Come earthquake or fire, in San Francisco they talk optimistically of the future: the future of the wine industry. The West Coast's wine capital was home to the first "California Wine Experience" in October. Only in California would a three-day symposium of tastings and seminars be an 'experience,' but enough of this eastern jaundice.
The California producers and marketing people were willing to listen to criticism from the symposium's speakers and, in turn, deserve a fair hearing. The most vociferous of recent critics was not actually in San Francisco. However, Frank Prial's 'A Dissenter's View of California' (The New York Times, Sept. 16) was frequently mentioned.
In a sentence-by-sentence dissection of 'Mr. P.,' Burgess Meredith, actor and wine collector, had the predominantly Californian audience cheering. Here was their champion, the man who likened them to the knights of Camelot. It was enough to soften the acidity of Prial's warning that "the drinking of wine in America, particularly American wines, is on the brink of becoming inbred and precious."
Prial's point is valid. It needed to be made. But is it really a dissent? Speakers at the Wine Experience, at the Round Table of Camelot itself, indicated that he has allies in denunciation of the ogres of "elitism" and unbalanced, "aggressive" wines.
From Roy Andries de Groot, eloquent and experienced wine and food writer: "I fear that wine will become a fad, to be discarded like the hula hoop. Never mind the Brix [sugar content], soil or where it was grown.Let's return to elegant wines."
From Darrell Corti, San Francisco wine merchant: "The 'big' wines are curiosities. Once a curiosity becomes the norm, it no longer sells."
From Marshall Ream, president of Zaca Mesa Winery: "Quality comes from the vineyard and we need to do more research to optimize the work in the vineyard. We should accept, not discard, empirical French practices. There's reason for them."
I am less gloomy about the current situation than Prial is.The Wine Experience proved not to be a forum for complacency or self-praise. Winemakers, new and established, were as generous with their time and information as ever and, when asked in what direction they were moving, most said they intended to make wines with balance and finesse.
It'll take time. Part of the industry is still adolescent, showing off by making wines that may star at tastings but are overwhelming in the company of food. However, I'm not concerned. Just give them 10 to 15 years, for the vines to grow up and winemakers to grow out of their experimental phase.
No, my immediate concern is with the realities of the competitive market, especially here on the East Coast. The Californians are not the only ones who are making rapid advances in vineyard and cellar technology. There are parallel developments in Australia, South Africa, South America and even staid old Europe. Granted this work is often influenced by California research, but the results are wines that offer a wider range of styles and more competitive prices than many of the better American wines.
To paraphrase Prial, perhaps the question for American wines should not be: We know the dog can talk, but does it have anything to say? but rather: How much is that doggie in the window?