American wine consumers need to be aware of a devasting grape plague. As disabling as phylloxera, it's a disease which, for want of a better description, I shall call Frenchitis."
What is Frenchitis? Quite simply, it is the inexplicable need of American winemakers, consumers, and merchants to measure native wine and taste by French standards. It is the kind of malady that leaves an American winemaker with an inferiority complex unless he first challenges and scores a tasting victory with his wines over Gallic counterparts.
Tasters from the Eastern seaboard have been more seriously afflicted than Westerners. To this day many will tell you that French wines, even low end, low-priced wines, are better than those of even California premium variety, and certainly better than Oregon, Washington, Ohio, Michigan and New York wines.
"Frenchitis" in the East, I fear, has prejudiced some palates beyond repair.
Of course, Easterners are not to be blamed entirely. For years, they could not get the best of California varietals, and of necessity drank more French than American wines. This naturally allowed the plague to take its toll. Others who had direct access to finer native bottles became closet California wine drinkers, admitting neither plague nor pleasure. Secretly, however, the wines were enjoyed.
California winemakers caught the plague by associating with Easterners and other Francophiles who were convinced that no matter how good a wine may be, it really isn't good unless it's "French-like."
A notorious Paris tasting several years ago underscored the seriousness of the plague. Because certain California wineries emerged victorious in a French-California taste-off because of judgements made by so-called credentialed French tasters, the international wine world was momentarily stunned and began seriously to consider our wines. Again, however, it was only because the French liked them that the world listened.
Frankly, I cannot understand why the plague should persist. Perhaps a day will come when we mature enough to judge California and other American wines on their own merits. Personally I could care less whether Easterners or the French ever approve or disapprove of American Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays.
Wines produced in individual styles by well-trained competent winemakers need no apologists. Our fine wines should be and are different in taste and style and must be respected for "la difference." Currently much is being made of a recent tasting of the wines of 53 California wineries held at the American Embassy in Paris under the auspices of Les Amis du Vin. Authoritative reports indicate enthusiatic interest on the part of the French with one wag even claiming they were ecstatic. I wonder if they will be as ecstatic when asked to pay upwards of $10 to $15 a bottle, along with the high Common Market tariff. I seriously doubt it.
Also, I wonder if such tastings will ever take place and receive equal recognition in other countries with equally strong wine traditions but without the prestige of the French winemakers.
I am not certain where all this "frenchitis" started. My hunch is that it began at least 25 years ago when California wine promoters conducted blind comparative tastings between French and California wines. I vividly recall presumptions non-vintage Cabernet of Christian Brothers generally beating Chateau Latour 1952. A great victory was claimed because the Christian Brothers wine sold for under $2 while Latour sold for $8. No mention was made, however, of the fact that the Christian Brothers was deliberately made to provide soft, early drinkability while the Latour was young, loaded with tannin and needed many more years to develop its breed and complexity. It was another classic example of apples versus oranges resulting from a horrible addiction to "Frenchitis."
What is the remedy? Easy. A daily dose of high quality California varietal wine, tasted alone with thoughtful deliberation rather than in comparison to a French counterpart, and the cure is at hand. Don't overdose, as Frenchitis can easily turn into "Californiaitis." Just follow the prescription in a moderate and objective way to obtain a lasting cure.
Don't become complacent, however, for a new type of "Frenchitis" is possibly in the offing. An international marketing firm, with the assistance of Greg Bissonette of Chateau Chevalier, proposes to sell to the French such famous California wines as Mayacamas, Heitz, Caymus, Chateau Montelena, Dry Creek, Chaone, Spring Mountain and others. These wineries barely have enough product these days to satisfy California and/or American needs much less any possible French demand. Profit can hardly be the motive as the wines could be sold here easily. So it must be a matter of "prestige." If this were a major break-through against Common Market tariffs, it would indeed be worthwhile, but most of these wineries will never have enough product to satisfy any avalanche of French orders should they come.
Now I love the French and admit that we owe them a lot. Daily, I humbly acknowledge thanks for Lafayette, the Statue of Liberty, Brigitte Bardot, Dom Perignon, Charles Boyer, cognac and Maurice Chevalier, to say nothing of French grapevine roots and traditions.
Obviously, these debts are virtually impossible to repay. But to cross the "Maginot" vintage line and ask us to send them California wine which is complex, stylized, individualistic, rare and virtually unobtainable, I say no. Never.