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The California Wine Rush

Matt Kramer
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

(continued from page 2)

But the biggest change of all is not in wine making. It's in wine growing. The word admittedly sounds odd, yet it's the source of goodness in the world's best wines. Simply put, great wines are not made, but grown.

What happens in the vineyard--where it's located and what's grown in it--is almost everything. "Ninety percent of wine making has nothing to do with the winemaker," says Roger Boulton of the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California at Davis. "All a winemaker is doing is preventing spoilage, introducing some style characteristics and bottling it."

The story (and the glory) of California wine in our time is what might be called the "fine wine ambition," which took hold in the late 1960s when winemakers were no longer content to produce bulk wines selling for a pittance under plagiarized names such as Chablis.

When you trace the effects of the fine wine ambition anywhere in the world, you will discover the same pattern. The first wave is money: newcomers with cash to spare are entranced by wine. They take risks; they make dream wines with little regard for business payback. That was California in the late '60s and early '70s.

Then owners came to grips with the business of fine wine. It takes tons of money, which must be recouped. That means higher prices. But fine wine lovers aren't fools. There are standards. If you're making Cabernet, then you'd better keep an eye on Bordeaux. With Chardonnay, it's Burgundy. To get your price you've got to produce better wines with every vintage.

Throughout the 1980s, California kept up. The best equipment was purchased. No expense was spared. But eventually vintners realized that California wine making had achieved pretty much all that technology and technique could do. The next level of improvement had to be won in the vineyards.

That's when real change occurred. No matter how good a vintner's Cabernet Sauvignon was, there were too many on the market to differentiate one from the rest. The pressing question became, How was yours better? The answer--if you were lucky in your vineyard--is that your site had something to say.

Take Napa Valley's Spottswoode Winery, for example. Vintage after vintage its Cabernets stood out from the pack, a mark of good wine making to be sure, but ultimately of place. To this day, no other Cabernet is quite the same as Spottswoode's--and it's not for lack of others' trying.

Thus, the final threshold of the fine wine ambition is when you've realized--and accepted--that the world's greatest wines taste like they come from somewhere. That you can't make such profoundly distinctive wines, you can only grow them.

So what we're seeing, never more so than in the '94 vintage, is a rapidly increasing emphasis on place. Just check any wine label. Never before has California seen so many wines distinguished by district and single vineyard designations.

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