Friday, March 27, 2009

California still on top where it counts

This in today from the Napa Valley Register's Jack Heeger:

"The famed 1976 Paris Tasting wasn't a fluke.
California wines came out ahead in the 2009 Westchester Wine School tasting in Rye Brook, N.Y., too. The 2009 tasting wasn't quite as decisive nor will it be as famous as the one in Paris, and the 25 judges weren't all wine professionals, although they were described as wine afcionados. But when the results were tallied, California wines proved they can stand proud among the wines of the world."

What I love about revisiting this topic is that it continues to hold true when done in a blind tasting format - meaning people aren't subconsciously biased by what they think they should like....
That this round was done with "lay people" is all the more meaningful in my eyes. After all is said and done, these are the people whose opinion matters more than any professional wine reviewer or blogger (myself included), because they're the one who will be purchasing the wines and spreading their observations, likes and dislikes to the world.

The "fly in the ointment" moment for the French is the line about the...

"...difference in prices led to one woman saying that her husband bought expensive French wines because he thought they were superior, but now she figured he wouldn’t spend as much on wine."

Meaning he isn't going to be buying French wines blindly anymore, and it sounds as though if she gets her way, he'll be looking at a lot more California wines. That says it all right there, Baby!

Heeger continues by stating:

"California wines not only fared better in the scoring, but they were easier on the budget, too. Towle said the average cost of California whites was $32, while the French wines weighed in at $170 average. California reds averaged $75, compared to the French at $170."'re telling me I can get better tasting whites, and buy 5 times as many bottles for the same amount of scratch than if I buy French whites, and get better tasting reds on average while spending less than half what I would on the same number of bottles of French reds! Quite nice news with the economy as shaky as it is.

So why is it the French keep touting their "terroir"?
Sounds like they're continuing to lose this battle......

Go Cal!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would say this would be true, if the same test were done with French lay people. Then you have reason to compare/contrast and boast. The amazing result of the 76 tasting was that French critics preferred US wines. That American wine drinkers like American wines better should come to no surprise seeing how those wines were made to please an American palate.

March 27, 2009 2:47 PM  
Blogger St. Vini said...

Sure, let that happen as well!

I for one would welcome it, though I doubt it would be much different than it has been over the 33 years regardless of which group was used for the tasting; French or American, lay or professional, or some mix of all these categories...

But do all US drinkers on average pick domestic wines over others?
It seems that at least one of those tasting in this round was a US drinker predisposed toward French wines, who had an epiphany of sorts.

You're correct, the Paris decision was historic because it was a panel of the French wine industry which chose California over France...not us (well, New Yorkers anyway) choosing ourselves over France.

Still, I doubt if this same experiment continues to be run, that we'll see anything too statistically different than what's been demonstrated to date...


March 27, 2009 10:36 PM  
Blogger Bluepastures said...

In your response in the comments section, Vini, I'm not sure by what you mean when you say that an American drinker is "predisposed" toward French wines- could be that, just like the lady's husband, he was hung up on what he thought he should be drinking.

In any event, the real issue I have with crowing about the superiority of CA wines is this: mot people- especially non-professional wine drinkers, even if they are "aficionados", just don't drink that much decent old-world wine. Their palates are simply not geared toward classically-styled wines. For example: I am currently drinking a bottle of '01 Pascal Cotat La Grand Cote Sancerre (Sauvignon Blanc). It is utterly, profoundly, delicious. It is also thought-provoking, restrained, very high acid, somewhat unyielding- even at 8 years of age- and not particularly prepossessing. Most wine drinkers, frankly, would choose any inexpensive New Zealand SB from a recent vintage: the NZ wine would be much more forward, much sweeter, much fruitier, and much more user-friendly. Does this make the NZ wine a 'better" wine? Of course not. Similarly, over the past 33 years since the tasting of Paris, the new-world style of fruit forward wines has become ever more common place. Many wine drinkers- even some with experience- have never tasted good, older, old-world wine. Thus, their palates are attuned solely to the new world styel. This is fine as far as ti goes, but by no means can we equate what is essentially a widely shared paucity of experience with classicly-styled wines, with the notion that new-world wines are therefore better. It's just silly- and reductive- to do so.



March 29, 2009 7:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


From what you described, I'm curious as to what makes your '01 Pascal Cotat La Grand Cote Sancerre "better". Methinks you're playing a double standard of disallowing subjectivity in evaluating American wines while simultaneously endowing French wines with superior characteristics that are not qualitative (thus subjective) in nature....Care to comment?


March 30, 2009 9:12 AM  
Blogger St. Vini said...

jb -

Correct, the wines are not "better", but "preferred"...both of which are unfortunately still subjective terms.
(Jason, sorry - descriptive wine terms will always be subjective...)

