CAN AMERICAN wines be better than European wines? Many people think so, after a 1976 Paris tasting in which a California Cabernet Sauvignon was given the highest score of a group of 10 wines that included Chateau Mouton-Rothschild and other prestigious wines from Bordeaux.
Following this tasting, there were headlines in Europe and the United States to the effect that California wines had won the tasting, that California wines were now better than French, etc.
At first glance, it seems reasonable to view a scored wine tasting in terms of a track meet or horse race. When the scores for each wine are averaged, the one with the highest score must be the best wine. However, a little thought should show that even though the averaging is actually carried out to two decimal places, the resulting numbers do not have the same meaning with a highly subjective activity like wine tasting as do the times clocked for the various runners in a 100-meter dash.
Hence, to get closer to the real meaning of the scores (or rankings) in the tasting, they must be subjected to variance analysis, an elementary statistical analysis of the variations in the scores of the tasters. This was done by "The Wine Scene," a California newsletter. The results showed that there was actually a four-way tie for first place, both with the white wines and the red. In other words, there was no significant difference among the scores of the first four wines. (Analysis of tasting scores is explained in Wines: Their Sensory Evaluation by Amerine and Roessler.)
Other considerations in assessing the results of tasting run chiefly to the selection of the wines. An international wine competition presupposes national competitions or some other method of selecting the best wines from each country or region. There is nothing to indicate that the best wines were selected, from either France or California. (In fairness to the sponsors, it should be noted that they disclaimed any intention of holding a competitive tasting, saying that they simply wanted to show that high-quality wines were being made in California.
The degree of maturity of the wines, is another consideration. Good French clarets of good vintages are noted for their long life and slow maturing. The three clarets among the first four wines in the red wine tasting were all from the 1970 vintage, a very good one. It seems unlikely that they were ready to drink in 1976, and it will probably be 1985 before they reach their peak of development. California Cabernet Sauvignons generally mature much earlier than French clarets; even so, the wine that placed first, 1973 Stag's Leap, might have improved with another couple of years of bottle age.
Since no single wine was (statistically) the best and since the wines chosen for the tasting were not necessarily the best from each region, did the tasting have any real significance? The answer is certainly yes, for two reasons.
First, although the statistical evaluation of scores showed no winner, it did show that the California wines equaled French wines from some of the most highly regarded vineyards in France.
Second, this very favorable showing by California wines came from a tasting at which all the tasters were French. In recent years there have been numerous tastings in this country that included California and European wines, and California wines have frequently done very well. However, there is always a feeling that the tasters might be prejudiced in favor of California wines, especially at the tastings in California, where the tasters had "grown up" with California wines. The 1976 tasting was the first publicized tasting of French and California wines in which the tasters were all French, so that there should be no bids toward California wines.
Another tasting held in Paris last fall has received some publicity. Called a wine "Olympiad" by its sponsors, Henri Gault and Christian Millau, publishers of Le Guide Nouveau Gault-Millau, it presented 330 wines from around the world. There were 62 tasters from nine European countries and the United States. California wines showed better in the "Olympiad" than in the earlier tasting, but the results did not have as much significance or impact. The wine selection seemed rather haphazard, with a large proportion of wines of rather ordinary quality, and the tasters were apparently not as experienced as those at L'Academie du Vin in 1976. One participant called it a "three-ring circus."
Nevertheless, this event again called attention to California wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Wine experts in England, where for generations claret and Burgundy have been considered the best table wines have become much more interested in American wines. (There is now a wine tasting club in London known as the Zinfandel Club; only American wines are served at the club tastings and dinners.)
The English have been favorably impressed by the quality of the better Cabernet and Chardonnay wines. It has been pointed out, however, that some of their characteristics -- big, full-bodied, fruity -- are more impressive at a tasting than with a meal, when they prefer more subtlety and finesse.
It is true that California wine makers and wine drinkers seem to prefer a big, full-bodied wine -- "gutsy" is a much used term of approval in California. We are not in the realm of subjectivity. Hugh Johnson, the famous English wine writer, recently wrote in "The Wine Spectator" that he is greatly impressed by the first glass of a top California wine, and can enjoy a second glass, but he seldom wants a third glass. It is unlikely that the same wine would elicit such a reaction from a California wine drinker.
These preferences or biases are sometimes referred to as a "European palate," "California palate," etc. (The word palate is used symbolically; it actually has nothing to do with smell or taste.) This difference in palates is, of course, subjective and makes it difficult for some tasters to agree about a wine. Chauvinistic residents of Burgundy and of Bordeaux are still arguing with each other over the superiority of the wines from their regions.
Hence, it is significant that Johnson also wrote that "at last France has some real competition." Quality can be recognized by experienced tasters regardless of the kind of palate one may have.
It is clear that California wines have now been internationally recognized as wines of very high quality, but this does not mean that they will flood the European market. Besides the obstacle of fixed habits of consumption, there are additional problems in establishing a market in Europe, such as tariffs and import regulations that are more restrictive than those of the United States.
It is understandable but ironic that with all this blossoming of California wines as compared with European, almost all the attention has been focused on the most expensive wines. It should be of equal interest that at least 10 years ago Englishmen visiting this country pointed out that the wines at the other end of the scale, the jug wines, were superior in value to their imported counterparts. That opinion has been confirmed by many tastings since then.
Well, if California wines at the low end of the price scale are superior to their French counterparts, and those at the high end are at least of equal quality to their counterparts, what of the middle range? By middle range I mean wines costing around $3 to $5 a bottle. This price range includes generic wines from premium wineries, such as Burgundy from Beaulieu or Heitz, and varietal wines from large and medium wineries, such as Almaden, Sebastiani, etc. Tastings in this range have not had much publicity, but I believe that there "middle" wines would provide real competition for their European counterparts. Try the Almaden Cabernet Sauvignon 1977 Monterey Vineyard (under $4 when first released) with a French claret at a similar price.