Wine's World

Sour Grapes

Why is there no such thing as a good, low-priced California wine?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of people in the world today: those running for governor of California, and those shaking their heads in disbelief at California. I’m one of the latter, but not for the reason you might think. Forget Arnold and Arianna, the real farce is what’s become of California wines. How does a place so conducive to cultivating wine grapes produce so much cheap swill and overpriced mediocrity? Why is the good stuff—what there is of it—so egregiously expensive? And why has California given rise to such an obnoxious wine culture? If Californians want to recall something, they might start with all those insipid chardonnays.

While Californians are busy revolting against themselves, lots of wine drinkers are revolting against California; this backlash has put several wineries in Chapter 11. Sales of cheaper California wines ($5 to $15, give or take a few bucks) are stagnant, while imports of discount Australian, Italian, Chilean, and Spanish wines are surging. (Alas, the growing market for bargain imports has not benefited the French; perfidious Gaul is evidently being punished for sitting out the war.)

Meanwhile, lots of mid- and high-priced California wines have become still wines in the literal sense of the term: They haven’t moved in months. Even the so-called Cult Cabernets—limited-production, wildly hyped wines that at their peak sold for hundreds of dollars a bottle and not long ago were harder to find than an Iraqi WMD—have lost some cachet. Some of them can now even be found at retail, the ultimate comedown. (This outburst of sobriety on the part of other consumers offers those of us who have long boycotted California wines a certain satisfaction. But the sense of vindication is more than offset by a sense of impending financial pain: Our ability to enjoy a steady supply of reasonably priced gems from France and Italy was predicated on the willingness of fellow wine buffs to be repeatedly gouged by California winemakers.)

The falloff in sales has occurred at a time when, supposedly, California wines have never been better. The received wisdom, handed down chiefly by Robert Parker and Wine Spectator, is that California is on a viticultural tear, cranking out more world-class wine than ever before.

Personally, I think the 1970s and 1980s was the golden age of California winemaking; the most successful wines of that era—Ridge Monte Bello, Phelps Eisele Vineyard, Heitz Martha’s Vineyard—had ripeness and power, but they also had finesse and elegance, qualities not currently found in many California wines. These days, the signature California style is flashy and in-your-face—”hedonistic fruit bombs,” in the Parker vernacular. Though these wines tend to flow across the palate with all the subtlety and grace of the Soviet Army rolling into Prague, they do have a certain burlesque appeal, and they have been undeniably popular in recent years. Still, sales aren’t nearly as brisk as they were just two or three years ago. Obviously, the weak economy has hurt business, particularly at the high end.

Americans are also expanding their wine horizons: Wine drinkers are often weaned on Napa merlots and Sonoma chardonnays but then become more adventurous, dabbling in Loire whites, Rhone reds, and other imports. Many find they prefer the foreign stuff, which usually has a lot more character and goes down better with meals. (California wines tend to be abusively oaked, high in alcohol, and low in acidity, making them distinctly food-unfriendly.)

But none of this adequately explains the contempt so many oenophiles now seem to feel for California wines. They aren’t just shunning them; they are cursing them. At any gathering of wine fanatics, you’re apt to find one person, and usually more, who will claim to have entirely sworn off California. The manager of a major East Coast wine store recently told me he no longer sets foot in his shop’s California section unless a client can’t be convinced to try something else. Likewise, at Tartine, a popular bakery/wine bar in San Francisco, the list of wines by the glass is almost entirely California-free. Co-owner Elizabeth Prueitt says her beef with California wines is about style (she thinks the wines are clunky), price, and attitude. “The exclusivity is such a turnoff,” she says.

