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Friday, March 26, 2010

Three Decades of Change

I am all for progress; it's change I can't stand.
-Mark Twain

Having lived in Sonoma County for thirty years I can spot the changes to California wines and the tourist industry around it.   Most things have changed in that time as expected except for me, of course!

CA Wines

Obviously, they were a lot cheaper in 1980 as was everything else.   I'd say wine has pretty much tripled in price, but then so has a new car, and don't even start on housing costs.

When an acre of vineyards in Napa passed the $10,000 mark it was a big deal.   Several years ago it passed $100,000.   If you ask, "Why didn't you think to buy a couple acres back then?"   Well, I didn't have $20k then just like I don't have $250k now.   But it was a heckuva investment for somebody.

Most wines circa 1980 fell into two categories:
  • Dry and tannic reds requiring several years of aging, but once they aged they were usually worth the wait.
  • Whites were either Chardonnay or sweet and simple.
Then and today Chardonnay and Cabernet are king with a lot of Zinfandel in Sonoma County, too.  But thirty years ago the other varietals you found were Riesling, Gewurztraminer, French Colombard and Chenin Blanc in whites and Petite Sirah and Charbono in red.   Yes, there were others, but those seemed to be the big ones.   I know there's still Petite Sirah around, but not as much (percentage-wise anyway, not sure about acreage).

Zinfandel sales started to slide in the '80s.   Many vineyards would have been yanked and replanted had it not been for the rise of White Zinfandel.  Sutter Home and Beringer still make lots of White Zin but the grapes come from cheaper growing regions in the Central Valley of California now.

Pinot Noir?  Some but planted in the wrong places and most people didn't know how to make it.  Probably Pinot got treated like Cab or Zin in the processing.  It just wasn't very good.  Kenwood's Jack London Ranch in Sonoma Valley had Pinot planted--right next to the Cab, Merlot and Zin.  It was way too hot for Pinot.

Syrah?   No. Other Rhones?  Never heard of them.

Sauvignon Blanc was just starting to come into its own in the early 1980s.

Merlot was around, but mostly blended into the dry, tannic Cabs.   Merlot sales took off in the 1990s with the French paradox story on 60 Minutes that basically said you could eat all kinds of fatty foods and smoke as long as you had a couple glasses of red wine every night.

Remember, red wine and dark chocolate and you'll live forever!

Wine Making

Wine styles have definitely changed going from trying to copy the French to trying to sell wine (what a concept)!   Wines now are generally more fruity, less tannic, less acidic, less drying, and have more alcohol.   Is this better?   I don't know.

So what happened?  Most reds weren't too drinkable on release--they needed time to develop in the bottle.  Mostly they were just too tannic when young but boy did they develop some nice complexity a few years later.  But it was no secret that the vast majority of wine sold in the U.S. was being consumed within a couple days of purchase so why not make wine that soft and drinkable right away?

Early on this led to a bit of residual sugar being left in some wines.  Over the years vineyard and cellar techniques changed from picking the fruit riper to removing some of the alcohol during processing.  (Riper = more sugar = more alcohol).

I'm a believer in less is more.  The more processing required the less I'll probably like the finished product.  If you have to pick the grapes so ripe and have to add water back in then take out some of the alcohol then something is wrong in my opinion.  Not all wines are this way, just a small percentage.

In the "old days" what I considered the bad wine was usually too tannic and too astringent where now what I consider bad is usually too one-dimensional fruity and too hot (from the alcohol).   That is, in the '80s a bad wine was like sucking on a sweat sock.  Today it's like drinking a Dr. Pepper with a shot of tequila in it.

Are wines, in general, better today then back then?  I'd say yes as I believe the percentage of bad wines out of California is much lower than it was back then.   They've learned a lot!


Of course there were a  lot fewer wineries and tasting rooms then--a LOT fewer.   Imagine driving through Napa with only a few stops available such as Mondavi, Louis Martini, Inglenook, Beringer, and Charles Krug?   And--hold on--no tasting fees in Napa Valley!   Somewhere in the mid-80s tasting room fees were invented over in Napa along Highway 29 because it was getting too easy to stop at a dozen wineries.  It was for crowd control and drunk control, now it's become a revenue stream.

In Sonoma Valley there was Kenwood and St. Jean.  Up in Dry Creek you had the old timers like Pedroncelli, Foppiano and Simi plus newer start-ups like Dry Creek Vineyards.

Around the town of Sonoma Buena Vista has always been there and Gundlach-Bundschu had restarted.  G-B was down a little, tiny winding road in the middle of nowhere with the tasting room sharing space with the lab in a corner of the cellar.   

