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Yes, Damn It, California Wine Is Grown In California

By Stephen Eliot

Now, do not get me wrong, I love a glass of Grand Cru Burgundy be it red or white. I will never pass up a good claret from a good year and will go well out of my way if that way leads to one of the best bottles of Hermitage or Côte Rotie, but no more than I would for any number of great North Coast Cabernets, a brilliant Chardonnay from more outstanding local sites than I can count or one of many top-shelf Syrahs hailing from the Sonoma Coast all the way south to Santa Barbara County’s Ballard Canyon.

Thanks to a few timely visitations of very good luck, I have managed to spend a professional lifetime in learning the ins and outs of fine wine. For me, it is very diversity, the endless range of character found in the world’s better wines that keeps me as fascinated by and interested in the subject as I was in my oh-so-excitable youth. Experience certainly has taught that a wine’s place of origin matters, but I have learned that great wine is defined by what is in the glass, not where it is from, and it strikes me as odd that in a time when we keep hearing that the demand for “new” is the driving force behind the next generation of discerning wine drinkers, the most vocal champions of “new” more often than not seem to champion the belief that the best wines of all are from the old world.

In a time when terroir and “authenticity” are praised as wine’s most noble traits, the constant clamor that the California wine culture has veered dangerously too far from that of Europe is puzzling. Napa Valley is not Bordeaux any more than the Russian River Valley, the Santa Rita Hills and the Sonoma Coast are Burgundy, and, if one is to believe that fine wine reflects its place of origin, how is it that those calling Europe home are the presumed models that any local winemaker of purpose should pursue? The now-monotonous catechisms of restrained ripeness, lower alcohol and higher acidy espoused by doctrinaire champions of where California should be headed too often seem to miss that very point, and I keep wondering why one would want to buy and drink California wines that ape the European style when there is a wealth of real European wines from which to choose.

One of the great virtues of the local winemaking culture is that California’s vintners are unfettered by the restrictive growing and winemaking regulations that have for a century and more defined what can and cannot be done in the various regions of Europe. Yes, the great vineyards of France may have been the inspiration that started it all, but I would argue that the laissez-fair notion that you can grow what you want and within fairly broad bounds is what lies at the heart of California’s remarkable vinous success…that, of course, and the very fortunate fact that the sunny West Coast routinely manages to get vitis vinifera ripe.


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Don't Understand
by TomHill
Posted on:12/9/2016 9:29:03 AM

I guess I don't see the point your trying to make here, Steve.

I don't think that either Raj/Jasmine/Josh/nor Jon (to name a few of your targets) are/were  advocating the making of RedBurgundy here in Calif. That ludicrous. They are arguing for the making of stylistic choices in growing and winemaking  that make their Pinots more nearly reflect the style of RebBurgundy and eschewing the style of Kosta-Brown or Marcassin. Which, in the name of diversity, I'm all for. Of course they're not going to make a wine that tastes like LeChambertin. That's impossible in Calif, or Oregon, or NewZealand. Different terroirs.

   For example, Barolo Chinato is one of my favorite tipples. Especially w/ chocolate, one of the few matches that actually works (I could never get Cabernet to work w/ chocolate). Chinato can only come from Barolo, though danged if I can find any expression of terroir in Chinato, though I'm sure others can. Are you suggesting that BryanHarrington should not attempt a Chinato from Paso Nebb? Or the Chinato d'Erbe from Oregon are failures because they don't show any Barolo terrior?

   I guess I'd like a bit of clarification on the point you're trying to make here, Steve. It's going over my head.



Diversity = Good
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/9/2016 9:55:16 AM

Hello Tom--

I will not speak for Steve here, but it is not the CGCW stance that diversity is a bad thing. 

As for me personally, I do think that far too much criticism is being leveled at CA wine these days because it does not emulate Europe. 

