Dispensing with the Unjustified Criticism of Big California Wines

The great Kermit Lynch was profiled in last Sunday’s issue of the New York Times Magazine. The immortal wine  importer/singer entertained and enlightened with views on a number of wine subjects, including a bit of a slap at California wines or, as he calls them “Pop Wines”.

No one should ever have it in mind to question Mr. Lynch’s knowledge of wine. But in the interview, he continued the promotion of what is, in my view, an unfounded criticism of California wine, linked to a specific style of wine and to Robert Parker’s opinions, and the article proved a good opening to speak to the issue of whether anyone who attempts to criticize California wine for being too big or too alcoholic can ever be right.

In the interview, Mr. Lynch is quote as saying:

“I call the wines that have been ascendant during the Parker reign “pop wines,” because they’re created by people thinking, Oh, wow, if I make a wine like that I’ll get a hundred points and I’ll be as rich as so-and-so. They see, “Jeez, I’m driving my tractor, and he’s driving a Mercedes, and I have land here, too!” But my God, how many oaky alcoholic wines can you suffer before it becomes monotonous….When a lot of California wineries started chasing high Parker scores, I lost interest.”

The thing is, Mr. Lynch is in the minority. The number of people who like big, fruit forward 14%-15%, oak aged wines that are soft going down far and away out-number those who profess to prefer the more “minerally”, low or moderate alcohol, “terroir-driven” wines. And here’s the thing: There is no legitimate case and no argument that can be successfully made that the latter type of wine is better or more authentic than what Mr. Lynch calls “Pop Wines” and what others call “Parkerized” wines.

Mr. Lynch has the common sense and experience not to engage in the worst form of the “pop wine” argument that you often see. That argument tries to make the extremely demeaning case that people who buy, say, a fruit forward, low pH Napa Valley Cab have somehow been duped or don’t think for themselves or don’t really appreciate wine, but rather just drink what they think they are supposed to drink. The corollary is that people who buy expensive Napa Valley or CA wines that are big and bold are doing so just to show off .

And yet, more and more Napa Valley wine is sold. And there is no sign at all that the wines are backing off from being big and bold. Furthermore, you can find numerous CA and Napa and Sonoma wines that never pursue scores, yet are also made in a big, bold, fruit forward 14.5% alcohol-style. Why would that be if it was all about score chasing.

Here’s the very bottom line on this: That style of wine that celebrates richness, fruit forward-ness, lower pHs, notes of new oak and 14%+ alcohol is a style of wine ever bit as authentic and every bit as natural and every bit as legitimate as any other style of wine you can lay your hands on. And just as important, it really sells well and there is no indication that this style of wine is going anywhere. But we’ll see about where the most vociferous critics of this style of wine end up. My guess is they’ll be complaining to their grave that Robert Parker is responsible for these wines, when in fact it should be abundantly clear that it’s consumers’ palates that are responsible for these wines.

 

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53 Responses

  1. Charlie Olken - October 22, 2013

    Comments like Mr. Lynch’s make me very sad. He ought to know better than to castigate very wine in California offhand and they try to walk it back with some kind of offhand comment.

    We need not argue, as you have not, that CA wines can be big and rich and mouthfilling and satisfying, and that such wines often have only a little to do with the style of their European counterparts.

    And that is exactly the point that Kermit Lynch and Jon Bonnet and others of that ilk miss in their giant rush to pat themselves on their backs for having Euro-centric palates.

    Lynch, for instance, has a major trade in the wines of the Rhone, including CNDP, which rarely comes in mild, milk-toasty stylings. Yet somehow those wines do not come in for criticism while Lynch seems free to criticize CA wines by name and leave no room for the hundred of CA wines that (a) have never needed to chase points and (b) have been made with bright and lively balances forever.

    As I said, it is disappointing. He should know better. Like what you like Kermit, but stop criticizing as “pop” and “pandering” those wines that you do not like.

  2. Becky Zelinski - October 22, 2013

    I don’t necessarily think “pop” wines are better or worse than traditional wines but I do think it’s the uneducated and unsophisticated palates that are in this majority who enjoy them. Just because “everybody’s doing it” doesn’t make it better or right either. Over-oaked, high alcohol wines may be popular and easy-to-drink but they diminish the fruit and demean wine as the beverage it is intended to be. There are many of out there who still prefer wines that are well-balanced, actually fermented to dryness and in which include the taste of fruit and acidity. Not just a soft, sugary beverage.

  3. Tom Wark - October 22, 2013

    So Becky, I just have to ask? Who determined what the “beverage is intended to be” so that it could actually be demeaned? Was it an individual? A God? A people? I think this is where the problem lies in trying to say that these wines are “over oaked” or “high” in alcohol or “diminished” in fruit.

    I don’t thin you really mean that wine is actually “intended” to be a particular way.

    Finally, can those hundreds of thousdands of people (more? Millions) who have paid upwards of $100 per bottle for some of these wines really be “uneducated” and “Unsophisticated” And by what measure should we judge them to be this? By your palate? Or by mine?

  4. Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: Vivacious & Pure - October 23, 2013

    […] Lynch calls ‘Pop Wines’ and what others call ‘Parkerized’ wines.” Tom Wark comments on the recent New York Times Magazine profile of Kermit […]

  5. Thomas Pellechia - October 23, 2013

    The time has come, Tom, for you to issue a wine manifesto. It’s the thing to do these days.

