WINE: California Vintages Gaining on French

International Herald Tribune

December 29, 1978

SAINT HELENA, Calif. (IHT) Any number of blind tastings on both sides of the Atlantic have proven beyond dispute that certain types of California wines are every bit as good as their more famous French counterparts. Not necessarily better, but at least as good.

For the moment, this pretty much applies to only two or three types of wine produced in small quantities by small family wineries in California. But some of the big firms, such as Robert Mondavi here in the Napa Valley, also make outstanding wines and in ever-increasing quantities.

Perhaps California will never quite match the extraordinary range of wines grown in France's widely varying soils and climates. And then again maybe they will, especially if the French give up the fight, overproducing and oversugaring their wines into permanent second rank.

It couldn't happen? Historical precedents to the contrary abound. The wines of ancient Greece were once considered the finest and were exported all over the Mediterranean. The Romans also thought them best until those Johnny-come-latelies made better wines and took over much of the Greeks' export market.

Gallic wines in their turn found such favor on Roman tables and in other parts of the empire that in A.D. 92 the Emperor Domitian decreed the uprooting of half the existing vines in Gaul.

If California wines are the wave of the future, they took an astonishingly short time to get where they are. France has a winemaking tradition that is at least 2,600 years old. What little tradition California had begun to accumulate, since the first Spanish missions were established late in the 17th century, was nearly wiped out by Prohibition.

Yet Prohibition may have been a blessing in disguise. It ended during the Depression, which was followed by World War II, and it was only in the postwar era that the vineyards began to pick up seriously again. It meant a fresh start, a new generation of winemakers unburdened with practices of the past.

They have at their disposal the finest oenological school in the world. The University of California at Davis has been praised as the best by such giants of the field as Professor Emile Peynaud of the University of Bordeaux.

In the early '60s, young California winemakers began putting into effect the lessons learned in the explosion of knowledge coming out of the universities and research laboratories. By the mid '70s, this new wave was giving the French a run for their money in quality.

They certainly had the financial means to make the challenge. Many of the small wineries are tax havens for the wealthy. When a skilled winemaker wants to run his own winery, he finds someone who wants some business losses to write off against his taxes.

This can go on for a long time because it takes a while to make a paying proposition of a vineyard. There are the vineyards themselves to be bought, then the vines to be planted, and the vines do not yield for the first three or four years.

In the meantime, a winery must be built and equipped, generally with only the best U.S. or imported stainless steel vats, presses and stemmers-crushers. Not to mention a pickup truck or two, tractors, forklifts and a bottle-washing, filling and labeling line.

Build your own winery out of redwood and, while you're at it, air-condition the whole operation, and you've soon spent enough to write off at least 10 years' worth of taxes. By the time that's amortized you'll be ready for expansion more vineyards, more vats, imported French oak barrels for proper aging, and so on.

There's no real end to it, and it allows you to have the best of everything right from the start all with the highly laudable aim of making the best possible wine. The results speak for themselves.