Lovers of California red wines are facing a crisis of confidence that few acknowledge — but that’s mainly because most U.S. wine buyers are unaware the problem even exists.
The red wines that made California famous 40 years ago are fast disappearing. In their place is a category of wine I call the New Normal. The wines are radically different and for various reasons, today’s consumers seem perfectly willing to accept them without issue.
Unlike decades ago when excellence came in various styles, wines of the New Normal are homogeneous to one another. Sameness is in; Merlot = Cabernet. Distinctiveness that includes regional identity is out.
This applies mainly to red wines, though it also applies to some whites. The situation benefits winemakers who don’t have to worry about several crucial factors, such as regionality, varietal character, or food compatibility.
A Napa Cabernet once was considered proper or excellent if it smelled and tasted like Cabernet. (Duh.) One would think that requirement would be necessary for a Cab to be considered excellent: varietal integrity.
Also, it had to have a structure allowing it to age a bit, work with food, be balanced, and offer Cabernet flavors. Ideally it would display some of the main characteristics of the region where its grapes were grown.
Today, these requirements are optional; indeed, in most cases they aren’t even desired. Some self-proclaimed wine experts even see these elements as drawbacks!
Over the last two decades, it’s clear, these “experts” say a Cabernet can be great if and only if it’s big, concentrated, soft, approachable, oak-laden, and high in alcohol. It need not have any relationship to regionality or food compatibility.
Put another way, decades ago, uniqueness was prized. (Heitz “Martha’s Vineyard” Cab was considered one of the best in the game, because of its eucalypt character.) In today’s New Normal, that’s been replaced by the sameness that links all high-scoring Cabernets. Distinctiveness now is a flaw.
Thirty years ago, a Howell Mountain Cab (Dunn?) had black fruit, a slug of tannins, hints of dried sage that marked the region, and great potential. A Rutherford Cab (BV-PR?) was scented with dried herbs and leaves (Andre Tchelistcheff called it “Rutherford Dust”), and had noticeably less tannin, yet would age as well as any because of balance.
And there was Stag’s Leap with its leanings on red cherry fruit, sandalwood, and graceful tannins that made for a silkier experience.
These differences could be noted best by trying them often and having regular chats with winemakers. Tasting wine from the barrel with Andre or Myron or Jerry or John provided insights that proved Napa’s legacy.
Remote reviewers typically tried the wines once. For them, a rush to judgment was fine. “Tastes great — 99 points.” That score rarely changed.
The magical greatness of Napa’s numerous sub-terroirs was one of its most crucial images, and gave it many personalities.
Most of today’s New Normal Napa Cabernets suffer from sameness. And this viral message eventually infected just about every red wine grape from Zin to Aleatico, and including a few Pinot Noirs!
It all began to fall apart three decades ago. One case comes to mind: Many wineries once made a Nouveau Beaujolais-styled wine. It was light in color, smelled like grapes, wasn’t aged in barrels, and was intended to be consumed within weeks, months at most.
Such wines no longer exist here because the world soon was convinced that the “best” wines were dark, oaky, and thick. That was the message of the hundred-point scorers, who introduced varietal prejudice as a valid idea. To this day, they deny ever propounding it.
Before long, almost every red wine grape began to get manipulated, twisted, and re-formed. They became dark in color, weight, and impact. They had high alcohol, lots of oak, low acid, and high pH. Flabby was in; crisp was anathema.
Few American consumers understood any of this. But they trusted the easy-to-understand scores they got from the amateur palates: All red wines must be dense. Want elegance? See the closeout bin.
A 90 was seen as miles better than an 89.
So most red wines were artificially impacted: wineries added dark grapes (Syrah?), concentrates, used oak chips, de-acidified to make wines softer, sweeter.
As for going with food, forget it. Most red is now a cocktail wine.
All expensive red wines today are infected with this virus. Pick up any red for more than $25. What’s the alcohol? Can you find any at 12% or 13%? How many do you see at 14%? Not many. (Indeed, do you trust that the 15% alcohol wines are really under 17%? I don’t.)
The New Normal demands that every wine, white or red, that sells for more than $20 a bottle be legally classified as dessert. (This is how all wines of more than 14% alcohol are classified by the U. S. government!)
Those who grew up appreciating red wines of balance 30 years ago often tell me today’s wines are too big. Yeah, there are still a few heroes making great wines today that reflect the older era. So greatness remains.
But they’re hard to find. These are wines yet to be infected with the virus called the New Normal.
A toast to them.
Wine of the Week: 2015 Corison Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa Valley ($95) – With only 13.6% alcohol, this wine from longtime Cabernet stylist Cathy Corison delivers about as distinctive a varietal expression as you will find in Napa today. It has traces of dried herbs, classic cassis/blackberry aroma, and a slightly generous, perfectly balanced mid-palate. And it carries one trait almost all young Cabs have: it was released too soon. (The New Normal calls for wines to be released less than four years after the vintage). So the greatness of this wine doesn’t reveal itself until it has been in a decanter for an hour. Two hours is best. It will reward 20 years in a cool cellar. An absolute classic. And the 2016 Corison Sunbasket Cabernet ($185) is even better – and will age even longer!