Focus on California's North Coast

As I worked my way up and down and across California's North Coast during my annual late winter tour, I couldn't help thinking that California wine has never been more extreme than it is today. With the 2003 and 2003 vintages (and, some winemakers say, 2004 as well), more of the North Coast's big red wines than ever before show distinctly roasted aromas and flavors. Increasingly, these are wines made to impress and amaze, rather than wines one can actually drink. With their often freakishly high alcohol, full body, port-like ripeness and strong oakiness, they are frequently overbearing at the dinner table, and owing to their low acidity they are incapable of cleaning and refreshing the palate. These wines may be best enjoyed as food substitutes, unless you happen to be serving rare brontosaurus steak. California winemaking consultant George Vierra has proposed establishing a new category for these big boys, which are always above 14% alcohol, the traditional ceiling for so-called table wines. He calls them "social wines," because they are successful at wine tastings, and as topics for conversation, but far less suitable at the dinner table.

I now routinely taste California wines—not just cabernets but also merlots, syrahs and even pinot noirs—with alcohol levels in the 15%+ range, and pHs close to 4. (Some are higher.) I believe that a handful of these outsized wines are truly great, and a number of these wines are featured on the following pages. They showcase California's glorious sunshine, and they make growers and winemakers in regions less blessed by climate go absolutely bonkers—in some cases so crazy that they try to imitate these wines. But only those California wines from the top sites, and from low yields, carefully extracted from perfectly ripe fruit with very few dried berries, are likely to enjoy an extended positive evolution in bottle. For every one of these superstars, there are now multiple pretenders that would like to attract the market's attention and get the big bucks. It's hard to imagine an interesting future in bottle for most of these wanabees. Distinguishing between the winners and the likely losers must be one of the wine critic's most important challenges today. When I see some critics asserting that the first-ever cabernet from Humongoid Cellars will be a 20-year wine, I have to wonder whether they are being overoptimistic.

IWC readers have frequently asked me to include projected planes of peak drinkability for wines reviewed in these pages. But the predictions I see in some other wine periodicals strike me as extremely overoptimistic—not to mention dangerous to consumers who might be tempted to delay gratification and bury these wines in their cellars. For many of today's X-treme wines, there is simply no precedent; predictions of their likely performance in bottle are not even educated guesses. Consider this possibility: The incredibly rich and sexy wines that knock you out immediately may never give greater pleasure than they do in their first year or two in bottle. Today, as a general rule, I have less confidence about the likely ageability of most big North Coast red wines I taste than ever before.

How did we reach this state of affairs? Most of California's best reds of the '60s and '70s were under 13% alcohol, and sometimes in the low 12s. I do not mean to glorify the wines of a generation or more ago, because the handful of great bottles back then were the exceptions to the rule—just as they are today. On the other hand, the standouts have enjoyed spectacular evolution in bottle over a period of two or three decades, or more.

Will today's best big reds enjoy the same success over time? I am less confident. What has changed? For one thing, many vineyards back then were infected by leaf roll virus, which delayed ripeness significantly. Some California insiders say that eliminating this problem in a vineyard can shorten the ripening period by well over a month. Also, as California's vineyards were replanted in the early '90s due to phylloxera, many growers adopted European-style trellising methods, which expose the grapes to more sun. According to Philippe Melka, a Frenchman who began making wine in California in the early '90s,"we moved to vertical canopies and may have gone from no sun on the clusters to too much. We're now in an extreme period of opulent wines, due to a combination of viticultural and vintage factors since 2000. So we have almost seen two extremes in less than 20 years; we're still in a learning phase. The old wines were austere and unfriendly; the new wines are more pliant in their flavors and textures. There's no doubt that 2002, 2003 and 2004 were very ripe, extreme years. Even cabernet was picked mostly by the end of September. Historically, mid-October has certainly been more classic." Here's yet one more element contributing to opulence: today's modern yeast strains are much more efficient at converting grape sugars to alcohol.

Another powerful influence driving producers to vinify ever-riper fruit has been the apparent taste preferences of a new generation of wine drinkers, many of whom appear to be once-a-week drinkers who uncork the occasional trophy wine with friends as a sort of urban indoor sporting event—as opposed to more traditional imbibers who routinely enjoy wine with their dinner without making a fetish of it. People who view wine as an occasional indulgence are more likely to want their doors blown off than they are to prize subtlety. As I wrote a year ago, many consumers new to wine appear unwilling to accept red wines with anything suggesting "green," even though these green elements are often the precursors of complex, varietal flavors that evolve with bottle age. But too often growers who let their fruit hang on the vine in an attempt to banish any hints of underripeness are simply replacing green tastes with brown tastes—of raisins, prunes and other dried fruits.

Last summer, Wine Business Monthly reported that the average alcohol level of California wine rose from 12.5% in 1971 to 14.8% in 2001—and the three growing seasons since 2001 have been hotter still. Today's growers, in search of high ratings in an increasingly competitive market, are simply letting their fruit hang in search of greater flavor ripeness, in many cases to freakishly high sugar levels. From a commercial standpoint, their wines must be impressive from day one. While many winemakers claim, with justification, that they can always add water to their wines to bring down alcohol levels, or add acidity, but can never create flavor that's not in the grapes to begin with, neither can they eliminate the cooked taste of raisined grapes or imbue their wines with true vibrancy. Is the additional flavor that comes from harvesting overripe grapes a good thing?

Wines made from raisins may endure in bottle or they may simply collapse under their own alcoholic weight and deficient acidity. As Terry Leighton, a microbiologist by training and an artisanal winemaker in his other life (Kalin Cellars), says, "Dead fruit wines are static rather than dynamic products." He explains: "In wines made from incipient raisins rather than fresh fruit—wines with the brown fruit flavors you have described—the sugars and other grape compounds are cooked or caramelized by disconnection from a vine that is entering dormancy. Extended hang-time fruit is likely to experience a similar barbecue situation. The grape's normal protection systems against oxidation—phenolics, tannins, et cetera—are also likely to be exhausted during extended hang time, leading to prematurely oxidized juice and wines that are essentially stillborn but that can be marketed quickly."

The bottom line: if you love the new California wines, enjoy them while they're young and relatively fresh. I would be the last person to tell consumers not to seek out and enjoy wines that please them. (My reviews in this issue should make it clear that I am a major fan of California's best wines from gloriously ripe but not overripe fruit.) But you may be setting yourself up for major disappointment if you bury these wines in your cellars. And beware of the pretenders. For centuries, the wines that have commanded the highest prices, both at the cellar door and in the secondary market, have been those that could reliably deliver fireworks in the bottle over a period of decades. Today there are literally scores of big boys from California, wines changing hands for $60 to $100 and sometimes more, that are going to fizzle out.

On the following pages I offer brief profiles of numerous North Coast wineries I visited in late winter, along with notes on their current and upcoming releases. Following this section are my tasting notes on many additional recommended current and upcoming wines tasted in recent months in California and in New York. Due to space constraints, wines from numerous excellent producers I visited in early March appear in this second section.