The Experts Weren't California Dreamin'

November 2011
by Mike Dunne
The instrument was new, but the lyrics were familiar: California vintners aren’t making high-value wines, which is to say wines of individuality and authority, for $12 or so.

That was the refrain when The New York Times this fall published a snazzy infographic in which 20 experts—sommeliers, restaurateurs, merchants—identified their best buys for 10 kinds of settings, from accompanying pizza to impressing snobs.

One of the 20 wines costs $13. All the rest sell for $11 or $12. Eight were from France. Three each were from Austria and Spain. Two were from Italy. Germany, New York, Oregon and Greece were represented by one each. Not one was from California. Message: California wine for $12 or so is plonk.

Granted, much of it is. Many wines at that price are sluggish, sweet, short and soft. They can come from anywhere in California, but most likely they originate in the Central Valley, where wine often is considered commodity rather than statement. But as anyone aware of California wine can tell you, the state can and does yield wines of character and charm for $12 and less.

So what was going on with the experts who participated in The Times’ survey? Was an East Coast media bias and an East Coast palate preference for European wines ganging up on California? Hardly. The experts were scattered across the globe, with the single biggest group (seven) based in California. (Of the Californians, three endorsed Spanish wines and three endorsed French, while the other favored an Austrian.) No East Coast/European wine-axis conspiracy was at work here.

More likely, survey participants simply were sincerely trying to be helpful. That’s the nature of their business, but it’s not without qualification. The recommendations of at least two of them may have been influenced as much by local pride as inherent value: An Oregon restaurateur endorsed a Willamette Valley Muller Thurgau, while the wine director of a New York restaurant recommended a blend from the Finger Lakes.

But that just begs the question of why no California vintner felt the love of any of the Californians on the panel.

No doubt several of the experts subscribe to the familiar allegation that California wines are overpriced. Face it, many California wines are dear. The reasons are many, including the swollen egos of vintners who feel their wines are superior to their neighbors’ and thus should command higher prices. Who hasn’t stepped into the tasting room of a new California winery to find a neophyte winemaker pouring an obscure varietal from a virgin appellation? Those are the very wines that should be cheap—and that’s the type of several of the wines in The Times chart—and yet they commonly command $20 to $40 per bottle when they’re from California.

Still, someone hasn’t done their homework if these experts can’t come up with a single California wine of spirit and finesse for little more than a sawbuck. Maybe the experts don’t get out much. Maybe they’re susceptible to the cajolery of distributors who aren’t particularly keen on bargain-priced California wines. Maybe they haven’t tasted enough California wines to realize that not all of them are overwrought and clumsy oafs at the table, and several can provide the surprise and idiosyncrasy that sommeliers and merchants like to spring on their clientele.

However, if pivotal gatekeepers in San Francisco and New York aren’t aware of high-value wines from California, the fault may not be theirs alone. California’s vintners could share the blame. They just may not have told their story well enough. How many of them, when they call on restaurateurs and merchants from Los Angeles to Boston, take along and talk up their cheapest wines?

To judge by wines they dwell on at tastings, the answer is few. They want their wines on the more prestigious wine lists and in the bins of the more highly regarded shops, and to that end they show off their flagship wines, not their bargains, fearing that they won’t be taken seriously. They’re correct: How could they be taken seriously if restaurateurs and merchants don’t taste them?

Other than stepping up their efforts to show sommeliers and clerks that California can produce value wines of impact and joy, the state’s vintners can take comfort that they are in good company in their snubbing by The Times. No wines in the chart were from New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, Chile or Washington state, either. And of the eight wines from France that qualified for the infographic, not one was from Bordeaux.

Mike Dunne wrote his first California wine story 40 years ago and has been following the state’s vineyards and wineries ever since. Three years ago he retired as food editor, restaurant critic and wine columnist at The Sacramento Bee, where he continues to contribute a weekly wine column. He writes two blogs, A Year in Wine ( when he is at his Sacramento residence and Finding Los Cabos ( when he is in San Jose del Cabo, Baja California Sur.

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