by Tim Atkin

Can California crack the UK market?

It was George Bernard Shaw who described England and the United States as “two nations divided by a common language.” The famous quote kept coming back to me on a recent tour of California’s vineyards. The countries have their similarities — a love of sport and an unshakeable belief in democracy — but they are profoundly different too, not least in the way they approach wine.

Two main things stand out, of which the first is price. American consumers are prepared to pay more for wine, any wine, than we are. “This is our entry point red,” one winery owner told me, opening a fruity Zinfandel. “And how much does it cost?” I asked. “Around $20,” he replied, probably unaware that this would place it in the super-premium sector back here.

To confirm what he said, I visited the wine aisles of a local Safeway store. Sure enough, the average price of a bottle of domestic wine was around $15. Of course there were cheaper jug wines on offer, parked unceremoniously on the bottom shelf, but they were vastly outnumbered by more expensive fare.

Wine wise, the second thing that divides our two nations is alcohol levels. American punters, as well as winemakers, seem to have no problem drinking something with 15% alcohol or more. Even one naturalised Frenchmen appears to have caught the high alcohol bug. “I live in Paso Robles, so I make Paso wines,” Stephan Asseo of L’Aventure told me, pouring his 16% Estate Cuvée red.

Why the strapping wines? California’s mostly Mediterranean climate has something to do with it, but the blame (if that’s the right word) for all these über powerful reds and (occasionally) whites also lies with American critics. Anyone who tries to produce lighter, more nuanced wines gets low scores out of 100. Low scores mean low sales. Low sales mean the sack.

Most winemakers are trapped by the prevailing media orthodoxy, which states that for a wine to be ripe it has to be very ripe indeed. They can talk about more effective yeast strains, which convert alcohol more efficiently, they can talk about climate change, but the main reason wineries make high alcohol wines is because Robert Parker, the Wine Spectator and the consumers who follow them effectively give them no choice.

Gary Eberle of Eberle Winery, also in Paso Robles, takes a different view and makes elegant, age-worthy wines. “If you manage the crop right, you can keep your alcohol levels to 14%. Full physiological maturity is an over-used term. In the 1970s, we just used to pick when there was enough sugar in the grapes to give us 13.5 to 14% alcohol in the wine. It was pretty simple.”

Robert Haas of Tablas Creek makes a similar point: “Our climate permits you to make high alcohol wines, but you don’t have to.” It’s only the view of a visiting Brit, but I agree with him. There are some varieties — Grenache and Zinfandel being two of them — that need high alcohol levels to taste balanced, but I think that, outside the really cool areas close to the Pacific Ocean, the majority of California wine could be picked earlier and taste better.

What about high prices? Land is expensive in California, partly because it’s a beautiful place to live, and vineyard land doubly so. Rich people like the idea of having a place in wine country, and who can blame them? This means that, to make a return on investment, the resulting wines have to sell at high prices. (You can see the baleful influence of scores again here.) As Bob Cabral of top Pinot Noir producer Williams Selyem in Sonoma puts it: “We have to sell our wines at $30 at cellar door to make money.”

This means that for wineries in particularly pricey vineyard areas — Napa and parts of Sonoma and Santa Barbara, for instance — it is difficult to take risks. You are pretty much obliged to make Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and, at a pinch, Pinot Noir, Syrah or Zinfandel. The economics of wine production, including high labour costs, dictate style and the choice of grape varieties.

Are California wines worth the money? All too often, they are sold at prices that reflect domestic demand rather than absolute quality. That said, the best wines are undoubtedly world class. In the two premium areas I visited, I was particularly impressed by Williams Selyem, Flowers, Dutton-Goldfield, Lynmar Estate, Siduri, Hirsch, Seghesio, Pezzi King, Wind Gap, Landmark, Laurel Glen, Hidden Ridge and Ramey (all Sonoma) and Ancient Peaks, Cypher, Eberle, Villa Creek and Tablas Creek (Paso Robles).

But for the UK market, the region that has the most potential is probably Lodi. Most of the producers own their vineyards (no expensive bank debt to service), there’s a broader range of grape varieties (Verdelho, Tempranillo, Albariño, Barbera, Cinsault, Roussanne, Carignan, Petite Sirah, Tannat, Viognier, Malbec, Garnacha, Petit Verdot, Teroldego and Sangiovese) as well as the usual Californian suspects, a lot of old vine material and a cooler climate than the Central Valley to the south. More to the point, prices are reasonable. Here at least, UK and US wine consumers can converse in the same language.

Originally published in Off Licence News

To see some photos from my California trip, click here.

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