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The Splinter In Californian Wine Dreaming

20 Feb

“The American people are impatient, its an important part of what we are, so right now everyone in the US cannot wait for this downturn, this recession to be over. They want done with it. And things are beginning to move.” says Andrew Quady, owner and winemaker of one of the world’s most sought after sweet winemaking wineries, Quady Wineries, home of the iconic and best selling Elysium Black Muscat and Essensia Orange Muscat Dessert wines.

For Quady sales are unaffected at home and like most Californian, indeed all US wineries, his domestic sales are by far the most important and they represent the market with the most growth.

This twin reality, that the home market can satisfy all your sales and this domestic market is mostly unexploited or has not yet discovered wine, insulates US wineries from the uncertainties and normal struggles of wineries in the rest of the world.

Californian Wineries are in an even better position.

On their doorstep, is the world’s 8th largest national economy, California. California if it ever separated from the other United States would require a seat at the G7, it has a GDP of close to $2 Trillion annually. That however is not the end of the story from the US wineries position, because top the north is Washington State, with a GDP of around $450 and home to Microsoft, Boeing, Amazon and Costco, the ninth largest retailer on the planet, though not a household name in Ireland.

This kind of wealth creation, has brought with it some of the highest average wages on the planet and combined with a superb, warm climate and a famously positive outlook on life means the US West Coast rarely looks beyond its borders for any of its desires.

The world looks on in envy.

Californian and Washington State wineries do not really even look beyond their own states therefore to sell their own wines. And for many of the best wineries this means selling out every bottle before they even have to open the phonebook for importers in New York, never mind Ireland.

This is why so many of the famous and highly regarded US wines are essentially unknown or of almost mythic status in Ireland or in fact the rest of the world.

“US wine sales are actually up around 2.1% over this last year.” says Dale Gatecum, the New Zealander, sales manager for Ste Michelle Wine Estates is in a good position to asses the global wine market. Ste. Michelle might not be a familiar name, but the wineries it owns are, these include, legendary Napa Valley estate, Stag’s Leap Wines, Pinot Pioneers in Oregon, Erath Winery and Washington State’s oldest winery, Chateau Ste Michelle.

However, some cracks are beginning to appear in the Californian Dream.

While it is the case that overall wine sales in the USA grew by a very healthy 2.1% last year, what is more interesting is that Californian exports to the rest of the US actually dropped, by around 1.6%, given the overall state of the world this is not unduly harsh, but what should be concerning Californians is that what this means is that US wine lovers, where sales are increasing despite one of the worst recessions for decades are switching from domestic wine, to imported wine.

Yet they seem unconcerned.

Californian Wine – A Two Headed Lama (A Push Me – Pull Me )

The brutal truth about Californian Wines, is that beyond the big brands, they do not need us.

I do not mean that they do not need Ireland, I mean, California does not need the entire wine world. They can sell out and make very high profits just catering to themselves, which is very frustrating for a wine lover.

There are other wine regions which could sell just to their local and established market, one of those would be top classed Bordeaux, the very top that is to say the first and second classed growths. However, a culture of export, demands that these Chateaux send some of their wines to the UK, Germany, Belgium, the US itself, across Asia, and of course to us here in Ireland.

Since demand far outstrips supply a system of allocation exists for Bordeaux wines, indeed it exists in Burgundy, the Rhone, Italy’s Tuscany and parts of Spain’s Rioja and Ribera del Duero wine regions too.

What this means is that regardless of the demand, Ireland will be guaranteed maybe a hundred cases of Chateau Mouton Lafite and so on.

It makes almost no difference to the Chateau’s income, in fact it clearly does not maximise their profits, as selling them all to the highest bidder would be the simplest way to do this.

The function of such national allocations, is to build a reputation, because it has always been important for such top wineries and chateaux, to be known as the best. To be out their in every market competing as the best.

The Californian wine market being so self occupied, well it is the home of Hollywood, been content to be worshipped at home, it is the centre of the world, after all..

This means that Californian wineries that do export, do so on their own terms and that means that for most of the wineries you are paying a very high premium to taste their wines. That is why so many of the well known non entry level wines in Ireland leap straight to the €20, €30 and €50 price point before quickly bursting through the €100 a bottle ceiling. They do not need our custom, if we want to have a taste of the Californian Dream, then it will cost you.

The Mass Market

Of course, Californian Wine is quite schizophrenic, while on the one hand, it is all about cult wineries, making expensive wines in fabulously exotic and green ways by ex-hippies and cashed out IT billionaires, the other side of its personality is the jug wine culture.