  6. Tom Wark - October 23, 2013

    Thomas:

    I already have? You’ve not read it???:
    http://fermentationwineblog.com/2010/03/manifesto-for-change-in-the-wine-industry/

  7. Michael Cervin - October 23, 2013

    I agree with you heartily, Tom. I see more and more the pretentious attitude (a lot among winemakers I judge with and write about) still alive and kicking, even as the wine industry keeps suggesting they are trying to “de-mystify” wine. Wine is a beverage, to be enjoyed by whomever wants it, in a plastic cup, with 16% alc, or out of a bag. I may have my opinions, but I don’t force them on unsuspecting consumers. And hell, at times I really like a big fat high alc, fruity wine. There is a place for everything at the table.

  8. Randy Caparoso - October 23, 2013

    What I find sad are you wine kooks who really don’t get what Kermit Lynch is talking about. Lynch, in fact, selects, imports, sells and distributors many wines that are big and high and alcohol (especially Chateauneuf-du-Papes and South-West French reds). When he talks about “pop” wines, he talks about wines that ape other wines in order to garner high scores. Wines, in other words, that are not real, authentic, or true to their places or origin, or to the artistic sense of the growers and vintners behind them.

    Wines that only “pretend” to be what they are, in order to become popular. Wines that, more often than not, are made to appeal to lowest common denominators, as opposed to what they could be.

    Anyone who truly appreciates sense of place or artistry finds that truly disgusting. I do, and so do many other wine lovers. Yes, we may be in the minority, and we’re aware of that. Obviously, Lynch speaks for the same people who appreciate more authentic music, literature, or any kind of art as opposed to “pop” forms. Anyone with half a palate, or eyes and ears or common sense, should be able to tell the difference. But I’m always amazed at the number of wine lovers who can’t — and then get upset when people like Lynch point out the obvious difference.

  9. Tom Wark - October 23, 2013

    Randy,

    You noted, “When he talks about “pop” wines, he talks about wines that ape other wines in order to garner high scores. Wines, in other words, that are not real, authentic, or true to their places or origin, or to the artistic sense of the growers and vintners behind them. ”

    What is an example of a “not real” wine you speak of. How exactly can we tell that these are “not real”, how can we be sure that they aren’t “authentic” and if the vintner made them how can we know they are not “true” to the vintner?

    I’d argue and I’d be right that terroir driven wines, those that work hardest to offer a showcase of the terroir that produced them is but one optional method for producing a wine that can be considered fine, authentic, and real.

    It’s important before one tries to define “authentic” and “real” or “fine” or certainly “quality” in a wine that one has a warrant for their definition, an authority that can create a foundation for calling certain styles of wine “authentic” or “real” or “fine” when others are not given that distinction.

    You and Mr. Lynch have not offered any such warrant or foundation for this view. Only opinion.

    • Randy Caparoso - October 23, 2013

      Well, then I guess you just don’t get it, Tom. Yes, it’s nuanced — maybe a little more than, say, pop music. Alcohol, oak, ripeness — all those things that diminish sensations expressing origin, terroir or even artistic sensibility are part of the picture (there are many other sensations signaling wines that aren’t made to be what they are or can be, but to appeal to certain tastes). But like I said, for many wines high alcohol, oak and ripeness is very much part of what they really are — it’s when it’s artifice when it no longer is artistic, or real.

      But it’s also an attitude. Your attitude, which you’ve never made any bones about, is that you speak for a larger part of the industry that truly does favor catering to popular forms or mainstream critics. I get that, which explains why you just can’t seem to comprehend what I’m getting at. Like trying to tell a stranger, as John Sebastian once sang, about rock n’ roll…

      • Tom Wark - October 23, 2013

        Randy, I appreciate and really like when you comment on this blog. You bring experience, and passion and well stated opinions and that’s what I like most in comments.

        What I’m asking and trying to get at is this: Are you saying that the wines you see better expressing terroir or an artistic sensibility are objectively better than wines you don’t see doing thing? And if you are saying this, how do you KNOW they are objectively better. Or is this just your own opinion or and subjective set of tastes?

        Also, regarding what I’m able to comprehend, I think that if you peruse the 9 years work of posts on this blog you’ll find that it might not be the case that I speak only for “a larger part of the industry that truly does favor catering to popular forms or mainstream critics.” In fact, I think you’ll find that I have, perhaps more than most bloggers or media, championed alternative wine information sources and have championed continually the artisan producers who set out to find new terroirs, profile single vineyards and do things entirely differently than wineries that cater to more popular tastes. Just for the record.

        • Ron Marsilio - October 24, 2013

          A lot of people like American cheese too, that doesn’t make it St. Andre.

  10. Richard - October 23, 2013

    Tom. I read the “interview” with Kermit Lynch and thought the same things. But, you have the naysayers everywhere – it seems to give them a reason to live – moaning and bemoaning and whining – about the state of the horrible wines with more than 13% alcohol. Several restauranters, merchants, and certainly wine writers have jumped on this “bandwagon of outrage” over the big, ripe, California wines. What I find interesting is that they arbitrarily rule out a wine because of the alcohol level. This is like ruling out a chocolate chip cookie because it “has too much chocolate.” (As an aside, no comments from the chocolate chip cooking police and/or loving public who likes more cookie than chocolate – OMG – another controversy!)

