By some coincidence, the movie Bottle Shock was released on the day I went to California’s Napa Valley. Bottle Shock, a small but generally well-reviewed film starring such dependable B-listers as Bill Pullman and Alan Rickman, tells the story of one of the wine world’s most famous events: the so-called Judgement of Paris. In 1976, a young British wine dealer called Steven Spurrier who had failed to make much headway in cracking the French wine establishment had a bright idea.
The wines of California were growing in popularity across the Atlantic. But they were still derided by the French. Supposing he organised a blind tasting at which French wine experts judged French and Californian wines? The experts would not be told which wines they were trying. But if their dismissal of California wines was based on a genuine inferiority of taste, then that should not matter. The wines would come out bottom at the tasting anyway.
Spurrier managed to persuade the French experts to agree. And predictably, not only did California wines come out on top in many cases but it was also clear that the French really could not tell the difference. In one celebrated case, a French expert declared “what a relief it is to drink a good French wine” while drinking one from California. A journalist from an American newsmagazine was present at the tasting and his story made waves in the US. Other papers picked up the news and though the French stuck to their view, the Paris tasting gave California wine-makers the confidence to go ahead and compete forcefully on the world stage.
It is an unlikely subject for a Hollywood movie though given the recent success of Sideways and Mondovino perhaps wine is such a hot subject that people will want to see the movie anyway. And if the film makes him famous among a wider audience, Spurrier may not mind that Alan Rickman plays him with what the New York Times critic describes as a “parched low voice and an air of beleaguered pomposity.”
I thought of Bottle Shock because the French have not really changed their minds about California wine. They may be polite about it in public and may even have invested in California vineyards but the private disdain persists. The French criticism of California wines are based around the following points: n French wine is an agricultural product. Its quality depends largely on the soil on which the grapes are grown. The great Bordeaux vineyards, for instance, such names as Mouton, Lafitte or Haut Brion, have been renowned for producing excellent wine for centuries. This is because the vineyards themselves have such perfect soil that the grapes that grow there will yield amazing wine.
California wine, the French say, is an industrial product. There are few historically revered vineyards. Many famous wines are grown on land that its owners have purchased over the last ten or twenty years. In Napa, the producers don’t even grow all their own grapes but buy them from local farmers. So where is the sense of an agricultural product emerging from special soil? These wines are not based on the vineyard but on the brand name. Wine makers use science and tricks to create ‘special’ wines from ordinary grapes. n French wines are about elegance. California wines are about power. Ever since the influential wine writer Robert Parker began laying down the law, California wines have become more and more intense and full of fruit. Such wines, say the French, lack the subtlety of truly great wines. Speaking for myself, I have little time for old world snobbery and the French claim to historical prominence. If a wine is good, how does it matter how old the vineyard is?
On the other hand, I do tend to prefer the elegance of French wines over many of the fruit bombs that come out of California. Also, I don’t think that the French tendency to treat wine as an agricultural product is mere hype. Visiting the Burgundy vineyards, I saw myself how seriously the wine-makers took the soil. Often they would argue that the wine from the first row of grapes would be better than the wine from the second and third because the soil was better in the front. It is hard for the Californians to take that line because they don’t treat their vineyards as being that special. California wine makers dispute some of this. Besides, they argue, if French wine is so much better, then why did Baron Philippe de Rothschild, the owner of Mouton Rothschild, one of the great wines of Bordeaux, rush to make wine in California?
There are trendier, more expensive and better wines in California but few have the historical importance of Opus One. In 1978, Robert Mondavi, the leading California wine figure (he died a few months ago) was invited to Mouton by Philippe de Rothschild. Baron Philippe proposed a joint venture in California. Mondavi agreed and the two men set up a 50-50 partnership.
In 1981 Mondavi sold 35 acres of one of his vineyards in the Napa Valley to the venture. In 1983, another 50 acres were purchased. And in 1984, they acquired a 49-acre vineyard. Altogether, the venture had 134 acres. But there was no sense of designated vineyards with great soil like Mouton. Philippe de Rothschild called the wine Opus One and it quickly went on to get the highest prices ever for a California wine. The wine was subtler than many of its California contemporaries but the prices were a consequence of the brand values of Mondavi and Rothschild.
These days, Opus One is rarely talked of in the same breath as such great California names as Screaming Eagle or Harlan Estate but it remains one of the big boys. Its wines seem to me to be too intensely fruit-flavoured to bear comparison with Mouton itself but such is Robert Parker’s influence that even Bordeaux wine makers are making more intense wines so some of the old California-Bordeaux distinctions have broken down.
The winery itself is beautiful and they gave me both the 2001 and the 2004 vintages to drink. I thought both wines were very good but nobody I spoke to at the winery had any answer to the question about the importance of soil. If the Rothschilds believe they can produce great wine by buying parcels of land all over California, then what makes Mouton so great? In France, the Rothschilds make a different claim. They say that their wine is exceptional because Mouton is one of the best vineyards on earth. Both positions cannot simultaneously be valid.
Among the other wineries I visited was the spectacularly beautiful and hilly Spring Mountain vineyard. Spring Mountain is owned by a Swiss banker who has lavished funds on it, buying two other adjacent vineyards to create a huge estate. I spoke to Jac Cole, the wine-maker and was intrigued to find that his position was closer to the French wine-makers I had met. Cole reckons that good wine is a creation of ‘terroir,’ of the soil and the temperature mainly. He grows his grapes all over the vineyards and then harvests them in lots. He made me taste the wine from four different lots to demonstrate how the same grapes could yield such different wines in the same year only because they were cultivated a few hundred yards apart from each other. Of course he was right. There were huge variations in taste between each lot which he attributed to the soil, to altitude and temperature (parts of the vineyard are cooler than the rest).
His job as wine-maker, he said, was to take the different lots and to create a blend that reflected the best of each batch of grapes. “You could say that I am a flower arranger,” he said. “I arrange flowers that have already been grown.” Later, he expanded that to include the image of himself as a conductor of an orchestra. But even then, he conceded, the score is already written. The top Spring Mountain wine was – to my untutored palate at least – the equal of Opus One. So clearly the traditional, French-style approach to wine-making works in California as well.
But even after I had finished touring the vineyards, I was left with no answers to the big questions. Is California now better than France? (My instinct is to say no.) Does the vineyard not matter as much as the French say it does? In the end, it boils down to taste. If we drink it and we like it then it’s good. If we don’t like it, then no matter what anybody says, it is not good. Wine is about taste. And taste is personal and subjective.