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The California Wine Rush

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

One of life's curiosities is that identical twins, over time, turn out to be not quite so identical after all. Their genetic material is the same, all right. But how they react to life's innumerable challenges shapes them differently. It takes time for these changes to become recognizable.

So it is with wine, especially California wine. California seems like an orphanage of wine look-alikes: all white wines seemingly are Chardonnay; all reds, Cabernet Sauvignon. That's not true, of course, but the casual observer could be forgiven for thinking so. There is a lot of twinning in California wine growing: Half of all the vines planted in Napa County and two-thirds of those planted in Sonoma County are either Chardonnay or Cabernet.

Still, even seemingly identical Chardonnay and Cabernet twins, row upon row of them, are turning out differently. This, even though they are raised identically, nurtured with the same drip irrigation, trained on the same trellising systems and pruned pretty much the same way. What's more, the grapes are all made into wine using French oak barrels, computer-controlled presses and similar aging techniques. Yet the latest wines are tasting increasingly different.

 

While the variations may seem incredible, they were predictable. Like twins, nothing in California wine was ever as identical as it seemed. Now, finally, we're able to see this clearly for ourselves in the exceptional 1994 vintage. This stellar vintage, like a perfect snapshot, captured the evolutionary moment for us.

The '94 vintage was great throughout the West Coast, as Oregon and Washington also had history-making wines. It was well-nigh perfect: warm, but not too warm; a long, lingering autumn; no rains to harry pickers and no extremes to hurry winemakers.

Make no mistake, though: vintage perfection does not, in itself, make for real differences. A vintage is just the weather of one growing season. What makes '94 a landmark year is that it brought fully into focus the emerging distinctions that make California wine utterly different than it was even 10 years ago.

So what changed? And how do the wines themselves tell us?

If you talk to winemakers--some of them, anyway--all you'll hear about is wine-making technique. Consulting enologists (as winemakers-for-hire loftily characterize themselves) will expound like carny barkers, using big words like polymerization, cold maceration and phenolic extraction. Jargon aside, there have indeed been changes in wine making. In the past decade, California winemakers have steadily polished their red wines, making them less tannic, smoother, rounder, better balanced and more accessible upon release. The trick, they say, is to achieve this without sacrificing depth, dimension and potential longevity.

With white wines, there's an increasing awareness that merely tossing wine into a new French oak barrel is not enough. This is partly a revised aesthetic awareness that a lavish vanilla-scented oak taste won't carry a wine. But partly it's practical: French oak barrels now cost upward of $600 each, double what they cost a decade ago.


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