    And while I am certainly not an “expert” by any means, I know a bit about wine (and make a bit more myself), and I can tell you that I don’t care about the alcohol – one can have a balanced, finessed, beautiful wine at just about any alcohol level – Cabernet shows well with just about any alcohol as long as you have good grapes and a good winemaker. I have tasted beautiful wines at 12.5% and 15%.

    So, thanks, Tom for showcasing, in an understated way, the disingenuous hypocrisy of some folks…

  11. The Cask Seattle - October 23, 2013

    Kermit Lynch’s book “Adventures on the Wine Route” is also a good read.

    It’s amazing to me how similar this argument is to that of whiskey connoisseurs with regards to the quality of the drink vs. the alcohol content.

  12. Kurt Burris - October 23, 2013

    I think the “pop” wine and “pop” music comparison is actually quite apt. I too think there are wines out there that have made with the intent to garner high scores and not the best expression of the fruit. Just as in music there is sometimes excessive tweaking in the studio, ot the cellar, to correct small flaws. In my opinion, I would rather drink a wine with some rough edges than a wine that has been subjected to micropore cross flow filtration (just as an example). It’s why I loved going to Grateful Dead shows, they were never perfect, and some nights far from it, but the spirit of the music came through. I enjoyed those shows far more than some very big names where every chord change was rehearsed and choreographed. The supposedly “parkerized” wines are the same thing to me. I would have liked them more without as much manipulation. But if someone pours me a glass, I’ll still enjoy it.

    • Tom Wark - October 23, 2013

      Kurt,
      Did you just claim that wines that Robert Parker likes and have been given high scores to have all been manipulated? I can’t tell.

      • Kurt Burris - October 23, 2013

        Tom: Bad writing on my part. That was not the point I was trying to make. I do think there are wines being made with the goal being a high score, rather than the best wine that could be made from that fruit. But, I would bet that a lot of these wines don’t get the scores they aspire to. A high Parker does not mean the wine was manipulated to excess by any means. But I think that an expensive wine that was manipulated to excess (in my opinion) is probably after that high score. And back to the music analogy, Born to Run, was one of the most heavily produced albums in music history and I love it. Shows what I know. Cheers,

  13. Martin Slavin - October 23, 2013

    Amen, great article. I have a Napa winemaking friend who told me that he is sick of chewing on pine whenever he tastes a Bordeaux.

  14. Charlie Olken - October 23, 2013

    The problem with Kermit’s comments and Randy’s and other responses is that they tend to lump all CA wines in on box. There are wines everywhere in the world that are looking for acceptance by being richer, fuller, deeper, fruitier. And it is not only because people without taste like them. The world likes them and winemakers like them.

    I can remember the early days of the Mumm, Chandon, Taittinger invasion to CA and being told by the winemakers who came over here that their French counterparts would love to have the fruit that can be achieved here in CA and yet not lose the essential qualities of balance, brisk finishes, etc. Champagne is the way it is because that is how the grapes grow there. And global warming has changed Champagne, probably along with better cultural practices, in ways that today make it a lot fruitier than it was decades ago.

    But here in CA, if we grow grapes that taste physiologically ripe, they get lumped into the big box of point-chasers, simpletons, pop wines, artificial wines (that, Randy is what artifice means). No one steps back and says that wines like Phelps Insignia, Ridge Lytton Zin, Ravenswood Teldeschi. Spottswoode, Chappellet and hundreds of others I could name, all over 14%, are proof that contradicts my argument. Certainly not Lynch or Bonnet, and not some fo the folks who post here.

    And then there are the hundreds of wines that have not typically gone above 14% much if ever like Marimar, Dutton Goldfield, Corison, Cuvaison, Hirsch, Ridge Monte Bello Cab, and so many others.’

    So, even tho there are thousands of individual CA labels that a fair-minded taster with no axe to grind would not be over the top, and are not point chasers, we continue to have these wrong-headed, overly generalized criticisms from commentators who should know better.

    And the silly castigation of the bulk of upscale CA winedrinkers as “uneducated and unsophisticated” is nothing more than narrow-minded bias for one’s own preferences for what makes attractive wine.

    Since when did we brook disputes about matters of taste as having such widespread reasonablity? They are unreasonable by their very nature, whether they come from folks with big names like Lynch or from lesser lights.

  15. Greg Baiocchi - October 23, 2013

    Tom,

    I think Randy, gets it. There are wines being made or minipulated to be what Kermit refers to as pop. Maybe to impress a critic or a selective market group of wine buyers.

    Then there are wine makers who have a pasion to create and capture the true essence of the varietal or vineyards terrior, sometimes this entails a true phenolic ripness of the fruit. These wines may be higher in alcohol but they dont hide the fruit, they may have some new oak but its in balance with all components.

    These are wines can compete on a global stage because of their purity and balance.

    The pop wines that are being made are imposters to the philosiphy aforementioned and are typically marketed to the entry level wine consumer not the sophisticated palate that can understand well made wines.

