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Does California Need Grand Cru Wines?

2011 October 19
by Mike

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?

24 Responses leave one →
  1. Lee Newby permalink
    October 21, 2011

    First off maybe Premier Cru would be best……………. crawl before you run.

  2. wine guy permalink
    October 21, 2011

    Maybe if Mondavi had decided to do “1st Grwoth” with ToKalon Cab, I might buy it. But otherwise get over yourself.

  3. October 20, 2011

    I have not ordered Sea Smokefor the past two vintages. The wine is good but totally overhyped. Somehow it got a cult following. In fact, a perspective employer once told my husband that if he came to work for him, he proudly and loudly said that he would give him a bottle of Sea Smoke! What the guy did not know, is that I already had a batch in my cellar and I was underwhelmed.

    Maybe I shoulda tried to sell some of my bottles to the blowhard!

  4. October 20, 2011

    Brently,

    There’s certainly some truth to saying that the Burgundy model is based on “hundreds of years of farming, with most of the farmers being Benedictine monks” — but to say that’s the entire story is quite a romantic version of events. Burgundy’s vineyards weren’t official classified until 1861.

    In 1861, politicians were just as vulnerable (/open/willing/etc.) to lobbying and sleaze as they are today.

    Don’t get me wrong – the sanctioned sites in bordeaux, burgundy, etc are great. But one shouldn’t ignore the influence of politics. Plus, because of the “official” sanctioning of those vineyards, they’ve been able to charge more for their wine and thus offer (and maintain) a higher quality product.

  5. October 20, 2011

    To respond to David, yes, the Bordeaux first growth system is based around market pricing and politics, but I disagree that the same is true for Burgundy. I’m sure they have their own politics, but the plots of land were determined to be excellent through hundreds of years of farming, with most of the farmers being Benedictine monks. Their tedious trial and error gave us the soil heirarchy we have today, although split up numerous times through familial “heirlooming.”

  6. October 20, 2011

    Mike,

    This point: “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” is absolutely critical. We don’t need politicians proclaiming which wines are good and which wines are bad — it’ll introduce a whole new industry to lobbying, political posturing, and the like. And that’s the last thing we need.

    Oenophiles hate admitting this, but this is precisely what happened in France. First Growth Bordeauxs and Gran Cru Burgs have as much to do with politics and lobbying as they do with quality — how else does one explain Mouton’s rise to “First Growth” status in the 1970s?

  7. October 20, 2011

    Brently Dunivant ~ you make a very good point about it being an organic process and the cream rising to the top.

    Mike ~ for those wineries with a philosophy of blending single-vineyard quality/worthy lots, or micro crus, into one master blend, a la Bordeaux, what do you think is the barometer for quality status if no single vineyard is on the label and critic scores aren’t a focus? Is it like Brently says, ‘cream will rise to the top’? Will it be taste and brand name that consumers use as the guideline to know it’s good?

  8. October 20, 2011

    Let me be a bit of a dissenting voice here.

    Getting customers to pay more attention to vineyard expression might have a salutary effect on California wines, despite the relative youth of the California industry. As it stands today, knowing where grapes were sourced tells you little about the wine unless you know when the grapes were harvested and what kinds of viticultural and vinification practices were employed. Yes, this information is available but it takes a lot of digging and a lot of experience to understand how terroir works in California.

    I agree that having a governmental or quasi-governmental agency classify vineyards and enforce winemaking practices is laughable. But if wineries like Sea Smoke want to emphasize terroir why not form an organization like the Meritage alliance that can regulate membership and enforce standards. It would be another way of branding wine, give consumers needed information, while allowing the kind of innovation for which U.S. wines are rightfully praised.

  9. Randy Caparoso permalink
    October 20, 2011

    “Grand cru” Californian growths? Of course, the notion is silly, but what’s also a hoot is Sea Smoke’s audacity — if there’s nothing that prohibits them from declaring themselves the greatest, then kudos to them for their marketing cojones — and then reading all this chatter as, if anyone is seriously considering a New World system of quality-related classification.

    Americans, of course, do like to think and talk about about useless ideas — to me the idea of New World crus makes as much sense as 100 point scores (another dumb idea, but one that has actually gone too far) — because they like to think that hierarchies are possible in so young an industry. It’s our “competitive” instincts, I guess — always singing “we are the champions,” yada yada.

    Classifications were a dumb idea forty, fifty years ago at the dawning of the “Golden Age of California Wine” (Robert Mondavi’s expression), and it’s even dumber today, now that we know what wonderful wines are possible from vineyards planted just during the past ten years. So who knows what kind of incredible stuff will come from vineyards still to be planted?

    When the day comes when every possible piece of terroir has been planted and tested, maybe we can actually entertain the thought without a guffaw. Meanwhile: come on, folks…

  10. October 20, 2011

    Thanks everyone for the comments; a terrific discussion as always. With so many source of information now–critics, discussion boards, social media, CellarTracker, etc–I think people have no trouble finding their way to good wines, and the finest wines have no difficulty gaining the recognition they deserve. Whether it is for cabernet, chardonnay, pinot, or syrah, we already have informal pecking orders. To try to formalize these hierarchies would open the door to the kind of bureaucratic nonsense you see in France, Germany, Italy, etc. And let’s remember–the classification systems in France, etc., were devised long before the advent of the Internet, long before the emergence of professional wine critics, etc. If they had to start over in France, would they institute the same mechanisms? Maybe, but maybe not.

    Lisa, you make a good point, but again, I think the market already does a good job of identifying the best sites. When people see “Hirsch Vineyard” on the label, they take note.

    Re Slate, John, they are publishing some final pieces that were already in the works when the budget ax fell.

    King Krak, I hereby declare that the job is yours.

