Recently, I received the latest issue of “Connoisseur’s Guide to California Wines” (CGCW), one of the older publications that reviews (mostly) California wines. In their Aug. 2005 issue, they reviewed 163 recently released California Cabernets, almost all of which came from the highly touted 2001-2 vintages. Of these 163, 1 (the 2002 Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow) received their highest accolade of ***, whereas 16 received a rating of ** and 56 received a grade of *. If we take these three rankings as meaning bottles meriting serious attention, then 73/163 (44%) made the grade with less than 1% achieving the highest status and ~10% reaching **. Granted, many of the heavy hitters (Ridge, Phelps, Montelena e.g.) were missing from this issue, but as a survey of what’s on the market I believe that it gives us an accurate picture.
Much has been written in recent years about the tremendous strides made in winemaking in CA, so I decided to see it this was reflected in increasingly positive reviews in CGCW by digging out an older issue of CGCW (Vol. 6 from 1981) that looked at Cabs from the ’76-’77 vintages (drought years that produced some very good wines, but which weren’t heralded as great years). What I found was that, of 212 wines reviewed, 1 (<1%) got ***, 20 (10%) got ** and 46 (21%) received *. So, overall, 31% of the wines reviewed merited serious attention.
What to make of all this number crunching? First of all, it appears that little if any change has been made at the top. It is true that the standards of the publication may have changed in the interim, but the fact remains that as few wines today receive their top marks as did 25 years ago. However, there is a significant increase in * wines, reflecting what I see as an overall increase in the baseline quality of winemaking and vineyard practices. This is also reflected by the absence of any “inverted glass” ratings (undrinkable wine) in the Aug. 2005 issue, as compared to 14 inverted glasses in the ’81 issue. However, this must be balanced by another significant change: whereas there were 11 Cabs labeled “Best Buy” in ’81, only 2 received that accolade in the latest issue.
In many regards, this matches my own, wholly subjective impressions. CalCabs today are uniformly drinkable, well made wines that sell for usually absurdly high prices, with only a very few providing actual excitement. It is interesting to contrast the very successful 2001 vintage of Cabs with the 2000 vintage in Bordeaux. In both cases, the top wines sell for obscenely high prices, but it is noteworthy that the 2000 Bordeaux vintage produced many excellent wines from the satellite appellations that sold in the US for $15-20 a bottle; surveying this current crop of CalCabs, only one of the rated wines sold for less than $20.
I contast this situation with what I remember from the late ’70s, when wineries like Conn Creek, Robert Keenan, Caymus and Franciscan (to name a few) made exciting, idiosyncratic, hit-or-miss wines that sold for reasonable sums of money and would not infrequently hit home runs. I am sure that there remain wineries in CA that still do this, but I fear that the vast majority have swapped inconsistency for mediocrity while at the same time pricing their wines out of all proportion to what’s reasonable.