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Old World Bias Still Strong and Still a Bias

Though wine has been made in the “New World” for more than 150 years and California wine won international awards a century ago, majority opinion long held that the wines of Europe were and always would be superior. There is no doubt that for a long time the average quality of wine from Europe exceeded that of U.S. wine. Europe had a couple thousand years head start on California and the rest of the New World in pairing the right varietal with the right region, mastering growing techniques and in establishing particular flavors and aromas as reference points for quality.

 

For the longest time, the U.S. did itself no favors either. First, wines were made with inappropriate grapes. Then, when wine quality and quantity were reaching a tipping point in California in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the industry was devastated by Phylloxera and then Prohibition. It was not until the late 1960’s that things really started to come around again. Since that time, New World wine and that of California in particular has made great strides in quality, diversity, popularity and sales volumes.

One of the first indisputable proofs that California could produce world class wines was the celebrated Paris tasting of 1976 that pitted California Chardonnay and Cabernet blends against the best whites from Burgundy and reds from Bordeaux. In a blind taste test with French judges, California wines came out on top in both classes. Furthermore, the judges identified those New World wines as Old World wines.

Despite that success, respect for California wines in Europe and even among many Americans has come hard. Conventional wisdom is hard to overcome. To many people, there is still a great deal of romance associated with images of great wines coming from picturesque European vineyards with names that are difficult to pronounce. It also seems easy for people to forget about all of the mediocre wine made in Europe and focus only on the many excellent bottles. And again, California has done itself some disservice by serving up large quantities of undistinguished wine too.

Nonetheless, the U.S. has now become the number two source for wine in the UK. With  that country’s longtime passion for French wines and the resurgence of Italian wine, it is stunning that we have gained this position. And, since California accounts for 95% of all U.S. wine exports, the market credit really belongs to this state.

However, with all of this progress in both quality and overall popularity, the competition is bound to become even more determined. And there are always those people who will resist the popular simply for the sake of variety or being different. This is all healthy in the end and leads to continuing diversity and further improvements in quality.

All that said, some arguments used against California wines are less defensible. In some cases, the attack is against American consumers. In their January 2009 issue, Decanter magazine recommends 136 new Californian releases while at the same time saying that though “the top examples were pretty faultless... They are correct, but dull,” and adding that the wines are meant to satisfy “enormous local demand. If people wanted to drink more restrained, complex wine, then I’m sure they would be making them.” They concluded that “California has work to do to convince a European audience.” If the American palate is so different from that of “Europe,” how is it that California wines lead every Old World country on Decanter’s home turf and Australian wines have been the leading import there for five years? While it may not reflect the taste of the elite audience that Decanter aims to please, the reality is that most people like wine that is fruity and doesn’t require formal wine tasting classes to enjoy.

Decanter is a very fine magazine. At least one of their wine critics was a talented wine taster and writer before anyone outside of Napa knew who Robert Mondavi was. And another was the instigator of that famed Paris tasting of 1976. But we can’t help feeling that they often argue too vehemently for a particular profile of wine and suggest that it reflects the taste of all Europe.

Everyone has their own taste and that is fine. But should we criticize Sonoma wines for not being more like those of Margaux or the Russian River Valley for being able to produce grapes that are actually ripe? Clearly, California wines have changed over time. Alcohol and extraction levels have increased and oak is used more liberally, but that has occurred in many places. It is a difference in style, however, that seems to coincide with international changes in taste rather than that of the U.S. only.

Other people look for more technical reasons to eschew California wines. While in New York City, we were told by an Italian wine specialist (who was actually born in California) that “California wines will never be as great as those from Italy because the days are too hot and nights too cold in California which means that the vine’s roots don’t go as deep.” While this might be true when speaking of very specific wines or micro-regions, making the statement so broadly is silly and it also presupposes that root depth, as opposed to root length or any number of other criteria, is the deciding factor in the potential greatness of a wine. We don’t believe that hypothesis has been or ever will be proved.

Sometimes California wines are dismissed even more broadly while being excluded specifically. While at one otherwise excellent wine bar in Manhattan, we pointed out that they had but one California wine on their list. The otherwise excellent sommelier responded with surprise that were any California wines on the list at all, said that New Yorkers prefer Old World wines and that the bar focused strictly on those. There was an embarrassed silence when we then pointed out that the list included plenty of wines from Australia and New Zealand which we understood to be New World. Those particular wines were not especially Old World in style either.

Despite this site’s focus on the wines of Northern California, it is not our intent to beat the drum uncritically for those wines. We don’t like every one of them either. Nor do we think anyone should drink solely wines from this region or have to learn to enjoy wine so high in alcohol that it burns one’s throat like cheap tequila. We would simply like to see each wine reviewed on its own merits and without prejudice based on place of origin. We would like more fact and less fiction in arguments. We would like more people to take the time to taste a broader selection of wines from this area rather than simply assuming that all of them are alcoholic monsters that taste like jam on oak. And we would like people to be bold enough to state their personal preferences without inventing “facts” to support their taste buds.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2009 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.