry, I know my comment is fraught with pitfalls and traps! but I just had to echo the truth with more truth!

California wines
by Linda Murphy
Posted on:12/17/2014 1:29:43 PM

Here, here, Charlie. I once worked with a sports editor who told me, "I've forgotten more about journalism than you'll ever learn." Indeed, there is no substitute for experience, in sports writing and wine writing.

"I used to be somebody" is still your fan.

by Keith
Posted on:12/17/2014 2:01:03 PM

I'm buying fewer and fewer all the time. Especially reds as the fruit characters are quite obnoxious even in 12.5% abv ones. I know they are not all like that but, why take the risk of only a very slight chance of the wine not being a fruit bomb. I want wine not alcoholic fruit juice. Complexity lacks from very even growing with very little variation in compounds in the grapes. Just lots of fruit forward flavors and not much else.

Though This Be Madness..
by Rich
Posted on:12/17/2014 2:02:50 PM

Though this be madness, there is method in't! Wine is politics.  Wine has been fraught with politics since the beginning of wine!

by gabe
Posted on:12/17/2014 2:09:05 PM

I have to believe that people who only appreciate one style of wine make up a minority of a minority, and the average (educated) wine drinker can appreciate a bottle of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars as much as the appreciate a low alcohol California grenahce blanc.  Much like a music connesiuer should appreciate Chuck Berry as much as they appreciate the new D'Angelo album.  In my humble opinion, a true connesuier should have an appreciation for all styles.

Mad Straw Persons
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/17/2014 5:16:54 PM

First of all, my thanks for the many comments, pro and con and otherwise on this topic. I appreciate them all.

But, to Keith, your comments befuddle me. I don't see how the most recent CA wines are more "fruit bomb" than what preceded them. I cannot argue that those types of wines do not exist, nor that they came in increasing waves from about 1990 to the mid-2000s. But, starting with 2007 and going forward, even that wave, which was certainly not all-encompassing, abated and the direction since then has been to tighter, more structured wines across the board. Of course, really ripe, fruity wines still exist, and CA wines have always been riper and fruitier than comparable French models.

Note, Keith, the very considered use of the term "always". I don't harbor the slightest belief that everyone should like the CA style, nor do I believe that one should necessarily believe that there are no wines made here that try very hard to be European mirror images.

But where I would dispute you is not in your taste preferences but in your suggestion that it is getting harder and harder to find wines you might like, i. e., wines that are tighterl, firmer and lighter. Aside from the fact that a large body of those wines has always been present in CA, the direction has been going your way for almost a decade, really since the very ripe 2004s. 

What has not happened is that some people have yet ot wise up to that fact because they just do not taste enough. My blog about the WSJ dissing Zinfandel stands as prrof of that. Your comments unfortunately run along the same vein.

No Subject
by Bill
Posted on:12/17/2014 10:31:27 PM

Sometimes, I taste a wine and it has a low ABV and I love it.  Sometimes I taste a wine and it has a high ABV, and I love it.  On the other hand sometimes I taste a wine with a low ABV and think it's thin, while at other times I taste a wine with a high ABV, and find it extracted. It seems to me that there's a lot more to it than ABV.

I think that we should all learn to live and be happy in a  schizophrenic state similar to mine.  Then we could all get along, and not have to fight about this.  Please pardon my naivete.

The king's clothes
by John Skupny
Posted on:12/19/2014 10:25:10 AM

Thank you Charlie for your insight and bravado - for awhile I thought I had slipped into a wine worm-hole only to discover at the other end that California wine had just been discovered 7 or 8 years ago. I feel releived and calm to remember that the Robert Mondavi Winery [which changed our world] was only started 48 years ago... when were just lads - yes?

The coming of age of CA wines
by Betsy Fischer
Posted on:12/21/2014 7:07:03 PM

The older I get the more I enjoy teaching my wine classes because my younger students (21-35ish) perceive CA wine in a totally different, refreshing way than the way I did in my 20s and 30s. But I enjoy enlightening them with the exciting wine history I had so much fun living through!

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