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Classifying California’s Fine Wine Sites

By Stephen Eliot

The simple word “Cru” is arguably one of the more maddening nouns in the wine lexicon of France. It might refer to a specific vineyard (Burgundy and Alsace), an entire commune or village (Beaujolais) or a winery (Bordeaux), and its English translation of “growth” has done nothing to make clear a concept that is fuzzy at best. The one thing that is more or less consistent in its use is that it generally infers superior quality with terroir being the principal factor, and the recognition in France that some vineyard sites produce wines that are better than others goes back to Roman times.

A couple of weeks back Charlie and I were driving up to Carneros for an extraordinary tasting of 2013 Chardonnays emanating from the Hudson and Hyde Vineyards in Carneros, when we started musing on the concept for Cru in relation to well-regarded vineyards in California. Are there great crus in California and just what it takes for a vineyard to justify the name?

Now, the great sites in France have lengthy histories measured by generations and, in some cases, centuries that cannot be matched by the comparatively short time that vintners have labored hereabouts. Still, certain names such as To-Kalon, Monte Rosso, Rochioli, Pisoni, Bien Nacido and the afore-mentioned Hudson and Hyde properties, for example, that when identified on a label will immediately pique the interest of dyed-in-the-wool wine geeks regardless of who actually made the wine.

We got into a bit of a debate as to which west coast sites are worthy of the lofty title Grand Cru, but we both agreed, at least momentarily, that among the criteria for any such distinction is that any vineyard worth consideration must have proven its mettle in the hands of multiple vintners. The problem, however, as we quickly acknowledged, is that there are a great many noteworthy vineyards owned and farmed solely by a single producer. In these cases, how much of the wine’s virtues can be attributed to terroir and how much to the winery and winemaker? There are simply too many variables in what ultimately defines a great wine, and, the notion that vineyard’s superiority can only be affirmed through the efforts of many makers does not stand up to scrutiny.

Our front-seat philosophizing helped the miles pass, but, in the end, we came up with no grand scheme for classifying California’s better vineyards along the familiar French lines that informed our early years of wine education. Neither do we expect to see such legal distinctions within our lifetimes, or frankly, in those of our children. Just who would be charged to make such decisions? God forbid that critics or a governmental commission would be handed the task, and we cannot conceive of a time when a formal hierarchy of quality might issue forth from a collegial gathering of winemakers who amicably agree on which vineyards are, in fact, good, better and best. I am unable to suppress a sizeable grin at the thought.

What is significant and arguably important, however, is that wine lovers are beginning to ask questions about where a wine is from. They are starting to pay attention to “where” as much as to “who.” I am occasionally rankled at those who willfully dismiss the critical role of artful winemaking in simplistic statements that “wine is wholly made in the vineyard”, but the recognition that place matters mightily is a sign of growing sophistication and appreciation for the magical synergy of what goes into making fine wine.


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No Subject
by Randy Caparoso
Posted on:2/5/2016 11:23:10 AM

When I was younger, and stupider, I used to love playing around with ideas about American "grand crus." But more like an overgrown kid playing with baseball cards ("Who's better, Sandy Koufax of Bob Gibson, du Pins or To-Kalon?!"). Eventually we wise up.

All the while, I have been grateful for CGCW consistent leadership in drawing our attention to America's great vineyards, regions, and (yes) most talented winemakers and growers. Thanks for the decades of clarity, Stephen and Charlie!

No Subject
by Regina M Lutz
Posted on:2/5/2016 11:53:23 AM

ditto what Randy said...Charlie and Stephen, you guys are 'da bomb! when it comes to providing relevant info on wine in America. Thanks!!

No Subject
by Kyle Schlachter
Posted on:2/5/2016 3:11:09 PM

 One possible way to accomplish this next to impossible task, fraught with its own inherent problems, is to approach it like the Halls of Fame of the major American sports leagues. Get a group of people (that in itself a Pandora's box!) that all get a vote on the Crus  with a limited number of vineyards getting into the Hall of Cru each year after achieving a certain threshold, say 85% of ballots (like AVA requirements). 

No Subject
by Bill Ward
Posted on:2/6/2016 1:34:49 PM

I'm all for "cru" designations, but they'll almost certainly have to be for smaller areas than Hudson and Hyde. Some parts of both might be grand cru-ish, while others might be only village-quality. Some friends and I tasted a dozen wines from a similar-sized vneyard in Oregon, Shea, and the quality and style were all over the map. That's been my experience in these two Carneros vineyards, too.

Thanks for the comments
by Stephen Eliot
Posted on:2/6/2016 4:09:50 PM

First, thank you Randy and Regina for the very kind words. It's nice to hear that what the "old white guys" have to say is still relevant and useful to our readers. I like to think that experience counts for something.

Kyle, and interesting idea, buit I agree with you that getting the right "group opf people" assembled as a voting body is a Pandora's box best left unopened as matters of taste and the perception of quality seem to be the sources of increasingly unfriendly debate these days. The notions of authority and expertise are constantly under siege in the era of populist, self-published wine commentary, and I rather expect that the selection of "judges" would be every bit as controversial an any decisions about which vineyards are best.

Bill, I cannot agree with you more, but I would add the further kicker that your experience of finding quality and style all over the board has as much to do with the winemaker as it does with the particular parcel from which the grapes were sourced. We saw a fair bit of difference in various vintner's versions of 2013 Chardonnays from the Hudson and Hyde properties, and the winemaking hand was manifestly evident. I am reminded once again of David Ramey's reminiscence of Henri Jayer's sage statement, "it's half the grapes and half what you do with them."

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