    Back when I was a begining consumer, I followed Parker, I always find this parkerized thing funny. When I read the Advocate, my impression was that Robert would give as many 95′s to 13% Bordeaux as 15+% Napa Cab.

  16. Lily-Elaine Hawk Wakawaka - October 23, 2013

    Hi Tom,

    Thanks for your post here. As you know I appreciate your work.

    This write up seems to misrepresent the original article, however. There is a bit of trouble in conjoining the two quite different quotations from Lynch as you do here. The way you present them makes his statements look quite damning, as you claim. But looking at his actual statements in context changes their meaning.

    The first portion of your quotation of Kermit Lynch references what he dislikes currently in wine–wines created simply to get scores and make money, versus wines driven by a desire to express wine itself. I take it this is part of what Randy is trying to get at in his comment. What ever “wine itself” would be I’m not interested in as much as the point that Lynch seems troubled by the motivation of a winery owner. The point is less about the style and more about someone making wine just to make money rather than in order to make the wine they themselves like. This could be done through lighter styles too, it seems like.

    I very much agree with you that we have to be careful to avoid claiming one style of wine is objectively better than another style. Though we can assert what style of wine we prefer.

    The second portion of your quotation of Lynch comes much later in the interview, however, and is in response to a very different question. He is claiming that *decades* ago he lost interest in California wine. Then he freely admits that he has recently had California wines he does appreciate both from the era he had mistakenly written off, and from today. In other words, Lynch is admitting to having made a mistake by losing interest in California wine. He says so himself when he states, “I wish I had purchased more California cabernets and zinfandels back then. It bugs me, all those great bottles I missed.”

    He also never makes the claim or assumption that all California wines are the same, as many people here are saying he did. The quotation I just referenced exactly counters that point. He is saying there are lots of different wines made in California and he’d prefer he’d kept up with that all those years ago.

    Cheers! Here’s to California and her beautiful wines. I count them yummy.
    Elaine

    We still might disagree with things Lynch has to say in the article, but we should give him the fair shake of accurately representing his statements.

    • Randy Caparoso - October 23, 2013

      Hey, Elaine and Greg… thanks for not leaving me stranded here!

      Mr. Olken, of course, also knows what a huge fan I am of New World wines — big, small, oaky, unoaked, ripe, underripe, soft or tanning-tought, I appreciate them all. The things I don’t appreciate, however, are wines that are manipulated to be like they are in order to achieve a score, some kind of “varietal” character, or anything other than what they truly are (such as, say, a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir that’s trying hard to be a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, or a Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir that’s trying to taste like a La Tache… you catch my drift).

      Charlie, wine is indeed a matter of taste, but you misconstrue my comments by assuming that I’m talking about “right” or “wrong,” or that one type is more enjoyable than the other. I loved, for instance, the Grateful Dead, but I also loved many songs by the Monkees, the Rascals, even the Cowsills. But many of these appealing groups are indeed “pop,” and many are more real, artistic, authentic, whatever word you like to use. Just like there’s a huge difference between James Joyce and Stephen King, Matisse and Neiman, etc.

      We should be able to call a spade a spade — especially wines that may be popular or highly appealing, but hardly what any honest wine lover would call real or artistic.

    • Tom Wark - October 23, 2013

      Hi Elaine….

      I love when you come to Fermentation and comment. You gussy up this little corner of the web.

      I think you are correct insofar as I could easily have written this post without any reference to Mr. Lynch. The fact is the claim that CA wines are all too big, manipulated, and created to get big scores is an omnipresent claim. I was merely reminded of it when I read the interview, which I liked very much.

      So, leaving Kermit out of it for now, you wrote: “The point is less about the style and more about someone making wine just to make money rather than in order to make the wine they themselves like. This could be done through lighter styles too, it seems like.”

      Couple questions. How do you know that those folks that happen to get big ratings are only doing it for the money. Most if not all say they love wine and love the chance to make it. Second, why is a lighter wine better? Or why should a wine be made in a lighter style as you suggest?

      • Lily-Elaine Hawk Wakawaka - October 24, 2013

        Hi Tom,

        Thank you! I always enjoy conversation with you.

        To respond to your questions — I couldn’t claim to know, and in fact didn’t, that high score wines are made just to make money. I was just trying to interpret comments some people had made about what they don’t like — something that seems critical of motivation rather than necessarily result. In other words, a few people asserted that they don’t like wines that are made in order to make money. That is disagreeing with the motivation that goes into making a wine, rather than disagreeing with the resulting style of that wine. Disagreeing with the final result would be another point to make. The only reason this matters is because in seeing these are separate points we can make a clearer argument. For example, we might want to argue that what style of wine we like is up to us individually while at the same time claiming something like we like a wine with more wine-love driven motivations behind it.

        I also didn’t claim that lighter style wines were better or worse. Much of the conversation does seem to revolve around the bigger style wines though. So, my point was merely that if we’re critical of someone’s motivations, those motivations could be directed at aping lighter styles as readily as bigger ones. It isn’t clear the style is the problem. We shouldn’t pretend that “aping money making styles” (inasmuch as that is even done) can only be directed at big wines.

        Some of the comments do of course go on to assert even more. My goal was simply to clarify.

        Cheers!

