Are California Winemakers Cutting Their Own Throats?

In my Tuesday post, I listed a variety of obstacles to wine evaluation mostly having to do with the inherent unreliability of our flavor sensors and the difficulty in describing flavors.

We can add to those difficulties new wine-making practices as well. According to Steve Heimoff, wine critic for the Wine Enthusiast:

The fact is, California red wines are becoming more and more alike, across varieties. This is particularly true at the high price end (which is what I was tasting at Napa Vintners), because the alcohol levels tend to be higher (even with the Pinots), because the wines tend to be more extracted (by virtue of all the magic tricks vintners can apply) and because the quantity and quality of new, mainly French oak tends to be greater. Alcohol, extract and new oak: these mask inherent varietal character and push the wines toward one central point of richness and body.

Steve was lamenting the fact that even someone with his considerable experience has difficulty in blind tastings distinguishing the variety of grape used to make wine. Stories like this make me feel much better about my own feeble attempts at blind tasting.

There is some debate about whether wines from the past and from other regions, especially France, have more distinct varietal character. But if the hypothesis in the quoted passage is true, the stakes are higher than the fortunes of a few blind tasters. If California wines are converging toward a “central point of richness and body” why purchase one wine rather than another? If high-end wines all taste the same, they will compete only on price, which will drive prices down while making consumption much less interesting.

Furthermore, if wine-making techniques obscure varietal character, they are likely to make it harder to detect characteristics of terroir as well, meaning high-end wines will be as generic as the “crowd-pleasers”.

I too have noticed this trend toward a single flavor profile, especially regarding wines coming out of Napa.

One thing that makes wine interesting is variety. A single grape species—vitis vinifera—can produce a seemingly endless variety of flavors and textures influenced by sub-species, geographical location, climate, and the creativity of wine-makers.

If the zeal to maximize power and richness of flavor compromise variety, wine will become less interesting as a form of expression. It will still get you drunk but less efficiently than a $5 bottle of vodka.

That will not be good for the California wine industry.

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