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Californian wine: Not a soft option

To attract UK buyers, are California wineries moving from flabby fruit to crisp elegance? That, says Dan Berger, is the acid test.

Fear can be a great motivator. That, I suspect, is why most California winemakers, often against their will, softened the majority of California wines between 1990 and 2004 – fear that they might make a wine of balance (horrors!) that hearkened back to the 1970s, when Californian wine went with food. By the mid-1980s, the phrase ‘food wine’ became pejorative, implying the wine lacked weight.

Ravenswood Winery adopted the term ‘No Wimpy Wines’ as its slogan about the time a wave of impactful wines were being hailed as ‘rich and powerful’, supposedly having appeal for Americans who grew up with soda on the table. They had to be soft and lack structure. A key reason for this, say most winemakers (off the record) is that bigger, more concentrated wines appeal to critics who adore weight, reward softness, and disdain acidity.

My compatriot Linda Murphy (previous page) is concerned she may be too harsh, but as a wine columnist for more than 30 years, I can vouch for her assertions. The few voices of sanity on this side of the pond aren’t nearly stentorian enough.

The majority of Californian wine, until recently, have appealed to Americans who like this squishy-soft sort of beverage. Such wines have been rewarded with high scores in certain journals, and sell for sums only a Gates or a Buffet could afford. But this sort of mouthwash would have little success in the UK.

Today, due to the dollar-vs-pound ratio, many Californian wineries are seeking access to the UK. And Britons have had their interest piqued by all they may have read about our wines. Sadly, most such wines, both reds and whites, will strike many European wine lovers as flabby, if not downright flaccid, more designed to be UK aperitifs than dinner companions.

Since about 1994, most Californian wine  alcohol levels routinely went above 14%; some above 15%, and acid levels were more compromised than ever, with high pH values. Californian wine was made to appeal to the Cola culture, not England’s dining room set.

The ability to boost red wine flavours has helped some companies make more wine with the same amount of grapes. The major development is the wide use of a concentrate in Californian wine marketed under the brand names Mega-Purple and Mega-Red. These help fix the colour of previously colour-deficient red wines such as Merlot and Cabernet. Marketed in gallon bottles, it requires less than a 10th of a percentage point to be used in most cases. They help boost certain elements of aroma, and add sugar. Thus fruit that once wasn’t acceptable for quality wine can be ‘improved’ with doses of Mega-colouring agents. The result? More wine is made that can command a price that once wasn’t an option.

Our wines have lacked crispness for a decade, and winemakers have heard the criticisms. But the marketing departments of major US wineries firmly believed that the emerging new consumer, notably from the American millennial generation, must have a softer wine. The terms ‘crisp’ or ‘acid’ are anathema; one marketing manager told me they led to consumer belief that the wines will be sour. This isn’t to say there’s no opportunity for upscale US wines in the UK but, until recently, wines that appealed to UK consumers only pleased a small (but growing) coterie of the 200-million-strong US wine consumer base that appreciates the crisper style of wine. Moreover, a decade ago, the dollar–pound ratio was a disincentive for UK consumers to try Californian wine.

Although a few such wines are putting a toe into UK waters, it’s early days and a number of wineries have yet to line up firm distribution channels. Among those looking to get into the UK, some brands were there years ago and since retrenched; others withdrew from the market. Many are in negotiations with new distributors.

The superb line of wines from Napa-based Robert Sinskey Vineyards is made entirely with food in mind. From the ageworthy Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc (the latter in 375ml bottles for early drinking, in magnums for ageing) to a white wine blend called Abraxas, Sinskey brands are stellar examples of wines that would appeal to British palates. They were in the UK market for a time until Sinskey’s importer went out of business. It’s now looking for a replacement.

Similarly, the excellent wines of Garry Farrell from the Russian River Valley, notably the Pinot Noirs, Sauvignon Blancs and Zinfandels, were once most appreciated by dedicated UK wine lovers. However, Beam Wine Estates, which now owns the winery, said the wines were costly 10 years ago and the line was pulled. A Beam spokesman said it was considering re-entering the UK, but US demand for Farrell’s wines is strong.

Meanwhile, a handful of US wine companies are making wines for the table, and most appeal to European consumers. Concurrently, stateside sales of many California wines over the last decade have become more challenged, in retail and restaurant sectors, due to strong sales of imports. A few examples: Brown Forman is importing a new line, designated Vins de Pays d’Oc; Diageo has French wine in one Beaulieu-branded line; Fetzer, Robert Mondavi and Bonny Doon all resorted to importing German Riesling for their domestic lines when plantings remained static at 800 hectares in California. The number of import brands from Spain, Italy, Australia and even Bulgaria is growing rapidly.

Another reason producers may be looking to the UK as a home for a new style of Californian wine is vintage variation. The 2005 and 2006 harvests were extremely cool, and most vines – even in traditionally warmer regions – were picked in a disorderly fashion. In both vintages, some red wine grapes, such as Merlot and Pinot Noir, ripened earlier than Chardonnay, and much of the latter grape came in with superb acid levels. Most other varieties, when finally picked, also had great acidity, and many winemakers touted these to their marketing people as crisper, more food-friendly than they’d made in a decade. (Wines from the 1995 harvest were along these lines.)