  17. Lily-Elaine Hawk Wakawaka - October 23, 2013

    His last comment says it all — drink whatever you like.

  18. Travis - October 23, 2013

    “That argument tries to make the extremely demeaning case that people who buy, say, a fruit forward, low pH Napa Valley Cab have somehow been duped or don’t think for themselves or don’t really appreciate wine…”

    First off, I think you meant *high* pH instead of low when describing CA cab.

    Second, Ms. Lily-Elaine (who writes an excellent blog herself) is correct in her assessment. As a response to his import of higher alcohol Southern Rhone reds, he notes that their higher alcohols are part of what makes them great, that he would not want one with ~12.5% alcohol.

    You certainly cannot lump all the thousands of CA wineries together, but you can assess trends, and that is what he has done.

  19. Tom Wark - October 23, 2013

    Greg,

    Thanks for commenting. You wrote:

    “The pop wines that are being made are imposters to the philosiphy aforementioned and are typically marketed to the entry level wine consumer not the sophisticated palate that can understand well made wines.”

    I have to ask…which wines are you talking about? Can you name a few of these wines that are being “manipulated” to appeal to the entry level drinker?

    One other question. I assume by “well made” you mean to imply balanced. Why is a “balanced wine” better made then a wine that is not as well balanced, maybe heavier in the oak? Is there an objective criteria by which “good” wine must judged?

    • Joe Jensen - October 24, 2013

      Tom,

      Can you say CAYMUS, the foremost example of manipulated wines targeted at the American palate which shoots for and always achieves regardless of growing conditions a sweet and silky full bodied wine.

      I was pouring at a club wholesale night last night and they are always a challenge when you pour against big manipulated wines.

      The in your face wine manipulation practices dulls the nuance and sensory factors of wine and most people miss what is going on in a wine especially if it has a hint of acidity.

      The wealthier the customer sometimes the bigger challenge since they know it all and drink expensive wine regularly, therefore they know more than you about wine while checking wine apps to see whether or not they should like the wine instead of letting their senses tell them if they like it or not.

      The perfect example here is that I was pouring the 2010 Mas De Boislauzon which is one of the top producers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and they are known for their powerful wines of which their top wine scored 100 pts from RP and a few customers found the wine to be thin. I took a taste to make sure it wasn’t an off bottle and enjoyed a sip of what was arguably one of the best wines in the room that night.

      Ripeness is not the issue, I was also pouring Wild Hog Saralee’s Pinot Noir which clocks in at about 15.5% but without a hint of heat. This wine is wildly popular right now and shows what deft winemaking can do to satisfy both the top sommeliers here in Chicago but also the consumer without the use of Mega Purple, Reverse Osmosis, etc!

      Another problem with these wines is the deep coloring that is certainly not natural, I find it amazing that one of the top wine publications puts points into the score for color which has absolutely nothing to do with what the wine tastes like.

      In my former life in commercial printing we only reviewed color under specific lighting conditions are wine reviews tasting all of the wines under 5000K lighting?

      A top zinfandel producer told me that a tasting once he was pouring his Howell Mtn Zin last which had a pale orange hue to it yet numerous consumers challenged him on his pouring line up, hmmm wouldn’t the wine maker know which wine to pour first.

      Let’s not ever go into Pinot Noir and color!

      I think when it comes down to it some people do POP wines well and they serve their place in the market but unfortunately all too many of the others are purely undrinkable.

      To me one of the joys of wine is taking a trip around the world at home for anywhere from $7 to $30 with some fancier trips when the mood or the meal strikes!

  20. Tom Wark - October 23, 2013

    Randy:

    You wrote:

    “We should be able to call a spade a spade — especially wines that may be popular or highly appealing, but hardly what any honest wine lover would call real or artistic.”

    I think you are setting up an arbitrary standard and trying to pass it off as an objective criteria for “artistic” or “real” or “authentic”. You happen to arbitrarily choose at “terroir driven” style as that which is supposed to be “artistic” or “natural”. But you have no basis to make this claim in the seemingly objective manner you are that puts these claims outside your palate and extends these criteria for “artistic” or authentic on to wine in general. In other words, your spade is not necessarily a spade.

    • Randy Caparoso - October 23, 2013

      Hey, come on, Tom. Since when is wine “objective?” Wine is like anything else with some degree of artistry: there is no real objectivity, but there *is* general consensus.

      It is possible, for instance, to say that Stephen King is the author of great literature, and that Beyonce is a supreme musical artist. But if you can’t differentiate them from Joyce and Mozart — or if you can’t tell the difference between a Chardonnay that’s modeled after a Rombauer, K-J or even a Kistler from a more of a more uniquely crafted Chardonnay that’s grown and vinified to taste more like where it comes from — then you really are hopeless. But I don’t think you are. You’re just being disingenuous — an apologist for industrial wine producers.

  21. Thomas Pellechia - October 23, 2013

    This argument, which is tiresome and seemingly tireless always points out the glaring problem in the overall American wine industry: there are no standards by which to even have such an argument.

    Randy’s comments prove my point best. Many words are thrown around like “artistic” “authentic” et al, but none are defined. That’s because there are no standards to measure such things and they are not objective measures by any stretch of the imagination.

