That said, because of my middle-class, up-from-a-small-town, prisoner-of-the-suburbs, prepossessingly uncosmopolitan heritage, I've always courted the French. The French, those princes of sophistication, style and urban elan. Their food, their wine. Their movies. All through my 20s, I lapped at the hoary pool of flagrant Francophilia, sometimes quite literally. I lost my cherry to a girl with some French in her, and I've had my head spun by numerous jeunes filles over the years. One of them had eyes as dark as rain-slickened coal and lashes that were about 11 feet long. Skin like parachute silk. A funny little wristwatch. A cute hat. And a fiance. ("But they all have one of those," quipped a friend when I confessed my percolating lust.) I shared cigarettes with the French girl. "We will have one cigarette?" she would suggest. And we would have one cigarette. Puff, puff, cultural complicity, shared affection, nicotine and lechery. And that was as far as it ever went (I quit smoking at 27), and I'd have to admit that there's a theme nestled in that small frustration.
As with virtually everything else, my true colors come through in wine. I don't really understand French wine. I sort of get it, much like I sort of get plumbing, photosynthesis or the stock market. The wide vagaries (Running water! Greenery! Buckets of lucre!) of the concepts are ironically more clear than the specifics. Plus, the first really good wine I ever drank, a 1985 Mondavi cabernet sauvignon (from the best California cab vintage of the 1980s), imprinted the big, bold, large-and-in-charge style of California reds on my wine-guzzling consciousness, for better or worse. It was an accident, that Mondavi cab, but it ruined me for subtler wine.
France is where the subtle wine comes from. Subtle is influential. When the California wine business was young, the explicit emulation of Bordeaux was pretty much the norm. It made a lot of sense, because the primary Bordeaux grape varietals, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, are a lot more rugged than the other great French red-wine varietal, pinot noir, the red Burgundy grape. Pinot noir is just trouble, flat out, though some notable California and Oregon regions have succeeded in making it work. Additionally, Bordeaux, during the early days of the California wine business, was (and still is) the King of All Hoity Beverages. It's Bordeaux that hauls down the truly huge bucks at auction, Bordeaux that obsesses the wine press and wine junkies like nothing else, from harvest to barrel to release. (How about $3000 for a bottle of '50 Petrus?) But it's also Bordeaux that has established the most fundamental style of non-plonk viticulture, those wines that in no way net the kind of monster change that folks are willing to drop on grand cru futures, but that deliver the familiar ruby/purple color, the earthy fragrance, the full-bodied fruitiness and overall dry and moderately tannic sensations on the tongue. In America, we sure don't drink wines made in the style of the magnificent semisweet whites of Germany and Alsace. We drink reds built to emulate the glories of Bordeaux. And, often enough, to exceed them.
Obviously, there's more to France than Bordeaux. The Rhone, the Loire, Languedoc?France is jam-packed with formidable appellations, supplying the big, broad world with wonderful wines both quotidian and sublime. If you want to dig into France, however, Bordeaux is the way to go, the crucial way station, the indispensable threshold. Other tactics are mere nibbling at the edges. But is it necessary to spend wads and wads to do this? It is not. New York is awash in cheap Bordeaux. Bordeaux that runs between eight and 15 dollars and will deliver that vital Bordeaux vibe. So you've been guzzling $10 red zinfandels for the past couple of years? Quit. Zinfandel is zinfandel. Unless you start laying down $50 for the boutique stuff, you're never going to experience anything new. Furthermore, budget Bordeaux is designed to accompany food, to blend with food?to find in food its fulfillment, a quiet glory beyond its lowly provenance. A really good one is the '96 Chateau LaGrave Bechade ($9), which I first heard about via the Times' Howard Goldberg. I finally found a bottle at Chelsea Wine Vault and swilled it promptly. (On another note, all red Bordeaux is blended from some combination of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot, malbec and carmenere; the theory is that wine requires orchestration to achieve its promise, that a weak merlot harvest can be salvaged through an infusion of cabernet sauvignon or cabernet franc.) From more significant regions, give Chateau Bernard Raymond (a $10 Graves), Chateau D'Arvigny ($13, Haut Medoc) or Chateau Plantey ($15, Pauillac) a whirl. All are satisfying, harmonious, fruity and not too fat. Any one would nicely complement a lamb shank or veal roast. If you can, concentrate on finding Bordeaux from 1995, an excellent year across the board for the region. I've had pretty good luck at Union Square Wines & Spirits, where the Bordeaux section is strong and diverse, both in quality and price.
