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California Makes Funny Wines


Wait just a moment while I put on my Andy Rooney hat. - OK.

Did you ever go to your local wine shop and pick up a bottle of California Champagne?  California Burgundy?  California Chablis?  California Rhone?  California Beaujolais?  California Chianti?  Did you ever wonder just how California makes those wines?  Did you ever wonder how California names their wines?  Did you ever wonder how California grows a Burgundy grape?

There is no Burgundy grape.  Burgundy is a growing region in France and a true Burgundy wine is from Pinot Noir grapes which MUST be grown in Burgundy, France.

There is no Chablis grape.  Chablis is an appellation inside the Burgundy growing region of France and a true Chablis wine is from Chardonnay grapes which MUST be grown in Chablis, France.


There is no Chianti grape.  Chianti is an appellation inside the growing region of Tuscany, Italy and a true Chianti wine is a Sangiovese blend of gapes which MUST be grown in Chianti, Italy.


There is no Champagne grape.  Champagne is a growing region of France and a true Champagne is a blended wine made from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Petit Meunier grapes which MUST be grown in Champagne, France.

France Wine Regions
France Wine Regions

Alsace Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Riesling
Beaujolais Gamay
Bordeaux Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Verdot,
Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon
Burgundy Pinot Noir, Gamay, Chardonnay
Chablis Chardonnay
Champagne  Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir
Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache, Marsanne, Mourverdre, Roussanne, Syrah
Loire Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Muscadet, Cabernet Franc
Provence Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon
Rhone-North Marsanne, Roussanne, Syrah, Viognier
Rhone-South Grenache, Carignan, Cinsault,  Mourvedre, Roussanne, Syrah, (Chateauneuf du Pape)
Vouvray Chenin Blanc

If there is no Burgundy grape, then just how can California produce a Burgundy wine?  Or a Chablis?  Or a Chianti?  The truth is, they cannot.  The truth is they are taking unfair and improper advantage of the extraordinary reputation developed over the years by these famous growing regions.  Reputations that were earned and recognized only after decades and decades, and in some cases centuries, of consistently producing superior quality wines.  Some vineyards in these growing regions date back to the time of Caesar and Christ.

In addition to California taking indecent liberties with  the names of these great growing regions of the old world,  California also abuses its own fine growing regions.  For example, California  vintners will print on their label "Napa Valley" or "Sonoma” etc.  This will lead the buyer to conclude the wine inside the bottle is a fine wine from a great growing region when in fact the grape used to make the wine may have come from Blythe or  Barstow.  All the  wine maker needs is a Post Office Box in Napa.  Even if the wine was bottled in Napa or Sonoma, it doesn't mean the grapes came from there.  This miscreation is a gross injustice to the quality wineries, that attentively grow, cultivate and harvest their own grapes, and create their wines all within the legal boundaries of the appellation on the label.

And, if that is not enough, the vintner will print on the label, "Reserve,” "Grand Reserve,” "Special Reserve,”  "Great Estate" or some other of several seductive terms, all of which mean absolutely nothing.  Those titles are simple marketing gimmicks.  In France, Italy and Spain those terms and names are important.  They refer to the age of the vine, the number of vines per acre, the size of the grape, the number of grape clusters on the vine, the maceration process, the ageing process and the length of ageing.  In California, "Estate Bottled" does mean something.  It means the grape in the bottle must have come from the vineyard whose name is on the bottle. Well, at least from the same area as the vineyard.  Well, at least 75% of the grapes. 

California has some truly great growing regions.  Actually five.  North Coast, Central Valley, Sierra Foothills, Central Coast and South Coast.  The North Coast is, by far, the most renowned.  This region contains the appellations, or sub-regions, of Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Alexander Valley and the Russian River Valley.  California's finest wines are produced in this area.  I don't wish to denigrate the Central Coast which include the fine regions of Paso Robles and the wonderful Santa Maria Valley.

It just amazes me that the wineries of those fine appellations do not negotiate with the American Viticultural Area (AVA) and demand enforcement of the very simple regulations for labeling wine.  The losers in this situation are the discriminating wineries which produce the excellent, superior quality wines that come from these areas yet are bundled in with all of the other inferior, commercial, second-class and in some cases downright shoddy wines that come from the same areas, and of course, you and me, the wine consumer, who will pick up a bottle of California wine and, unless we are familiar with one or several of the nearly 1,000 wineries, do not have a clue to its contents.

