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Are Californian wines changing style?

Stephen Brook has been enamoured of California wines since the 1970's. But as styles change, is he slowly falling out of love?

It’s quite simple. Bordeaux appeals to my intellectual side, California to my hedonistic side. Although the two regions are very different, one is permitted to admire and enjoy both. It is a view endorsed by none other than Robert Parker, who also has a passion for both areas, both styles.

Thirty years ago, my job as an academic editor took me to universities in many parts of the world. When, as often happened, convivial West Coast professors invited me for a meal, I would disingenuously make disparaging remarks about California wine, suggesting it could hardly be taken seriously.

My affronted hosts would then take their hurt feelings down to their cellar to dig out a bottle of, say, 1974 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard or some other prestigious wine,which I usually drank with great pleasure. And whenever I had a free weekend in San Francisco, I would head up to Napa to visit wineries. Back in London, these wines were also attracting attention.

The late Geoffrey Roberts was importing wines from top estates, and even sold the 1984 vintage en primeur. His shop in Elizabeth Street, Belgravia, sold mostly California wines. They weren’t cheap, but where else in Europe could you pick up a bottle of 1979 Phelps Syrah? A short while later I started writing about wine, giving me further pretexts to visit California, and not just Napa.

Ten years ago, in my book on California wine, I wrote that what appealed to me about its wines was, above all else, their generosity. Not a very precise word, but it conjures up the

wonderful fruit-filled wines I was tasting and drinking. They may not have been

subtle (although many were), they may not have been elegant (although many were), but they were lush and seductive without seeming excessive.

They simply gave a great deal of immediate pleasure, which clarets from current vintages such as 1975, 1978 and 1979 were not guaranteed to provide.

High alcohol

I lived in New York for three months in 1982 and drank mostly California wines. I don’t need to consult my old notebook to recall how ravishing the 1978 Mondavi Cabernet Reserve was. I remember some monstrously oaky but still impressive Sauvignons from Chateau St Jean, but going easy on the second glass as a glance at a label informed me the wine had 14.2% alcohol.

From the same estate I recall TBA-style Rieslings of amazing opulence, though they aged less well than their German counterparts. Decades later, my enthusiasm for California wines is undiminished.

I have certainly become more critical of the trend to produce ever more voluminous and alcoholic wines, but beautifully balanced wines are not hard to find. At dinner the other night David Motion, a generous wine importer, pulled out some bottles of mature Howell Mountain Cabernet from Dunn and La Jota.

Their structure, if not their flavour, was reminiscent of fine Bordeaux, and we downed them with enthusiasm. I must admit to undergoing a personality change whenever I arrive in San Francisco and point my car towards the vineyards of Napa, Sonoma or Monterey. I roll the windows down and turn the radio up.

In those early days, while my fellow scribes were heading to Australia – barbecues, thong bikinis, beach babes, Jacobs Creek – I was travelling in the opposite direction to enjoy al fresco lunches, Berkeley and its restaurants, reliable sunshine and a warming glass of Geyserville Zinfandel from centenarian vines. The pursuit of pleasure, I confess, has much to do with my affection for California wines.


Californians were also, like other New World producers, able to benefit from the lack of European-style regulation. In Europe, one can plausibly argue, rare but worthwhile grape varieties might well be drowned under a sea of Chardonnay and Merlot were it not for legislation that requires their use in specific regions.

Mourvèdre in Bandol is just one example. In California the market is king. Growers plant what they can sell for the highest prices, which explains why, with some regularity, that market is flooded with overcropped Chardonnay or Merlot.

But then consumers grow bored, and more enterprising growers and winemakers step in with other varieties, other styles. The so-called Rhône Rangers were iconoclasts in the 1980s, embracing the virtue of Mediterranean varieties, but now California is awash with mostly delicious Syrah.

In Mendocino and Santa Barbara, Italian varieties, even hallowed Nebbiolo, is being planted, if with limited success. In short, there is a sense of experimentation and innovation thatis good news for consumers. Nor am I uninfluenced by some of the personalities of the Californian wine industry.

