WE are in the midst of a revolution! Display shelves and wine lists are being overturned. Books are being rewritten. Why? Because the California wine industry and American wine consumers are coming of age together and the era of subservience to European wines and winemaking is ending.
No longer are our premier domestic wines hidden away in the back of wine shops, at the bottom or on the final page of a wine list, in a superficial, duty-inspired final chapter. Without the slightest intent to denigrate Europe, the place to begin learing about wine is here at home. For one thing, although it may come as a surprise considering the European bias of most wine drunk in this country-more than 80 percent-is American. Perhaps what is going on is not a revolution, but a revelation.
California so dominates the domestic industry in terms of volume (production this year may top 300 million gallons, nearly double what it was in the mid-1960s) that it must be treated as a subject unto itself. Quality wines being made elsewhere in the United States will be the subject of a future article.
Critics complain that California has a long way to go. Happily, it does. Winemakers, scientists and vineyard owners, all deeply immersed in what is still a pioneering effort, envision great changes even while they revel in the steadily increasing support of consumers and wine writers.
Mistrust between small and larger wineries appears to have diminished. John DeLuca, the politically astute president of the Wine Institute, the industry's trade association, point to agreement on a voluntary code of advertising ethics and the manner in which his members cooperated to play a constructive role in formulating the recently announced revisions in federal wine regulations. He cites record-breaking demand for table wines so far this year and increased interest in California wines from abroad and says he is "optimistic for the future."
The situation has not always been so bright and from the consumer's point of view there is still a dark cloud of confusion to peer through. So fast has the industry grown, so exuberant are its practitioners that there are too many new wines-and too many new wineries-to keep track of. There are nearly 400 now, more than a third of them less than a decade old. New wines are released; old wines are dropped from the line. Talented winemakers move from one winery to another with the speed of French chefs changing restaurants. Wineries themselves are bought and sold frequently; labels are redesigned, production goals change. Some small "hobby" operations attempt to expand production and become viable commercial wineries, but fail to make the transition.
What follows is a geographic guide to the wine fields of California. Specific wines and wineries will be given as examples, but think no less of familiar names not mentioned.
To do an adequate survey would take a book, of which several are available. The Signet Book of American Wine, by Peter Quimme (revised edition) is an informative paperback and The California Wine Book by Robert Thompson and Hugh Johnson (Morrow) is a hardcover that contains extensive reporting on individual wineries. I receive two newsletters that I value, Robert Finegan's Private Guide to Wines, a monthly, and The Connoiseur's Guide to California Wine, published bimonthly. The former is highly personalized commentary. It costs $24 per year from Walnuts and Wine, 100 Bush St., San Franciso, Calif. 94104. The latter utilizes stars and other symbols plus description and contains astonishingly comprehensive assessments. It is $20 per year from Box 11120, San Francisco, Calif. 94101. There are perhaps half-a-dozen others.
California had a thriving wine industry before Prohibition. Once reborn in the mid-1930s, it grew slowly with little emphasis on quality wines. It was the early 1960s before the sale of table wines exceeded those of dessert (sweet) and fortified wines. Even then there were only a handful or so of high caliber made from great French vinifera grapes such as the pinot chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon.
Today there are about three dozen varieties on the market, with a number of experimental hybrids under cultivation. They are grown in at least half a dozen distinct geographic areas. Total acreage is over 315,000 acres, more than double what it was ten years ago.
Scientists have devised a scale of climate zones or regions to indicate the amount of heat from the sun these vineyard areas receiving during the growing season. So varied is the state's geography and climate that the five zones represent growing conditions similar to vineyard areas in Germany (Region I), Bordeaux (Region II), Northern Italy (Region III), Central Spain (Region IV) and North Africa (Region V). Cabernet sauvignon grapes do well in the relatively cool regions, I, II and even III, all of which are found in the Napa Valley.
About three-quarters of California's wine comes from the 300-mile-long San Joaquin Valley that runs along the center of the state. This is region IV and V and the grapes that thrive in the heat there include Thompson seedless (used also for raisins and table grapes), carignane, French colombard, zinfandel, ruby cabernet, emerald riesling, chenin blanc, petite sirah and barbera. Most of them are destined to be blended to fill the outsized bottles, or "jugs," of E & J Gallo, United Vintners (Italian Swiss Colony, Inglenook, Petri), Franzia Brothers and Guild.
The attractive priced jug wines are the backbone of the industry and provide a starting point for tasting, a frame of reference from which more ambitious and costly wines can be judged. If the more expensive wine fails to deliver increased pleasure or does not add up to value for money, return to your favorite jug.
Jug wines are almost uniformly "clean," meaning well made from healthy grapes. There are failings, though. They tend to lack character and distinction. They further use of misleading generic labels ("burgundy" and "chablis" for blends that bear no relationship to the wines of the French regions whose names they have taken, or "moutain red" or "mountain white" for wines that have never been more than a few feet off the valley floor). They can vary in personality from batch to batch.
