I don’t want to be a hater. I don’t want to pile it on to the upmarket California winemakers who, by all accounts, are in world of hurt these days, but there’s a big problem in Cali wine that no one seems to be willing to talk about. California wines are boring.
Yesterday I tasted two very different wines. From two different countries. In two different price brackets. It’s probably against an unwritten rule to compare them to one another, but it’s also human nature to do so. I did.
Wine #1 was a Loire Valley Cabernet Franc without claim to a fancy appellation — it was VdP Jardin — retailing at about $15.
Wine #2 was a highly allocated, newly annointed by Mr. Parker 98 point Rhône blend from California, retailing for about $70.
The difference between them? The Cab Franc had a personality. It was charming, quirky even, in its two-thirds-of-the-way-to-rosé clear magenta hue with violet, plum, and fresh earth on the nose; mouthwatering raspberry and paprika on the palate. So much going on for so little money. The Cali red? Its minty, dried wood aroma (hello, new oak!) translated on the palate to a massive, polished-to-a-spit-shine vanilla and vaguely berryish flavor. I’ve tasted wine like this a thousand times before. Technically perfect, like an air-brushed model on the cover of a magazine, it offers no surprises, no intriguing conversation. No soul, just glossy packaging. And, it was hot. Why, I wondered, would anyone ever buy this when they could have 4+ bottles of the (far more fun and thus IMO superior) Cab Franc?
I taste lots of wine every week and inevitably end up pitting the best and the worst against each other in my mind: the snore of a Sonoma Coast Chard ($40) vs. a gorgeous as all get-out Grüner ($18); yet another big, alcoholic, hardly identifiable as Pinot Russian River Pinot Noir ($50) vs. a surprisingly layered beauty of a Sicilian Frappato ($20). Unfortunately, in my mental rankings the California contenders typically fall to the bottom of the heap, largely because of the price to quality ratio. I simply don’t want to pay $40 or $50 for an OK-but-nothing-special bottle from CA when I know I can find several intriguing, even complex, wines under $20 elsewhere.
California is the reason I fell in love with wine in the first place, and yet I seem to be falling out of love with California wine. It’s sad.
Are charming, exciting, well-priced Cali wines even out there anymore, or are they extinct?