The Great California Wine Mystery

Why superstar West Coast vintners don’t (or won’t) put out inexpensive bottles.

Wines. Click image to expand.
There are so few great, inexpensive wines from California

Bemoaning the dearth of good, inexpensive wines from California is like carping about the trivialization of politics or all the junk on television: It is such a self-evident point that it hardly bears repeating. But I’ll go ahead and repeat it anyway, because this lacuna in California wine culture bothers me not only as an oenophile but as an American. In Europe, some of the most celebrated vintners put out modestly priced wines alongside their loftier offerings. Jean-Louis Chave’s Hermitage (red or white—take your pick) sells for hundreds of dollars a bottle, but he also makes a delicious Côtes-du-Rhône that retails for about $18. Erni Loosen has an excellent $10 riesling. Aubert de Villaine, Christian Moueix, Dominique Lafon, and Alvaro Palacios all produce wines that are within reach of the budget-conscious. Nor is this trend confined to the Old World; David Powell, one of Australia’s finest, puts out a quartet of sub-$20 wines.

By “superstar vintners,” I mean those who consistently receive eye-catching scores from critics like Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator and whose wines are prized by collectors. There are a few producers in California who don’t rate as highly with the critics (or don’t get rated at all) but who I personally think are terrific and whose portfolios include wines that can be found for $20, give or take a few bucks—Steve Edmunds (Edmunds St. John), Michael Dashe (Dashe Cellars), Charles and Stu Smith (Smith-Madrone), and John Skupny (Lang & Reed), for example. Among the critically deified, however, the number who slum it can be counted on one hand, with enough digits left over to comfortably hold a wineglass. Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards has one such wine: Ridge’s Sonoma County Three Valleys, a toothsome zinfandel. But he’s an exception.

What makes this topic especially salient now is that California wines priced above $20 have effectively become display items—they are still on the shelves, but not many people are buying them. Americans haven’t stopped drinking wine as a result of the Great Recession, but they have scaled back what they are willing to pay; $15 is the new $30. It thus seems the ideal moment for an acclaimed California winemaker to emulate the likes of Chave and Loosen (or Draper, for that matter) and to come out with a stellar bargain wine. It would certainly be a shrewd way of earning goodwill and of cultivating a following among consumers who in the future might be in a position to buy the pricier stuff (there will be prosperity again, someday).

So why isn’t it happening? That’s a question I put to Manfred Krankl, whose Central Coast winery, Sine Qua Non, specializes in Rhone grape varieties and receives gushing praise (“totally profound”) and monster scores from Parker. Krankl suggested that one reason the Europeans are better at value wines is that they are often working in vineyards that have been family owned for generations and that were paid down long ago. By contrast, many of the better vineyards in California were developed or acquired fairly recently, and land is expensive. According to Krankl, an acre of prime vineyard on the Central Coast is a minimum $25,000 these days and more likely closer to $50,000. When you factor in planting, farming, and labor costs, the road to profitability gets even longer. A $20-or-under wine would really only be economically feasible, Krankl said, if it could be made in large volumes, which goes some way to explaining why this segment of the U.S. market is dominated by corporations like Gallo, and why boutique wineries such as Sine Qua Non direct their efforts elsewhere.

Krankl also said that European vintners such as Chave and Lafon are in a very different position than he is. Heirs to long winemaking traditions (in Chave’s case, one dating back to the 15th century), they didn’t have to build reputations from scratch; they just had to prove that they were worthy successors to their fathers. Once they did that, they were free to moonlight—to take on side projects and to carve out identities distinct from the ones bequeathed them. Sine Qua Non, by contrast, has existed only since 1994, and Krankl said his sole objective is to establish a track record of great wines—wines that can go sip-for-sip with the best of Chave or Lafon. Given the financial realities, he wouldn’t be able to achieve that kind of quality in a $20 grenache or syrah, and it would therefore be of no interest to him. “That would mean a completely different perspective and one that doesn’t appeal to me. It would only be about economics, which I find boring. At that point, I might as well be selling tires.”

I also spoke with Ehren Jordan. He is an old friend, so consider me biased, but I think Jordan is one of the most talented vintners around. He makes the wines for Turley Wine Cellars, famed for its full-throated zinfandels, and also crafts earthy pinot noirs and syrahs at Failla Wines, which he owns with his wife, Anne-Marie Failla. Jordan pointed out that the value wines made by these European eminences tend to come from relative backwaters; Dominique Lafon, for example, makes his cheaper stuff in the Macon region, not Burgundy proper. To turn out a seriously good, artisanal $20 wine in California, he said, would require something similar. Napa and Sonoma are prohibitively expensive—according to Jordan, an acre of choice vineyard in either county runs $100,000 to $200,000, and grape prices are also exorbitant—but there are other areas where it can be done. He speaks from experience: Two years ago, he made a $17 cinsault for Turley using fruit from the comparatively unglamorous Lodi appellation.

Jordan went to Lodi because he likes cinsault and discovered some great old vines there. But he also said that because he depends on wine for his livelihood, it is important for him to appeal to a cross-section of consumers by offering wines at a variety of price points. That’s not the case for many of his neighbors. He noted that in the last two decades, Napa (and to a lesser extent Sonoma) has seen an influx of people who earned fortunes in other fields and came to wine country with a trophy-hunting mentality (my phrase, not his): Their aim was to craft luxury cuvees that would get big scores and become collector’s items. By buying up prime vineyards and hiring fancy consultants adept at pleasing the critics, quite a few of them succeeded. Among this new Napa elite, bargain wines were just not part of the equation—and that remains the case, Jordan said, even though demand for upscale cabernets and chardonnays has tanked and Napa is experiencing an epic slump. A lot of these producers are “not in the business to make money,” as Jordan put it, and are flush enough to ride out the downturn without slashing prices, let alone resorting to $20 bottlings.

It would be silly to claim that consumers are suffering because of this lack of big-name budget wines. Thanks to the work of great importers, wine shops are filled these days with excellent values from around the world. Still, I think it’s a pity that so few top American winemakers dabble at the lower end of the market. Although millions of Americans are now oenophiles, wine hasn’t entirely shaken its elitist image, and it persists in part because of the attitude that prevails in places like Napa. The fact that Aubert de Villaine, the co-director of Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, whose wines now fetch thousands of dollars a bottle, also sells a $20 wine under his own label sends a powerful message—it says that quality is not entirely connected to price and that fine wine is a democratic pleasure, accessible not merely to the affluent. It would be nice if a few prominent figures in California viticulture were sending the same message.

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