If you want to bring the right people together to taste California wines, and you want maximum impact, you don't call the event the California Wine Harvest or the California Wine Tasting. You call it something theatrical and portentous, like "the California Wine Experience." You hold an elaborate reception -- that has little to do with wine -- and a cluding Robert Foxworth of "Falcon Crest," and you fill the stage with vinous luminaries, many from other countries, to cite the more rarefied aspects of the California vineyard. You hire a crew to film everything and you make the cost of admission ($450) high enough to keep out the proles.
The third California Wine Experience, sponsored by The Wine Spectator magazine, drew about 700 professional enophiles to the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco this year. According to the organizers, the event required 40,000 glasses and 10,000 bottles of wine, worth about $250,000. The implicit message to the public seemed to be, "You're welcome to buy $18 cabernets, but not to drink them with us."
The ongoing trend of expensive promotion of wine, as well as the mistaken notion that wine appreciation is somehow going to lift you above the masses, were better served than was the product. Learned enophiles are, after all, just people who drink more wine than other people and pronounce upon it; you would have thought, judging by the California Wine Experience, that some of them consecrated it.
Hugh Johnson made the very good point that wine should be kept separate from the liquor industry and noted that neo- Prohibition sentiment in America is a threat to the moderate enjoyment of good wine. The courtly Michael Broadbent led a tasting of '74 California cabernets, the highlight of the Experience. But the organizers of the seminars behaved more like Caligula than Dom Perignon. Questions from the audience were abruptly cut off; a tasting of German auslese, beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese from good vintages was conducted with a Prussian efficiency that prevented much discussion beyond Brix and harvest dates. (Why German wines were featured at a California wine event is another puzzler.) "Grand Tastings" in the evenings allowed California wineries to present their latest releases, but unfortunately almost all the tasters were members of the trade. The public was temporarily allowed in after several hours, for that event only, at $25 a head.
Ironically, the explicit message was: Buy European wine and buy it now. Poor harvests in 1984, a strong but declining dollar and dwindling stocks indicate significant price increases coming next year. The following are the recommendations of some of the experts: Broadbent -- buy vintage port ('70, '75, '77); '79 bordeaux; '78, '80 and '83 burgundies, and '83 German wines. Gerald Asher -- buy white burgundies and red bordeaux. Piero Antinori -- buy chianti. Terry Robards -- buy '79 and '81 classed bordeauxs.
California has many hundreds of wineries and badly needs some public forum for presenting them, one not dominated by hype and glitz. The California Wine Experience heightened the often correct notion that owners of California boutique wineries are people who have made or inherited money from other sources and expect consumers to pay high prices to support their styles of living. Many also want legislation to limit the import of less expensive wine, rather than allowing the operation of a vigorous free market, something to which this country -- and California -- owes a great deal.