When California vintners began to seriously cultivate the red wine grapes of Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, etc.) to compete on even footing with the French, it created both a successful business model, plus expectations among connoisseurs and collectors. The ante was then raised with the American “victory” in the Judgment of Paris.
The effect was almost a oenophilic duplicate of the American Revolution: the strident intent of the Declaration of Independence; and the closure (and location) of the Treaty of Paris. All was combined in a relatively peaceful swirl-sniff-and-sip – no bayonets, no musket fire. And delightfully, all to the chagrin of wine’s most obstinate Loyalists.
This accomplishment should not be diminished, especially with America’s 238th birthday celebration on the way. Amazingly, the triumph occurred, albeit coincidentally, during the nation’s bicentennial, — and even on foreign terroir…. er, soil.
But one result was that California/Napa Valley Cabernet, and other Bordeaux blends and meritage wines now have a tough reputation to uphold. So, the better offerings end up being priced in a similar range as their illustrious French counterparts. And, at the truly inexpensive end of the spectrum, many California Cabs and Merlots can be insipid. These dullards are sourced from bulk grapes – not unlike the way watery beer gushes from behemoth breweries that compromise hops and barley.
“(America has proven that it) can make the greatest wines in the world,” says Del Frisco’s Chicago Wine Director Michael Taylor. “What we didn’t do much of (and what many European countries have been doing for centuries) is cultivating grape varietals for wines that can be enjoyed on an everyday basis.”
Taylor’s hunch is that the havoc caused by the stubborn might encourage American producers to set aside some land for lesser-known grapes to make exciting, interesting wines. California Zinfandel actually has an American legacy dating back to the Gold Rush, but it’s obscured by an obsession with greatness.
“What I’d like to see is some Cinsault or more Grenache [cultivated] in American soil,” Taylor adds.
So, with the Fourth of July approaching, many Americans might feel a certain patriotic urge to purchase and enjoy wines that are indigenous to the homeland – our domestic terroir. Below are a few value-priced options that aren’t from bulk juice, aren’t trying to masquerade as challengers to Château Petrus, and are reflecting American innovation.
Stray Dog Zinfandel 2011: A delicious Zin from Lodi, California, it’s not overly jammy; good body and structure. Smooth, with black cherry, cola and cigar box on the palate. All of the great American barbecue favorites would go with it, especially barbecued chicken and pork chops, and Sheboygan bratwurst, too. Available at Treasure Island’s Broadway store for $15.
Sylvester Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2012: The balance of fruit and acidity make this this Cabernet a classic for summer grilling season. It’s from Paso Robles, CA – a region still emerging when compared with Napa Valley. A truly versatile wine, it can pivot from charbroiled steaks to gently grilled pork tenderloin. Aromas are of black fruit and black pepper, and the palate features black cherry, a bit of cedar and a hint of thyme. The finish is long and truly delightful. Available for $14 at Schaefer’s Liquors in north suburban Skokie.
Foxglove Cabernet Sauvignon 2010: Another good one from Paso Robles – a region still emerging when compared with Napa Valley. It’s all black fruit and intriguing elements of sweet spice. Medium- to full-bodied, it can be enjoyed now, or even aged a couple of years. Serve with roasted or grilled beef, accompanied by white/wild rice or home fries. It averages $13-$15 at retail.