    First define and create standards; then, talk about why particular wines don’t or do live up to the standards; other than that, tiresome,. tiresome, tiresome, talk..

    • Steven Mirassou - October 24, 2013

      Thomas:

      I agree with you that this topic always leads around the same bends. But, how would the set of standards (that couldn’t be anything other than arbitrary in its own right) help to arbitrate what is essentially an aesthetic argument?

      • Thomas Pellechia - October 24, 2013

        Steven,

        Standards don’t necessarily have to be arbitrary if they are based on actually identifying rather than giving mere lip service to things like “terroir” etc.

        In any event, once standards are set, arguments then have a place on which to fix. Right now, all the arguments seem to stem from personal, arbitrary aesthetics. All you can do with that is to argue.

        I don’t mind people debating, but having no foundation on which to frame it, this debate is a circuitous argument.

  22. Kevin Lewis - October 24, 2013

    As I was reading all of the posts I thought about another point to bring to the Conversation. Has anyone taken a look back to the Early-Mid 1970′s Napa Cab’s? I think the 1973 SLWC that won Paris Tasting was 13% alcohol. I just found a label of 1976 Mondavi Reserve Cab that also was 13% of alcohol. The current vintage of Mondavi Reserve Cab is 15% abv. Something has caused the gradual rise in alcohol(bigger bolder wines) and I think if someone had the time to chart this gradual rise in alcohol levels of CA wines with the gradual influence of Mr. Parker I think a conclusion that can be made? Maybe not but I just thought it might shed some light on this conversation.

    • Randy Caparoso - October 24, 2013

      In this case, Kevin, it’s more the matter of viticultural advancements; especially the movement of trellising techniques from California sprawls (heavy shading of grape clusters, stunting photosynthesis and sugar/flavor maturation) to vertical shoot positions (dramatically opening up canopies) implementing in new plantings and replantings during the ’80s and ’90 that increased alcohols. Even if the wine world never saw a Robert Parker or a 100-point score, this evolution towards fuller alcohol Cabernet Sauvignons would have occurred.

      Needless to say, elevated alcohol is not in itself a negative. +15% alcohol Cabernet Sauvignons can be richer, finer and better balanced than 13% alcohol Cabernet Sauvignons. The gist of our debate here is whether or not many of these big wines are “pop” — and the level of alcohol or ripeness in today’s wines are, in my mind, all besides the question. To me, it’s a question of whether a wine is true to itself (terroir, the grower, winemaker, etc.), or simply aping a style in order to fit more arbitrary standards, like certain critics’ 100-point scores. Like people who put stone lions in front of their home because they they’ve seen it elsewhere and thought it was grand, even though those lions mean absolutely nothing insofar as aesthetic or cultural sensibilities.

  23. Charlie Olken - October 24, 2013

    Rnady–Very helpful and informative responses, but still a little unclear in this one regard. How do we know that a rich, lush, oaky wine is made up of stone lions or the brilliant winemaking that has taken the fruit and used it to its fullest, broadest, most complex potential?

    There is nothing in your words or Kermit’s or anyone else’s that helps us differentiate between wines other than how they taste.

    And for the record, some very good winemakers on both sides of the pond occasionally miss the mark and wind up with wines that run wide of the “classic” definitions even when they are trying not to.

    The problem then, for me, is the broad-brush categorization in the first place and the resort to pejorative terms like “parkerization” in the second. The definition of parkerization fits all kinds of really good wines if one looks for it–ripeness, oak, richness. But if those characteristics are present in a wine, the wine is not necessary cheap, artificial or flawed.

    You and I ultimately agree. We ought to be judging wines one by one and saying what they are. Then we do not need categories or the need to issue broad judgments that are too easily undone by the larger body of wines in existence.

  24. Robert - October 24, 2013

    Maybe people in the hinterlands are still interested in big Napa Valley wines, and I’m sure that they’re still selling like hotcakes at country clubs in Omaha or steakhouses in Reno. In the major cities, they are deader than fried chicken.

    I just spent last week in the Chicago market. We ate at three Michelin One Star restaurants (none of which was thematically French or Italian or European specific) and made a point of counting the glass pours. The three restaurants poured a total of 54 sparkling, white, rose and red wines that broke down as follows: European–39, Southern Hemisphere–9, Domestic (including OR, WA and regional)–6. That’s the reality of the high end wine market in major cities. Not the feel good stories that people tell each other in the Napa bubble. And it’s the same thing in New York, DC, Boston and even San Francisco. Nobody wants big, overblown Cali juice, and what is happening in these markets eventually will start filtering down into those Omaha country clubs.

  25. David Vergari - October 24, 2013

    Randy…stop digging! :-)

  26. Richard Fadeley - October 25, 2013

    The elephant in the room (and no one even sees it) is IMO with these big high alcohol wines you are missing a large number of potential consumers. I talk to many people that say “I can’t drink red wine, it gives me a headache.” My reply is “try a Bordeaux or Chinon or Beaujolais” and invariably they come back to me and say how delightful the wine was. May be a 2 tiered system much like the 2nd labels in Bdx would work. But for my palate, and most (80%) of my students (I am a wine educator) agree with me, lower ABV wines are more approachable, more food friendly, and healthier than the 14.5%+ ABV’s that we find today coming out of Parker country.

