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California Dreamin' - New Outlook on California Wines
Copyright 2003 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed August 28, 2003. For more information go to

As regular readers of this column have probably noticed, while I enjoy wines from all over the world, I have a strong tendency to gravitate to the wines of Europe when I'm shopping for something to enjoy with dinner - or to report as a published tasting note. I may live in the U.S., but when it comes to instinctive wine preferences, I seem to be an Old World kind of guy.

That's why it's useful to have an occasion like this past weekend's "MoCool" gathering to prompt me to remember the rest of the world's wines. Joining with well over 100 fellow online wine enthusiasts who converged on the Ann Arbor and Detroit area in Michigan for a weekend of sharing good wine, good food and good fellowship, we devoted this year's event to the topic "California Dreamin'," focusing entirely on the Golden State's excellent wines.

I didn't come close to tasting all the wines available over the three-day event, but managed to jot down notes on a representative sample of 80 or so, which I've posted to our Wine Lovers' Discussion Group forum and also published online in the MoCool archives, along with a few photos. Links to the specific articles are below. First, though, I'd like to wrap up today's report with a few specific thoughts about California wine that occurred to me over the weekend.

* They're not all alike. It's a mistake to stereotype California wines (or any region's wines) as if they were all the same. Many California-phobes shun all the state's wine on the basis of the style of some of its "cult" bottlings that attract high rating points (huge, strong, heavily oaked, monolithic) or some of its mass-market producers (soft, flabby, slightly sweet).

* It's not all Cabernet. California in general and Napa and Sonoma in particular are so known for their Cabernet Sauvignons that it's easy to forget how many other interesting red wines are made in the Golden State. I spent a lot of time over the weekend happily sampling "Rhone Rangers" based on Syrah and other red Rhone grapes, not to mention California's own Petite Sirah. Ditto for the small but growing niche of "Cal-Ital" reds made from Italian varieties. And then there's Zinfandel...and Merlot.

(I'm holding this thought, by the way, as I prepare to head over to Australia next month. It's not all Shiraz...)

* It's not all Chardonnay either. The river of mostly bland, fat, sweetish and over-oaked Chardonnay that poured out of California during the '90s was enough to put many wine lovers off the state's whites in general as some of the state's producers started making Sauvignon Blanc and even Viognier in the same blowsy fashion. But times are changing: Not only are there plenty of attractive white alternatives now, from Viognier to Rhone-style white blends, but even many of the state's Chardonnays are moving away from that sweet-butter signature.

* It's not all pricey. While California "cult" wines are held up as one example of wines that achieve absurd prices because of demand only loosely related to quality, they're certainly not the only example. The weekend's tastings made it clear that there's plenty of California wine of real value, particularly when you considering wines that aren't expensive but competitive in their quality niche, like the $20 range Maloy O'Neill wines.

And just to keep things balanced, a couple of more critical notes:

* Only a few age well. Here I may depart from some advocates of long cellaring: In my opinion, many California wines considered ageworthy don't evolve with the same delicacy and grace as comparable French and Italian wines. I find a consistent herbaceous, vegetal "green funk" in many older California Cabernets; and even the few purportedly ageworthy Golden State Chardonnays have tasted weedy and oxidized to me after a decade in the cellar. (One of many delicious exceptions: The modest Cabernets of Louis M. Martini have a record for going on forever - I've tasted vintages from the '60s in recent years that were abolute delights.)

* Food-friendliness can be an issue. All wines go with food, and a few of the weekend's matches were stunning. But by and large, the tendency of many Californians toward alcoholic strength and forward fruit makes it more difficult for me to come up with food pairings for some of them that really sing. That being said, some of the combinations selected by Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon with the Friday dinner at Morels in suburban Detroit were perfect; and the grilled beef and other dishes prepared by volunteer chef Allan Bree at Saturday's picnic found plenty of outstanding wine companions.

For an overview of this year's MoCool events (and to sign up for the E-mail list to be notified about future gatherings), visit our MoCool Home Page.

To browse directly to each day's tasting report:

* MoCool 2003 Friday Dinner, "Hang Ten with Madeline".

* MoCool 2003 Saturday Picnic, "We're Goin' to Wine City!"

* MoCool 2003 Sunday Brunch, "Fire on the Mountain - Mountaintop


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