Thursday, February 18, 2016

Should wine lovers care about California's Central Valley?

California's hot, fertile San Joaquin Valley has been the center of its wine industry since Prohibition. But nothing has gone well for grape growers there for several years. With the drought and an ongoing decline in the market for wines under $9, the future of cheap California-appellation wine seems in doubt.

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."

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


Miquel said...

I've not tasted anything from San Joaquin beyond a random bottle of Charles Shaw at a party which was so many years ago I can't even remember. It seems a pretty awful place to grow vines, although Redding might even be worse.

I don't get why there isn't more Grenache in California. It's the perfect place for it and it can be dry-farmed wonderfully.

While Zinfandel does grow well in heat, it easily goes to hell in heat which is why most assume it was ditched in its home of Dalmatia, Croatia. While living in SF, everyone kept telling me to try the Zin from Lodi, you must try the Zin from Lodi! I would and then try to say something nice about it while moving on to other things as the style at the time was just way, way overripe and barrel-scorched to hell like if you burned down a sugar refinery with oak logs. I'm still open to trying Lodi wines but I've been burned on this time and again.

More to the point, what is notable from the Central Valley overall these days? Having grown up there, it seems the lack of adequate diurnal shift makes quality viticulture difficult unlike say the center of Spain where during the summer you can see 20C difference between day and night. I've been tasting next to nothing from there for years now so I'm happy to be shown that there's been a different path forged in recent years.


Aaron said...


Try some Petit Sirah from Lodi as well. I'll definitely give you that there are many wineries that will over-oak or over-ripen their grapes there, it's still a fine AVA.

And I totally agree, we need more Grenache! I love the grape, and only have found a few places that do it really well as a single varietal. San Joaquin could probably learn how to farm good quality grapes by looking at Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard (,, Hot with huge diurnal shifts, fairly dry, and high desert elevation. Granted, you're not going to get $5 bottle wine from grapes grown here, but they could still learn from them how to get better quality grapes rather than highest possible quantity.

Jon Bjork said...


Try the relatively-new Lodi Native wines. The protocol requires no oak and earlier picking.


Patrick Frank said...

I can't name 5 ctrl vlly producers but I can name 2: Quady and Ficklin. (Vya is an offshoot of Quady.) And these are not table wines.

Jeff Bitter said...

Hi Blake....good insight, and I generally agree with what you said, specifically that consumers drove (and still do) varietal demand, hence the large amounts of varietals planted in the SJV over the last three decades. In order to fulfill the demand QUICKLY and INEXPENSIVELY, that's largely where the ball bounced to. Consumers wanted Merlot and Chardonnay for $5-8 bucks, but it's economically impossible to grow those (or similar) varieties at those bottle prices on the coast. As long as consumers demand it, wineries and growers will provide it. Do you realize how much Pinot Noir has been planted east of the coastal mountain range in the last 10 years? South of Lodi, there is about 5,000 acres! Scary. Again, evidence that a potential mismatch of variety and geography (or more appropriately, climate) are ignored if the consumer tells the industry they will buy it for under $10.

But I do need some clarification on some of your statements. You state, "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." Lodi is south of Sacramento, which does place it within the SJV geographic boundaries you describe - from Sacramento to Bakersfield. So it is in the SJV. In fact, I have never heard anyone say it wasn't - not even Lodi residents. I will say that for their benefit, they should continue to differentiate themselves through promotion and the actual delivery of quality, just like every other AVA has tried to do over time. So far, they have done an excellent job over the last two decades in doing that. They continue to be increasingly recognized in the industry as something distinct from California.

The numbers you quoted about Sauvignon Blanc exceeding French Colombard aren't at all correct unless you are looking only at Lodi (which you said wasn't in the SJV). There is currently about 20,000 acres of Colombard in the SJV (Including Lodi) and less than 5,000 acres of Sauvignon Blanc (even if you add in the Delta, which you didn't actually discuss).

I'm not disagreeing with your opinion on this piece, but some clarification on some of the ideas presented as fact would be appreciated. Thanks - Jeff Bitter

Randy Caparoso: said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Randy Caparoso: said...

Jeff, I agree that the nomenclatures are confusing because, yes, technically the Lodi AVA falls within San Joaquin County, yet is differentiated as the Delta, or District 11. Whereas the San Joaquin Valley grape growing region (Districts 12, 13, 14) runs south of Stockton down to Bakersfield. Climatically, a difference between Region III (Lodi) and Region V (San Joaquin Valley).

But I agree with you, San Joaquin Valley growers must plant what the wine consuming market demands; and if it's Chardonnay and Merlot rather than Assyrtiko and Touriga, so be it.

TonyC said...

