The Great California Wine Mystery
Why superstar West Coast vintners don't (or won't) put out inexpensive bottles.
Bemoaning the dearth of good, inexpensive wines from California is like carping about the trivialization of politics or all the junk on television: It is such a self-evident point that it hardly bears repeating. But I'll go ahead and repeat it anyway, because this lacuna in California wine culture bothers me not only as an oenophile but as an American. In Europe, some of the most celebrated vintners put out modestly priced wines alongside their loftier offerings. Jean-Louis Chave's Hermitage (red or white—take your pick) sells for hundreds of dollars a bottle, but he also makes a delicious Côtes-du-Rhône that retails for about $18. Erni Loosen has an excellent $10 riesling. Aubert de Villaine, Christian Moueix, Dominique Lafon, and Alvaro Palacios all produce wines that are within reach of the budget-conscious. Nor is this trend confined to the Old World; David Powell, one of Australia's finest, puts out a quartet of sub-$20 wines. But among California's superstar vintners, there is almost no one making wine for the masses.
By "superstar vintners," I mean those who consistently receive eye-catching scores from critics like Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator and whose wines are prized by collectors. There are a few producers in California who don't rate as highly with the critics (or don't get rated at all) but who I personally think are terrific and whose portfolios include wines that can be found for $20, give or take a few bucks—Steve Edmunds (Edmunds St. John), Michael Dashe (Dashe Cellars), Charles and Stu Smith (Smith-Madrone), and John Skupny (Lang & Reed), for example. Among the critically deified, however, the number who slum it can be counted on one hand, with enough digits left over to comfortably hold a wineglass. Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards has one such wine: Ridge's Sonoma County Three Valleys, a toothsome zinfandel. But he's an exception.
What makes this topic especially salient now is that California wines priced above $20 have effectively become display items—they are still on the shelves, but not many people are buying them. Americans haven't stopped drinking wine as a result of the Great Recession, but they have scaled back what they are willing to pay; $15 is the new $30. It thus seems the ideal moment for an acclaimed California winemaker to emulate the likes of Chave and Loosen (or Draper, for that matter) and to come out with a stellar bargain wine. It would certainly be a shrewd way of earning goodwill and of cultivating a following among consumers who in the future might be in a position to buy the pricier stuff (there will be prosperity again, someday).
So why isn't it happening? That's a question I put to Manfred Krankl, whose Central Coast winery, Sine Qua Non, specializes in Rhone grape varieties and receives gushing praise ("totally profound") and monster scores from Parker. Krankl suggested that one reason the Europeans are better at value wines is that they are often working in vineyards that have been family owned for generations and that were paid down long ago. By contrast, many of the better vineyards in California were developed or acquired fairly recently, and land is expensive. According to Krankl, an acre of prime vineyard on the Central Coast is a minimum $25,000 these days and more likely closer to $50,000. When you factor in planting, farming, and labor costs, the road to profitability gets even longer. A $20-or-under wine would really only be economically feasible, Krankl said, if it could be made in large volumes, which goes some way to explaining why this segment of the U.S. market is dominated by corporations like Gallo, and why boutique wineries such as Sine Qua Non direct their efforts elsewhere.
Krankl also said that European vintners such as Chave and Lafon are in a very different position than he is. Heirs to long winemaking traditions (in Chave's case, one dating back to the 15th century), they didn't have to build reputations from scratch; they just had to prove that they were worthy successors to their fathers. Once they did that, they were free to moonlight—to take on side projects and to carve out identities distinct from the ones bequeathed them. Sine Qua Non, by contrast, has existed only since 1994, and Krankl said his sole objective is to establish a track record of great wines—wines that can go sip-for-sip with the best of Chave or Lafon. Given the financial realities, he wouldn't be able to achieve that kind of quality in a $20 grenache or syrah, and it would therefore be of no interest to him. "That would mean a completely different perspective and one that doesn't appeal to me. It would only be about economics, which I find boring. At that point, I might as well be selling tires."
Photograph of wine bottles by Medioimages/Getty Images.