The problem has to be shared with the premium wineries who refuse to expend the effort for proper classification, the shoddy wineries who wish to remain buried in the glamor of Napa, Sonoma, etc. and the United States government.  The AVA comes under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.  (BATF)  The BATF is a law enforcement agency designed to collect taxes or catch crooks such as smugglers who try to avoid taxes.  Moonshiners!

The French "Appellation d'Origine Controlle" (AOC) and the Italian "Denominazione di Origine Controllata" (DOC) are government law enforcement agencies who are NOT interested in collecting taxes or capturing "moonshiners" but are concerned only with insuring that what the winery puts on the label is what the winery puts in the bottle.  For example, if a French winery places "Pauillac" on its label, you are guaranteed that the grapes were grown in a vineyard in Pauillac, the wine was macerated, aged and bottled in Pauillac and it was all processed under very strict conditions which will produce the wines for which this appellation is famous.  The "Pauillac" appellation consists of 2,400 acres and is inside the Haut Medoc region, which is inside the Medoc region, which is inside the Bordeaux region.  You know exactly where the grapes and the wine came from. Should the winery wish to place "Reserve" on the label, the wine must be aged, in oak barrels, an additional (depending upon the appellation) three to twelve months.  If they wish to place "Grand" or "Special" reserve on the label, the wine must be aged, in oak barrels, an additional three to twelve months beyond the required "Reserve" ageing. The AOC and the DOC even dictate the age of the vine, the size of the grape, the number of grapes on the stem, the number of vines per acre,  the maceration process, the ageing process, the length of ageing, what kind of container the wine is aged in and if the oak barrels are to be new or used. 

Those law enforcement agencies, AOC and DOC, were created specifically to guarantee (vintage variations aside) the quality of the wine.

The BATF guarantees the taxes were collected.

California Wine Regions
California Wine Regions

Actually, California has made considerable progress in the last decade restraining their abuse of naming local wines after the great French and Italian growing regions.  Those dishonorable marketing practices are now employed only by the low quality, mass market wineries and the producers of jug and box wines. 

However, their deceptive and dishonest labeling practices continue unabated.  It's time California, its growers, its vintners and the AVA grow up and correct this deficiency.  The winners will be the high quality wineries and the consumer.  The losers will be the wineries that take more pride in the quality of their bank account than they do in the quality of the wines they produce.

My good friends and fellow wine afficionado's, Darren Sieben and Larry Lozensky, have introduced me to three marvelous California Cabernet's.  Grgich Hills Cabernet Sauvignon - Napa - $50, Kendall-Jackson Great Estate Cabernet Sauvignon - Napa - $35, Berringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon - Napa - $75. 

These are all outstanding Cabs that will hold their own against any wines out of Bordeaux or any other wine growing region in the world.  Unfortunately, the California labeling practices conceal the true quality of these fine wines and bury them within the throng of mass producers.  In addition to those wines mentioned above, both Kendall-Jackson and Berringer market $7 table wines.  The grapes for the table wines do not come from the same vineyards as the grapes for their quality wines, but you do not know that.  

However, if you don't know the producer, you will have difficulties selecting the best wine.  You will have the price to guide you, but the label won't help.

On The Lighter Side:

California Has A Sense Of Humor

Napa Valley wine producer, Nova Wines, Inc. of St. Helena, produces and markets a wine named:

Marilyn Merlot

Stuart "Stu" Pedasso
Stu "I never met a wine I didn't like"
produces and markets
 an impugnable Zinfandel.  

When asked when his wine would be ready to drink, Stu responded:  "The wine is ready to drink when you are ready to drink it. When you pull the cork on the bottle, then and only then is the wine ready to drink. You can't enjoy the wine until you remove the cork from the bottle..."        

Harper Hill Winery, Oildale, CA
Fine Wines
Since February 2, 2002

  "Strategically planted between pumping oil wells and oil sumps are rows of grapevines. This blend of oil and tar-tainted soil lends itself to a wine grape flavor seldom duplicated throughout the world of viticulture."
Created February 8, 2003
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