When the wine train started up in Napa Valley, to much criticism, the Bundschus decided the train's guests needed a little Sonoma wine.  One day a few of them dressed as Western bandits and staged a "raid" on the train and poured G-B wines for the semi-startled tourists.   Imagine doing that now.  Somebody would probably think they were terrorists or some damn paranoid thing.

Kenwood Vineyards

Early on I became a fan of Kenwood Vineyards. In the early '70s three guys out of college purchased the Pagani Bros. winery and turned it into Kenwood Vyds.  At the old Pagani Winery you brought in your own jug to be filled from the barrel.  Your choice was white wine or red wine.  By the '80s it was rare to find anyone doing this but Valley of the Moon was one that still had this option.

Kenwood started an "artist series" program for their reserve Cabernet.  I believe it was retailing for about $25 at the time!   Their first label contained a nude figure on a hillside.  The feds must approve wine labeling and they said no.   The artist was P.O'ed and did another with a skeleton on the hillside.  After he calmed down he redid it with a blank hillside.   For the 25th anniversary of that first artist series they got the nude drawing approved.  Progress.  A few "Naked Lady" bottles got out into circulation and are valuable.  I've seen the skeleton label at the winery but don't know if any bottles got out.  This actually worked out well for Kenwood as they got lots of free publicity for this (and free is the best kind).

The '78 Charles Mingus label was even more fun.  I had it explained by winery staff that it is actually a picture of the vineyards out front of the tasting room.  It's so colorful because the artist smoked a joint, poked himself in the eye, then painted.   I can't vouch for this story but I like it so much it's worth repeating.

I had gotten to know the Kenwood tasting room manager and was able to visit their wine library a couple times and sample some older Cabs and Zins.   A really good experience at the time because I had nothing that old at home at the time.   Kenwood made about 20 wines then and all were available for tasting--for free, of course.    

Lake Sonoma at the north end of Dry Creek Valley
It wasn't there in 1980--just a Corp of Engineers wet dream!


The biggest changes are probably to the town of Healdsburg.  Other towns have grown faster in population, but the downtown area of Healdsburg has really changed.  It was an old, slightly scruffy farm town.  More like Geyserville is now only bigger.  Watch out Geyserville, you're next!

The Healdsburg downtown is almost exclusively geared towards visitors.   About the only thing left as-is would be John & Zeke's, one of two old bars left.  Not that the change was bad, but I had an old-time resident tell me once, "I can't even buy a pair of underwear in Healdsburg anymore!"


This yearly Zinfandel-only tasting in San Francisco is huge with hundreds of wineries and thousands of guests. I attended sometime in the '80s and remember a photographer wanting a good crowd shot so he called for everybody to gather around together to make the place look full while he took a picture.

A couple years ago I poured for a winery at ZAP and when leaving I looked around at the hundreds of guests streaming and and said to myself, "Wow, 90% of these people are drunk. I'm getting the hell out of here before they get on the road!"  Of course, I may have been one of those tipsy people in the past.

Wine Road Barrel Tasting

This started as a free open house where wineries let you sample wines from the barrels before they were bottled and you could by futures on them.   There were a few dozen wineries, mostly in Dry Creek Valley, participating.   Then it went to five bucks and they gave you a glass. A good idea so the small wineries don't have to wash glasses.   Then it was ten bucks.   Now it's $20 in advance; $30 at the door for a weekend that begins on Friday and runs through two weekends now.   It's hugely successful as far as the number of people attending.

What's not so successful for the wineries are two things.   One, sales are not what they used to be.  Futures are a thing of the past.  It's now a big party.   And two, because of the party atmosphere they have to watch for drunks and people generally getting out-of-hand.   There have been no major problems, like a traffic death, but this is a ticking time bomb.

The last time I worked the Barrel Tasting was in downtown Healdsburg.   There are a dozen wineries within a couple blocks.   Mid-afternoon on a Saturday I finally got a break and stepped outside.   It looked like Mardi Gras!   Roving groups of folks whooping it up having a good time.

I later talked with a relative of the Healdsburg brewpub's manager.  Apparently it was a bad night for them, as he had to toss out several groups that were obviously intoxicated.

Sonoma County

Napa, Sonoma and many other grape-growing regions in California are known to many people.  Thirty years ago it was just Napa.  When working in wineries in the '80s and '90s I occasionally had folks tell me they were in Napa when we were actually in Sonoma Valley.   They didn't know the difference as California wine country equaled Napa.

Of course, this is all based on what I remember from thirty years ago.  I make no claim to the validity of my Zinfandel-clouded mind.