  27. Donn Rutkoff - October 28, 2013

    Does any of this penetrate into the millions of Americans who drink wine less than $15 a bottle? The NYT Sunday mag. is still not mainstream America. Most Americans still don’t know what the hell y’all are talking about. And all this writing and commenting among ourselves probably has done nothing to reach more people. In a major newspaper article, I bet most people stop caring when the interviewee starts badmouthing a group of people that many readers don’t know, don’t have a clue who they are, or why Kermit is poor-mouthing his fellows in the same industry. Americans like success stories, they don’t go in much for bad-mouthing, except in Hollywood tabloid rags.

  28. Michael Donohue - October 30, 2013

    I think it’s safe to say we all carry some expectations with us when pulling a cork or twisting off a closure. We might be hoping for a soft fruit bomb, party wine for social sipping. Or we might be looking for a tannic, structured age-worthy wine that best accompanies a roasted leg of lamb. Regardless of our preconceptions, in vino veritas.

  29. Blake Gray - October 30, 2013

    I just got around to reading the interview because I know Kermit, have interviewed him multiple times, I like him, but I know the story.

    Finally I read enough overwrought reactions like this one and James Laube’s and thought I’d better go read this foaming-at-the-mouth Kermit interview.

    Geez. He’s so reasonable in this interview. He’s not prescriptive at all. He likes what he likes. He’s live and let live. Go read it again. He’s not anti-California, he’s not anti-high alcohol; he’s not anti-anything. It’s just a Q&A.

  30. Tom Wark - October 30, 2013

    Blake:

    Here’s what Kermit said:

    “I call the wines that have been ascendant during the Parker reign “pop wines,” because they’re created by people thinking, Oh, wow, if I make a wine like that I’ll get a hundred points and I’ll be as rich as so-and-so. They see, “Jeez, I’m driving my tractor, and he’s driving a Mercedes, and I have land here, too!”

    He’s essentially accused those winemakers that have received good scores from the Wine Spectator, Robert Parker, Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits of only chasing scores”

    That’s pretty naughty if you ask me. I wonder if Kermit, to whom I am forever in debt for showing me great wines, talked to all these winemakers who got good scores and received confirmation from them that the wines they made were made only in the service of pleasing Parker’s palate? I don’t think he did. And yet, he’s able, in the NY Times, to accuse these people of doing just that. Bad form.

  31. Robert - October 31, 2013

    You’re right, Tom. Nobody in Napa has ever chased Parker scores or crafted wines in a manner of appealing to his particular palate towards that quest. If they did do such things, Michel Rolland would undoubtedly have a laundry list of clients in the valley. If they did do such things grotesque operations like Enologix would make millions consulting with wineries solely on the basis of holding a magic key to appeal to Parker’s palate.

    Oh wait.

  32. Tom Wark - October 31, 2013

    Robert,
    I think your brush is too wide. Is there score chasing? Yes. There is such things in every single wine growing region in the world. Are there flying winemakers. Yes. There is such a thing in every single wine region in the world. Is Napa a place where everyone is chasing scores as suggested by Mr. Lynch? Not even close.

  33. Dick Winter - October 31, 2013

    Robert,
    You wrote: ‘I just spent last week in the Chicago market. We ate at three Michelin One Star restaurants . . . The three restaurants poured a total of 54 sparkling, white, rose and red wines that broke down as follows: European–39, Southern Hemisphere–9, Domestic (including OR, WA and regional)–6. That’s the reality of the high end wine market in major cities.’
    In fact, that’s the reality of the high end wine market in 3 Michelin restaurants in Chicago. You go on to comment :’ Nobody wants big, overblown Cali juice . . .’ The Nobody here is the wine buyers/sommeliers for these 3 restaurants. I could guess the demographics and backgrounds of the buyers … won’t go there . . . but I would bet they see themselves as self-appointed gatekeepers guarding against in-authenticity, pop wines, excesses of wines with lots of flavor. Wines that a number of their big-city, sophisticated, experienced customers might actually like to be able to buy and drink in their restaurants. Three sommeliers does not equal Nobody.

    • Robert - November 1, 2013

      I’ll assume that the double negative at the end of your comment is a grammatical error rather than an awkward way of saying that those three sommeliers do equal somebody.

      Your point is that they represent nobody. They actually are quite representative of the broad base of restaurateurs in Chicago (and New York, and SF, and Boston, and DC). Those three restaurants are the norm (steakhouses not withstanding) for fine and upscale casual dining in those four markets.

      But what really impresses me most about your response is how neatly it fits into the Borg hive-mind of Napa Valley–the desperate need to believe that nothing has changed, that everyone still craves high end Cali Juice, that the only problem is that the damn dirty distributors (cue Charlton Heston here) and pretentious sommeliers are standing in the way and preventing the people from access to what they really want–15% alc. buttered popcorn Chardonnay and one-dimensional testicle exploding cabernet. It’s a nice tale to tell each other out there, but sadly, it’s not true. Those restaurants (all of which have some California wines by the bottle and by the glass) are reacting to their customers and their market. As are the all-Euro wine bars that have popped up all over Chicago. These are businesses all with very successful multi-year histories of critical and financial success. If they were steadfastly refusing to give the high end restaurant customers of Chicago what they want, they would fail and other restaurants with Cali dominated country club lists would arise to take their place. That’s not happening. To the contrary, many of the cities best independent steakhouses have significantly upgraded their selections of European wines in relation to the market.

