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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Generalizing about California wine styles

Like these generalizations:
  • California Chardonnay is oaky and buttery.
  • California Zinfandel is all sweet red fruit with heat from too much alcohol (or is pink)!
  • California Merlot is cheap, undistinguished crap.
  • Great Cabernet must be $100+ and from Napa Valley. 
  • California wine never will be as good as French. Chablis, Bordeaux, and Burgundy are better.
Unfortunately lots of people believe in many of these generalizations. I assume because that's what they've read from some wine "expert" or from a limited selection of California wines available to them at home.

Why each of these statements isn't quite true:

California Chardonnay is oaky and buttery

This was a trend that peaked in the '90s as many popular California Chards were full of oak and butter flavors. Some producers, such as Kendall-Jackson, Sonoma Cutrer, and Rombauer make a ton of money with this style. And they still make it pretty much the same way for their loyal followers.
A Chardonnay that tastes like grapes
instead of oak!
Image from

The '90s were a long time ago in California wine trends. Now many are made with more neutral oak or stainless steel to lessen that characteristic. The secondary fermentation that gives the butteriness is done partially or not at all. There are more labels of Chardonnay done in this restrained style, but by volume found on most store shelves Chardonnay still leans towards the oak and butter flavors.

I find many visitors surprised when they taste the more typical California Chardonnay found in most wineries. Many will say, "I don't like Chardonnay" until they taste it and say, "Oh, but I like this one."

California Zinfandel is simple red fruit and high alcohol

Another trend that seems to be dying back fortunately. Much of California Zin isn't the over-the-top high alcohol fruit bomb, but what happens is the ones winning awards are. Why? On first sip in a judging these soft, fruity wines are really nice. A half a glass later they are not so nice (to me anyway). So for the minority of wineries that chase after gold medals this was the way they went and these people get the press.

There are many examples of the more restrained, "old school" Zin from folks like David Coffaro, Dry Creek Vyds, Nalle, Preston, Ridge, Seghesio, Storybook Mountain, etc.

There's nothing wrong with the big fruit and high alcohol Zins if that's what you like, but that isn't the only style available. It's just the style you hear more about.

California Merlot is junk

Merlot got a bad rap through no fault of its own. It got popular in a hurry after The French Paradox revealed possible health benefits of red wine. Merlot was where everybody turned and producers had to play catch-up to meet the new demand leading to a lot of blended Merlots made out of some pretty mediocre grapes.

But actually California has always made some pretty nice Merlot. A few of the producers are Duckhorn, Gundlach-Bundschu, Larkmead, Pride Mountain, and Shafer. There are lots of good Merlot from the Columbia Valley of Washington. Merlot is also one the the best bargains out there in under $20 wines. Try Alexander Valley Vineyards, St. Francis and Sebastiani.

Top California Cabernets cost over $100 and are from Napa Valley

Looking through a recent Wine Spectator pretty much all the Cabs receiving 90+ points were very expensive and from Napa. So you can see how so many wine drinkers equate Napa Valley with the best Cabs. Napa does put out some great ones, but they aren't all so expensive and all the great ones aren't necessarily from Napa. Sonoma County's Alexander Valley, Knights Valley, Rockpile, and Sonoma Valley's hillside vineyards are other prime Cabernet growing regions as is part of Washington state. You'll find lower prices in these areas compared to Napa.
Never had a Cabernet from Rockpile?
You're missing something!
image from

Within Napa Valley there are many great Cabs at more reasonable prices. A few of these are from Beringer, Hall, Heitz, Markham, Raymond, Smith-Madrone, and there are many others.

From Sonoma County a few are Alexander Vly Vyds, B.R. Cohn, Clos du Bois, Hanna, Rodney Strong, and Simi and there are a bunch more. Many of these Sonoma County Cabernets can be found selling in the $20s and $30s.

California wine isn't as good as Old World wine

This one has been tossed around for decades--ever since California was first seen as competition for France. California grows the same grapes, but has a different climate, usually different soils, and doesn't grow or process the grapes exactly the same as the Old World. That doesn't make California wines inferior; just different. The comparison was going to happen, of course, but you'd think after the Judgement in Paris almost 40 years ago people could get over the "Old World is better" stuff.  But some still think since France was first then all wine should taste like theirs. 

You may have an overall favorite style and lean more towards one of the other. Nowadays you'll find a number of New World wineries making wine in more of an Old World style and you'll find Old World wineries making New World style wine.

As always, buy what you like and at a price you are comfortable with.