But that is not to say that Raj or anyone else including all of the folks you have named have ever said that if it does not taste like Burgundy, it is no good. Rather, they and too many others want wines structured like European wines. 

My argument is a simple one. The way wines are structured is a function of what the site gives you and what the hand of the winery brings to the table in terms of its view of what it wants. 

And what bugs me is the failure to accept that CA is not Europe and our wines are going to be different. Why that has to mean that people like Jon runs around denigrating RRV Pinot as syrup and too many of my friends (Burger, Peter Marx, both of whom I respect greatly) should describe Napa Valley Cabs as Coca Cola is beyond reasonable to me. Or why Dick Peterson, whom I have admired for forty years, cannot accept CA Syrahs because they are "not recognizable" as Syrah.

Not recognizable? By what standards? Cote Rotie? Cornas? Barossa? Hunter Valley? When CA Syrahs, whether from Shafer or Red Car, whether fullblown and outgoing or tightfisted, are grown in CA, then they define what CA Syrah is. France, Australia et al do not.

I see no reason why Corison Cabs cannot stand side by side with Staglin or Shafer Hillside yet to listen to some learned and not so learned voices, they cannot.

You are right. Diversity is a good thing. But try telling that to people who denigrate CA wines because they are not structured like their European counterparts. 

Didn't mean to be confusing
by Stephen Eliot
Posted on:12/9/2016 7:14:22 PM

Hi Tom.

Actually, I had no specific targets in mind, and the usual IPOB gang was not the genesis of the morning's thoughts. Neither are my ramblings in any way meant to disparage diversity as I have long held that the remarkable and varied range of styles was one of many things that makes California wine culture so exciting.

Rather, I was venting my frustration with the mind-numbingly endless times that I am told by someone in the business that old-wrold wines are inherently better than what is percieved to the the "California style." I hear it from makers, retailers, somms, public-relations types at all levels, new-to-the-game "journalists" and teeming numbers of enlightened amateurs that find their ways into trade tastings and events. Sometimes it's subtle and sometimes overt, but it is a fairly common refrain.

I recall a relatively recent article, in Decanter if memory serves, that reommended "California Chardonnays for Burgundy lovers.' Whiole not out-and-out proclaiming the selected wines to be superior beacuse of tyheir French inlcinations, the unbderlying message was clear. And, I swear, my head might explode if I hear, as I did more than two dozen times at a large tasting last year, one more winemaker telling me that they make their Pinot Noirs in the Burgundian style.

My point is that a wine is good or forgettable for what it is, not because it adheres to or diverts from some static model, old-world or otherwise. Good wine speaks for itself, no accent required.

by Bob Henry
Posted on:12/10/2016 12:31:39 AM

The French have had centuries of trial and error to get it "right" when it comes to making decisions on where to plant what grapes.

We here in California had our early experiments in viticulture set back by decades because of Prohibition.

Prohibition leading to a brain drain of folks who knew how to make fine wine (as they sought alternate employment).

Through our post-Prohibition geographic diversity of vine plantings, we are trying to make up for lost time.

An example of putting into practice this advice:

"If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate." -- Thomas J. Watson (IBM chairman and chief executive officer).

[Here's an example of a winemaking grape that the French willlingly concede we do "better" at.

“Winemakers Protect Outlawed Vines: The Grapes of Wrath” ]

by TomHill
Posted on:12/10/2016 1:19:52 PM

Thanks for clarifying that, Steve. And thanks for chiming in, Charlie. What you both say certainly makes sense to me. I Raj or Jon are some others criticize a certain style of wine, I just sorta shrug my shoulders and think "Well...that's your viewpoint" and am not inclined to put much credance in their comment.

I, too, am a big fan of diversity in Calif wines. Which is why I get excited when a Refosco or Ribolla or Schioppettino comes out. I'm just curious what they can do w/ those grapes out there. Already, I can say that, without doubt, that Calif can make the greatest Arneis and Cortese in the world (thanks to SamBilbro).



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