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Pessimism vs Optimism In Wine Country

By Charles Olken

The history we know best is the history we have lived. For me, that means that my personal wine history starts back in the 1960s in college. In those days, wine was a special treat for those evenings when we actually cooked in as opposed to ate and ran back to the books. We had a sense even then that wine went with food, and since we came from families whose tables were often graced by a bottle of Soave or Beaujolais (being Easterners, there was not a lot of California wine around), it was not much of a big deal to drink wine.

As college students, however, it was the half decent brands of jug wine—the ones made with the old-fashioned field blends grown in vineyards planted before Prohibition—that we came to treasure. I blame the proprietor of the local liquor store (we called them “Package Stores” back then) who suggested that we try a slightly pricier blend than the one we had been knocking back. He was right. Gallo Hearty Burgundy was way better than Gallo Burgundy.

Ah the road to perdition. Before long, we had moved up to Beringer Cabernet and by our senior years, we were into Beaujolais. Not the fancier versions from our parents’ tables mind you, but Beaujolais nonetheless, because we were men of the world having taken the obligatory mid-summer European excursion when we drank whatever the locals in Albi or Avignon or Tours or Florence or Frankfurt drank—and liked it.

Now, I bring all this ancient history up to go back to the beginning when we drank jug wine. And I do it to discuss the future of jug wine and of the Central Valley of California and its role in wine production. Back in my callow youth, there were significant levels of quality among jug wine. The Napa Valley and parts of Sonoma and Santa Clara were making corked finished wines, but jug wines were the wines of the people. Great jug wine often came from similarly situated coastal vineyards that were soon to become the home of much fancier corked finished varietal bottlings, and lesser jug wine came from the Central Valley.

When the coastal vineyards suddenly became more valuable for their stands of old vines, the production of jug wine became much more a Central Valley thing. And California no longer could produce a good “five cent cigar”. Now it appears that even the Central Valley may be losing its place as a wine producing region.

The pessimistic view is that California is going to lose market share, and that will translate eventually into lowered allegiance to our fancier, pricier wines over time.

The optimistic view says that the great fertile agricultural valley that runs from Bakersfield hundreds of miles north may see a shift away from wine grapes of low value but the farmers will not be hurt and even the wineries will find a way to transition to more valuable crops. And coastal vineyards? So far, een with greatly elevated land values, they seem to be holding their own quite nicely, thank you.

Where does this leave the wine consumer? Nowhere and everywhere. There will always be wine to drink. It just may not be so heavily skewed to California. And the proof of this conclusion is that the shift has already arrived. California today produces more wine than ever, but the percentage of California wine consumed as a part of overall wine consumption in the United States has dropped from near 90% when I first started counting to nearer 60-70% today. Not only has production not kept pace, but imports that could not compete on a qualitative basis are now clean, decently made and sell for prices that may be more like a ten-cent cigar but are still affordable and competitive.

The California wine industry has already changed, and if not as dramatically as the light bulb industry or the nylon stocking industry, change has arrived and will keep arriving. The pessimists worry that something bad will happen to us and our favorite tipple. But the optimist in me says that we have not lost anything because of the changes to date and we will not as change continues.

Back in the day, we transitioned from California jug wine into Chianti, Beaujolais and inexpensive German whites. Then it was Lancer’s and Mateus. Now, the imports for those whose tastes are moving upscale are New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Argentinean Malbec. But, California wine grew in both quantity and quality. If the quantity slows down, the quality will not.

It wasn’t a problem in the sixties and seventies; it wasn’t a problem in the nineties and it won’t be a problem going forward.


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A place at the table
by rolo
Posted on:2/10/2016 8:04:13 PM

It also is important to remember that as California winemakers  zeroed in choice vineyard locations, cork-finished wines from Napa and Sonoma were fighting for a place at the "fine wine" table. When Mondavi Napa Valley Fumé Blanc was about $4 a bottle and Mondavi Napa Cabernet Sauvignon cost about $6, there still was a widespread perception that these wines were jug-quality fair dressed in a dinner jacket. Instead they were high-quality bargains worthy of a spot next to Pouilly Fumés and Bordeaux at twice the price.

No one questions California's place at the table anymore. And no California winemaker can afford to lowball a world-class wine.


"High-quality bargains worthy of a spot next to" French wines
by Bob Henry
Posted on:2/15/2016 10:42:53 PM


How Robert Parker addressed the question of "value wines" circa 1989 in his interview in Wine Times (later to be sold and renamed Wine Enthusiast).

~~ Bob

WINE TIMES:   …  Right now the argument is that your average score in The Wine Advocate is in the 80s, and it doesn't matter if its 81 or 84.   If it's in the newsletter, buy it.

PARKER:   No.  I buy wines, and I buy wines that are 85 or 86, not below that.   But to me 90 is a special score and should be considered "outstanding" for its type.

WINE TIMES:   How do you determine merit versus value in a wine?   Are there wines that will never get an 85?   How do you compare the Chenin Blancs of the world with the ...  [ question interrupted ]

PARKER:   I had the two best Chenin Blancs I ever tasted out of California last year, and one [1987 vintage Preston] got 87, I think, and the other [1987 vintage Pine Ridge] 86, and they were both $6 bottles of wine.  Most people are looking for good values, and I have a responsibility to these readers.  The scores are given based upon quality not price.   To me, the best values are under $10. Double digit prices are the point where consumers pause.   Wine prices are rather high right now across the board.  That's where tasting notes come in.   A wine that gets an 85 and costs $4 is obviously a very good value.

WINE TIMES:   You are arguing price versus quality.   Take a $30 bottle [of] wine.   To get an 87 does it have to show much better than a $7 bottle?

PARKER:   No.   It's one man's opinion, but

No Subject
by Bob Henry
Posted on:2/15/2016 10:46:10 PM

Reproducing the concluding sentences of the above quoted interview:

WINE TIMES:   You are arguing price versus quality.   Take a $30 bottle [of] wine.   To get an 87 does it have to show much better than a $7 bottle?

PARKER:   No.   It's one man's opinion, but I think that 87-point [1987 vintage Preston] Chenin Blanc can go right on the table next to a Leflaive white Burgundy rated 87.   They will give you different sets of flavors, but are every bit as good as each other.   That's the way the system was meant to work.

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