Terroir in California: A New Hope

There were more than 2,500 wineries operating in the United States before Prohibition was instated in 1920. By its repeal in 1933 there were less than 100. With World War I (1914 – 1918) occurring before this catastrophic policy, and World War II (1939 – 1945) shortly after, there wasn’t much left of the Californian wine industry by the middle of the century.

After the table grapes and port-style wines of the 1940s and ‘50s, it really was only in the mid-‘60s that growers starting turning their hands once more in any number to the production of fine wines. It was the birth of a new era.

One of the most famous wineries in California is Stags Leap Wine Cellars. They produced their first vintage in 1972. Their 1973 vintage won the legendary Judgement of Paris tasting three years later, in 1976. At this blind tasting of the best of the best, towering Bordeaux was pitted against plucky California. Until then, it was widely accepted that the French were unbeatable. Very publicly, they went home red-faced, and Californian wine was suddenly taken much more seriously. It was at this early stage that California, the child star, was abruptly pushed into the spotlight – and the money started rolling in. Like so many child stars, its upbringing has been coloured by money, fame and market forces.

Not long after, in 1978, an attorney at the Farm Credit Banks of Baltimore called Robert M. Parker Jr started publishing a wine buying guide called The Wine Advocate for other wine lovers such as himself. Wine was still a minority interest in the US at this time, but this was set to change. His trademark 100-point scale was grasped by emerging drinkers as an easy way to see at a glance which wines were recommended. Six years later, he resigned from his job to concentrate on writing full-time, so popular had it become. As the magazine’s readership grew, if a wine scored highly it would be snapped up with increasing fervour.

Thanks to Californian wine’s new-found celebrity, the prices of the best were rocketing, especially the best bottles from Napa. Accordingly, so was the price of grape-growing land in this small valley, as more and more people wanted to get in on the act. Wineries needed to charge high prices to see a return on their investment. And a sure-fire way to justify a high price was to secure a high score from Mr Parker.

Like all of us, Parker has his own personal taste. Typically a fan of riper, richer styles, this is the type of wine that many wineries started to emulate in the search of high Parker Points®. Napa was a developing fine wine region, and it was yet to find its feet like many of its older European counterparts. Unlike the classic established regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy who had to follow stringent appellation contrôlée (AC) laws to deliver a specific style, California was free to do as it pleased.

The French have a word to describe the typical, commonly accepted style of a wine from a specific region: typicité. When referring to wine, this quality is best translated as ‘typicality’ – in other words, it tastes as you would expect it to taste, it is a typical or classic example of the type of wine that it purports to be. It is why you buy wine from one area rather than another – because you expect it to taste a certain way. This quality traditionally came from the specific site, the terroir, and its intrinsic character that had become apparent through years or decades or production. Californian wineries however created their own typicité. Through decades of creating a certain style, what is now expected of Napa Cabernets is ripe, rich, oaky flavours, perhaps with a little sweetness to the intense fruit.

But this is not terroir; these are all characteristics that can be achieved by viticultural techniques (picking late) and practices in the winery (use of new oak barrels). When making wine, the voice of the land can be muffled. Rather than letting it speak naturally, many Napa winemakers chased Parker Points, and in doing so forged the style for which Napa is now famous. And now they are stuck with it; it is what is looked for, what is expected by people buying the wines of this region. It is self-imposed typicité.

In 2011 Robert Parker, the ‘Emperor of Wine’, passed on Wine Advocate responsibility for reviewing Californian wine to his colleague Antonio Galloni: a different critic, with his own values. Wine buyers and collectors both in the US and globally are more mature and self-confident than they were in the 1970s; it is unlikely Galloni will wield the same power as Parker over his subject. All of the winemakers I spoke to whilst in Napa had their own unique perspective, but all agreed that Parker’s palate has had a major effect on the type of wines being produced there over the past few decades. His unintentional influence will surely now begin to wane. This is an opportunity for Napa to express itself afresh.

Individuals come and go, reputations rise and fall, but the land remains. This year could mark a new chapter in the history of Californian wine. The modern industry is still relatively young, and the land has such vast potential. In Napa alone there are many American Viticultural Areas (like French appellations contrôlées), all with unique personalities. And further distinct terroirs within each one. Many of them are still only faintly understood.  Hopefully they will be given more scope to find their own voice and express themselves.

It is impossible to discuss any region in this way without generalising. Many Napa wineries follow a non-interventionist approach with limited new oak, all the better for letting the natural terroir shine. More and more seem to be going down this route. Some wineries have always been steadfast in making wines that are true to the land and have withstood the vagaries of fame and fashion. One of these wineries is Corison. I’ll post a piece on them tomorrow.