- 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.
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.
Syrah? No. Other Rhones? Never heard of them.
Remember, red wine and dark chocolate and you'll live forever!
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!
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.
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!"
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.