Thursday, February 18, 2016
Should wine lovers care about California's Central Valley?
As wine drinkers, should we care?
It's a loaded question, and one I thought about after reading a New York Post story headlined "Millennials are ruining the American wine industry." I covered the same industry speech as the Post for Wine Searcher with a story titled, "Fine Wine Consumption Set to Soar in the U.S."
I am not here to criticize the Post's story; I enjoy the Post's proletarian food coverage. We looked at the same wine industry report from different angles, and the assumption in my Wine Searcher story is that fine wine lovers do not care about the San Joaquin Valley. I feel pretty confident that's true.
My enophile friends turn up their nose at California appellation wines. Charles Shaw may have reached 1 billion bottles, but I don't believe people buy it because it tastes like California. If it said Chile on the label, I don't believe its customers would blink.
Let me cut down on my hate mail by clarifying that there is a huge market of wine lovers who prefer California wines -- but they want coastal wines, from Napa or Sonoma or Paso Robles or some other AVA. Do not confuse, in this post, "California appellation wines," generally from the San Joaquin Valley, with "California wines." Also for the record, Lodi and the Sierra Foothills are not in the San Joaquin Valley, which is the hot area in the center of the state roughly from Sacramento to Bakersfield. Gallo built its empire there, but the Gallo family is steadily moving its focus to the coast (and Italy) for a reason.
Enophiles don't care about San Joaquin Valley because it makes nothing for us, not that I'm aware of anyway.
This isn't as preordained as it seems. The region's hot, dry summers may seem best for mass production, but hot, dry regions in places like Portugal and Greece are making wines worthy of any enophile's table. Farmers there plant grapes like Assyrtiko and Touriga Nacional that are suited to the climate. They can charge more for these wines because they're natural products that taste like their terroir.
Instead, the San Joaquin Valley plants cool-weather grapes like Chardonnay, and there is nothing natural about the resulting wines. The grapes are harvested with way too much sugar and too little acid, because they're not adapted to the environment. Wineries that buy these grapes run the resulting wine through high-tech machinery and add chemicals by the gallon, and the wines taste like it. You don't have to be a professional taster to recognize the flavor of artificiality.
Whose fault is this? Largely it's the fault of baby boomers. (Isn't everything?) The San Joaquin Valley used to have more sensible grapes planted.
In 1976, the most-planted grape in the San Joaquin Valley was French Colombard by a large margin, followed by Carignane, Grenache and Chenin Blanc. There was NO Merlot or Sauvignon Blanc -- zero -- recorded by the state agricultural service. Almost no Chardonnay was planted; so little that it may have been just one grower. There was even less Pinot Noir, and while there was some Cabernet Sauvignon, the valley had 15 times as much Grenache. Surprisingly, there wasn't much Zinfandel yet; the San Joaquin Valley isn't Lodi.
That mix of grape varieties made sense. The grapes planted in large quantities all deliver large crops in hot climates while retaining their acidity. I wish I could go back in time and drink Gallo Hearty Burgundy from 1976, because I'll bet it was better than the wines made in the San Joaquin Valley today.
In 2014, the most-planted variety in San Joaquin Valley is Chardonnay, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot and Pinot Grigio. Of those five, only Zinfandel thrives in hot weather. Carignane has just about disappeared. There's still a little Grenache but there's 11 times as much Pinot Noir. And there's still some French Colombard, but there's twice as much Sauvignon Blanc.
Why would any sensible enophile want to drink cold-weather varietals from the hottest part of California? The answer is that we don't. San Joaquin Valley farmers -- and to be fair, the wineries that bought from them -- chased the baby-boomer drinker who just wants a wine called "Chardonnay" or "Cabernet Sauvignon."
Along came millennials, and they aren't limited in their wine vision. They aren't cougars going to wine tastings saying "Chardonnay?" and walking away if the winery doesn't have one.
Why would millennials (or any wine lover) want to drink a product that is so chemically manipulated, with dozens of additives to make up for the grapes' shortcomings? These aren't wines, they're wine-flavored beverages. They are to wine what Cheez Whiz is to cheddar.
Fred Franzia, founder of Bronco Wine Co. and creator of Charles Shaw, recently bragged at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium that grafting vines over to different varieties is "one of the secrets to our success." Perhaps that has been true for the short term: it was easier to sell a wine called "Chardonnay" than to do the work of brand-building for a more sensible blend of hot-weather varieties.
But for the long term, I ask you dear reader: name five wines from the largest wine-producing area in North America that are true products of their terroir -- honest wines that should appeal to the wine lover.
Think about it. I can go to areas in Portugal or South Africa or Israel where they used to make swill by the boatload, and I can find interesting wines made for the wine lover: some old vines in a cool spot. So where are the single-vineyard San Joaquin Valley Grenache-Mourvedre blends? Or old-vine Carignane? Do they exist?
I cannot name one.
Until we can name these wines, San Joaquin Valley wines that a wine lover should try, the answer to the headline question is "No."
Posted by W. Blake Gray at 6:00 AM