This is an old story, and will likely continue on ad nauseum. But many great wines have been made in the Central Valley over the years, they have just not made it to the mainstream markets. I had a tasting lunch in my back yard last year, with a number of wine professionals, and we made it an X3 lunch, tasting wines from 2013, 2003, 1993, 1983, 1973, 1963, and 1953. One of the favorites was a 1973 Alicante Bouschet made by Angelo Papagni. Still a glorious wine, and even better a few days after! And small producers like the Cardellas continue to turn out some really nice wines. But the reality is as Jeff says, growers will plant what the wineries buy, and right now the wineries are not buying much in the way of Central Valley, or San Joaquin Valley, or District 13/14, however one chooses to define the area. The abundance of inexpensive bulk wine from outside our borders will keep the lid on SJV grape prices, I fear.

Kathleen Manock said...

Mr. W. Blake Gray: "best online wine writer in the world"
Why then did some of our wines (%100 grown, produced, and bottles in Fresno County) receive gold or silver medals from the Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago, San Francisco wine competitions? We have earned 18 medals in the last 2 years. You obviously have not tasted these wines...and your opinion is outdated by at least 30 years.


Sumner Peck Winery (a central valley winery)

Winesmith said...

Blake, we fear most that which we know the least.
Maybe get to know some of the single vineyard designated wines from fruit grown in Madera County and the Madera AVA and labeled as such. Love Ranch Vineyard, Fasi Estate, Laurie's Vineyard, Westbrook Wine Farm. You may have to look a bit harder as these are not grocery store items.

W. Blake Gray said...

Kathleen Manock: Anybody can win a medal. I know: I judge competitions. One competition I judged gave medals to 88% of applicants, and the head judge kept walking through the rooms exhorting us to give more (I don't judge that one anymore.)

But you're right, I have not tasted your wines. And I'd like to.

You too, Clark (is that you?) Kathleen, Clark: How about we arrange a San Joaquin Valley enophile tasting? Clark, you have my email.

Winesmith said...

Clark and I share the same moniker, Blake.
Not sure who nabbed it first but I kinda like the company.
There is so much commendable truth in your piece. And a few glaring omissions.
We would love to host an orientation for you. Perhaps we could even get Clark to come? Thanks for your kind consideration.

Ray Krause
Westbrook Wine Farm

Rob McMillan said...

It's going to take effort, courage, and investment, but there is no reason the SJV can't produce consistent world-class wines. If growers can dedicate small sections of their plantings to trials, coordinate those plantings and varietals, encourage local competitions and promote them - I believe the Big Valley can be resurrected with a new identity with appeal to any wine lover.

Rob McMillan said...

It's going to take effort, courage, and investment, but there is no reason the SJV can't produce consistent world-class wines. If growers can dedicate small sections of their plantings to trials, coordinate those plantings and varietals, encourage local competitions and promote them - I believe the Big Valley can be resurrected with a new identity with appeal to any wine lover.

Bob Henry said...

I can't put a '70s decade bottle of Gallo Hearty Burgundy in your hands.

Next best: a nostalgic look at those wines:

"Hearty Burgundy Celebrates 50 Years"

"On the hunt for that old-fashioned 'Burgundy'; "Getting reacquainted."

As for that 1972 Time magazine cover story, see this:

Bob Henry said...


From Google's archive of out-of-print media:

"A hearty wine whose time has come -- again.",1168735&hl=en

(Dan Berger's "On Wine" column appears in the Napa Valley Register and the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

The Register's archive of columns does not go back to 2006:

Drew Goin said...

I am a Louisiana wine lover with a strong affinity for Carignan, Mourvedre, Zinfandel, and Alicante Bouschet. The new Millenials are apparently embracing more "authentic" wines, and buzzwords like "heritage", "historic", "traditional", and *gasp* "natural" captivate them more than critter wines.

I believe that the Lodi Wines group and the Madera Wine Trail's listed wineries might catch the eye of this new crop of wine drinkers.

Prior to writing your opinion piece, it may have prospered you to investigate some of the information about the smaller wineries in the Central Valley.

I am always looking for a new delicious wine, and my search takes me to Santa Clara, Contra Costa, Lodi, and deep into the heart of the Central Valley.

Please follow this article up with some notes on the gems you find in the vineyards far from the California Coast. It really does not do to condemn a region without having actively investigated it. I think a review of the "other" California would be a good read!

W. Blake Gray said...

So Drew, help me out. What wines from the San Joaquin Valley do YOU like? (As stated in the post, Lodi doesn't count. I'd have no trouble recommending 10 Lodi wines.)

Bob Henry said...


If you like Carignan, Mourvèdre, Zinfandel, and Alicante Bouschet -- singularly or in a blend -- then check out Morgan Twain-Peterson's Shebang! red wine.

~~ Bob

Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal “Off-Duty" Section
(March 6, 2015, Page Unknown):

“The Red-Wine Blends Trend: More Than Just Flashy Packaging"


By Lettie Teague
"On Wine" Column

An edgeless wine was exactly what Morgan Twain-Peterson had in mind when he created Shebang! Eighth Cuvée in 2009. Mr. Twain-Peterson, of the Bedrock Wine Co., in Sonoma, created the wine for his “college self,” he said, harking back to a time when he favored lively, juicy reds. It was also a practical addition to his portfolio, helping with cash flow while his more-expensive Zinfandels were aging. (The winery cash flow has decidedly improved since Shebang was first introduced; the initial production of 700 cases a year has risen to 6,000 today.)

