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Why France No Longer Matters

Do French winemakers still rule? Two opinionated experts make their case.

the other side: Why France Still Matters

I must state at the outset that I am a not-so-closet Francophile. When it is running I drive a French car, I have been known to read French books, I collect French wine, travel extensively in France and actually attempt to speak French every now and again. I have nothing but respect for my French wine-growing colleagues and their unique vinous sensibility. Indeed, the French, with their patrimonial intellectual rigor, coupled with a profoundly innate sensuality, are biologically overdetermined to be fanatical perfectionists in the technologies of their pleasure taking. When one speaks at any length with a "real French winemaker" (someone like Gérard Chave, the great producer of Hermitage, for example) and observes the remarkable affinity he has for his métier and the intimate conversance he has with each and every terroir1 and exposition of his vineyard, one feels every bit like a callow schoolboy consulting his sage and august prof.

OK, SO WHAT'S THE PROBLEM? Is there trouble in paradis? Franchement dire and entre nous, the answer is oui. The dirty little secret is that while great French wines are incontrovertibly great full stop and genius French producers are consistently great, creating fabulously interesting wines even in those highly problematic vintages that would send every single yuppified New World winemaker scurrying and shrieking from his snug Napa Valley aerie directly back to Stanford B-school, the reality is that in less than brilliant vintages and from winemakers who are themselves less than absolutely brilliant, French wines very often lack what might rather bluntly be called charm.2 Yes, they are often complex and indeed often present a rather interesting aromatic profile. But, alas, I fear that often as not, they are not all that much fun to drink. The wines that I reference might be thought to be too acidic or austere: they are typically produced from grapes that have attained somewhat less than perfect "physiological maturity."3 This is the situation that obtains when there is inadequate "hang time" for the grape acids to mellow and the seed tannins to properly ripen to a dulcet and soyeux texture. In any event, these wines tend to be sort of mercilessly green and mean, and even the most sincere apologia, every pious protestation like "It's a great food wine" or "It just really needs more time,"4 seems like so much fatuous rationalization. That Bordeaux wines are absolutely sound but utterly boring, predictable and wildly expensive has been said again and again and does not bear repeating.

What to me is utterly remarkable is that there have been lots of blind tastings in which California wines routinely and thoroughly humiliated their Gallic counterparts--and these were often conducted with experienced European tasters. What the heck is going on here? Confession Time. For as long as I can recall, I have been an inveterate French wine snob who would look down his not inconsiderable nose at any philistine who would favor a California Cab over, say, a fourthish-growth Bordeaux, a Zin over a Gigondas. What could these people possibly be tasting in these wines? Could 50 million Frenchmen possibly be wrong or, more unlikely, 200 million Americans possibly be right? Well, peut-être. I have now come to believe that well-made California wines actually do seem to hit on more hedonistic cylinders more consistently than wines produced by our beaux amis on the other side of the Atlantic--with the caveat that there is still nothing close to the sublime perfection of the grands vins français and that there are still killer deals to be had on some of the inexpensive models from southern France with names like Fitou, Pic St-Loup and Faugères. (One must, however, be willing to adapt a Jean Valjean-like attitude to relentlessly run these esoteric appellations to earth.) And, yes, there can be a sort of stylistic clunkiness in a lot of the California stuff, especially at the low end, but after one has reached cruising altitude of, say, more than $10, it is hard to go terribly wrong in California, and the wines are really quite satisfying.

IS IT BECAUSE WE ARE SO REMARKABLY CLEVER? Ah, no. Pourquoi alors? I think that it is nothing more than the incredibly benign climate with which we are blessed. California enjoys a growing season for which most French winemakers would either kill or seriously maim. We have dry and generally temperate weather in the summer and very often perfect ripening weather in the fall. Coupled with the fact that we possess the droit d'arrosage5 and can create an idealized hydrologic milieu for our precious and sensitive vitaceous bébés, it is no great surprise that the wines seem so well-balanced and hedonistically satisfying. It's the tannins, mes enfants. They're ripe.

Is France played out? I don't think so. I do, however, believe that the genius of its Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée system, which was intended to assure wine quality and typicity through a stringent set of viticultural and enological guidelines, has also been a gross impediment to change and innovation. One is simply not permitted to grow the grapes of one's choosing where and how one chooses in Old Europe, nor to vinify them as one pleases. Perhaps if French growers were permitted greater latitude, they could produce truly innovative and exciting vins de table with the express understanding that their freedom would most likely preclude an EEC-subsidized safety net to catch them if they fail. If my fantaisie of a sensual but bureaucratically liberated France could some day become a substantive reality, I'm there.

RANDALL GRAHM is the Winemaker and President-for-Life of Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, California.

1The French have given us the notion of terroir, an immensely refined idea that suggests that great wine transcends its typicity as a mere varietal and somehow expresses the unique character of the place where it is grown.

2 I have posited the existence of what I call an anti-charmeur device, a bit of machinery that conveniently plugs into one's bottling line, extracting every molecule of primary fruit and soft tannin from the wine.

3The usage of this term at a dinner party, say, is one of the signal warnings that you are talking to a terminal wine geek.

4This argument actually does have some merit, but the fact is that you have bought the wine and you're taking it home that evening.

5The right to irrigate.

Published October 1998
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