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
News
people

Actress sees off speculation about her appearance in an amazing way

Arts and Entertainment
Serge Pizzorno of Kasabian and Noel Fielding backstage at the Teenage Cancer Trust concerts
musicKasabian and Noel Fielding attack 'boring' musicians
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
Voices
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voicesVicky Chandler: Zoella shows us that feminism can come in all forms
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
people

Sport
nflAtlanta Falcons can't count and don't know what the UK looks like
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
High notes, flat performance: Jake Bugg
music

Review: Despite an uphill climb to see Jake Bugg in action, his performance is notably flat

News
The Putin automaton will go on sale next month in Germany
videoMusical Putin toy showing him annexing Crimea could sell for millions
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

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London