California Wine

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One of my favorite restaurants has decided to sell wine only from California. I love lists that are focused! Pick a thing and do it well. Unfortunately, the California wines I like are like needles in a haystack, at least in our local market. None of them have made an appearance there, so I drink bourbon. Once, while I was drinking a bourbon, I wondered how I would write a short list of wines only from California.

To answer that requires a brief diagnosis of the problem. If you don’t like negativity mixed up with your wine appreciation, stop reading now!!

Problem #1 – industry consolidation. A critical number of the ingenious independent wineries have been absorbed by conglomerates. And unfortunately, conglomerates compete on values more tangible than quaint ideas such as natural quality. What is that anyway? No, the idea is to consolidate distribution channels and get big with labels upon labels of stuff made according to a standard formula. What’s wrong with the standard formula? It’s boring. It’s not compelling. And no it does not require any “experience” to realize this. See the histories of Calera, Cline, Ravenswood, Renwood, Sanford, etc. etc.

Problem #2 – value. Success in the market has supported prices – all the way to the grape ranch – that can seem unreasonable when compared to other wines. This is kind of a catch-22, because if I want my wine list to be intuitive and familiar to the greatest number of people, sure, I will have to expect that a significant part of the price paid can be counted toward the marketing forces that make it intuitive and familiar. (It beats trying to educate my customer!) Still, if there is money for ads, sales incentives and other manipulative practices, you can bet it is strictly at the expense of quality and value.

Problem #3 – spoof. With so much at stake, and with such favorable label rules, there is a strong incentive to reduce wine to its constituent chemical parts and reconfect it as a flawless, porn-inspired, sense-titillating and safe monster. I am not a prude. I get how that stuff can be cool, the first time, for one drink, especially for neophobes looking to appear sophisticated while getting a drink past an averse palate. But to everyone else – any regular drinker of wine, appreciator of coffee, or music or art enthusiast – it’s fake and unsatisfying, and it offers about as much pleasure as a new flavor of detergent or gummy bear. There are cheaper and sweeter ways to get drunk.

Problem #4 – the local trade. Michigan is a smaller market than some. The trade here is organized to not be particularly responsive to the consumer. Cool wines from the west coast sometimes appear and then they suffer from inept or powerless distribution. Sometimes they don’t appear at all. Why doesn’t this happen with European wine? It does! But Europe just has so much more wine that they can’t drink locally. And, and … geez, that’s another post for another day. See Ojai, Edmunds St. John (and in Oregon, Evesham Wood.)

What is for sale from California for $15 or $25 in a restaurant? Blends of simple, standard, sweet wines gussied up with corks and artificially contextualized. They should go into jugs and sell for half the price, as they once did. That would be awesome. What’s for sale for a bit more? Often it’s essentially the same juice, aroma-branded and otherwise cosmetically treated to taste important. The cheaper stuff actually tastes better, and the trade would have you falsely excuse your lowbrow taste. No. Your taste is fine.

Good news – there are exceptions!

Some really interesting wine is being made in California. Sometimes it is an independent winery, still guided by the founder, that somehow managed to resist the trend toward industry consolidation – Au Bon Climat, Ridge, Bonny Doon.

Sometimes it is a garage band, inspired by the European paleo-avant gardistes making orange wine and wild yeast fermented wine – Lioco, Scholium Project. These are not for sale in Michigan!

Sometimes it is a boutique, unconsolidated, with just enough wine to sell – Joseph Swan, Mayacamas, Dunn. These are not in a useful price range.

Click the link to see my top 5 California wine brands for sale in Michigan, quality x price = value:

5. Palmina
4. Au Bon Climat
3. Ridge
2. Bonny Doon
1. Joseph Swan

There’s other cool stuff, but availability is spotty.


Where do I get off writing all of this? Ah, experience. But just in case I’m out on a limb, I took an informal poll of friends who I know drink wine. Here’s what I asked:

I think you can help me. I’m doing a poll of wine drinkers. My basic question is this – how often do you buy California wine, and what do you remember about the last one or few that you bought?

Only 2 out of 12 had anything good to say. Furthermore, I suspect that the other 10 out of 12 are more regular drinkers of wine than the 2.

7 of the responses came in the form of written replies, which I have included here:

  1. almost never. can’t remember. my retailers know me and know i like funky high acid light bodied red. claret. pinot noir. gamay.
  2. Really good so far. I can’t remember the brand but there is one –I am going to have to remember the name
  3. The short answer is “never” and I will tell you about the Stag’s Leap “Artemis” I just tasted blind 20 minutes ago.
  4. My last memorable bottle was anthill Syrah & Pinot. Really solid. Other than that nada (as in I buy CA wine once in a while, but not memorable)
  5. Almost never!! I can’t remember the last time.
    Q: thanks! if there is any exception to this rule in your wine drinking lifetime that would of course be interesting. 

    It’s not really a rule. It’s just the last place I look when buying. The last time I actually had any was while I was in San Francisco at a restaurant but I still don’t remember what it was! Terrible of me. I don’t know exactly why Cali wines never resonated with me. Maybe I should start trying them on purpose lol
  6. Not as much anymore. Hardly ever actually.
  7. I haven’t bought it in years because it makes me rather ill. …
    Q: Thanks! So to be clear, you don’t tolerate reds or whites from california? It would be fun, but maybe impractical to do some kind of investigative trial
    physically they don’t work for me, but I’m also not a fan of their style. Too big, too much.











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