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THURSDAY THORNS
03/24/2016
Why California Wine Has Got To Get Better

By Stephen Eliot

There is something inherently optimistic in the American spirit, just as there is a need to keep moving, an intrinsic glitch in the national psyche that does not allow us to sit still and bask in success for more than a brief moment. I was certainly raised to believe that things here always got better. Good is, well, good, but it will get better tomorrow. The trajectory of achievement ever was up, and there no expectations that it would be otherwise. We are learning in this year’s political hostilities that such generational optimism may be flagging, but any anger that the future may not play out as being better owes precisely to the belief that, in the natural order of things, it should.

Which all brings me to this morning’s coffee-fueled musings about my favorite subject: Will California wine get better, or has it gotten as good as it will get? My view of things is that the last fifty years have seen an astonishing rise in the quality of wines hereabouts, yet, while the number of extraordinarily good wines has increased many fold, are the very best any better than those for years past? Is there simply more of them? From here on out, will change be manifest in “style” with one or another alternately being claimed as the best, yet will inherent quality really improve? Is there a point at which a zenith in the quality of any region’s wine is reached and the variable of vintage become the essential arbiter of change?

While contemporary wine commentary is rife with excitement about great “new” wines and discoveries, we hear at least as much about the virtues of authenticity and that we have wandered away from the truths of traditional winemaking. Those voices preaching the latter seem to argue that “better” actually resides in the past rather than being found in innovation in the winery and the vineyard.

Now, I certainly do not claim to have any answers, only an annoying surplus of questions brought on by several discussions over the past week. In one, a highly accomplished winemaker openly wondered if local Pinot Noir, for all of its remarkable improvement over the last generation, would ever achieve parity with the greatest Grand Cru Burgundies. How, he wondered, might that happen. Is there a path to the summit that we have not yet discovered? In another, a few hours later, an equally talented vintner opined that making great Napa Valley Cabernet had become conspicuously easy, that as long as you could afford to buy grapes from the top sites and the best barrels, great wine was all but guaranteed. Good had become so good that the pursuit for better was not even mentioned.

Just last night we found an excuse to open several older wines including a couple of remarkable Napa Valley Cabernets from 1975, and it would be hard to make a case that they were in any way lesser than what we are tasting today.

Maybe it is that at some point, improvement comes extremely slowly and in very small ways. And, of course, there is always the bugaboo about beauty being in the eye of the beholder and arguments about what good and great actually mean. It just might be that our bedeviling belief in an ever-brighter future compels us to think that “better” is a guaranteed fact of existence.

I am always on the hunt for the best bottle that I have ever tasted, but when I pull the cork on a good wine, it has my complete attention and thoughts about how it might be better do not intrude. That said, I admit to optimistically believing that, despite my philosophical meanderings, a succession of “best bottles ever” awaits before my vinous journey comes to an end. Who knows, the next one might be from the latest wunderkind in a place I have never heard of, or it might be something that has been gathering dust in the cellar for years.


 

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Comments

Mr. Eliots Thursday Thorns
by kevin chaney
Posted on:3/26/2016 10:47:21 AM

I found this commentary very thoughtful, and with a a great degree of truth................American wine is very good, especially from many who have a sense of place; others, need to continue to work to advance the expression of the wine. 

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