  11. October 20, 2011

    Certainly a silly prospect. I hope it gains traction; the ensuing mud fight would surely be epic.

  12. Woo Wine Girl permalink
    October 20, 2011

    I involuntarily cringe at the idea of developing a vineyard/estate ranking system. I agree with Mike that this seems to fit more into the European aristocratic system than into the U.S.’s idea that any old shmo can make good wine if he/she is talented enough. I have thus celebrated the garagiste culture that has evolved in Bordeaux in defiance of the Cru system. But don’t get me wrong – I’m not going to turn down a La Tache or anything. ;-) I just like the idea of consumers deciding for themselves what is worth buying.

  13. October 20, 2011

    14 “donations” so far. Rejected two to keep things “honest”…well, told them for that amount they could have Premium Cru.

  14. Donn Rutkoff permalink
    October 20, 2011

    I think it is
    1. presumptuous;
    2. a bit odd, given the frequent negative things said in the US wine business about the French and their various vineyard classifications;
    3. and a few hundred years early. OK, maybe not a few hundred, but at least 50 to 100 years.
    4. Who voted? Who was elected to the local AVA board? Who tested the AP numbers? What team of soil scientists put there name on the certificate? What, you mean it was done just using Adobe software and that’s all???? Not even a single word from UC Davis, or Cal Poly SLO? A slap in the face of those who toil in the labs. You know, it is also a slap in the face to their neighbors and fellow community of growers and wine makers.

    I’ll park my horse now.

  15. October 19, 2011

    Nice post, Mike, and really, as a longtime Sea Smoke list member (C1), I’m disappointed to see this marketing stunt from Victor and team, who’s wines (with their erroneous labels) should arrive on my doorstep in a couple weeks. Let’s just hope it tastes good :-)

    I definitely agree that California does not need a Grand Cru-type ranking system. It seems archaic to me. An old-fashioned system like “Grand Cru” is, at the end of the day, totally arbitrary. California and the U.S. has Wine Spectator for that. If people are unfamiliar with wines, get an app on your smartphone so you can quickly look it up, read Wine Spectator and most importantly, visit the wineries, take the tour, learn about the regions of Napa, Sonoma, Santa Barbara County (etc.), talk to the winemakers and tasting room managers and… drink the product.

    Cheers.

  16. John permalink
    October 19, 2011

    Also, I thought you were done at Slate, Mike. What’s with today’s unexpected article on riesling? Nice surprise.

  17. John permalink
    October 19, 2011

    This smacks of “Korbel California Champagne.” Granted, Sea Smoke is a hell of a lot better but the marketing idea is similar.

    To answer your general question, I also don’t see the need for it. Most of California doesn’t have the regional identity that France does. Sure, Napa wines pitch themselves as Napa wines, and some other regions do similarly to a lesser extent, but in California the wine is all about the winery, not the region, and for the most part, not the land. Until that changes, it seems inappropriate for wines to appropriate such the labeling system that goes with that mindset.

  18. October 19, 2011

    I think forcing any type of ranking system would be bad. Using Alexander Valley as a reference, I don’t think forcing winiries and the public to notice certain vineyards will benefit the CA wine industry in the long run. Rather, producers who feel a certain plot of land or vineyard is better should be free to pronounce the vineyard designation on their label. If the wine is relatively better than other local plots, consumers and other producers even then seek to drink or buy the grapes respectively. The process should be organic, which will allow the cream to rise to the top.

  19. October 19, 2011

    It’s a tough call. Here in Northern California, we have more “monopoles” (using the term loosely) or single-owner vineyards who bottle all their own grapes in some AVAs (probably more common in Napa Valley) while in others, the growers own a vineyard with a distinct micro-climate and then sell a few tons of grapes to several different winemakers (think Russian River Valley). The latter seems a little more Burgundian and seeing both the vineyard and appellation on the label could be a statement of quality. I think there are some appellations where some sort of classification system is necessary. Alexander Valley is a perfect example. It’s a relatively small appellation and several family growers one a lot of the vineyards; a few big corporate wineries own the other vineyards. Some little guys own pockets here and there. For many years, most of the grapes have been purchased by the larger corporate wineries, so no emphasis has been placed on determining which vineyard blocks within the Alexander Valley AVA are the best sites here — crus, lieux-dits, single vineyards — whatever you want to call them. I think Alexander Valley can strengthen its identity if the micro-crus or best vineyard sites within the area are identified.

    What do you think?

  20. October 19, 2011

    As no one has stepped up, I’ve appointed myself, being known for great taste, as the Official Grand Cru Decider. Wineries need to pony up some megabucks to me so that I’ll grant them this official designation. They can then slap it on their already pretentious wine. Downloaded logo set forthcoming at http://www.kingkrak.com. Official California Grand Cru stemware and Lagawheel corkscrews are also forthcoming.

  21. October 19, 2011

    I agree a classification system is unnecessary. Whether a cult wine stays or goes is dependent on whether they maintain quality. A classification system allows for a winery to rest on its laurels in a way.

  22. GoCamando permalink
    October 19, 2011

    Far be it for me to upend your valid and well thought out points; but, when I evaluate a wine I am not familiar with (when my WSET cap is off) I rely on some standard labelling laws and practices. My chalice will be better (in theory) filled from an identified vineyard (is it 70% as an EU standard?) than some simple plonk from “California” and parts unknown. The conundrum (speaking of plonk) is that what even moderately educated wine lover can pick out the stellar vineyards from the “Bob’s half acre” on a label without some form of classification?

    Do new world wine regions really need the bureaucracy, of which possibly half of the European winemakers would rather be without? Hell no! That is why such awesome varietals are always being grafted in California (hello tempranillo). However, without totally discounting the idea of some classification system, consideration should be made in efforts to recognize vineyards of significance and regions of known quality.

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