January 2019 Issue of Wines & Vines

Staying in Touch From 50,000 Miles AWay

by Hugh Johnson

It seems a long time ago: a dinner at the archaic but splendid Palace Hotel on Market Street in San Francisco when Phil Hiaring handed me a certificate anointing me Writer of the Year. I look back on those times, and the company of Leon Adams, Maynard Amerine, Joe Heitz, Frank Prial, Frank Schoonmaker, a dozen engaged and genial commentators, and the wines of Beaulieu, Louis Martini, Italian Swiss Colony, Almaden and Wente, of course. Once I start, I could bring back hundreds of memories — of valleys in a state of golden innocence, vineyards as exceptions in the landscape, and absolutely no food joints of any kind. Except the Grapevine Inn.
I was lucky enough to be one of the first Brits on the scene in the 1960s, when California wine was just stirring. 1957 is the date of my first visit, as a hitchhiking 18-year-old. Back again in 1971, I was lucky enough to meet Bob Thompson. Harry Serlis of the Wine Institute chose him as my guide for a rapid tour of, Bob can probably remember exactly where, but the roster of wineries was not long.

Wines & Vines was one of my main ways of staying in touch from 5,000 miles away as the wine scene in California devel¬oped. It had the range of views (and the refreshing austerity) of a committed trade journal. These days, 40 years later, I wonder if I need all these full-color, full-page posed photos of winemakers, full-bleed rows of vines and close-focused barrels. Or these constantly rehashed and inherently improb¬able tasting notes.

Bob Thompson and I were in close touch through the late ‘60s and the early ‘70s when I was writing my “World Atlas of Wine.” I was guilty of provoking him into writing, with my full collaboration, “The California Wine Book,” published in 1975. There was a clear need, by the mid-‘70s, for a con¬sidered, sober summary of the fast-changing scene. Sadly, our book was kiboshed by an egregious producer claiming libel. The great Nathan Chroman of the Los Angeles Times saved our bacon. He rallied powerful voices (Mondavi, Gallo and others) to tell our tormentor that if writers risked bank¬ruptcy by reviewing wineries, there wouldn’t be much press coverage in the future.

In 1977, I wrote my first “Pocket Wine Book.” I avoided the word encyclopedia because the personal flavor was (and is) more important to me than encyclopedic comprehensiveness — though heaven knows I try. Nor did I ever guess I should still be writing the same book 42 years later. Bob Thompson was my main source in California for many years.

In many (no, most) ways California wine has got better over these many years — though in some ways less to my taste. Would Cabernets in particular have gone the way they did without the influence of Robert Parker? I don’t know, but I’m sure his 100-point system (which I still don’t understand) and the way it was gamed by the trade, and especially consultants, has a lot to answer for. I am certainly happy to see a return to moderation and the center ground by intelligent winemakers. There is now an infinity of places — far too many, with the offerings of the internet — to look for information on any aspect of the wine industry. Wines & Vines has kept its head as a voice to respect in all the hubbub.

In a sense, California (and, indeed, Oregon and Washington) has become a geographer’s (and atlas-maker’s) dream. Every wrinkle in the coast range can be credited with fogs or cool breezes or the opposite — open, of course, to a producer’s inter¬pretation. Jancis Robinson and I are currently working on the eighth edition of our “Wine Atlas,” out in 2019, and delving deeper into the West Coast than ever before. My principle concern today about California and its wines is their prices. One hundred dollars for a decent red is ridiculous. We’ll never moderate the com¬petitive egos of aspiring producers; if we could, we could drink very well for very much less. But wine is all about upward mobility. No wonder it is conquering America.

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