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Op Ed: Is the UK Wine Trade’s “The California List” a Help or Hindrance?

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An outdated classification model will cause
more problems than it solves.

By Randy Caparoso

Who doesn’t love the UK wine trade? Most of us in U.S. wine-related industries have grown up hanging on to every word uttered, or published, by Hugh Johnson, Michael Broadbent, Jancis Robinson, and on and on. It’s the Brits who gave us the Institute of Masters of Wine and Court of Master Sommeliers, the curators of titles that we hold in highest esteem.

Maybe it’s because, as Americans, we are ever-conscious of being the “new kids.” Wine is complicated, so we need an elder culture to tell us how to think or how to make our judgements. I think this stopped being true at least 40 or 50 years ago, but nonetheless, most of us undoubtedly agree: The Brits remain, after all these years, absolutely brilliant. We are eternally grateful for their wine wisdom. Of course, we will always look up to them.

But sometimes, methinks, they go too far. This past March, for example, they bequeathed upon the wine world something they call, with classic English gravitas, “The California List.” A list, according to their press release, of 51 “seminal California wine producers” representing California’s “Best In Class.” The selections were made by a panel led by Jancis Robinson MW (one of my all-time heroes) and Ronan Sayburn MS (I don’t know enough about the UK wine trade to have any sentiments about him).

To quote Sayburn, “I talked to California winemakers in the past about ‘can you do a Grand Cru system?’ and it’s too complicated, but I think we came up with something that was pretty accurate.”

California List member Steve Matthiasson in an ancient vine Lodi vineyard [Photo by Randy Caparoso]
California List member Steve Matthiasson in an ancient vine Lodi vineyard [Photo by Randy Caparoso]
Before anyone starts jumping up and down, let’s make this clear: In marching out their list of 51 “grand” producers, an enumeration proclaimed as being inspired by Bordeaux’s 1855 Classification, this group also added a disclaimer — that this is a list of producers “acknowledged for the first time for their impact on the UK market.”

Needless to say, if you are a California producer whose products do not come anywhere near to sniffing the air in the UK, you’re out of luck. We all know dozens of amazing, undoubtedly world class, producers whose wines don’t make it past Lake Tahoe; but really, that’s neither here nor there from my perspective.

I think the far bigger issue is that a list like this, which imitates an antiquated model that all wine professionals universally acknowledge as being deeply flawed, is detrimental to the California wine industry. A hindrance rather than help.

Vines not brands

First of all, “The California List” is a classification of producers, not vineyards. Yet great wine, as we’ve always learned in classic wine books (at least half of them coming out of the UK), is made in vineyards. Producers — that is, winery owners, winemakers, et al. — come and go. The human influence on wines, even coming from a single vineyard, will always vary according to the talent, inspiration or (often enough) benign neglect of custodians. Winemakers are important, but ultimately it’s vineyard sites that make any wine of true merit.

So why are the Brits classifying producers — that is to say, brands — when it’s our vineyards that we still need to identify and come to appreciate more? It is true, of course, that the 1855 Bordeaux Classification was technically a ranking of châteaux, not necessarily vineyards. But the fact remains, the only reason why this 167-year-old system of ranking remains something of significance is because the vast majority of the grand crus are, in fact, associated with specific vineyards, notwithstanding their shifting boundaries. 

California List member David Ramey with Claire Ramey
California List member David Ramey with Claire Ramey

We can depend upon a Lafite to be great, and a Lynch-Bages to be consistently good and occasionally great, precisely because their vineyard sites are physically predisposed towards that level of quality no matter who is in charge of grape growing or winemaking. In 1935, France made its first move towards instituting a more sophisticated system pertaining to wine production, called Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). The AOC was more sensible than the 1855 Classification because it was based on recognition of regions and specific vineyards. Not producers or châteaux owners, or whose wines happen to be selling for the most at a given time. The AOC is meant to supersede both time and changes in commerce or ownerships.

Pictures of the past

By going backwards and embracing the flaws of the 1855 Classification, the UK wine trade’s list does more damage than good to a California wine industry that is still a long way from achieving its own sense of permanence — an integrity that can be depended upon through time. Of course, we can be happy that classic wine producers such as Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Ridge Vineyards are suitably honored. And who wouldn’t be thrilled that “newer” producers such as Matthiasson Wines and Arnot-Roberts can also find a place among more established, venerated names? 

California List member David Hirsch in his Fort Ross-Seaview AVA vineyard
California List member David Hirsch in his Fort Ross-Seaview AVA vineyard

Granted, the compiling group has described its list as “a snapshot of California wine in the UK market at a single moment in time,” and adds that further editions may be published every two years. Therein lies the problem: When you base a list on a “snapshot,” by definition, such a list becomes less credible with time. Likely a very short time, as anyone who has followed the rapid evolution of California wine well knows. 

The problem is, names on “prestigious” (one of Sayburn’s descriptions) lists tend to become permanently imprinted in the minds of trade, media and consumers; especially in the United States, where we are still very much influenced by power of suggestion. Who is to say that a winery such as Ridge Vineyards or Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars will continue to produce wines worthy of being ranked among a top “51” of California producers 10 or 20 years down the line? 

Though the UK trade’s list is barely a month old, I am sure most professionals in the California wine industry would say it is already out of date.

That’s the absurdity of enshrining producers or brands rather than vineyards. It’s also harmful, however, because brands that no longer deserve high rankings can easily end up profiting from their current good fortune for years to come, while more deserving brands struggle far more than they should.

We all know that new winery owners, especially corporations, have a way of screwing up perfectly good brands — even ones whose reputations may be perpetuated because they happened to have been marketed in the UK and found favor among a few well-meaning members of that particular trade.

So in this case, while we love the British, who deserve all the respect in the world, all we can say is thank you … but no thanks.

____________________________________________________

Randy Caparoso
Randy Caparoso

Randy Caparoso

Randy Caparoso is a full-time wine journalist/photographer living in Lodi, California. In a prior incarnation, he was a multi-award winning restaurateur, starting as a sommelier in Honolulu (1978 through 1988), and then as Founding Partner/VP/Corporate Wine Director of the James Beard Award winning Roy’s family of restaurants (1988-2001), opening 28 locations from Hawaii to New York. While with Roy’s, he was named Santé’s first Wine & Spirits Professional of the Year (1998) and Restaurant Wine’s Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 and 1998). Between 2001 and 2006, he operated his own Caparoso Wines label as a wine producer. For over 20 years, he also bylined a biweekly wine column for his hometown newspaper, The Honolulu Advertiser (1981-2002). He currently puts bread (and wine) on the table as Editor-at-Large and the Bottom Line columnist for The SOMM Journal (founded in 2007 as Sommelier Journal), and freelance blogger and social media director for Lodi Winegrape Commission (lodiwine.com). You may contact him at [email protected]

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1 COMMENT

  1. Hi Randy, loved reading this but maybe I got something wrong when I saw that list. When that list came out, I read that it was a list of wineries which have had the most impact on the UK market, not that it was a list of the greatest wines. There are many great wines from California which have not been exported to the UK, so they have not had an impact there and are not on the list. Maybe I am wrong and you are right but if I am right, then it should make you feel better. I wrote to my UK importer that I hope my Auctioneer Napa Valley Cab makes it onto that list but, no matter how good the wine, it has to have an impact there. It is well received here but that doesn’t count.

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