Are California Wines Worse Than Ever Before—Or Better

By Charles Olken

For years now, there has been a rising chorus that has been telling us that California wines have lost their ways, and that only a few “johnny come lately” winemakers know the truth and are going to pull our chestnuts out of the fire. California wines, we are told, are a drag on the market. California wines are backing up in the warehouses because no one except a few dunces locally and in Omaha will buy them. California wine is no longer welcome, we are told, in New York or Chicago. It has been replaced by wine from the south of Spain and the north of Italy and the Greek Islands and anywhere in the Old World, because the know-nothings in the New World really never knew how to make wine and now they are proving it by making overoaked, overripe, too hot, prune juice and fruit bombs.

Everyone who is anything knows what is going on, and that is why even in San Francisco, you find restaurants like Commonwealth and 1760 and a host of others that would not sell a California wine if their lives depended on it unless those wines were made by the new kids on the block.

All of this Sturm and Drang, of course, is self-serving. It is a way of saying, “we are classicists” and cannot accept variations on the theme. Take Pinot Noir, for instance. There is a classic model for Pinot Noir because, until the grape migrated to the New World, no one in Europe save for the Burgundians had any reasonable idea how to make the grape into exciting wine. Hence, Burgundy not just as the classic model, but Burgundy as the only model.

Enter California and New Zealand and Australia, and, lo and behold, with no centuries-old rules to keep them from learning new tricks, good Pinot Noir sprouted in those places. At first, they were accepted as new and wonderful, but sooner than later, the classicists raised their voices and the notion of good but different became different and too ripe, and therefore, not so good.

Okay, I am guilty of the same things in my life. We all are at times. We get used to things. We speak of the good old days. We even train our kids to think of the good old days. Most of them ignore us, of course, and as I write this, I am wondering how many people reading these words ever saw Chuck Berry live or Dizzy Gillespie in his prime?

So, here is what is bugging me. The San Francisco Chronicle issued its annual Top 100 Wines, and then proclaimed that the Golden Age of Wine had finally arrived in California. And I got a response to my editorial comments about the WSJ denigrating Zinfandel in which the respondent claimed to be on the side of the angels and they went on to say that he just discovered that California wines do, in fact, age in the bottle. I may have been a little bit short with him, and, if so, I apologize. Discovery is a wonderful thing, even when you think you have just invented the wheel.

All I ask is a little humility. Please don’t think that because you are in you mid-30s and someone gave you a wine column, that you are in the midst of discovering the world is not flat. Generations before you knew that. Sure, it’s new to you, this notion that Zinfandel can age. Sure, its new to you that there are lighter styled wines being made in California. Their existence may be a discovery to you, but they were there all along. You just did not know it.

Is California wine better than it has ever been? It is if you just discovered that Russian River Pinot Noir can be ethereal. It is if you have just discovered that not all Chardonnays taste alike. It is if you have discovered that a batch of new wineries making lighter wines did not invent acidity.

But it isn’t if you still think that all California wines are 15% alcohol and higher. It isn’t if you won’t put California sparkling wines on your restaurant wine list because you still think that they are all low in acidity and too sweet. And it isn’t if you have never heard of the wines of Cathy Corison or Bill Dyer or Steve MacRostie or Joel Peterson or Paul Draper or David Ramey or Larry Hyde or Dan Lee or Susan and Jonathan Pey, Dan Goldfield, Greg Bjornstad, Merry Edwards, Bob Cabral. It isn’t if you have never tasted the wines of Dry Creek Vineyard, Marimar Estate, Cuvaison, Testarossa, Gary Farrell, Saintsbury, Truchard.

California wine may be better than ever, but it is not better than ever because a handful of young winemakers have been discovered and anointed as the new gods of wine. California wine is better than ever because we keep learning, we keep trying to make things better and we are succeeding as we have been for decades and decades.

And if you are of the opinion that California wine is worse than ever, then you have not yet tasted broadly enough and with an open enough mind to discover the winemakers and wineries who have been making a difference here for decades. “Better than ever” has been here all along. Welcome aboard.

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