EARLY this year, Sutter Home, the Napa winery that gave the world blush wine, introduced a cheap and cheerful light red called Soleo. Its claim to have sold out of 250,000 cases in the first three months of the year was not unrelated to the 60 Minutes television documentary, The French Paradox, broadcast last November. Featuring research linking lower rates of heart disease in France to the consumption of red wine, the programme had a powerful impact on the United States' health-conscious consumers.
Americans have not taken easily to wine. The industry has been obliged to tempt them with simple styles and names. As a result, the American word for red wine is cabernet sauvignon and the word for white is chardonnay. Now known as the 'popular premium varietal', the dollars 3.99-dollars 5.99 ( pounds 2-pounds 3) chardonnay is well and truly established as the sophisticated way of weaning the US public off coke and iced tea.
The secret of the success of Sebastiani's Country chardonnay, Glen Ellen Proprietor's Reserve and Fetzer's Sundial chardonnay, which all sell more than half a million cases a year, is in making it taste sweet. But it is not just the lower-priced popular premium chardonnays that are sweetened. Kendall-Jackson recently alleged that its ex-winemaker, Jed Steele, passed on the 'secret formula' for sweet chardonnay that took Kendall-Jackson from a 35,000-case winery to a 600,000-case operation.
Perhaps as a reaction to the tyranny of chardonnay, there is a movement called ABC (Anything But Chardonnay or Alternatives Beyond Chardonnay, depending whom you talk to). 'In the more chic circles,' says the winemaker Sandra MacIver, 'chardonnay is almost a dirty word.'
The ABCS (Anything But Cabernet Sauvignon) society cannot surely be far behind. As a judge in the California State Wine Fair I tasted 133 cabernet sauvignon wines. There were some beauties, but a failure rate of more than two-thirds was a lacklustre performance.
What was lacking? Fruit, according to Darrell Corti, a wine merchant who also happens to be one of the US's most respected palates: 'Too many Californian cabernet wines lack real fruit. There are too many imitators making wine to a formula. There is a homogeneous character to California cabernet; it has cleanliness and varietal definition, but a singular lack of drinkability.'
Drinkability is the 'in' word. But a singular lack of it, in this instance, does not appear to have killed the US's thirst for cabernet sauvignon, Bordeaux's most enduring of grape varieties.
In the second half of the Eighties, cabernet sauvignon production rose by 16 per cent. More telling still, nearly a quarter of all the cabernet sauvignon grapes planted in California hang on immature vines not yet in wine production. Life after cabernet sauvignon is simply cabernet sauvignon reincarnated. Popular demand for cabernet is reflected in the price a grower can get for the grape - around dollars 1,000 a ton. That is six times the rate for California's 'jug wine' grapes: barbera, carignan and grenache.
Not surprisingly, jug wine, defined by one producer as 'sweet and fruity wine designed to wean people off soda pop', has 'gone to hell in a handbasket'.
The decline of jug wine and coolers is one of the contributing factors in the fall in per capita wine consumption in the United States from 2.4 gallons in 1986 to 1.85 gallons last year. In a nation in which fashion is about as permanent as a Ross Perot car sticker, it is not always easy to distinguish fad from trend.
However, there are signs of new wine styles emerging with a degree of permanence. Merlot, the Bordeaux grape that performs so well in the clay soils of St Emilion and Pomerol, has also bucked the overall downward trend to become California's latest superstar. Glen Ellen claims to be the US's biggest producer of merlot. It sells 200,000 cases of Proprietor's Reserve, a soft, easy-drinking blackcurranty merlot, well suited to the US palate.
Further up the quality spectrum at Cuvaison in the Napa Valley, the winemaker John Thacher agrees that 'merlot has really taken off. It's very appealing, it's soft and rich and easier to drink when young, even if cabernet sauvignon is inherently more complex.'
At Matanzas Creek in Sonoma County, Sandra and Bill MacIver were among the early pioneers of merlot, which they planted in 1978 'as it seemed logical that with all that cabernet around, someone was going to need something to blend with it. Now merlot seems to have taken off wildly,' Mrs MacIver confirms. 'There's a hunger for something that's in the same vein but different. People like the drinkability of merlot.' (There's that word again.)
Among other red varieties, there has been something of a revival of the native zinfandel grape which produces a reasonably priced, robust wine reminiscent of cotes du rhone. Joseph Phelps in Napa, Preston in Sonoma and Bonny Doon in Santa Cruz are seeing growth in the popularity of Rhone varieties. Pinot noir, the red burgundy grape, adds another shade of red to the spectrum, even if the ability to produce quality akin to red burgundy is limited to a handful of wineries.
Now sangiovese, the main chianti grape, is putting in its multi-million dollars' worth. At Atlas Peak, a spectacular new dollars 25m mountain-top winery owned by Allied-Lyons, Antinori and Bollinger, the race is on to produce California-style chianti. With such important players spending big money, this is a venture to watch.
If the talk is all red wine, the action is still for the most part white, which accounts for more than 60 per cent of California's harvest. As the jug-wine market started to be eroded in the Eighties, Bruno Benziger at Glen Ellen stepped into the breach with the idea of the fighting varietal, which began with chardonnay.
'I simply say no to chardonnay,' says Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon, handing me a glass of his 1990 chardonnay labelled fin de linea (end of line). 'People aren't aware how lame it is to grow chardonnay in a warm Mediterranean climate; California chardonnay is flattering in its youth but will often turn into the picture of Dorian Gray after a couple of years.'
The price of chardonnay grapes is still ahead of other white wine grapes and the profitability in making chardonnay is going down. Wineries that have traditionally relied on chardonnay to pay the bills are beginning to feel the pinch. At a dinner for 22 of the winery's growers from Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino, Zelma Long, president of Simi Winery, announced that last year's reduction in its chardonnay prices due to slackening demand would remain for the foreseeable future.
Mr Thacher sees it differently: 'I think there's room for growth still. ABC is the frustration of a lot of wine aficionados. Chardonnay is not just chardonnay. It's versatile. It can age. I could give 10 different chardonnays from around the state to a panel of unsophisticated wine drinkers and I suspect they would think they were 10 different grape varieties.'
Nevertheless, against a background of a virtual doubling of chardonnay production between 1986 and 1990 and more than 10,000 acres of young chardonnay vines still to start producing, Mr Thacher concedes the competition for new players is tough.
Gallo, the world's biggest wine company, having seen the writing on the wall, is moving into premium cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. This is a move that could give new meaning to drinkability.
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