"Wine is like fine art we
enjoy and admire but unlike
art, to fully appreciate it we
consume it, thus destroy it.
Like most good things they
must come to an end."
|For The Distinctive Epicurean and Wine Enthusiast
Before I start my view on this subject I must shed some light on some critical issues that surround the on going feud between French Wine advocates and California wine
It started when Steven Spurrier, British wine merchant who operated a wine store in Paris, organized The Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 or the Judgment of Paris on May 24,
1976. I am certain that he never imagined that the outcome of that night's event would be debated and remain controversial for many decades to come. Here we are in the
year 2010 still deliberating over the same concept - which is better American wine or French wine?
The tasting results from the Paris tasting was shocking to the French and the Americans. As the matter of fact, it was a shocking news to the world and the wine industry as
a whole. Two American wines out-scored the legendary French wines. One red, 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellar, Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon made by Warren
Winiarski, who won first place for the red wine category. The other was, 1973 Chateau Montelena, Chardonnay that was made by Mike Girgich, who was the wine maker
at the time and won first place for the white wine category.
Over the past two years we began to hear opposing voices about California wine's softness, lack of depth or structure to age well, being full of big fruit, floral aromas, high
alcohol and less acidity.
The most opposition came from British wine writers. Oz Clarke is the most vocal and has taken a stand against this view of red California wines.
Clarke states that he was weary of the "wines that are over ripe, over alcoholic, over-oaked and over bearing". He continues by blaming those "who are slavishly following
Faux High Priest super ripeness...some of the world's most influential [wine} critiques sadly are obsessed with super ripe flavors" and many producers seeking to gain a
high score from these reviewers, make wines to please them. It is obvious that he is pointing his harsh critique at Robert Parker Jr. from the Wine Advocate and James
Laube from the Wine Spectator. It is a view that I will cover later on in my article. Let us examine consumer habits and market climate in the United States: The wine
industry started in the late 1800's and shortly there after was interrupted by prohibition - (1920-1933). Still by all measures, America's wine industry is young relative to the
major wine making countries of the world i.e. France, Italy, Spain, etc...
The wine industry in the United States took a different direction after the 1976 Paris tasting competition between the wines of California and France.
Wineries such as BV, Beringer, Louis Martini, Galo, Charles Krug and Robert Mondavi, were mainly producing sweet wine and less dry wines to satisfy the American
consumers. As the consumers palate evolved and with the influential tradition of European immigrants Americans were learning about pairing food and wine. The U.S. is a
diverse market with it's 310 million in population. Within the US there are several diverse markets such as the East coast, the West coast and middle America...they are 3
major markets with different needs.
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Although wine drinking within the US has been on the rise, table wine rose 4.5% last year, marking 14
consecutive years of growth. To show how unprecedented that is, the last time a growth trend that long
occurred was 1969 -1982. Per capita consumption of wine topped 3 gallons. Americans drank 3.2 gallons
per person 2007 compared to 2.46 gallons in 2000. America is still dominated by beer as a preferred
beverage. Below is a glance of American consumer alcohol consumption:
BEER WINE Spirit
45% 32% 23%
Those who drink wine in the US are divided as follows according to the type of wine they consume, 65%
drink white wine and 35% drink red wine. To examine the difference between 2 major wine markets
dominated by 2 different consumers we must examine consumer habits on the West coast represented by
the state of California and on the opposite side of the country, the East coast, represented by New York.
California: Wine drinking in California is influenced by a heavy diversion of multi ethnicities such as South
American and Asian. California's wine consumer represents a unique segment of the US market. California
wine consumers are intrigued by floral aromas, berries with big fruit flavors, high alcohol content and less
acidity since most wine drinking is consumed socially with or without food pairing. About 90% of wine is
produced to be consumed within 1 year
New York: A huge market where there are more restaurants in Manhattan per square foot than any other
city in the US. It is heavily diverse with European influences. Consumers drinking habits on the East coast
are completely different from the West coast. Europeans flooded the immigration lines in the early 1900's
coming to the US through Ellis island and have certainly had an impact on the wine market in this region.
Many New Yorkers prefer wines with structural balance, low alcohol and good acidity with flavors that speak
of the basic varietal characteristic, complex with depth that allow the wine to age nicely.
European immigrants: brought with them their own traditions and social habits. The Italian immigrants, for
example, allowed their young children to drink wine (diluted with water) during dinner. They made wine at
home for their personal use. Homemade wine flourished in the early 1920's during prohibition and
production increased from 4 million gallons in 1915 to 90 million gallons in 1925. Wine growers were no
longer able to sell their crop to wineries. Therefore, they turned to selling directly to the consumer.
Although the varietal of grape was not of high quality - Carignan was the grape of choice due to it's tough
structure. Blueish-black berries, round and fairly large, with fairly thick astringent skins. They mostly
produce wines that have high color, acidity and tannin without displaying much distinct flavor or personality
and with very little unique appeal. Wine quality from these grapes was bad. In the December issue of
Harper's Magazine wrote,"There are probably few Italian-American families that do not make their own wine;
but the wine they make, as a rule, can be endured by stomachs toughened by a racial experience of
hardships dating back to the Punic Wars."
US, is the fourth largest producer of wine in the world, but the consumption of wine trails way behind the
top three producers, review the table.
Consumer drinking habits within the US are very surprising and there is a large segment of the population
that never drink:
- 34% never drink
- 17% only twice a year
- 22% twice a month
- 21% twice a week
- 7% every day
In The Spotlight;
It has been an interesting vintage year as we come to the end of the 2010 harvest. It was an unusually cool summer growing season, with a
few days of searing heat as harvest approached and a Pacific storm that brought significant rain in late October. In the past few weeks
grape growers worked around the clock and raced to get the final push of grapes off the vines and to the wineries. Most vintners are
reporting that their grape deliveries are complete which marks the end of a difficult season.