Like many winemakers, Mr. Twain-Peterson doesn’t note the varietal content of his blend on the label. In his case it might be a matter of varietal paranoia. A lot of people have a negative impression of Zinfandel, he said. Zinfandel is one of the grapes of the Shebang blend, along with Carignane, Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet, Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. (Perhaps there are also too many names to fit on the label?)

Mr. Twain-Peterson pointed out that while Shebang is much cheaper ($12) than his old-vine Zinfandels (which can cost as much as $50), his winemaking and philosophy are the same at both high and low ends. Shebang wasn’t some cheap concoction “sourced from the bulk-wine market or pumped up with additives like Mega Purple,” he said, referring to a concentrate commonly used to make cheaper reds darker and sweeter. Shebang is produced from some of the same old-vine Zinfandel vineyards he uses for his pricier wines.

Bob Henry said...


McManis Family Vineyards is worth taking a look at. (Although I can't say that any one wine is sourced exclusively from San Joaquin Valley grapes.)

[Eagle-eyed readers might recognize the byline of the above article's author.]

~~ Bob

Mark Cochard said...

Drew Goin said...

I will have to comb through the Bookmarked websites on my phone...

First, are we excluding any other inner California regions, aside from Lodi? What about bottles from upstarts on Treasure Island using grapes from CoCo or Clarksburg? Sierra Foothills? Santa Clara? Livermore?

Are we solely evaluating the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, or just San Joaquin Valley?

Winesmith said...

We're not discussing where the wine is made but, rather, where the grapes are grown . Even though, at 1500 feet in elevation, we are not physically/ technically in the Central Valley, (we're located off the coast of Yosemite) we do source from several Madera farmers of quality and conscience. Uber Rhenish, Barrel fermented Dry Riesling from Hagopian Vineyard, Savvy, co-fermented Dry Sauvignon Blanc/ Musque/Semillon from Laurie's Vineyard, Viognier "Old School" and Petite Sirah from John Simpson Vines, Primativo from Schafer Vineyards, Co-fermented Petite Sirah/Charbono from Fasi Estate and Malmsey Dearest, Malvasia Bianca from John Lasgoity. Our own vineyards are at 1500 feet above the valley floor and include
Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Carmenere, Gross Verdot, Saint Macaire and eleven clones of Cabernet Sauvignon. Sure, it's a challenge. It just takes a little more resolve and management.

Jarel Parker said...

This is a very interesting article on the demise of wines and the grape crop of the proud Central Valley. I have to point out that the region you point to as the Central Valley and the San Joaquin Valley is so vast that to make the assumption that it is homogeneous or even centered in Lodi is to miss so many micro climates and and varietals as to really do yourself a disservice. You need to travel more and ignore less. I see a comment from Ray Krouse above this note and he would be an amazing place for you to start you honest Quixotic search for an honest wine worthy of your efforts and time. If you truly travel and seek, you will be surprised. The foothills of Madera County up to Placer County holds some secretes to those who rarely venture beyond their own horizon. Get out there!

Daniel Pulido said...

Can't see the forest for the trees......

If nothing else, this article has instigated some very interesting conversations !
I live in the SJV and I have found some great wines. I am in the 35-45 year age group and I enjoy wines of depth and character. Something beyond just a Chardonnay.

It is very sad indeed that you have not had the opportunity to partake of our wines such as CRU - Fasi - Quady and my personal favorite, Westbrook Wine Farms.

Ray and Tammy at Westbrook have created exquisite wines such as their Fait Accompli and their Museum. Wines that I would put up against any in the world.

I suggest you plan a trip to the Central Valley and visit these one-of-a-kind wineries and find out for yourself that treasure can be found, even in the "desert" of the San Joaquin Valley.

Jarel Parker said...

Well stated and I like how you have given some excellent directions. It's there is he wishes to find out where the true artists and significant production has been shifting as sales and marketing have taken over in the larger producers.

Wine Life Radio said...

Let me answer your question.... "Should wine lovers care about California's Central Valley?"

The answer is NO... But if someone in a restaurant or retail establishment suggests or offers them a wine from this area great !!!Maybe they buy and enjoy or not. But wine lovers should not care about Cali's Central Coast.

Wine Lovers expect a nice bottle of wine ! : ) (and a story is nice with that wine).


Keith Miller
The Winery Group

Drew Goin said...

I have a hard time excluding areas that are (almost) universally accepted as components of the Central Valley. Central Valley minus Lodi, minus Sierra Foothills, minus the Delta...

I have a great respect for any winemaker or grower who puts quality over quantity. The real trend of the future is going to be a stronger focus on quality in the inland valley of California. Currently, I think most of the leaders in solid winemaking have been mentioned in the comments of others. In regard to the future, please read this article from several years ago:

As a wine drinker, I love the wines of Adelaida, Bedrock, Limerick Lane, Carlisle, Three Wine Company, Dutton-Goldfield, Alfaro Family, Dirty & Rowdy, Sandlands, etc.