The reason: because California wine is not ripe enough. Geez, if we could only get rid of these weak-sister wines under 16% alcohol and get us some real he-man drinkin' bottles!
Writer Ben O'Donnell, an assistant editor, doesn't exactly say that. His point is more nuanced, and I think he expressed it better Friday under the 140-character restriction of Twitter:
"The notion that 'California terroir' is one all-encompassing thing is a fallacy and that's what I pointed out in the article."O'Donnell also said on Twitter:
"I'm for anything that could help people explore/experiment/develop in these 'frontier' regions."I have to write this as a tiny voice in opposition to Wine Spectator just in case there becomes a serious move in California to legalize chaptalization (adding sugar to fermenting grapes to raise the alcohol level of wine).
Chaptalization in California is Spectatorization. It's winemaking on PEDs (performance enhancing duplicities). And it's wrong.
Consider how unusual it is that anything at all is outlawed in California winemaking. Here's a sentence from O'Donnell's piece (italics are mine):
Today, winemakers can coax out their vision of a site and grape using a near-infinite permutation of fermentation styles, yeast regimens, rack-and-return cycles, chemical preservatives, acid enhancements, bleeding off, spinning out, reverse osmosis, Flash-Détente concentration, artificial coloring and the addition of sugar via grape concentrate anyway.Three important points about this sentence:
1) If you do all that stuff, you have no vision of a site and a grape. None. You have a vision of a beverage. You're trying to turn Oakville Cabernet into root beer. You may be rewarded, but you shouldn't be celebrated, as when that wine of artifice gets a 94 from Spectator and a 98+ from the Advocate.
2) If people who loved and understood wine were in charge of California law, some of that stuff would be illegal.
3) Most consumer publications would list those techniques with a slight whiff of exposé. O'Donnell writes it like a man cataloguing muscle supplements for minor-league baseball players.
One point on which O'Donnell and I agree is that California does not have one terroir. A corollary: we also don't have just one wine industry. Wine laws here and throughout the US usually have been written for mass-market wines, not artisanal wines, and often that's a shame.
If major wine-as-commodity producers need to use chemical preservatives, reverse osmosis, Flash-Détente concentration and artificial coloring to compete on supermarket shelves in the under-$10 range with imports from countries with cheaper labor, it's hard to oppose. People spending $8 for wine don't care about authenticity; they care about flavor and color. You also have the needs of the state's farm industry to consider. One can argue that allowing that kind of technology for mass-production wines preserves California farmland and California jobs.
But that's not why much of that technology was developed. It's part of an arms race, kicked off by Robert Parker and cheered on by Wine Spectator, to deliver the biggest, richest, ripest flavors from grapes from anywhere. This denies the impact of terroir not in coastal regions, but in Napa Valley. Pritchard Hill can naturally produce big wines that maintain acidity; so can Howell Mountain and a few other places. These wines would be special if other regions couldn't use steroidal enhancements to equal them.
Now wines on steroids get the big scores, and who can blame wineries whose grapes aren't naturally pumped up to want to enhance their chances? It's exactly like baseball: if one guy does it and gets paid more, everybody wants to do it.
Unlike in baseball, California will never outlaw newly developed wine equivalents of steroids. Who's going to go to the legislature and say wineries shouldn't be able to use Flash-Détente concentration so that their ratings will be lower and the wines will be cheaper?
But just because one steroid is legal doesn't mean we have to legalize them all.
Chaptalization -- sugar addition -- became illegal years before anyone envisioned Flash-Détente because it's one treatment that mass market wines, grown in the warm regions of California, never really need.
O'Donnell and scofflaw Adam Lee, who admits to O'Donnell that he chaptalized some California wines, are arguing for sugar additions to an entirely different class of wine: artisanal wines from cool climates.
I just tasted a lot of 2011 white wines, particularly Chardonnays, at two different wine competitions. I get it. These wines are surprisingly lean and acidic. That's vintage variation. They're not as pleasurable to drink now as you'd expect. You can see why somebody like Lee might want to add a little sugar, to alter what Mother Nature and his vineyards gave him, to substitute chemistry for patience.
These wines are clearly representative of a time and place, and it will be interesting to see how they age -- better, perhaps, than their richer predecessors. Or maybe not. Artisanal wine is supposed to be about complexity and diversity.
But the Spectator wants these cool-climate wines to be rich and fruit-forward right now, or it will punish them with poor scores. The Spectator does not celebrate diversity in wine styles. It rewards sameness and whatever means are necessary to achieve it.
I understand O'Donnell's argument that chaptalization might allow wineries in a cool vintage like 2011 to protect their business. But he works for the company they are protecting their business from. The Spectator could choose to explain that 2011 will be a year of different expectations. Instead it will pan the California wines, give high ratings to big, bold wines from Australia or Spain or Argentina, and move on to something else.
What about consumers? High-end wine consumers do not need protection from vintage variation; they just need honest descriptions of it. I'm not talking about flaws like TCA or oxidation or contamination. I'd much rather see laws that force wineries to reveal more of what goes into wine than a slackening of practically the only California law that limits such additions.
Put another way: O'Donnell likes that people are growing grapes in the Santa Lucia Highlands, but not if those grapes turn into wine that actually tastes like it's from the Santa Lucia Highlands.
Here's his conclusion (italics mine):
Chaptalization will never be broadly useful in California, but a statewide ban is a statement that California's terroir is California, not Napa and Santa Lucia, much less Mount Veeder and Garys' Vineyard. If you've ever had a Syrah from, say, the western Sonoma Coast, you know what a wholly unique expression of grape and place it can be. But a small winery trying to turn a profit already has a million reasons never to try growing or making the stuff. The fear of getting slapped for making a slight sugar adjustment to balance out an otherwise integrated wine shouldn't be one.You know who's getting slapped for making wines, like Syrah from the western Sonoma Coast, without a slight sugar adjustment? Wineries that submit their "otherwise integrated," lower alcohol wines to Wine Spectator.
Chaptalization is Spectatorization. Marvin Shanken already has large swaths of the California wine world flocking to his vision of what wine should taste like. This is a big enough state that there should be space enough to make wine for the rest of us.