Does California Need Grand Cru Wines?
Dr. Vino unearthed a terrific nugget the other day: Sea Smoke Cellars, which is located in Santa Barbara County, has put the words “California Grand Cru” on the labels of all six of the wines that it made in 2009. Those are fighting words, of course: California doesn’t have a formal hierarchy of vineyards or wineries, and for a producer to claim grand cru status is a bit, er, presumptuous; the fact that the winery in question is barely a decade old, with a vineyard that in its previous incarnation was a bean field, makes this a particularly cheeky move. Not surprisingly, Sea Smoke, which specializes in pinot noir and chardonnay, has been getting flayed for its marketing ploy. Just a guess, but I doubt we’ll be seeing “California Grand Cru” on Sea Smoke labels in 2010.
The controversy kicked up by this act of self-aggrandizement does raise anew the question of whether California should have an official pecking order—a ranking of wineries à la the 1855 Bordeaux classifications, or a ranking of vineyards à la the Burgundy cru system. My take? No way. For one thing, California is far too young as a viticultural region to contemplate that kind of codification. Yes, there are some California wines that are clearly First Growth caliber—the Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet leaps to mind. But the Monte Bello is also an anomaly as California goes, in that it has been an outstanding wine for more than four decades. Most of California’s other standard-bearers have short track records, and until the likes of Harlan and Screaming Eagle demonstrate the kind of sustained excellence that Ridge has shown, I think it would be silly to start grading wineries.
As for categorizing vineyards, that would be even more foolish. California is still working out how to match the right grapes to the right soils and microclimates; with all due respect to Sea Smoke, it is a little premature to be handing out (or appropriating) grand cru honors. Many of California’s most promising sites are fairly new and have only ever had one owner. The strength of the Burgundian model is that its top vineyards have proven their worthiness over hundreds of years, and in the hands of multiple growers. Think of Montrachet, or Musigny. There are certainly sites in California that have hinted at that sort of consistency—various producers have coaxed great wines out of Napa’s Eisele Vineyard, for instance. But these are relatively few in number, and again, it is too soon in California’s evolution as a wine region to make the whole classification business anything more than just a fun parlor game.
Beyond all that, I just don’t see much upside to introducing a formal rating scheme in California. Sure, being anointed a First Growth or a grand cru would be a nice bragging right, but as it is, there is no shortage of big egos in California wine country (and can you imagine the kind of lobbying and horse-trading that would take place if California were to introduce qualitative rankings? It would make Congress look like a beacon of probity and decorum). In addition, these designations would give producers an excuse to charge more, which is something they don’t need, to put it gently.
Not to drape myself in Old Glory or anything, but I also think the idea of binding wine classifications is somehow un-American. Whatever its merits, the 1855 ladder in Bordeaux created a viticultural caste system, and the cru mechanism had a similar effect in Burgundy (obviously, a vigneron on the Côte d’Or can improve his lot merely by acquiring land in a great vineyard, whereas in Bordeaux he would have to purchase an entire château). Sure, there are good vineyards, bad vineyards, and great vineyards, the same is true of wineries, and those distinctions exist irrespective of whether they are given the force of law. But we Americans don’t do caste systems; we are all about upward mobility (or at least we used to be), and establishing rankings and carving them into stone strikes me as antithetical to that spirit. And, yes, for any classification to be meaningful, it would necessarily have to be unchanging, or at least glacially slow to change: if the rankings were constantly being shuffled, they would quickly lose their credibility.
I also believe that wine is one realm in which the market can be left to sort out qualitative differences on its own, without any guidance from regulators. Do we really need some governing body to proclaim what has been patently obvious to oenophiles for the last 40 years—that Ridge makes outstanding wines and farms some very special sites? I don’t think so. The finest wineries and vineyards in California have no difficulty gaining the recognition they deserve, particularly in the age of the Internet, and when you look at the problems of the appellation system in France these days, I think we can get along just fine without official hierarchies.
What say you? Should California have First Growths and grand cru vineyards, or is it better off without them?