May 11, 2005
Francophiles don’t want to hear this, but Napa Valley rules the wine world, not the houses of Latour or Lafite-Rothschild along the west bank of the Gironde River in Bordeaux, or the premier crus of Burgundy.
Love the wines, but oddly enough, much of the rest of the world doesn’t. The cost vs. enjoyment equation doesn’t add up for many of us. Italians, being the confident sort, will undoubtedly thump their chests and pledge allegiance to Piedmont, but again, please accept my apologies. Napa rules.
It’s been a trend in the making for more two decades, starting as early as those Orson Welles commercials for Paul Masson. Unfortunately, the wine "before its time" wasn’t very good, but the spirit of the commercials would set the stage for something larger. During the high-flying 1980s and go-go ’90s, we developed a penchant for chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, along with martinis, as we sought a piece of the good life. Wine is a natural extension of good living. Even today, the trend line for beer is declining, while wine and spirits are on the uptick.
IT’S ABOUT GRAPES
More than anything else, California makes what we are consuming easy to understand and is focused on varietals rather than region. Instead of requesting a ripe red from the Margaux region of Medoc from your wine merchant, you can simply request a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. It makes more sense to us. You don’t need to know much more than that it’s a rich red wine.
French wine labels, on the other hand are notoriously difficult to decipher and emphasize region rather than grape variety. Traditionally, varieties are not mentioned. California wines by law must be made of 75 percent of the variety listed on the label. So if you buy a Napa cab, you know what’s in the bottle (and the additional varying percentages of merlot, cabernet franc and others will usually be listed as well).
French and Italian producers have recognized the "need to know" factor, and have introduced varietal-style labeling, but it’s still not widespread.
Then there’s the matter of taste. And this is where the debate becomes far more subjective. Truth is, Napa producers have nailed what we want and expect from a bottle — almost to the point of being too consistent. We expect fruit-forward, round, accessible wines that may be sipped on their own or with food. It’s ingrained in our palate. I call it "the cola factor." We generally like wines with less tannins that are more ripe, with incredible clarity of color and flavor and general "drinkability." When you sip a Napa zin, you usually know it, as it will be plump with black fruit, spice and earthiness.
Conversely, French wines typically are more subtle, or even demure. As a result, French wines are made to complement food and have higher acidity, lower alcohol percentages and less wood. It’s a technique I admire. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees. Most of us want to get hit over the head with flavor.
It’s not all dire for French wines. If California doesn’t watch itself, the Aussies will run us off Interstate 5 near Sacramento. They’ve picked up our model and are running with it. But than again, there’s few more rewarding experiences than a Robert Mondavi Reserve cab and juicy rib-eye, and in a nutshell, this is why Napa rules.