Who, as a wine writer, could fail to be awed by the dynamism, vision and generosity of Robert Mondavi? Or dazzled by the glittering intelligence and wit of Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon, a philosopher posing as a winemaker? Or entertained by the bravura performances of Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen, cooking immense lunches for his workers each day? Or the sheer joie de vivre of the late Al Brounstein at Diamond Creek?

Yet my passion is not quite as unalloyedas it used to be. Good wine needs to be balanced, and too many California wines are woefully out of balance – not that the American consumer seems to care greatly. But it irks me when I visit a Napa tasting room and find even the simplest wine – a Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc – has over 14.5% alcohol.

It vexes me that some of California’s most praised and expensive Zinfandels are, to my palate, undrinkable. It’s not a question of numbers. Many a Sonoma Zinfandel or Syrah has 15% alcohol, and these can be gorgeous wines, rich and powerful and warming without clobbering you over the head with alcohol.

I may worry about what that second glass is doing to my liver or my head, but I am certainly enjoying it. There are certain grape varieties – Nebbiolo, Sagrantino, Zinfandel – that demand high ripeness levels if their wonderful aromas and flavours are to come through.

A Gewurztraminer with 12% is a sorry wine. But Cabernet Sauvignon is not one of those varieties. Neither is Pinot Noir. The Howell Mountain Cabernets from Dunn and La Jota I drank the other night had 13.5%. Those beautiful old Mondavi Cabernets had 12.5%. Their equivalents today from the same winery have 14.5%.

Going to extremes

Nor is global warming an excuse. The climate hasn’t changed that much in Napa or Sonoma. Instead there has been a tendency to go for extremes. ‘Awesome’ is an American tasting descriptor, not a European one. ‘Pushing the envelope’ is an American cliché, not a British one.

When Jason Pahlmeyer told me his Chardonnay (crafted by wine goddess Helen Turley)

was ‘industrial strength’ he was joking, sort of, but it also meant he was unrepentant

about releasing a wine with over 15% that had all the finesse of a glass of meths.

The viticultural justification for this is the need for ‘phenolic ripeness’. It’s perfectly true that some California Cabernets of the 1970s and 1980s were too herbaceous for their own good – that was the period when winemakers were aiming for ‘food wines’ – but many of them were delicious in just that hedonistic way that I appreciated from the start.

When I, and many other wine writers, complained about these exaggerated wines, we were accused of being starchy Brits who had a snobbish disdain for California wines. But there is no shortage of Californian winemakers (and writers, such as Dan Berger) who share this view. Paul Draper at Ridge, Jim Clendenen at Au Bon Climat, Bob Travers at Mayacamas – none of them makes wines of bloated excess.

Clendenen accuses those whoroutinely pick at grotesquely high sugar levels (and thus alcohol levels) of being poor farmers, while Napa winemaker Randy Dunn describes the yearning for phenolic ripeness as ‘bullshit’.

It shouldn’t need saying, but wines don’t have to be obese to be appealing, any more than a beautiful girl needs cosmetic surgery and lashings of make-up to remain beguiling.

And to voice criticisms or disappointments in such wines is not to be anti-American. Wine writers are entitled to their own views; no single palate has a monopoly. It’s not hard to see why many British wine writers are unhappy with what they see in California. High alcohol is an issue, and not just from the aesthetes among us.

It’s also a health issue. When guests come to dinner, their cars parked outside, are we doing them any favours by pouring wines with over 15% alcohol? Price is also an issue. California wines have always been expensive, driven by the high cost of land and the egos of winery owners.

But they should at least make an effort to deliver value for money. I was astonished when some years ago I asked the price of a Kongsgaard Syrah from Napa Valley. It was £80, and I retorted that I could buy two bottles of Hermitage for the same price, so why should I buy the Napa wine?

One can ask similar questions of some Peter Michael wines, pirouetting around the £100 mark – the same as a Bâtard-Montrachet or Léoville-LasCases. Perhaps Californians, distant from the realities of top French wine, don’t bat an eyelid at these prices, but one can hardly blame British wine writers for pointing out that such wines, whatever their merits, hardly

offer good value.

And yet, how delicious and satisfying the best of them are.

Written by Stephen Brook

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