My Francophilia is waning, but that doesn't mean you should give up the ship. Not yet, anyhow. Someone has to drink their wine and fancifully assume that, through a mellow alchemy, drinking their wine is the next best thing to being them. Beats smoking. Smoking is unrequited. Wine puts out.
As much as I might want to pretend it isn't, wine is often about reference. Reference materials, that is. And recently?like, last week?into my lap was dropped the second edition of Wine Spectator senior editor James Laube's massive California Wine. If you're with me on the whole California wine thing?if you agree, proper patriot that you are, that our Left Coast is confidently producing perhaps the best wine in the world right now, and that in another decade or so it might finally trump France as the most influential wine-producing region period?then you're going to need to pick up a copy of Laube's book. Why? Because as the California wine business burgeons and swells, it's only going to become more difficult to keep the scene organized in your head.
Here's the issue: Drinkers of California wine?and basically, that's all of us, at one time or another?have grown accustomed to thinking of the state's viticulture as varietally organized. Consumers hit the wine store thinking "cabernet sauvignon" or "chardonnay." By contrast, in France, appellations rule, ruthlessly. Laube's angle, however, is to outline the ways in which California is beginning to organize its wine styles around appellations, or "AVAs"?"American Viticultural Areas."
This might not sound like a big deal, but it is. To fans of California wine, it's an absolute boon, because it signals that one of our more comprehensive and important wine critics has authenticated an indigenous version of what the French call terroir?the idea that the wines of, say, Burgundy are the quintessential expression of that region's virtues. Wine is communication. Wine is a physical means of transporting what Burgundy (the Cote de Nuits, for example) is all about?the culture, the weather, the dialect. Wine is the perfect objective correlative. As pompous as it sounds, as esoteric (and as unabashedly Francophilic), terroir doesn't come easy. Simple fact, and sometimes we need to give credit where credit is due. In Medoc, for instance, they've been cultivating their terroir for centuries. California had a lot of catching up to do. But Laube's book strongly suggests that they've begun to pull it off. The Napa Valley is the queen?and has a clear interest in limiting the ability of other AVAs to co-opt the Napa name?but other regions have gradually become synonymous with styles of wine, rather than broad varietal bottlings (a "domestic" merlot, in this scheme, thus becomes an imprecise descriptor?one needs to think about merlot in terms of whether it's the correct wine to express a particular region). As far as I'm concerned, the completely unanticipated success that California winemakers have enjoyed of late with pinot noir?as I reported above, the neurotic native grape or Burgundy, a grape that wasn't thought growable anywhere else until it flourished in Oregon?was the first solid signal that AVAs were becoming a bigger deal than whether you were making a passable chardonnay.
Obviously, not everyone can produce pinot noir wherever they might want. It takes the correct philosophy, the right soil, the perfect microclimate. Pinot noir is an acid test, and the real deal usually costs $30 and up. It also offers a needed counterpoint to Napa's titanic cabernets. And, with the emergence of syrah as the hot new California grape?and the reliability of zinfandel as the local curiosity, not to mention a lineup of mighty whites?California has the varietal range to make a system of appellations work.
So here's my prediction: By 2015 or thereabouts, wine-hounds will have begun to think "Carneros" when they want a spicy California pinot noir, "Napa Valley" or "Stags Leap" when they want a truly stupendous cabernet, "Edna Valley" for chardonnay. It will be automatic. This might sound complicated?remember, the varietal system was originally adopted because the French appellation approach was considered offputting?but in fact it's a better way to understand wine. Let's face it: a winemaker can make chardonnay with grapes gathered from all over the place. It might be terrific, but it's not a legitimate liquid metaphor for a specific place. There's no room in the world of truly great wine for virtuality; awesome wine must express, at its core, an origin, an inescapable groundedness. There's nothing we have?not books, movies, poetry, not technology, not nothing?that can swing this trick. Only wine. And Laube knows it.
Besides that suggestive revelation, which really only makes up a sliver of his hunky tome, California Wine is jammed with endlessly useful data on all the juice that the state pumps out, alphabetized, indexed, lucidly coded and summarized. It's out now from Wine Spectator Press/Running Press and it'll set you back $40. Worth every penny.