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The problem with California wine has always been that it is company-based, not geographic. French and Italian wines are geographic. Of course there are differences label to label, chateau to chateau. But you can count on a Chassagne-Montrachet to have a distinctly different flavor than a Sancerre. It’s not that one is better than another, it depends on the situation as to which one you choose to open.
I can go into a wine store and get a $25 bottle of Gigondas and pretty much know what to expect, regardless of the producer. That’s because Gigondas is a place, a relatively small village in the southern Rhone, and its soil, rainfall, sun, and surrounding vegetation tend to be generally similar for all producers in the AOC. The same cannot be said of California wine. Napa wines run the gamut and if you don’t know the company, you could easily find yourself spending $40 for a bottle of purple oak juice.
What California wines need is a more widely accepted AVA system of sub-regions, which exists now but is largely ignored by the general public. St Helena AVA, Stag’s Leap AVA – not the companies, but the sub-regions within Napa – will lead to a much more reliable appellation, and wine-drinkers will be able to know what they are getting without relying on the taste of one individual expert who may favor heavy and oakey to light and expressive.