In particular, Chardonnay is making huge advances in style. The unwooded version that appeared a few years ago was the precursor of the latest trend: lightly oak-aged, or even ‘naked’ Chardonnay. The price of French oak barrels is at a high of $900 (£465) in the US (and higher). Winemakers have to be more judicious how they use their barrels; with cheaper American oak, the flavour is wrong for top-flight Chardonnay. Some mid-priced Chardonnays have been fermented and aged on oak chips for added complexity, but, more likely, American winemakers are discovering the benefits of Hungarian oak, which has a French-oak-like character and can cost a third less. Even so, the trend is for less oak than was commonplace in California wines.


California has more wine to sell than ever before (2005 was a record harvest and 2006 wasn’t significantly smaller) and many winemakers, in looking abroad for sales, are adopting a style that may signal a new image for Californian wines.

The regions for wines with better acidity and lower pH/high acid levels are cooler areas, such as Monterey County, Carneros (Napa and Sonoma sides), the Sonoma Coast, including Russian River Valley, and many areas of Mendocino County, notably its Anderson Valley.

Last year, Dr Michael Apstein, wine writer for The Boston Globe, observed that Boston consumers were shunning sweeter, higher-alcohol styles in favour of wines from the continent. That message has been heard by a number of wineries, and the evidence from 2005 and 2006 is starting to appear on the shelves…

Elegant Californians for the UK palate:

Dry Creek Vineyards, Sonoma County

This medium-sized Sonoma County winery makes nearly 100,000 cases, most of it structured for the dinner table. The company was founded in 1972 by David Stare, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose passion was Loire Valley Chenin Blancs and Sauvignon Blancs. Since 2005, with winemaker Bill Knuttel at the helm, Dry Creek has made huge improvements, and recently signed a deal to export to the UK. The winery’s Bill Smart says: ‘I met with [Decanter contributing editor] Stephen Brook; he liked that we show more restraint. He liked the European minerality and crispness we strive for.’ Available in the UK: 2006 Dry Creek Chenin Blanc, Clarksburg (£5.96; Bib), made nearly bone-dry n 2005 Fumé Blanc, Sonoma County (£7.51; Bib), a cross between Graves and Sancerre.

n 2004 Old Vine Zinfandel, Sonoma County (£12.95; Bib) and 2005 Heritage Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley (£8.29; Bib), both spicy-raspberry wines

Chateau Montelena, Napa Valley

The winery that won the white wine flight at the 1976 Paris Tasting staged by Steven Spurrier (via its 1973 Chardonnay) has always made its stellar Chardonnay without malolactic fermentation. It becomes crisp and complex with ageing. Winemaker Bo Barrett says the 2005 vintage is a classic in the ‘old California style’. While pricey, it can age 20 years.

n 2005 Chardonnay (£20.71; MyC)

n 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley (£23.30; MyC) n 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, Estate (£54.37 IB; MyC)

HdV, Napa Carneros

A joint venture between Domaine de la Romanée-Conti owner Aubert de Villaine and highly regarded Carneros grower Larry Hyde, this brand has become known for its Chardonnay. It displays the cool Carneros fruit and a French style, due to the deft hand of French-born and -trained winemaker Stéphane Vivier. A dramatic wine, among the best in the US.

n 2004 Chardonnay, Carneros (£22.47; VCl)

Morgan Winery, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County

Dan Lee’s cool-climate winery gets most of its fruit from Monterey County. Winemaker Gianni Abate crafts Pinot Noirs of a distinctive, almost Burgundian character. The best come from the Santa Lucia Highlands, an east-sloping western benchland hit every afternoon with cold winds off Monterey Bay. n 2005 Morgan Pinot Noir, Monterey County, 12 Clones (£15.54; Bib) n 2005 Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands, Double L


Vineyard (£28.48; Bib)

Schramsberg, Napa Valley

The Davies’ family-owned winery, the first here to make méthode champenoise-style bubbly with top-quality grapes, still sources its fruit from various counties, with only 51% from Napa County. The Chardonnay is an example of California fruit with perfect dosage. n 2003 Blancs de Blanc, multi-appellation (£18.13; VCl)

Clos du Val, Napa Valley

Bernard Portet, son of Andre Portet, ex-technical director of Château Lafite-Rothschild, founded this Stags Leap-area winery in 1972. Though the valley has a penchant for bigger Cabernets, the Clos du Val style is more restrained. Along the way, Clos du Val has made a delightfully crisp Chardonnay and a white called Ariadne that is a most ageworthy Sauvignon Blanc blended with Semillon in the Graves tradition. n 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District (£32.11; Dis) n 2004 Chardonnay, Carneros (£11.39; Dis) n 2003 Merlot, Napa Valley (£12.95; Dis) n 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley (£15.54; Dis)

Matanzas Creek, Sonoma County

Owned by brand-conscious Jess Jackson, this gem of an estate in Bennett Valley has long made excellent Chardonnay and Merlot. Now under the hand of French-trained François Cordesse, the house has made a stupendous Sauvignon Blanc that has the intensity of California fruit, but with plenty of acid backbone. n 2004 Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County (£17.13; Evy)

Other names to look out for, not yet available in the UK:

Silverado Vineyards, Napa Valley Owned by descendants of Walt Disney, this low-key Stags Leap District winery makes splendid wines in a more restrained style.

Navarro Vineyards, Mendocino County This small, family-owned winery in Anderson Valley has always focused on low alcohol wines and makes almost nothing above 14%. The Chardonnays tend to emulate Puligny.

Dan Berger has been writing on wine for 30 years. He publishes a weekly newsletter, Dan Berger’s Vintage Experiences.

Written by Dan Berger

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