California wine crosses the pond once more

A history of US wine exports to Europe. This article has been syndicated. 

The United States is by far the most important wine producer outside Europe. Yet to my mind we still see too few American wines outside the US – despite the enthusiasm for what we do see that I recently expressed in California’s new wave washes abroad

I suppose part of the reason is that their domestic market is so huge that many American wine producers feel no need to export – unlike, for instance, their hugely export-dependent counterparts in Australia and New Zealand. 

There was a time, in the early 1980s, when Britain seemed awash with California wine and California wine producers. The building shown on the right is the old American embassy in London's Grosvenor Square, where in 1980 I first met Nick, who was then importing wines that were included in a tasting of the huge range of California wines then available in the UK that I organised in my capacity as secretary of the Zinfandel Club. Admittedly the pound:dollar rate was extremely helpful then, but there were also government grants available to help fund overseas trips for wine exporters, too. This hardly seems likely in the Trump era of ‘America first’.

Then in the 1990s and 2000s, the supply of California wine exporters and wines in Europe seemed largely to dry up – with the exception of the least interesting mass-market brands that continue to have a major presence in British supermarkets. Nor did it seem as though American wine was particularly prevalent anywhere outside the US. I would occasionally spot some well-known California names at the back of ambitious restaurant wine lists around Europe, but the vintages were suspiciously old. The wines seemed like leftovers from a previous export campaign. Practically the only producer of fine California wine that seems to have had a consistent, and successful, export policy is Ridge Vineyards (see Elaine’s detailed profile, also published today); Ridge’s Paul Draper is a cosmopolitan being and a keen traveller who has taken pains to work Ridge’s many, and enthusiastic, export markets.

The situation was probably exacerbated by the high prices for California wine that resulted from the strength of both local demand and the California economy. I remember one Paris restaurant wine list that cast its net unusually wide geographically (ie actually included some non-French wines) but listed the bottles in ascending price order, disregarding where they came from. The bottom of the list was occupied by bottles from California.

I’m delighted to report, however, that after this long drought in terms of California presence on wine lists and shelves here in Europe, there seems to have been a bit of a sea change. Whereas until fairly recently California wine (which accounts for over 80% of all American wine) was either very cheap or very expensive, there is now a wide range of producers keen to occupy the middle ground, offering some serious value. And, just as importantly as far as I’m selfishly concerned, quite a few serious wine importers in the UK are taking an interest in their wares.

This new wave were initially represented and strengthened by a formal movement away from high-alcohol wines known as  In Pursuit of Balance, and celebrated by wine writer Jon Bonné, then wine correspondent of the San Francisco Chronicle , in his 2013 book The New California Wine (Ten Speed Press).

Wines that have particularly benefited from this new focus include Pinots and Chardonnays from Pacific-cooled vineyards in the most westerly parts of the Sonoma Coast AVA and cooler regions of the Central Coast such as Sta. Rita Hills. (I’m a big fan, incidentally, of often-overlooked Anderson Valley Pinot Noir.)

And it has been great to see more and more mid-range wines from California – specially as so many of them offer variations from the old diet of Cabernet and Chardonnay exclusively. As I pointed out on Saturday, there is a great vogue among the new-wave California wine producers for seeking out old plantings of relatively obscure grape varieties. So nowadays from California we’re seeing wonderful old field blends, and the likes of Alicante Bouschet, Barbera, Grenache, Petite Sirah, St Laurent, Valdigué, Malvasia, Sémillon and Pinot Blanc – grape varieties that were long ignored by the marketplace. Many of these vines are venerable and their produce used to be blended in to wines carrying what were then more fashionable names. After all, a California Chardonnay, for example, may include up to 25% of grapes other than Chardonnay.

Long-standing king of Chardonnay Dave Ramey deserves special mention for his Sidebar blend from an old Russian River vineyard whose 60- to 125-year-old vines include Zinfandel, Alicante Bouschet and Petite Sirah as well as traces of Sangiovese, Carignan, Trousseau, Petite Bouschet, Syrah, Beclan, Tannat, Peloursin, Graciano, Plavac Mali, Palomino, and Monbadon. Bingo!

UK wine importers such as Roberson, Les Caves de Pyrène, Nekter, Indigo and Flint (whose retail arm is Stannary Street Wine Co) are embracing these wines that can stand comparison with the new-wave wines of rural France, Spain, Australia and South Africa. They have a lightness of touch and transparency that contrasts markedly with the extreme ripeness we have come to associate with many a stereotypical Napa Valley Cabernet. While a wind of change has been blowing through vineyards and cellars around the globe, freshening up wine styles, I don’t get the impression that change has been as marked for Napa Valley Cabernet. And why should it? These wines are so enviably commercially successful. And they are made in a corner of the world where wine collectors really appreciate them and have the means to afford them.

The cult Napa Valley Cabs may still sell the great mass of what they produce to those who slowly climb up their mailing lists in the hope of being allocated a few bottles, but here in London anyway, we have definitely been seeing more representatives of these hallowed names, whose prices rival those of Bordeaux first growths. Is it simply because London is famously the home of oligarchs and oil magnates? Or are they actually interested in selling to us more grounded wine buyers?

Here in Europe, we’re delighted to welcome California wine producers back to the party.

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