Gallo, the world's largest winery, developed a line of low-priced varietals and its promotion of them should be credited with awakening many Americans to what lies beyong the sea of our national "vin ordinaire." There are a number of creditable, low-priced varietals coming from the San Joaquin Valley these days with labels such as Angelo Papagni and M. La-Mont as well as those mentioned above.
But the wine drinker searching varietal quality and willing to pay a higher price (from $3 to $12 or more in local retail shops for recent vintages) still looks elsewhere, mostly to the north.
The Napa and Sonoma valleys lie roughly side by side across the bay and an easy drive north of San Francisco. The histroy of California wines didn't begin in the Napa, but it just as well might have. Napa is a magical name that is tied to more than 40 vineyards spread along the surface and slopes of its 34 miles.
Jug wine is made in the Napa (Robert Mondavi is an example, though his operation has expanded beyound the valley's borders) and in Sonoma (Sebastiani is the volume leader), but the focus is on varietals. Cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, zinfandel and riesling are the big four in prestige. These are made in medium-sized Napa wineries (Christian Brothers, Louis Martini) with production of 100,000 cases or more and in small wineries (Burgess Cellars, Chateau Montelena), that produce 40,000 cases or less. Some vineyards, such as Stony Hill (37 acres), are so small that every bottle is allocated before it is produced.
Increaingly Sonoma wines are mentioned with the same respect as those from the Napa. It's a much more evolutionary area, however. Sebastiani has grown from a small family operation into one of the giants of the industry. Sonoma, a newcomer, has the capacity for wide national distribution, as does Geyser Peak. Among the smaller wineries in the Valley of the Moon region are Buena Vista, the impressive newcomer Chateau St. Jean, tiny Hanzell and Kenwood. Near the Russian River, as it moves toward the Pacific, are Korbel, Simi, Pedroncelli and tiny Joseph Swan Vineyards.
Mendocino is the most northerly vineyard area. Some fine wines, mostly reds, have come from producers such as Parducci, Fetzer and Edmeades.
South of San Francisco there are a number of well-known wineries. Not far from San Jose are Almaden, Paul Masson and Mirassou, as well as the limited production operations at Ridge and David Bruce. Concannon and Wente are near Livermore. San Martin is close to Gilroy and inland from Monterey are the Monterey Vineyard and Chalone, another small, prestige winery.
Some wine is made south of Los Angeles and two areas pegged for increased attention in the future are Amador County (where some full-bodied zinfandels are produced) and north of Santa Barbara (Firestone and HMR).
In general, California white vinifera wines have less acid than the European counterparts. As for the reds, the styles within each type vary so greatly, that they must be discussed individually. Vintages do matter. Despite the publicity, every year is not a great year in California. But due to variations in climate, a single, overall rating for any year is impossible to make.
Here are several varieties, listed with a trio of wines for each that reflect variations in style. The truly curious consumer will want to taste further, of course, and shold.As noted earlier, the selection of California wines available locally has broadened considerably. But it is fair, I think, to point out two District retailers that have championed California's quality wines for some time and have exceptionally wide selections of the small (or "boutique") wineries and knowledgeable personnel to aid in making buying choices. They are Morris Miller at Georgia and Alaska Avenues NW and Harry's in Waterside Mall SW. Red Wines
Jug: C.K. Mondavi burgundy, Italian Swiss Colony chianti, Sebastiani mountain burgundy.
Generic bottle: Fetzer premium red, Robert Mondavi red table wine, Louis Martini
Cabernet sauvignon: Foppiano, The Christian Brothers, Louis Martini
Zinfandel: Paul Masson, Stone Creek, Papagni
Gamay: Inglenook, Robert Mondavi, Kenwood
Petite sirah: Concannon, Foppiano, Sonoma Vineyards
Barbera: Louis Martini, Sebastiani, M. LaMont
Ruby cabernet: Barengo, Gallo, Inglenook White Wines
Jug: Los Hermanos, Inglenook Navalle chablis, Foppiano chablis
Generic bottle: Parducci chablis, Robert Mondavi white table wine, Louis Martini white table wine
Pinot chardonnay: Sonoma Vineyards, Paul Masson, Wente Bros.
Johannisberg riesling: Mirassou, San Martin, Pedroncelli
Chenin blanc: Parducci, Charles Krug, Dry Creek
Sauvignon blanc: Gallo, Concannon, Wente Bros.
French colombard: Parducci, Italian Swiss Colony, M. LaMont
Emerald riesling: Paul Masson Roses
Gallo red rose, Mirassou petite rose, The Monterey Vineyard rose of cabernet Sparkling Wines
Hanns Kornell, Korbel, Almaden