What in the name of Dionysus is bugging Slate's Mike Steinberger, and why does he have it in for the wines of California? Let's review:
Back in July, in a column smacking around the popularity of the wines bottled under the Charles Shaw label, perhaps better known as Two-Buck Chuck, he suggested a number of affordable imported alternatives before concluding bleakly:
And inexpensive domestic wines? Sorry, none to recommend. This is a story in itself, but one that will have to wait for my next column.Consider that next column delivered, as Steinberger now asks: Why is there no such thing as a good, low-priced California wine?.
Forget Arnold and Arianna, the real farce is what's become of California wines. How does a place so conducive to cultivating wine grapes produce so much cheap swill and overpriced mediocrity? Why is the good stuff -- what there is of it -- so egregiously expensive? And why has California given rise to such an obnoxious wine culture? If Californians want to recall something, they might start with all those insipid chardonnays.Steinberger has a number of valid points to make, starting with that slap at California chardonnays: we've had no particular fondness for them chez Fool in many years, as they tend either to be hopelessly over-oaked or flabby and pointless. (New York Times wine writer Frank Prial mocked California winemakers almost two decades ago for their frame of mind that "I can out-Chardonnay any kid on the block." The situation has not improved noticeably in the interim.)
He is also largely right about the snobbery that pervades much of California wine culture, particularly that part of it centered around Cabernet-based wines from the Napa Valley. Napa wineries are the driving force behind the "cult wine" phenomenon. Like a black hole distorting time and space around itself, Napa cult wines have produced a wide ranging distortion in California wine pricing. Of course, the phenomenon has not been without its enablers, notably the high-profile wine critics such as Robert Parker and the staff of the Wine Spectator; winemakers know that a high ranking from those sources will drive sales, so many consciously work to produce wines that will appeal to the known preferences of those writers.
The oddities of California pricing look to be headed for a fall, for the simple reason that fewer consumers are willing to pay what the more self-important wineries want to charge. Some of that change is being driven by the very "cheap swill" Steinberger refers to. Here is the core of the latest installment (from Friday 9/26) in the Los Angeles Times' continuing coverage of the Charles Shaw phenomenon:
Although some vintners have complained that Chuck's immense popularity has undermined major brands and shaken up an already struggling industry, the picture is in fact much more complicated.The idea that there are no California wines worth drinking below the $15.00 range is simply false. It may be true for Steinberger, but that may simply be a consequence of his own personal tastes and style preferences. California wine regions outside of Napa -- Sonoma County and, particularly, Santa Barbara County and the Paso Robles region -- while not entirely immune to the temptation to overcharge, produce highly enjoyable wines at more rational prices, particularly from grape varieties other than Cabernet and Chardonnay -- sauvignon blanc on the white side, for example, zinfandel and syrah on the red. [I would also praise California pinot noir, particularly from the Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills areas of Santa Barbara County, but it is genuinely hard to find them at that $15.00 mark. Many to be found in the $20.00 range, however, are well worth it.]
At [an upcoming] symposium, UC Davis wine-business researchers will present findings of a survey in which 6 of 10 wine executives believe that Charles Shaw has helped the industry by depleting excess wine and grape supplies and by creating buzz for California wine in general.
What's more, as Bronco [producer of the Shaw label] has lowered the bar on the price consumers are willing to pay for a bottle of wine, that has created an ever larger market for low-priced wines and spawned a number of similarly priced clones.
'One thing holding back wine consumption is that quality wine is too expensive in the U.S.,' said one survey respondent. 'I think in the future we will see the price pyramid change and become a lot fatter at the bottom.'
Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, the wine-writing duo for the Wall Street Journal -- whose Friday columns are unfortunately not to be had by non-subscribers online -- regularly track down and recommend good wines, including California wines, in the $15.00 and below bracket. At least once a year, they devote a column to particular wineries whose quality and pricing are sufficiently consistent that you can treat them as a trusted brand, one whose wines are unlikely to disappoint. One of their regular recommendations is the R.H. Phillips Winery -- either under that name or under their EXP label (for Rhone-style wines) -- almost all come in under the magic $15.00 figure and are consistently enjoyable. The Phillips winery is unusual for being located in the Dunnigan Hills of Yolo County, northwest of Sacramento.
For my part, I also recommend the wines of Sonoma County's Rodney Strong Vineyards . The winery's releases are reliably enjoyable across the board (even their chardonnays are less offensive than many). The Russian River Valley pinot noir is consistently good and has a stated retail price of $18.00 (it can probably be found for less); the reserve bottling at $30.00 is also worthwhile. At $12.00 suggested retail, the winery's Charlotte's Home Sauvignon Blanc is also worth finding. All of this producer's wines, in my experience, play well with others when combined with food.
All told, when Mike Steinberger claims there is not a worthwhile California wine to be had for under $15.00, he is either exaggerating or not trying very hard. Or perhaps there's just no pleasing some people.