Prueitt is right that the California wine industry is certainly not lacking in pretension and greed. Napa Valley is the most fabled of California’s wine regions, and the attitude-per-hectare there is particularly dense. Owning a Napa vineyard has long been a mark of prestige, but over the past 15 years or so, the area has seen an influx of wannabe wine barons who made their fortunes elsewhere (not least the tech industry) and transferred their alpha instincts to the wine business. This has created a neurotic atmosphere of perennial one-upmanship, in which the goal is not merely to make fine wine, but to make prohibitively expensive, virtually unobtainable wine—to create trophies for other plutocrats.

The most coveted trophies during the late 1990s were cult wines such as Harlan, Araujo, Screaming Eagle, Bryant Family, and Colgin. Back in the boom days, these could generally only be purchased one of two ways: directly from the winery, which normally entailed getting on a long waiting list and fulfilling all sorts of onerous requirements (to score an estate’s top wine, a customer often had to purchase a certain number of its lesser wines, which were known as “hostage wines”); or at auction, where prices were usually stratospheric—$300 to $600 a bottle.

One particularly unfortunate byproduct of the cult-wine frenzy was that it encouraged lots of less accomplished wineries to jack up their prices substantially. Every Bacchus-come-lately began asking $100 a bottle for his merlot, and cabernets and chardonnays that had been selling for $20 a bottle were suddenly going for $40 and $50 a bottle. The cult-wine phenomenon reached its zenith (or nadir) at a Napa charity auction in the summer of 2000, when a 6-liter bottle of Screaming Eagle was purchased for $500,000 by a former Cisco executive.

These days, there is a fair amount of post-bubble, what-the-hell-were-we-thinking revulsion at the cult-wine mania and at the price inflation more generally. It seems to have finally dawned on many consumers that a winery that didn’t exist a decade ago, and whose cabernet will likely be a tannic husk a decade from now, should not be charging Mission Haut-Brion prices. As winemaking goes, California is still a work in progress. It took the French centuries to match the right grapes with the right vineyards; things are proceeding at a less glacial pace on the left coast, but the industry is still young. As such, California should be brimming with high-quality bargains. The home fans at least—American wine drinkers—ought to have plenty of good, inexpensive syrahs and viogniers to choose from.

But that is not the case. In fact, California produces almost nothing worth drinking for under $15, a failure that borders on criminal. Finding something in this range that is merely inoffensive is a challenge, a point underscored by a recent feature in the Los Angeles Times. The paper gave four local sommeliers $300 each to come up with a list of good, fairly priced wines (fairly priced was loosely defined). Of the 39 wines selected, exactly one was from California. “There’s no price-quality ratio in California anymore,” David Rosoff of Opaline restaurant explained, “Great mistakes were made here …”

The biggest mistake is vanity: Most of the California producers with the means, skill, and desire to make good wine seem to measure success by the price tag on the bottle and would sooner flog pickles than “devalue” their brand by selling a $15 cabernet. You’d think one of California’s star oenologists might be inspired by the examples in France of great winemakers—Aubert de Villaine and Dominique Lafon come to mind—who are happily slumming it on the side, producing terrific, inexpensive wines from satellite appellations. But apparently that isn’t the California way.

Yet not everything is rotten in California. Some winemakers kept their heads during the late ‘90s frenzy. Ridge Vineyards’ Paul Draper (of Monte Bello fame) has quietly continued to craft excellent, reasonably priced cabernets and zinfandels in the Santa Cruz Mountains. And a number of no-glitz wineries, designed with function in mind rather than as spreads for Architectural Digest, have sprung up on the Central Coast. (Though here, too, many estate owners are putting the cart before the horse: There is no way a syrah from Paso Robles should fetch $60 or $70 a bottle.)

Meanwhile, what the discount end lacks in quality it perhaps makes up for with humor. To celebrate the lunatic turn that California politics has taken, the Milano Family Winery in Mendocino County has released a wine called “Recall Red.” It is probably not a wine that one sips with pleasure, but it is a wine worth having for the label, which is a punch-card ballot in the shape of California. The picture, the price ($8.99 a bottle, ideal for these austere times)—could there be a more fitting wine for the Schwarzenegger swearing-in?