DRINK / Blossom on the vine in California: The West Coast is waking up to competition from the newer world, says Anthony Rose

CALIFORNIA, too laid back for its own good, has finally realised that of all the new world's wine areas, its was the least impressive performance in the expanding UK market of the Eighties. In part, this was the result of its own laissez-faire attitude: why bother, when we can sell all we want at home? But mostly it was because California's polarisation between cheap plonk and pricey boutique wines meant that value for money in the middle- price range of pounds 4 to pounds 8 has been conspicuously unavailable.

In an attempt to make up lost ground, the Napa Valley vintners showed a dozen wines - half less than pounds 10, half less than pounds 6 - at the annual California tasting last month. On a 100- point scale, they scored 80 for quality and 65 for diversity (the chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon fixation still affects three out of every five bottles that the Napa Valley produces). On value for money, however, they did not fare so well. 'I don't think our strong position is under pounds 5,' said Dick Ward of Saintsbury, one of Napa's few premium wineries to have made a success of the UK market.

Once upon a time, Napa was the biggest draw on the US West Coast, synonymous with California wine itself. Today, it is up against a strong dollar and spirited competition from the rest of the new world. And phylloxera, the resurgent louse that is now attacking California's vineyards, is compounding Napa's problems. Mondavi, for instance, reckons it will have to replant two-fifths of its 2,000 acres, at a cost of dollars 17m ( pounds 11.8m). In the long run, however, it will allow producers to select more suitable grapes and clones.

In the meantime, wine drinkers are waking up to the fact that there is more to California wine than Napa alone. Even with the wines of Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake Counties, as well as Napa, the whole North Coast region accounts for one in 10 bottles of wine produced in the state.

At the same time, we are beginning to see an unaccustomed flexibility in Californian styles. Randall Grahm and J Lohr, for instance, have made customised blends for Oddbins, which itself has put considerable effort into wooing California. And Fetzer, Glen Ellen and Monterey Vineyards all produce good value, so- called varietal wines at under pounds 5.

These companies are based in Santa Cruz, San Jose, Mendocino, Sonoma and Monterey, but Napa can do it if it wants to. Sterling Vineyards, Inglenook, Beringer, Joseph Phelps and Franciscan are all responding to British customers, in some instances assembling blends specially for UK tastes from sources outside Napa Valley.

The California tasting, therefore, was considerably more illuminating than the Napa Valley vintners' sideshow. Chardonnay and zinfandel tastings were arranged in four price categories: pounds 3 to pounds 5, pounds 5 to pounds 7, pounds 7 to pounds 10 and more than pounds 10.

Most of the cheaper chardonnays ( pounds 3 to pounds 5) were honeyed confections for the seriously sweet-toothed; exceptions came from Monterey Vineyards, Sterling Vineyards and Glen Ellen. But one step up in price and the quality seemed to double, notably with Fetzer's Naturally Farmed Chardonnay, Mountain View, Inglenook and Sebastiani's Sonoma Series. At pounds 7 to pounds 10, at least four outstanding chardonnays are available, each subtly flavoured, and above all with a finesse and fruit character lacking elsewhere: Chalk Hill, Cuvaison, Carneros, Iron Horse and Saintsbury (all, incidentally, either from Sonoma or the cool, southern Carneros district of Napa).

I tried only one of the 29 chardonnays priced more than pounds 10: the Newton Unfiltered, a beautifully balanced, burgundian chardonnay that lives up to the Napa name.

I was not particularly enamoured of the cheaper zinfandels, which tended to be soft, sweet, rustic or just plain dull. Exceptions were the Fetzer and Inglenook versions. In a world of stereotypical wines, it makes sense for California to bang the zinfandel drum, especially when production costs are half those of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and the other popular varieties. Some of the zinfandels were delightful and redolent of the seductive, spicy, raspberry fruitiness that is their particular hallmark, such as Elyse, Quivira and Ridge.

The strong dollar is disheartening for suppliers and customers alike. California wine now costs nearly 30 per cent more than in November, and the UK Budget's 5p-a-bottle increase in duty will not help. The pounds 3.99 bottle will soon cost pounds 4.50 plus, and the pounds 4.99 about pounds 6.

Such crucial changes at sensitive price points do little for hopes of a spring blossoming of California wines. Nevertheless, I feel fairly confident that, in the coming year, California will be playing a bigger part on the British stage.

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own