There's a wonderful moment in the early pages of Lawrence Osborne's wine memoir The Accidental Connoisseur that has stayed with me. Osborne has paid a visit to Robert Mondavi, California's great ambassador of wine. Mondavi, not content to haul out one of the Reserve Cabernets that made him famous, instead sits our man down with a '99 Reserve Chardonnay, paired with a '97 Latour Corton-Charlemagne — a top White Burgundy. The great man's judgment: "I think that the Corton-Charlemagne is terribly good. But ours is just, uh, a little more pleasing. Don't you think?"
Mondavi's wife disagrees, saying that the Latour is more complex. "Complex, yes," replies hubby. "But is it more pleasing? I think ours is more pleasing in the end." He says the same thing when comparing a '99 Mondavi Pinot Noir with a '99 Echezeaux from Jean Gros, adding, "It's just that bit more fruity, don't you think?"
And there you have it: France vs. California. Or, in the words of French wine expert Josh at the WineSellar & Brasserie, "Old school vs. new school, Bob Hope vs. Adam Sandler, dirt vs. fruit." Josh's first thought about France vs. California has to do with selection. "The U.S. is the only place in the world in which you have the option to drink or eat or have whatever you want. I have 30 different New Zealand Pinot Noirs, and I have 40 different wines from the Southern Rhone. In France, you would find three American wines. Our freedom is pretty special."
Lest you think Josh is lapsing into Freedom Fries talk, he is quick to note that, in his experience, "The people who weren't drinking French wine" for political reasons "weren't drinking wine to begin with. The high-end collectors are above politics. When you're dealing with $500 Bordeaux, you're not making choices based on politics; you're making choices based on money. You're buying the wine thinking that it will go up in value, or thinking that it's the best wine in the world. It doesn't matter if the politics of France don't align with yours."
Bryan Farres at the Wine Bank agrees that people aren't buying according to their politics these days. But where Josh thinks it's easier to find "good value" wines from California, Farres says that at the Wine Bank, France has the best of the Best Buys. "The Columbelle in a twist cap? Killer stuff. I've got a Côtes de Gascogne that got a 90 from Parker for $10." Outside of the bargain bins, "Pinot Noir is as strong as it gets -- as strong as I've seen it. We've got some good staff that will show people some Burgundies, but the average palate is still Central Coast--driven." Even if the Central Coast wineries are sailing right off the Pinot map and into Syrah territory. "I tasted a Dehlinger Pinot from one of those killer vineyards blind, and I thought it was Syrah," marvels Farres. "It was black, and as ripe as it gets. It wasn't varietal, but they like it."
Where else does France flourish? "We do well with the '04 and '05 Chateauneuf-du-Papes, and we have a lot of interest in the '05 Bordeaux." Farres won't necessarily be featuring the five First Growths — it's hard to compete with the prices offered by the buyers at Costco for stuff like that — "but the better buys are going to be the highly rated lesser properties, things in the $100 range. I think that, with some of the prices, people are reevaluating — do you go down that road?"
With prices what they are, it's hardly surprising. John Lindsay at Vintage Wines says the market "is kind of wild and woolly. In Bordeaux, they've decided they're going to raise the price to whatever they want, and they've got worldwide recognition, so they can sell it somewhere besides the U.S. From what we've been told, it's all going to Hong Kong, Macao, India, and Moscow. When you get into a glamour vintage, you're talking some of the First Growths going out at $750-$1000 a bottle — on futures. By and large, there are a lot of good, solid Napa Cabernets that can be bought for a whole lot less." Of course, there are some good solid values coming out of Bordeaux in the $25 range, and in a nonglamour year, those famous First Growths "might be $200 or less." Hence the wooliness.
Meanwhile, over in Pinot country, "a lot of the glamour producers in California are $35 and up, and you can buy Burgundy for that. I've got Premiere Cru Burgundies for $35--$45 and Grand Crus as low as $55. Ten years ago, a Burgundy would have cost two, three, even four times as much as a California Pinot. Now, it's a very, very competitive market." Lindsay says the same is true when it comes to White Burgundy and
California Chardonnay, and that Chateauneuf-du-Pape is in something of a class by itself, value-wise. "They've gotten excellent scores, and when you get up to $40--$45, you're buying some of the very best."
Still, the general sense I get is that California has the edge here, sales-wise. Jeff at the wine bar/wine shop Wine Steals said, "We sell a lot more California. There's a select French clientele. Our Point Loma store probably has more." Laura at the Point Loma location, however, said, "We do carry mostly California wines, just because we're in California, and more people are interested in Napa and Sonoma, those regions. But for my own personal taste, I like a French Chardonnay over a California Chardonnay. The California style is generally very buttery, very oaky, a little too creamy. The French, Old World style is kind of crisp, with a little fruit. I'm finding that most people do like the buttery, because they're not really acquainted with the French style. People aren't aware that there are different styles. We like to educate."
Sonia, manager at WineStyles in Encinitas, sounded a similar note. "The people in California — my customers, at least — tend to go toward the really bold wines, so I think California is still outselling France. But I'm definitely trying to introduce people to the more subtle nuances that you can find with a French wine. I think finding that line where you can cross into Old World tradition and add a New World flair to it — something that can be done very delicately — can be a lot of fun. I like wines that do that well. Mahoney Vineyards is definitely one of those; for 20 years, he's dedicated his life to making a Pinot Noir that could rival the Burgundies of France, and we think he's done a pretty good job. Also a lot of the Rhone varietals coming out of Paso Robles, such as the Robert Hall Syrah."
California rules the roost at Donovan's Steak and Chop House as well, but if you ask sommelier Drew Bushnell what he prefers, he'll tell you he likes the "higher acid, generally lower alcohol, and overall sense of complexity" he finds in French wines. "They tend to have flavors from all areas of the aroma wheel, instead of just one small slice of it." Of course, that's not to say that he works the French pages of his list above all else. "As a general rule, you try to find the best fit for the person who is actually going to be drinking it. I go ahead and ask them, 'What are some wines that you do like?' That gives me an idea of the style, and I go from there. It's fun to explore different palate preferences."
What he has been willing to do on behalf of his favorites is experiment with the list, and what he's found has proved interesting. "We have a very expensive Bordeaux section — almost everything in it is very expensive. People didn't even look at the page; they just looked down and thought, 'Oh, all French wines are so expensive. Where's the Napa Cab?' All I had to do is put a few $40-$80 selections on the page, and my French wine sales increased — and not even just on those $40-$80 wines. People started looking at the $150 selections. We've been trained to think that Bordeaux and Burgundy are only for the very, very rich — and a lot of the wines that make it onto the list are expensive. But there are some beautiful Bordeaux and Burgundy out there for less than $100 — restaurant pricing. Still, I can only buy so much French — what's actually moving is Cal Cab in the $60-$100 range."