In my opinion, this year's biggest challenge was the cool summer growing season, which forced grape growers to leave their fruit for longer
hang time to reach desired sugar levels (Brix). California winemakers tend to harvest their grapes at a higher Brix level than their counter
parts in France.
Brix, alcohol content and acidity has been a major fundamental difference between California wines and French wines especially over the
past 30 years. It has been argued for decades ......are the big overripe California wines better than the French style wine with less fruit,
less alcohol and higher acidity?
Is bigger better?...............(Big fruit, high alcohol and less acid)-The style of most California wines-mainly red wines.
Is less more?............... (Less fruit, less alcohol and more acid) - The style of most French wines - mainly red wines.
To understand and answer this question objectively there are elements that have direct impact and some indirect influences on the
philosophy of winemaking on both sides of the Atlantic. The market environment, consumer habits and social traditions all play a role to
influence the style of wine in France and in the U.S.
France: with a population of 65 million, wine is the dominant preferred drink and has a much greater wine consumption rate than US, per capita.
The French traditions of winemaking originated in the 6th BC century and evolved over hundreds of years. Winemaking in a French Château is a traditional workmanship
that has developed over many years of experience and is handed down from generation to generation. It is not through scientific methodology, advanced studies and
technology that wine is ordinarily made in France. Although, this has been changing over the past decade. French consumers (since childhood) grow accustomed to wine
drinking. Wine is almost always served with meals, lunch and dinner. France is the largest producer of wine in the world. In France, wine is drunk either socially or mainly
paired with food. Red wines from the Bordeaux region are produced with the intention to be drunk within 15-20 years of aging when they reach complete maturity. The
French consumer palate is accustomed to wines that are well balanced with less alcohol, good acidity, subtle fruit and therefore will age well.
Finally, having looked at the 2 different market environments and consumer habits between the US and France, we must understand that US market is a free enterprise
market driven by profit and fair market competition. It is not a matter of being able to produce California wines with less alcohol and more acid. After all, a winemaker can
control at which point to harvest the fruit. Instead of picking at 24-26 Brix, 0.65% acid ( California Style Red Wines), a viticulturist could harvest grapes at 22 Brix and
0.90% acid (French Style Red Wines), (Brix: is the quantity of sugar in grapes, measured with a “refractometer” thus imparts the level of alcohol in a wine) that's if
the goal was to produce wine with certain characteristics like those made in France.
There is a correlation between Brix and alcohol content, the higher the Brix in grape, the higher the alcohol percentage in the wine. The way it works is, during the
fermentation process all sugar content becomes alcohol. Fermentation is a process when sugar interacts with yeast to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide, very much the
basic fundamental of making wine.
It is a matter of taste, California winemakers are driven to produce wines that are desired by the larger market audience. However, there are currently wine producers in
California who produce wines with the characteristics of low alcohol and good acidity such as;
Opus One's Meritage, Corison's Cabernet Sauvignon and Copain's Tous Ensemble, Pinot Noir. In other words, currently there are French style wines produced in
California, from grapes that are grown on American soil. These wines are produced in small quantities and have very limited market share, it's biggest market within the US
is New York more than any other state including California.
US markets are evolving as the consumer palate changes. I remember when Julia Child revolutionized they way Americans ate. We learned to appreciate freshness and
delicate tastes. It takes years for these fundamental changes to become part of our social structure and the same will happen with wine.
Our wine industry is still in it's early stages. California wine is a suitable product for the American consumer and it may not suit the French wine consumer as do so many
other products that I am certain you can name.
Our appreciation and discernment of wine is a continuing process. As the palate changes, we will find a plateau that suits our taste and enjoyment. It may require
understanding and patience rather than mearly an alcoholic concussion designed for instant gratification. For now let's enjoy, Cheers!
Wine aging: It is a complex process that takes place over years and there are so
many elements that all play a roll of some significance to achieve the ultimate
plateau of wine maturity. Just as Oxygen yellows newspapers and browns sliced
apples, it spoils wine, but the process is more complex. There is also a beneficial
oxidation that helps wine mature. Paradoxically, wine is improving even as it is
being destroyed; time will kill a wine, but is also necessary to make it great. This
dual process is visible after a bottle has been opened. Aeration of wine - whether
by decanting a bottle, swirling one’s glass or sloshing a mouthful around - is a
form of controlled oxidation. The aim is to improve the wine by helping it open up
after it’s long confinement in a bottle.
The trick that the greatest old bottles of wine pull off is keeping long enough to blossom. The tiny amount of air in a bottle of wine, the porous cork that allows a slow
exchange of oxygen over decades, the coolness of a cellar that decelerates chemical reactions in the wine, the humidity of a cellar and horizontal storage that ensure a
cork stays moist and maintains a seal - all these practices are aimed at fostering beneficial changes while deterring destructive ones. A wine is considered mature when it
has maximized its flavor possibilities but has not yet begun to deteriorate.
Oz Clarke's criticism of Parker and Laube, it is his personal opinion of the style of wine that he likes or dislikes. Also, it infringes on one's right to impose his own judgement
of wines that he enjoys". The question is not, the way the French make wine better than the way wine is made in the US and vice-versa. It is a matter of personal
preference and the individual's taste. Parker and Laube do not force us to drink the wines that they review and rate. They publish their personal view and critique of wines
that they have tasted. The consumer has many choices, they follow and trust the credibility of wine reviewers that rank wine that they like and meets their palate for
What ever happened to the phrase: "Drink what you like?" - Are these just empty words?
Isn't that what we are always told, this is certainly a discussion that will remain controversial for years to come.