The Grinch Strikes Again: Lament for Lost California Field Blends

I try to like California wines, I really do. On the face of it, they have so much going for them – multiple microclimates and terroirs, amazing variations of elevation and exposure, some of most advanced wine science and technology in the world, and access to just about any grape variety from anywhere in the world to work with. The Golden State’s winemakers should be able to produce at-very-least-drinkable wines in every conceivable style and price range. But no, it isn’t so. With a few very honorable exceptions, almost every new California wine I try is the same disappointing, brashly fruited, over-alcoholic monster.

Once upon a time I loved California field mixes – old-fashioned, everyday wines from before the monovarietal-Cabernet and -Chardonnay craze. Most of these came from old vineyards that had been planted in the European farmer tradition of several varieties together – a precaution so that if one failed, you could still make wine. The grapes came from all over: a field might grow Zinfandel and Barbera and Syrah or Petite Sirah (what California called Durif) or any number of other Rhone or Italian or Spanish varieties. From any given vineyard, the proportions of each variety might change from year to year, but the character and style of the wine remained reasonably consistent – easy, pleasurable drinkability being its most prominent quality.

I remember I used particularly to enjoy Trentadue’s Old Patch Red, which was exactly the unpretentious drink the name described. For some years, I haven’t seen any on the shelves here in New York, but recently I received an offer for it over the internet. My initial excitement faded quickly as I read the wine’s description: Now it’s predominantly Zin, with a mix of two other grapes, neither of which is the Barbera I remember as being a large portion of the wine I loved. It’s not the dry wine I remember either: It’s now described as semi-sweet. (Ugh!) And it’s up to 14.5 degrees of alcohol. That’s no longer a quaffing wine – it’s a getting-high wine, and no longer my tipple.
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This is not to say that there are no field-mix wines coming out of California. There are still some – probably more than I’m aware of – but the ones I know best have moved up several notches in elegance and price, so that they no longer qualify on my budget as everyday wines. Many of Ridge’s collection of Zinfandels, most of which I love, would qualify as field mixes. In fact, several of them contain too little Zinfandel in their blend (California law mandates minimally 75%) to bear the name Zinfandel on their labels.

Hence wines like the place-named Geyserville, my favorite, which is always a blend, from Ridge’s Geyserville vineyard, of a major proportion of Zinfandel with reciprocally varying percentages of Carignane, Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet, and Mataro (aka Mourvedre). This is an elegant wine, claret-like in its attack and aging ability as well as price, but I’m not aware of any California field-blend wines at an everyday-drinking price point that the word elegant could even remotely be attached to. Rather, their emphasis now seems to be big fruit and big alcohol and that’s all. It’s a great loss.

This whole fulmination came about because I recently ate lunch at a local Mexican restaurant, where I was offered a list of about 30 Mexican wines, mostly from Baja and all unknown to me. (I clearly have a big research project in front of me.) The one I chose, in consultation with the barman, turned out to be exactly the kind of genial, food-friendly, inexpensive field blend that California used to produce abundantly, but now seemingly can’t.

I have only one question: Why?  Of course I know the answer: The big monster wine sells. But wouldn’t a better balanced wine at the same price point sell too?  Has anyone tried?  I guess I had three questions.

2 Responses to “The Grinch Strikes Again: Lament for Lost California Field Blends”

  1. Brian Says:

    I live in Northern California and my taste leans towards the European tradition. I also like to shop local when I can but it’s a fruit bomb minefield out here in California.

    Fortunately, I found, right in my backyard, La Honda Winery’s “Exponent” red blend from the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. It’s not Ridge (or my favorite, Caparone, which is how I found your blog) but a great everyday wine.

  2. Geoff Says:

    I feel your pain, Tom. I’ve had the same impression from my limited exposure to Californian wines. I’d love to hear your thoughts – perhaps even an entire post – on Australian wines. While some are guilty of exactly the same issues as you describe (notably big alcohol and big fruit) I like to think, as biased as I no doubt am, that there are some – many – really excellent wines being produced here. Many of them are even affordable (although some most definitely are not).

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