Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Who's Buying California Wines?

It was bound to happen. Since the 1990s, California wine producers have been without any great inspirational winemaker or visionary as it did in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, with pioneers and leaders like Andre Tchelitscheff, John Daniel, Fred McCrea, Joe Heitz, Robert Mondavi, Warren Winiarski, Burt Williams, Paul Draper, and Randall Grahm.

Instead, since the 1990s, California wine producers take their cues from wine critic scores, eager to pander to unsophisticated palates who are easily swayed by such scores.

Today, with a more experienced and independent-minded wine drinking public, empowered by the Internet ("We're All Wine Critics Now"), California wines are losing favor in the market. High alcohol, overripeness, and lack of interesting flavors make many California wines hard to enjoy with food, especially with the pure, ingredient-driven dishes we love to eat these days. And frankly, during these belt-tightening times, the high prices of California wines have turned many drinkers off.

A pair of news articles published today on the state of Bay Area restaurant wine lists are getting much attention because they bring such trends to light. Jon Bonné, wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, was brave enough to write this enlightening piece titled "Do our wine lists ignore California?". I say "brave" because writing for a paper in close proximity to the very wineries whose toes he steps on can elicit a palpable wrath to him and his employer.

The other news article, or series of reports more accurately, was penned by Eric Asimov, the wine columnist of the New York Times, whom I regard as the most enlightened American wine writer today. (Okay, I'm biased; like Asimov, I love orange wines and Jura wines and wines made by Lopez de Heredia and Movia, as I do any great Burgundy). His column today "Eat Local; Drink European", and twin blogs posted this week, "Ripeness Isn't All" and "Favorite Wine Lists in the San Francisco Bay Area" talk about the hottest Bay Area restaurants and wine bars that are packed with customers every night, despite the economic slowdown, and with every table graced by a bottle or a glass or two of every sort of wine, but seldom California.

Despite such dismal trends there are many California wine producers whose souls are intact and have never sold them to the highest scorers. Foremost is Edmunds St. John. By dint of recklessness, relentless experimentations, and not bowing to wine critics, Edmunds St. John has achieved what has escaped most California wineries: consistently producing wines with soul, balance, and expression of the California terroirs.

Steve Edmunds, owner and winemaker of Edmunds St. John, makes the most pleasurable California wines to drink. His 2007 Bone-Jolly Gamay Noir, for example, doesn't take a backseat to the outstanding Morgons of Marcel Lapierre and Jean-Paul Thevenet, both imported by his close friend and fellow Berkeley native, Kermit Lynch.

If more California wine producers would take their cue from producers like Edmunds St. John, then I would easily expect Bay Area wine lists to be filled with their graceful wines.


  1. I imagine that there are many bottles of California wines being consumed at restaurants throughout California. Does anyone have the actual statistics?

  2. @Steve Howe You're exactly right, not just in California but also nationwide. trade pubs like Beverage World and Beverage Industry track the stats. I haven't read the stats in recent years but for some time now the leading wine brands sold in restos have been Silver Oak Cabernets, Romabuer Chardonnays, and Jordan wines. As far as I know only one import has been in the same bracket, Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio.


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