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napa vineyardsI’ve been thinking about what drives changes in wine styles—consumer demand, winemaker experimentation, the influence of critics and writers, some combination of these?

Take for instance the popularity of high-alcohol Napa Cabernet and Chardonnay beginning in the mid 1980’s. In the 1970’s the best producers in Napa seemed intent on emulating French wine styles. Alcohol levels were typically around 12.5% and apparently Napa wines tasted similar to French wine. In the famous Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976, many of the judges mistakenly identified the California wines as French. Yet, by the late 1980’s, Napa wines were exhibiting increasing alcohol and fruit ripeness.

What is the explanation of the change? Global warming likely doesn’t explain the dramatic explosion in fruit ripeness over the course of just a few years.

One explanation might be that consumers wanted these riper styles. The mid-1980’s saw a substantial increase in wine consumption in the U.S. including many novice drinkers who tend to prefer the sweeter, smoother wines made from riper grapes. But I doubt these novice drinkers were drinking premium Cabernet or Chardonnay. Low priced budget wines would not have had high alcohol since wines above 14% would have been taxed at a higher rate and technology for removing alcohol did not yet exist. In general, I think consumers respond to and reinforce trends; they don’t create them.

Of course, on this issue of ripeness and high alcohol, the influence of the wine critic Robert Parker is relevant. Parker famously preferred rich, ripe wines and criticized the complacent, old-school winemaking that he thought still had too much influence in France. Parker started his newsletter in 1978. But he was not particularly well known until 1982 when he attracted attention as the only critic proclaiming the substantial virtues of that vintage in France. As consumers embraced his 100 pt. scoring system, winemakers began to make wines aimed at garnering high scores leading to rich, sumptuous, powerful wines that would dominate the market for decades.

But many of the wine making reforms advocated by Parker—riper fruit, lower yields, better sorting, and more new French oak—had already been advocated by Emile Peynaud, the influential French oenologist who used his position at the University of Bordeaux to promote what came to be known as the International Style, essentially wines with the qualities endorsed by Parker. The impetus toward riper fruit was already in the works before Parker came on the scene.

Also during the late 1980’s, phylloxera was discovered in Napa, and many wineries replanted with new rootstock and clones that produced sugar more easily. New trellising systems were put in place that brought more sunlight to the grapes and modern yeasts were developed that were more efficient at converting sugar to alcohol.

There is a certain logic to ripeness especially for California that in the end might explain this massive shift in wine styles. If California could compete with Bordeaux and Burgundy by producing ripe fruit more consistently, why not go even further with what California does well? Unlike Bordeaux and Burgundy, Napa has lots of sun in summer extending well into the fall. Sun is California’s competitive advantage. Why not make it their signature? In other words, if you’re looking to capture a variation that sets you apart from your competition, for California, ripeness is the path of least resistance.

No doubt Parker had a great deal of influence, but I think a larger factor was a natural evolution, a tendency built into wine grape growing in California that winemakers captured and advanced.

For more on the philosophy of wine visit my Monday Column archives on Three Quarks Daily