The jug wine notion is really what California made to export to its fellow Americans, but its fellow Americans in the other 29 states are a tricky audience for wine, and above all in a series of statutes at a national and federal level, the US government has spent the last 60 years trying to stop the easy flow of alcohol around the US.

We have to remember that the US, home of the free market and anti-big government sentiment was the only significant nation on the planet to introduce a total ban on alcohol sales with the Prohibition in the 1920s.

What they found out over that violent decade is that, people liked to drink, they would find ways to get their whiskey, beer and wine and that pushing it into arms of criminal activity they had created a monster, larges scale, organised crime.

The massive logistics of supplying a nation of 300 million with alcohol fell into the willing arms of the Mob, the Mafia or whatever you choose to call it. It has to be said that the Italian culture of wine and trade cam in handy for this kind of work and Italian wine has continued to dominate the best selling wines in the US. Chianti is the number one selling imported wine.

Who knows if the Mob had been French what kind of wine might now occupy the consciousness of the US wine mind today.

These large organised crime groups, infiltrated the import businesses, the docks and dock unions, the transportation business and the transport unions and then the sales and distribution networks across the US.

When Prohibition ended, strong legislation was set up to try and wrestle the business back from the Mafia so it became illegal to own all three elements of the trade, so importing, shipping and sales are legally broken up. Many states reacted by banning any cross state transportation of alcohol at all.

Many of the families at the fringes of the underworld distribution in California quickly saw the potential for growth as being export lead under these circumstances. These wineries, many growing directly out of the jug wine culture have become the mass market brands that dominate exports, and here in Ireland, make up that vast portion of what we consume as Californian wine.

Sutter Home and Paul Masson Wines, with its carafe style bottles, Turning Leaf, Gallo Varietal Ranges and a small army of related brands selling Blush Zinfandel, soft Merlot and oak drenched Chardonnay are on every shelf in Ireland dominate the Irish market in US wine. Its just that the branding is so dominant people almost forget the national origin of the wine.

Cherry Picking The Divide

The divided nature of the Californian wine region, a huge mass market, industrial sized production in the Central Valley, ridiculously high end and expensive icon wines in the famed Valleys like Napa and Sonoma and good value wines an afterthought is now going to play into our hands.

With a downturn for the upscale wines, even of a modest nature, they have begun, it was clear at the Dublin show, to give some thought to the forgotten tranche of wine lovers, people who are willing to buy well made, organic, esoteric and terroir driven wines of quality at sensible prices. A €15 to €20 Zinfandel, of charm, an €18 creamy Chardonnay that has some balance and not just a mash of grapes and lumber. So wines from €10 to €25 that give a real flavour of what is great about California wines is what we can now hope to see and here are a few of the best contenders on what hopefully will become a more crowded market as California at some level understands it needs the world too.

The acceptance of needing the rest of the world even in perfect California has already begun at a spiritual level with those adverts featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rob Lowe inviting us to California, maybe it really is time to get the flowers back in our hair.

The Older California

Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 2005 (90) around €40

Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 (90) around €40

Stags Leap, Fay Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 (92) around €49

The New California

Zaca Mesa Winery, Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache 2003 (91) around €22

Marmesa Vineyards, Hollister Peak Chardonnay 2005 (90) around €13.99

Marmesa Vineyards, Cabrillo Peak Pinot Noir (90) around €17.99

Essensia, Orange Muscat Dessert Wine (92) around €15

Elysium, Black Muscat Dessert Wine 2007 (92) around €15

Ironstone Petit Sirah 2008 (92) around €13.99

Ironstone Symphony Grenache Blanc, Muscat and Gris White 2008 (88) around €11.99

Concannon, Petit Sirah 2006 (89) around €15.99

Ravenswood Old Vines Zinfandel, Lodi 2006 (88) around €15.99

Beringer Stone CellarsOld Vines Zinfandel 2007 (89) around €15.99

Bonterra, Organic Chardonnay, 2006 (89) around €17

Beringer Stone Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (90) around €15.99

Rancho Zabaco, Sonoma Heritage Vines Zinfandel 2007 (89) around €16.99

Widely available at Independent Off Licences and wine shops such as Fallon & Byrne, Exchequer Street, Dublin 2; Redmonds Of Ranelagh, Ranelagh, Dublin 6; 64 Wines, 64, Glasthule Road, Sandycove, Co Dublin; Sweeney’s, 6 Finglas Road, Harts Corner, Glasnevin, Dublin 11; Greenacres, Selskar, Wexford, Co. Wexford; Cases Wine Warehouse, Riverside Commercial Estate, Tuam Road, Galway and the O’Donovan’s Wines chain throughout Cork County and city as well as O’Briens Wines, nationwide.

Email the wine column at wine@sbpost.ie

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