      Distributors and restaurants don’t drive the market. They are far more likely to reflect it, and that’s an uncomfortable truth that Napa just refuses to wrap its feeble little mind around. Better to find imaginary scapegoats upon whom to assign the blame for why they are increasingly shut out of the most sophisticated urban wine markets than actually look in the mirror.

      • Tom Wark - November 1, 2013

        Robert:

        I’m going to jump in here and make the case that you identify yourself as unqualified to speak intelligently on this subject based in this comment of yours:

        “and pretentious sommeliers are standing in the way and preventing the people from access to what they really want–15% alc. buttered popcorn Chardonnay and one-dimensional testicle exploding cabernet.”

        It’s pretty clear you haven’t tasted very widely across the wines of Napa Valley. Had you had some experience with NV wines, red and white, you would not be compelled to make this kind of sweeping, general and incorrect assessment of the region’s wines.

        Finally, I should remind you that there is no indication when you look at sales numbers that people are leaving Napa behind, for any reason. And yet, you suggest they are…but provide no facts and figures. Plus, you betray an unfamiliarity with the character and quality of Napa Valley wines even while portraying yourself as knowledgeable with them.

        With respect…and I mean that….It does not appear you are qualified to speak intelligently on this issue.

        • Robert - November 1, 2013

          Tom,

          I’ve tasted several California wines that I’ve liked and respected. In the 90s and early 00s, there were those that swam against the growing tide of excess such as Hanzell, Steve Edmunds and the old Havens merlots that I very much respected and enjoyed. Recently, I’ve enjoyed a younger breed that is breaking with the way the sausage has been made for the last two decades such as Scribe. These–and there no doubt are others that I don’t list–are all wines that I both respect and would gladly drink any time. They are, however, outliers. And while the cruel cudgel of the market may be increasingly swinging things in their direction, they still remain outliers to the broad mass of wines coming out of Napa/Sonoma. The exception does not disprove the rule. Grotesqueries like Vineyard 7&8, Perry Moore and Kongsgaard are still what define Napa Valley.

          With regards to the market, never do I profess to know how Napa Valley is doing overall. I solely reference New York, Boston, DC and Chicago (and by extension SF but here I will admit that most of what I hear comes from other wine professionals including some devoted solely to Cali wine). Maybe Napa is doing as well as ever (although from some of the back vintage problems that I’ve seen, I doubt it) overall. I can’t speak decisively on that. What I can speak decisively on is how they are doing in the four urban markets to which I am intimately familiar (more familiar than you and your clients). There, Cali juice is dead on arrival. And let’s be honest, those Napa Valley wineries (and I’ve consulted for several in the past) don’t care how well they are doing in the country clubs of Indianapolis. They care how they are doing in the Michelin starred restaurants in Chicago.

          Now let’s focus on those three restaurants in Chicago, none of whom is strictly a French, Italian or “European” restaurant. Each devotes about 10% of their bottle and glass lists to domestic wine and about 75% of each category to European wine. If that 10% of list space (and more importantly inventory dollars) is so outperforming the 75% devoted to European, would they adjust the list (and the spending) accordingly? Keep in mind that at none of the three is the sommelier/wine buyer the owner nor even the most senior manager. Wouldn’t a smart businessman react to the market? To their customers demand? They would, and they are!

          The reality is that their customers (and reservations are very difficult to get at all three) are happy with what they are being offered. They are “over” big, overblown Cali juice and are emphatically making that sentiment known with their wallets. It’s not a giant distributor ‘speeracy to keep Napa wine out of the hands of the people craving it. It’s the market at work. Think about it for a moment, these are the four oldest sophisticated wine markets in the US. Each had a healthy trade in European wine before the 76 Paris tasting was even a gleam in Steven Spurrier’s eye. Is it any surprise or wonder that after the novelty of Parkerized cult California wine wore off that they’d return to their wine roots and historic drinking patterns? That’s something that Napa had better recognize, take note of and respond to by making more wines like Hanzell and Scribe or they’ll increasing need to be patting themselves on the back for their Omaha and South Carolina sales.

  34. 1winedude - November 1, 2013

    Gotta go with Thomas P. here; the digest is simply too subjective. So many great points, so many different opinions, and nearly all of them can be deemed correct to some extent.

  35. Afternoon Brief, Oct. 28 : WIN Advisor - November 4, 2013

    […] Dispensing with the Unjustified Criticism of Big California Wines […]

  36. Jordan - January 5, 2014

    So what IS your opinion Mr. Wark? Are you forming opinions here or just playing moderator? I’m sure lots of freshman at State Universities around the country would commend you for being “unbiased”…as that is a big academia buzz word these days.

    Me? I say your words aren’t worthy of rumination until you have the guts to make a statement. Let me know when you’ve muscled your way out of medicrity. Thanks.

  37. Tom WARK - January 5, 2014

    Jordan,
    I honestly don’t know on what specific subject you want me to take a position. Be more specific and I’ll overcome my medicrity.


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