In the last couple of weeks, the topic of California wine has come up on my radar screen for a couple of reasons. The first time had to do with some disparaging comments from a national wine columnist about the state of California wine that, frankly, made me raise my eyebrows. And then, today, it was officially announced that California will be the ‘host’ country for the 2013 Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival.
So what gives?
Well, I think there are a number of factors at play here. One is perception — which becomes reality when it comes to a lot of things. California has gained a reputation over the last decade or so for overpriced, high alcohol wines that are big on impact (for writers like Robert Parker) but short on finesse, especially for people who prefer the more restrained style of French (read: Bordeaux) style Cabernet wines.
Part of that criticism is fair. The emergence of “cult Cabs”, costing hundreds of dollars and impossible to obtain, is a real problem for many people (although the law of supply and demand makes it fine for me). And that has led to similar super-expensive Pinot Noirs, Syrahs and even Chardonnays.
But that’s not true for all wines from California. In fact, at the recent Vancouver Wine Festival I was amazed at the quality of the wine at all levels. In fact, I ended up buying Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay for under $40 that was fabulously ripe and balanced (Louis Martini and Italian producer Antinori, specifically.) And some of the lower priced wines by the likes of Mondavi and Kendall Jackson — which can sell for < $20 in the US — were also amazingly good.
That's why I think a bigger part of it is envy — wine envy. Many parts of California wine country are blessed with great weather that is pretty consistent from year to year. I was just at a tasting put on by Caymus (amazing, by the way) and owner/winemaker Chuck Wagner said as much. With less weather variation from year to year, it is a lot easier to count on ripe fruit and, from ripe fruit, comes ripe wine (usually).
French and other European vintners can't help but be jealous of that! Many of them wait anxiously each year to see how much sun they will get to ripen their grapes, and then have to live with — and sell — the results. "Food wine", "easy to drink", "an early drinking vintage" — all can be code words for green, not fully ripe grapes that turned into woody, tannic red wines.
If you look at it from a style perspective, actually, it doesn't have to be "either or" or "good vs. bad". As I have advocated so many times in this blog, everybody has their own style they like. Figure it out and buy it. Or, if you are a wine producer, market to the people who you know like it. No need to criticize each other, as there is more than enough wine, and people, to go around.
For me personally? I love California wine for the ripeness of the fruit! Do I wish it could be less expensive? Yes, but also know a big part of that is our antiquated taxation laws in this country. But put those aside and look at quality — and its hard, in my opinion, to criticize what's in the bottle of many Californian producers.
So count me in for next year's wine festival, for sure! And bring on the super ripe wines — Europe beware!