California wines received some attention from Newsweek magazine earlier this week with an article that wins the prize for a misleading headline. The headline was “Big? Jammy? Not anymore: California’s New Direction” which suggests that the premier winegrowing region in the US is undergoing a winemaking revolution.
Complaining that California wines had become “cloddy, thick, and heavy” with too much alcohol, Alice Feiring writes:
Shops and restaurants that heretofore spurned domestic wines, like Chambers Street in New York City and Nopa in San Francisco, are now expanding their offerings to include California selections—particularly the bottles of winemakers who are starting to dial back on the power and brawn, picking grapes at lower sugar levels and concentrating on matching the grape varietal with the soil type.
The substance of the article consisted of three examples of small production winemakers producing a leaner style of wine and a well-attended wine tasting event featuring the same.
Signs of a revolution in winemaking? Not really.
Wine writer Steve Heimoff takes Feiring to task for her article:
Wherever the author got her inspiration, the article uses a standard, shopworn–and phony–device: it develops a thesis, then finds a few people who agree with it, and quotes them to “prove” that the thesis is correct. I’m a reporter; believe me, this tail-wagging-the-dog stuff goes on all the time. It isn’t journalism, it’s telling stories.
Authors of articles in magazines like Newsweek typically don’t write their own headlines so perhaps we can’t blame Feiring for the headline. But the gist of the article is that there is a revolution in winemaking going on in California—if that is true I’d like to see a bit more evidence.
In fact, the thesis doesn’t make much sense. First of all, we are likely to see lower-alcohol wines coming out of California in the next few years. Why? Because the growing season has been cooler than normal and the grapes less ripe. Winemakers are making a virtue of necessity by making a lower alcohol style.
But more importantly, consumers seem to like big, jammy wines and I haven’t noticed legions of wine lovers acquiring a sudden concern over alcohol levels. It would be more accurate to say that there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction within the wine community with excess alcohol levels especially when pairing wines with food.
But “undercurrent of dissatisfaction” among a small group of oenophiles is unlikely to warrant a headline in Newsweek.
I share the preference for a more restrained style of wine although sometimes a fruit bomb can be stunning. But California is unlikely to undergo this revolution that Feiring claims to see. Our climate in typical years is suited to harvesting very ripe grapes. That style put California on the map and consumers have responded positively to it over the years. It is California’s comparative advantage. (Southern France and southern Italy must fight tradition and Australia hasn’t shown the ability to supplant CA as the place to make big wines) And there is something to be said for squeezing as much intensity out of a grape as possible.
There will always be people who prefer something different. The emergence of winemakers with a commitment to a different style is good because it creates diversity—more ways to enjoy wine and more ways to be fascinated by it.
But I doubt that it is the leading edge of a revolution, except in the imaginations of people trying to sell magazines.