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Dec 31, 2012 03:06 PM

Why are most California red wines not delicious or food-friendly?

Starting a new topic rather than continue derailing the "What type of red wine do I like" one.

Let's drop the cheap and expensive outliers and the old-school exceptions that need to be aged before you drink them and talk about California reds that (1) cost $20-40 bottle retail / $10-18 a glass in restaurants, (2) are technically well made in the sense that the winemakers are producing more or less the kind of wine they intend to, and (3) intended for drinking immediately after purchase.

I'm not unable to find such wines that I like, I just find it very, very difficult. I doubt I like more than one in 50 that I taste. As a noted in that other topic, when I go to places with "locavore" all-California lists, I typically taste all the reds, don't find one I want to drink, and end up drinking white when I would really prefer red.

My palate is not particularly eccentric in this regard. The food-hostility of these wines is one reason so many SF Bay Area restaurants that otherwise focus on local products have wine lists dominated by European imports.

What's going on?

First, most California vineyards are planted with inappropriate varieties. If you're trying to make a moderately priced wine for immediate consumption, nine times out of ten the most suitable grape variety or blend is not one that winemakers in Bordeaux and Burgundy use for their most expensive wines.

Next, the grapes are super-ripe. Traditionally, most grapes for red wine were picked at 21-23 Brix. Thanks to Robert Parker and mass hysteria, the average for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon in 2008 was 25.7. The pendulum may be swinging back, but it has a ways to go.

These super-ripe grapes result in wines that are high in alcohol, which is exacerbated by many winemakers using new yeasts bred so that they would produce higher alcohol levels even at traditional brix levels. In the pre-Parker era, California wines (except for Zinfandel) were typically 12.5%. Today, it's rare to find a red wine under 14%, and 15% is common. That's 12 to 20% more alcohol, a radical change. It's not impossible for a balanced wine to have such a high level of alcohol, but (except for Zinfandel) it's rare.

Riper grapes have different, softer tannins and usually lower acid, which means the wines are more dominated by soft fruit flavors (which can be a plus with grape varieties that are traditionally used to make softer, fruitier wines). Softer tannins and less acid means they typically don't age well, though that's not an issue for wines intended for immediate consumption (unless you buy more than you can drink up while it's at its peak).

Another change from tradition is ubiquitous use of new oak. That used to be too expensive for moderately priced wines, but researchers at UC Davis figured out that you could use alternatives such as chips instead of barrels. Among other things, new oak makes the wine taste sweeter, exacerbating the super-ripe fruit flavors.

To my palate, without the harder tannins and higher acid of less-ripe fruit, the flavors of new oak are clashing and unpleasant. Some people obviously like the combination, but it's hard for me to imagine what food you could pair with such wines.

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  1. If you think I'm exaggerating about how much trouble I have finding California reds I like, name a specific wine that does not have the undesirable characteristics described above and I'll give it a try.

    1. I don't quite understand the need to argue a negative. You have already stated that you don't like California wine. Others do or can find many wines to enjoy from here. It does not appear that you want to like them, so why ask others to offer up their favorites for you to knock down. Simply enjoy the wines you do and let others do the same.

      1. It sounds as if you are wanting CA wines to taste like EU wines. They don't. They are valued for tasting like CA wines.

        If you have such a narrow or particular taste "range" for wine, then maybe you should just stick with what you know you enjoy. There is no point in throwing money away on wine you don't value....there is enough wine around the world to make everyone happy, right?

        3 Replies
        1. re: sedimental

          There's nothing specific to California about the defects I describe above. The Argentine and Australian wine industries are following the same fads, as are some European winemakers who make wines for export to the US, e.g. super-Tuscans.

          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            Most people don't consider them defective, they actually enjoy them as they are -and as the are intended to be. I know I do, and appreciate what they bring to food as well.

            There are several threads on pairing wine with more "global" food. Determining that a wine is or is not food friendly ...depends on the food as much as the wine. Perhaps the foods you prefer don't pair well with these "bigger", fruitier wines. I know that many of my favorite wines get overwhelmed by the foods I choose most of the time now. Maybe the answer is that "times change". It is rare that I eat like I used to 20 years ago. 20years ago, the food I was eating then would have been blown away by these big wines.

            Most of the restaurants I prefer offer WA, CA and OR wines more than anything else, so my experience is very different than yours. The exception is my favorite italian resto offers only Italian wines but I only eat there infrequently. I had the wine pairing signature menu at Sage in Vegas last week and they had wines from all over. They had an OR Pinot that was very bold. I dine frequently in Seattle, Portland, NorCal and Vegas. I guess I just don't see the problem, maybe I am too foodie West Coast? Lol.

            I really like all styles of wine, but I do understand preferences..and I have them as well. I just can't relate to "not liking" so many wines :)

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              Parker is often mentioned as the cause of the trend by Australian winemakers, but it is also clear that his tastes are consistent with those of the average consumer. So far as the average drinker in Australia drinks red wine (the current favourites are fruit-bomb SB/SSB, pinot gris, and rose), warm/hot-climate, jammy, new-oaked and alcoholic syrah remains the preferred style.

          2. The original comment has been removed
            1. Try the Lancaster Estate reds. Very nice, and will get better.