Over the years California winemakers have gone from having a diversified
product line to a more focused line-up.
All California winemakers should be required to read Frank Schoonmaker's and Tom Marvel's
outstanding book "American Wines." These fellows laid out what varieties
are likely to be best in which regions of The Golden State. They wrote intelligently
about the wines of Europe and how the American winemakers should model their efforts.
They wrote the book in 1939!
During the 1970s vineyards were planted around California without regard to what varieties
or rootstocks were suited to a particular location. The determining factor was,
usually, money. Those grape varieties costing the most were the ones which were
planted, without the grower doing homework to see if that variety was even suitable for
Monterey County was heavily planted in the 1970s and growers cultivated Cabernet
Sauvignon, for it was the most costly and in-demand variety at the time. The world's
largest single vineyard of Cabernet was planted near Soledad. One minor problem:
while the grapes achieved enough sugar to be considered "ripe," the fruit
never physiologically achieved maturity! Exceedingly vegetal, herbal,
weedy wines were made and quickly rejected.
Some friends used to grow Pinot Noir right in the middle of Cabernet
country. This family cultivated some vineyards in Rutherford and sold the fruit to
the Inglenook winery when it was run by Heublein. The grower, who is also a talented
and successful winemaker, was delighted. The winery would pay him a premium for
providing fruit which weighed in over their minimum sugar requirements. Cultivating
an early-ripening variety in a place hot enough to produce the late-maturing Cabernet
Sauvignon (of superlative quality) means the fruit was sweet, but ripened so quickly there
was little in the way of aroma and flavor! Apparently the Inglenook folks were not
sensitive to quality.
Over the years wineries eliminated slow-moving or less-popular wines. While the notion of
"specializing" or "focusing" on a few wines has its merits, it's sad
to lose some interesting varieties simply because they're not as profitable as others or
because they require more singing and dancing to entice customers to broaden their
Not too many years ago people thought Blue Nun Liebfraumilch, Mateus and Lancer's Ross
and Mouton-Cadet Bordeaux were "upscale" wines (partly because the connotation
of an "imported" wine was superior to a lowly "domestic" offering). I
remember seeing Lynch-Bages being sold for $5.50 and Mouton-Cadet was $3.99. People
gravitated to the Mouton-Cadet because of the Rothschild name on the label and because
they were afraid of embarrassing themselves by asking for "Chateau Lunch-Bags."
Pouilly-Fuisse was another famous and prestigious wine for a few years. People used
to buy that without regard to who even made the wine--the appellation was the most
prominent feature. I remember hearing one importer's claim that "more
Pouilly-Fuisse was sold in a year in Los Angeles than the entire appellation is allowed to
produce." What they meant was there was a bunch of bogus wine (probably
re-labeled Macon-Villages) being sold at a premium since it had the more in-demand Poo-Wee
Fwe-Say (many customers would ask for "Polly Fuss") name on the label.
It seems Californian wine drinkers have only a modest amount of adventuresome
wine-drinking spirit. It takes a certain amount of bravery, apparently, to break
away from drinking Merlot and Chardonnay.
So...the very fact that you're lurking and looking at this page means you deserve some
sort of recognition and commendation.
A few California vintners have adventuresome spirits. The Pied-Piper these days
might be Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards. A cerebral fellow, he was, at first,
enthralled by Pinot Noir. His vineyard was in the cool (climatically and otherwise)
Santa Cruz Mountains. Much to his dismay, he found the climate was too warm for
Pinot Noir! So, he embarked upon another project: making wines of varieties nobody
else is interested in.
Unfortunately for Randall, other winemakers are quick to follow. He started making
wines of varieties commonly found in warmer parts of France and other winemakers started
making the same sorts of wines. He would find old plantings of Mourvedre or Grenache
and would soon be out-bid by others for this fruit. He has been, to some degree, a
victim of his own success.
Though Joseph Phelps was the first to plant Syrah in the Napa Valley,
we think others have made more interesting wines from Rhone Valley varieties. Grahm,
with his "Cigare Volant" and other assorted unusual wines, has spawned a whole
group of "Rhone Rangers" as they are called. (Grahm actually posed as the
"Lone Ranger" for the cover of a Wine Spectator magazine many years ago.)
another group of producers making wines from grape varieties which are of Italian origin,
The Cal-Ital Consorzio includes producers making Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Moscato,
Malvasia, Dolcetto and other Italian varieties.
At the risk of offending some of the member wineries or winemakers, I wish to point out
that many of these folks should consider doing a bit more homework. Simply planting
an Italian or Rhone grape variety and vinifying it does not make one a producer of fine
Italian or Rhone-styled wines.
This is not intended as an indictment of every winery which is a member of either or both
I recall visiting a very prominent producer in Piemonte. I
tasted through the entire cellar and found some interesting and delicious wines. The
last wine offered was poured "blind." I was asked to identify the type of
wine. It was certainly not the usual Piemontese varieties and I was at a total loss
for a guess. The winemaker told me it was Syrah. The only thing this had in
common with Rhone Valley Syrah was its color. It displayed none of the spice or
character of top Rhone Syrahs. I asked this fellow what Rhone Syrah wines he
admired. It turns out he had never tasted a French Syrah!!!!
How can you make a wine in the style of the "benchmarks" when you've never
tasted a wine which can be called a "standard?"
The cost of producing wine in California is totally out of control. While
it's nice to support the local industry, when the wines cost several times the
price of benchmark wines from Europe, for example, many consumers find it
difficult to pony up $30 for Sangiovese wines which are not as fine as good, $20
Tuscan Chianti Classico.
I'm not trying to discourage consumers from experimenting with the local
wines. I am pointing out that this segment of the wine industry is in its
infancy. Winemakers need more experience with the benchmarks before
they'll be able to achieve the "target."
Visit the best winemakers in the world and you will, with but a few exceptions, find
enologists who are familiar with viticultural practices and cellar treatments in various
regions. The top estates in Bordeaux, for example, know what sorts of Cabernets are
made in the New World. The West Coast's best Pinot Noir producers know what goes on
in Burgundies best cellars.
There are many Cal-Ital folks, for example, who know very little about the
Italian varieties they're producing. One person was speaking about Tuscan
Dolcetto wines (uh, the Piemontese make Dolcetto, for the most
I don't mean to put a damper on things. This page started off as a bit of a
celebration of diversity.
Check out the Cal-Ital Consorzio or the Rhone Rangers....both groups (we can't call them
"organizations, now, can we?) have web sites.
Here are a few wines which come from the path-less-traveled....