Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Is California "First-Growth" Worthy?

The Wine Spectator's, Jim Laube, had an interesting take on the recent sale of venerable Napa winery, Chateau Montelena. After detailing some of the difficulties this particular brand has had (made even more glaring after all their early success), he concludes that many of the old superstar wines such as Mondavi Reserve Cabernet, Stag's Leap's Cask 23, Montelena's Cab, have seen their best days, and that, by implication, restoring their former glory is next to impossible.

In the past, there have been calls - mostly by wine writers - to create a classification system in California modeled after the 1855 classification in Bordeaux. The four wines that were originally rewarded with "first growth" status were the most expensive (equated, then, with quality) Bordeaux wines made. In the intervening sesquicentennial, only one change has been made to the the first growth rank: Ch. Mouton-Rothschild was moved from second to first in 1973.

Whether Ch. Montelena's (and Mondavi, and Stag's Leap) "fall" is a symptom of America's seemingly insatiable appetite for the next new thing, our still-young wine culture, or an indication of French inflexibility, it is hard to imagine a California brand achieving the consistent highest level of quality for as long as the French wines have.

One of the benefits of the American search for the new is the ability for a wine region like the Livermore Valley to be lifted, through the efforts of the truly dedicated growers and winemakers, to the highest levels of quality. America reinvents itself constantly. What was accepted wisdom for one generation is the peculiar footnote for the next.

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