I was trying to point out that the woman quoted was predisposed to French wines by her husband's preferences. I didn't mean to imply that all US drinkers were leaning to France from the get-go...just one member of the panel which then pulled for the US wines.
You do have a point with the idea that not as many people are familiar with continental wines & styles, and therefore may not be making as "informed" choice as possible. That is more about the cultural context that people learn about wine in. On average people will be more likely to develop tastes according to the wines that were available to them when they started tasting, and I think your point is that is why Americans prefer US wines.

You raise some good points, but doesn't it fall apart when we look back to the original tasting, and see a French tasting panel which was schooled in classical continental wines pick CA over France?
And this is done as a blind tasting, therefore the origin of wines in question is irrelevant - it is meant to be evaluated solely on what it presents in the glass, doesn't it?

I think what the tasting boils down to is that people on average, regardless of background & experience, prefer wines which are more intense and interesting (both subjective), and hence the swing in blind tastings to the New World/ Californian wines (my subjective opinion is injected there!).

Also, when I hear terms like "restrained, very high acid, somewhat unyielding- even at 8 years of age- and not particularly prepossessing", I do start looking for a wine which I consider a bit more "welcoming" to the drinker. Not to imply I wouldn't like the wine, no offense meant to anyone, just that I, too, look for more "pleasure".


March 30, 2009 1:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I do care to comment: nowhere in my response do I claim- or even suggest- the Loire wine to be "better". Delicious, intriguing, thought-provoking, yes- "better", no.

Moreover, that this is all subjective is exactly my point- the vast majority of wine drinkers in the US have palates which have been trained to appreciate a certain style of wine. No harm there at all.

The issue arises when these a tasting utilizing these same palates is then used to justify the statement that American wines are still "on top." I don't doubt that our illustrious group of tasters did like the American wines more than the French wines. I simply don't think these results can be corralled into the service of suggesting that American wines are somehow intrinsically superior to their French counterparts, or that the American wine industry produces a finer product. In all sincerity, I drink and like a great deal of California wine; I just don't think these competitions prove much beyond demonstrating the palate preferences of a small group of people.



April 02, 2009 7:28 PM  
Blogger St. Vini said...


Well spoken and point taken on the subjectivity, but...a little dismissive.

If you agree that the original 1976 tasting was telling in that a bunch of classically oriented Frenchmen generally picked the Californian wine over their own product - which they should've been trained to appreciate more highly by their own wine culture...
Well, my thought is that those people certainly had a bit of "experience with classically-styled wines", but chose the "much more user-friendly wines" instead...
I believe the experiment has been retested in France some 30 years later and held the same results.

Plus we're back to the idea that it shouldn't be any surprise that people are inclined to like wines which are described as "much more user-friendly". The very phrase sets the stage that any other result would be the surprising one...regardless of culture the person was raised in or their experience level.

To hold a viewpoint where a given group of people should ever prefer wines which weren't "user-friendly" (or maybe "less user-friendly" is a better phrase) is a bit awkward...


April 03, 2009 8:37 AM  
Anonymous East Coast winemaker said...

I wonder if this test is being replicated in France. If so, why haven't we heard about it?

It begs the question of whether French wines fall into the trap of never wanting to be put up against foreign wines for fear of negative publicity. Just like all high-end wines, you never see them in competitions, there's too much to lose if you perform poorly.

I think it comes down to culture. Some French likely have such an ingrained notion that their wines are superior that it is inconceivable that their best wines would not show better than others.

If they don't, then it's all too easy to blame a "foreign palate" and frame the argument around the semantics of "better."

By the way in the '76 Judgment of Paris, the Californian wines didn't do as well as everyone gives them credit for. It seems that since not all the French wines beat out all Californian wines, then it was "victory" for California. By today's standards, it would be a wash, certainly not a victory.

April 04, 2009 7:31 AM  
Blogger St. Vini said...

EC Wmkr -

You're correct, I had thought it was in France but the proper location of the 30th anniversary re-enactment was done at two sites, one in London, the other in Napa at the now defunct Copia wine center....

What had probably led to my faulty memory was a quote from Christian Vanneque who was on the original 1976 tasting panel, and had participated in the 2006 tasting. (He found the CA wines had aged fairly well, and said that back in '76 everyone [meaning the French] thought that the CA wines wouldn't be able to age...and that the 30th anniversary proved everyone wrong who had declared that the reason CA had won in the first place was that the (CA) wines "were too open for their age"...)

There was also a 10th anniversary tasting @ the French Culinary Institute, but that's in NYC...and may have also been part of my jumbled bad.

Thanks for catching that for me,

April 04, 2009 1:53 PM  

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