Alternative or Afterthought?

Alternative or Afterthought?

Too few california winemakers are willing to invest in top-tier Sauvignon Blanc, while consumers are reluctant to spend big bucks on it. The result? Stalemate.

Just before Thanksgiving I heard that Cain Vineyard & Winery, on Spring Mountain above Napa Valley, is stopping production of their Sauvignon Blanc, Cain Musqué, which they’ve made since 1989. This is another blow to an endangered species in California: top-tier Sauvignon Blanc.

Cain’s winemaker and general manager, Chris Howell, says that it’s too much of a hassle to make Cain Musqué, which is sourced from the Ventana Vineyard, in the Arroyo Seco section of Salinas Valley. “Each year,” says Howell, “we ask ourselves, why are we making all this effort to source fruit from nearly 200 miles from Cain?” I’m not second-guessing Howell, but I sure will miss that wine. Made from the Musqué clone of Sauvignon Blanc, it’s long been one of my favorites: Dependably dry and savory, with gobs of acidity and tangy gooseberry flavors. I like it because of its dryness and complexity, so different from most other California Sauvignon Blancs, which usually have either a semi-sweet treacly taste that reminds me of a sugary stick of spearmint chewing gum (and is really hard to pair with good food), or that offensive cat-pee, vegetal smell that comes from overcropping or a too-cool climate. People often ask me why California Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t get the high scores Chardonnay does. Some do, but no, most don’t. Anyone familiar with, say, Didier Dagueneau’s Pouilly-Fumés (Pur Sang, Silex) from the Loire, and wines from neighboring Sancerre, know that Sauvignons can be brilliant, crisp and filled with life. Sadly, most California examples don’t merit scores above an 87 or 88. Plastering on a ton of new oak doesn’t help; it merely adds sweetened toothpicks to the mix.

Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t examplary Sauvignon Blancs in California. Ventana, which owns the vineyard where Cain got its grapes, makes a very good one. Rochioli produces a great one, from the warmer part of the Russian River Valley. I’ve loved Mayacamas’s, which comes from the top of Mount Veeder, and Peter Michael’s L’Aprés-Midi, from the slopes of Mount St. Helena above Knights Valley. Then there’s the Santa Ynez Valley trio of Babcock, Gainey and Brander. And let’s not dismiss Mondavi’s To Kalon Reserve Fumé Blanc, a dry wine from the Oakville benchlands. What these wines have in common is a single vineyard source in a climate that’s neither too hot nor too cold, low yields from older vines (and not necessarily the Musqué clone), and the winemaker’s dedication to crafting world-class Sauvignon Blanc. Each of these wines is distinct, yet each offers a whistle-clean mouthfeel, a lemon-zest acidity that stimulates the tastebuds, and a brisk, pleasing finish. As food wines go, you could hardly ask for more. There are oakier Bordeaux-style Sauvignon Blancs, blended with Sémillon, from California that I like: Chateau St. Jean’s La Petite Etoile, Merryvale’s Starmont, Dry Creek’s Reserve. But for pure Sauvignon character—don’t forget the word is derived from the French term for “savage” or “wild”—you don’t want to tame Sauvignon Blanc with too much oak, so that it ends up tasting creamy, like Chardonnay.

So why don’t more wineries succeed like Cain, Mayacamas, Rochioli and some others do? It has less to do with terroir than with economics. It’s hardly worth the winery’s while to expend much expense and effort on Sauvignon Blanc, as long as the public apparently is unwilling to buy it. Ask any wine store owner, and he’ll tell you the consumer’s upper limit for Sauvignon Blanc is $15 to $20. Beyond that, people demand Chardonnay, and considering the quality of most California Sauvignon Blancs, even (especially) the costlier ones, you can’t blame them. Why dig deep for a mediocre bottle of wine?

It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. If consumers would drop $30 or $40 on a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc the way they routinely do on Chardonnay, more producers would do a better job with it. (I bet that if Cain had been able to sell their Musqué for $40 instead of $23, they’d still be making it.) But until producers start giving consumers better Sauvignon Blancs, people will hesitate to spend the big bucks (or will buy something from overseas). Consumers like the dry, crisp style. Look at the popularity of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and Austrian Gruner Veltliner. California Sauvignon Blanc could join this list.

(I’m not letting restaurateurs and sommeliers off the hook, either. I’ve been to too many upscale restaurants where there were a jillion Chardonnays on the wine list and a handful of mediocre Sauvignon Blancs.)

Unfortunately, this is where we’re stuck, for now. For too many wineries, Sauvignon Blanc is an afterthought, a cash-flow wine they churn out mindlessly, while their real attention goes to something else.

Published on February 1, 2005