My Round: California dreaming

The fastest-growing wine region is aiming to steal even more of the UK market. But is it going about it the right way?
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Last year, the UK wine market as a whole grew by around 5 per cent. Imports from Australia grew by around 6 per cent. Chile, an ever-stronger contender in the UK wine-ring, grew by around 12 per cent. But wines from California, which have historically had a tough time here, grew by a whopping 27 per cent. This will have made a lot of people in the Golden State very happy. But what does it mean?

Last year, the UK wine market as a whole grew by around 5 per cent. Imports from Australia grew by around 6 per cent. Chile, an ever-stronger contender in the UK wine-ring, grew by around 12 per cent. But wines from California, which have historically had a tough time here, grew by a whopping 27 per cent. This will have made a lot of people in the Golden State very happy. But what does it mean?

It means, for one thing, marketing nous and marketing clout. The wines of California, as you know especially well if you have ever bought wine for home consumption in the USA, deliver reliably in two areas: the cheap and the expensive. Over there, you can buy just-about-drinkable wine for $8 (£4.30) and very good wine for $15 (£8). For UK consumers, however, the choice in the middle regions is limited. The lower price range is amply provided for - if you don't mind drinking sweet Chardonnay and Merlot - and there's reasonable choice over £10, but the crucial £5-10 range is much more difficult. Now the California industry is working hard, with apparent success. And it's about to start working even harder.

Its efforts are being channelled into something it calls "benchmark wines", a short list comprising (for the moment) 16 wines between £5 and £10. John McLaren, director of the UK arm of the Wine Institute of California, describes the 16 as "exemplary" wines in style and quality: "they have to have no faults, and be typical". They also have to be made in large enough quantities for retailers and producers to promote them - "which is a tough call for something that wants to be exemplary".

Now, my eyes glaze over when I hear something described as a benchmark. This overused term can be applied to just about any test or enterprise that aims ostensibly at setting objective standards. The Wine Institute of California is being neither careless nor unscrupulous in its benchmarking, but its case of 16 has yet to convince me. For one thing, some of the wines are less than fully thrilling. There are some good wines on there, one of which is recommended to the right. There are also some extremely dull bottles, an anonymous Chardonnay and various reds with excessive alcohol and shapeless flavours.

More fundamentally, it is hard to bring off an exercise like this when you restrict yourself on price. Imagine trying to choose 16 benchmark wines from France without going over £10. No champagne, no top claret, no top Burgundy, no top Rhône. The California bench creaks also because it contains some styles of wine for which the world simply has no need - or can get cheaper from other places. The list contains some Sauvignon Blanc, for instance. Who expects California to compete there against other New World countries (or France, for that matter)?

It's hard to see who will benefit from this bench. We'll all find out, because the California mob is planning this as an annual exercise. While they've done the first selection primarily for the wine trade, they'll be bringing it to consumers in the summer with a new list of benchmarks.

In the meantime, California excels in two areas that are under-represented on (or absent from) this list. The most important is Zinfandel, California's greatest contribution to the wine world. Two are on the list; both are good wines. But my own list would have been chock-a-block with Zins such as the one below. The second is Pinot Noir, a grape that some cooler areas of California make to world-class standards. Again, one good example occurs below; there are none on the list. The price was wrong for them. It isn't for me. If you're going to get into the benchmarking game, use the best marks you've got.

Top corks: Three good Californians

Pedroncelli Pinot Noir F Johnson Vineyard 2001, Dry Creek Valley (£10.45, Lay & Wheeler, tel: 01206 764 446) Beautiful balance between pure Pinot fruit and sensibly applied oak.

Bonterra Viognier 2003 Mendocino (around £9.99, Oddbins, Asda, Threshers) From an exemplary exponent of organic viticulture, lovely stone-fruit flavours lightly touched with oak.

Seghesio Sonoma County Zinfandel 2002 (around £14-16, Liberty Wines, tel: 020 7720 5350) Massive, hugely alcoholic (15 per cent), chewy tannins. Not everyone's taste, but truly typical.

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