A variety-by-variety snapshot of California’s key grapes—indicating which are thriving, which are shriveling and the dueling forces of nature and the marketplace.
It seems fitting at this time of year to engage the metaphor of the stock market, casting our gaze upon the landscape to see how the various wine types are doing in California. I rate each variety’s 2011 stock performance based on a completely subjective algorithm derived from current sales, plantings, my own preferences and overall buzz compared to my previous reports.
Aromatic Whites. Albariño, Pinot Gris, Grüner Veltliner, Muscat (more on that later), Tocai Friulano, Verdelho, etc. have enjoyed a spike in popularity. They represent a step forward for a state in desperate need of dry, acidic white wines and they’re sommelier favorites, but consumer support hasn’t matched that enthusiasm. Still, on balance, these are positive changes. Stock up 10%.
Cabernet Sauvignon. On the basis of sheer glamour and price, Cabernet remains the number one wine in California. You may argue that Pinot Noir has come farther, faster, but sorry, Cabernet remains king. Cabernet is coming off a string of good vintages. As weird as 2011 was, I expect there will be many great Cabernets, mostly, of course, from Napa Valley. Stock up 10%.
Chardonnay. It hardly matters that California Chardonnay is so often boringly sweet, oaky and tutti-frutti (let’s call it the S.O.T. factor). Millions of people love it anyway. My feeling is that Chardonnay has declined a bit in quality, if for no other reason than that the marketplace rewards S.O.T. Chardonnays. At the high end, California Chardonnay remains spectacular—and the emergence of ultrapremium unoaked Chardonnay gives consumers greater choices than ever. Stock down 6%.
Merlot. Poor Merlot, always lost in Cabernet’s shadow. It’s an orphan, despite its popularity among certain segments of the market. Statewide, acreage has been shrinking, and is just barely steady in Napa Valley, where Merlot does best? If you’re a critic, you have to give a good Merlot a decent score, even if you wouldn’t buy it. Stock unchanged.
Muscat. I’m including Muscat because there’s a rumor going around that it’s “hot.” I suppose it is, in the form of cheap, sweet wines. Yes, beginning drinkers traditionally prefer sweet wines, and expense is an issue. They have to start their wine education somewhere, and Muscat is as good a place as any. Stock up 20%.
Petite Sirah. “Pettasera” (as the old-timers called it) had a pretty good run from 2005–2010, coming out of nowhere to gain traction. That’s slowed down a bit, as consumers have wondered just why they should buy it. It’s a good wine and, when well-made, distinctive and ageworthy. But Petite Sirah lacks a compelling rationale, a narrative. Stock up 4%.
Pinot Noir. The recent spate of cool vintages has been kind to coastal Pinot. Demand has leveled off since the Sideways phenomenon, which is fine, as California seems pretty much planted out to Pinot in the good spots. To increase it would only force development into inappropriate areas. Stock way up 18%.
Sauvignon Blanc. When Sauvignon Blanc is good—when it’s ripe, minerally, bright in acidity and dry—it’s California’s most refreshing white wine that’s not Chardonnay. Unfortunately, too many SBs are sweet in residual sugar, simple and/or have a nasty streak of unripeness. I like the concept of Sauvignon Blanc more than the reality. Stock down 6%.
Sparkling wines. If California bubbly were a stock, it would be Apple—up, up and away. The state’s small production of top sparkling wines has never been better, and there’s now many inexpensive wines from the likes of Barefoot and Korbel. Stock up 12%.
Syrah. Pinot Noir is often dubbed the “Heartbreak Grape.” Let’s call Syrah the “Heartburn Grape,” because it’s nearly impossible to sell. You hear that sad statement everywhere, and it’s a shame, because there are a lot of good Syrahs. Stock down 8%.
Zinfandel. It’s the Project Runway of California varieties: in one year, out the next. I haven’t opened a bottle for my own personal pleasure in a long time, but if you served me a good one, I’d happily drink it, especially with barbecue. Quality is actually pretty good. Zinfandel, like Petite Sirah, lacks a certain raison d’être, unless you’re a certified Zinfanatic. I love Zin anyway. Stock up 3%.