THE WORLD is drowning in wine. Thanks to improved production methods, more wine is being made everywhere: wine that must be sold to make space for yet more wine. At the same time, thanks to the spread of anti-alcohol feelings, health preoccupations, and other worries of contemporary life, wine consumption is barely increasing in the United States, while it is actually dropping in the two countries–France and Italy–that were once the world’s largest wine consumers.
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We here in America are emphatically not wine drinkers. In 1973, annual per-capita wine consumption was a measly 1.66 gallons; by 1984 that figure had risen, but only to 2.36 gallons. (To put that in context, one six-ounce glass a day would work out to about 17 gallons.) In France, meanwhile, consumption stood fairly steady during that period, at about 25 gallons per person per year; whereas in Italy it fell from about 26 gallons in 1975 to under twenty gallons in 1985.
In other words, the wine trend favors buyers over sellers, who also have to cope with the different market structures for imported and domestic wine. In New York City, it is possible to buy for remarkably low prices ($5 and less a bottle) good everyday imported drinking wines that are almost always more interesting and classier than the comparably priced American wines. (By “American,” in this context, I mean Californian. Wine is made nowadays in almost every state in the Union, but so far only California, the biggest of all the American producers, is capable of marketing it efficiently enough to compete with the foreign producers.)
Unquestionably, California wines are not doing well. Too many new wineries have been started up as tax shelters, producing the so-called “boutique” wines–often very good, but made in such small quantities as to be commercially impossible in this country of mass distribution, yet so full of pride of product that the wineries send unsolicited bottles to journalists like myself, hoping that we will give them a little free publicity.
Long-established California wineries, with excellent production records and equally good national distribution, are caught up in the rat race: among them Beaulieu Vineyard (or BV, as it is everywhere called) in California’s beautiful Napa Valley. BV has made excellent wine for 85 years, ever since Georges de Latour came from France and established it. He and his grande dame wife not only planted grapes in especially suitable Napa Valley districts, but made BV into a showplace with formal gardens and a fine house where they entertained bigwigs like Herbert Hoover and Winston Churchill. In 1924, their daughter married the French Marquis de Pins, who was himself a wine producer in his native Gascony.
BV was and is famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon wines, especially those bearing the Private Reserve label, which are as good as, and frequently better than, Bordeaux’s fine wines. (This is especially true of the early vintages–if you are lucky enough to find any–such as the legendary 1936 product.) I once held a private tasting of California reds of the period 1935-1975, featuring all the best wines from the most famous wineries–including Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet (“Kneel when you taste it,” said a connoisseur). The wine that came out tops with all the Bordeaux people present was the 1936 BV Cabernet.
Part of M. de Latour’s success was owing to his choice of winemakers, especially Andre Tschelistcheff. Andre–a Russian who learned oenology in France–came to BV in time for the 1938 vintage and retired in 1973. A small and totally charming man, he combined the best elements of traditional and innovative winemaking techniques to produce outstanding wines, thus benefiting the whole California wine industry.
In 1969, BV and four of its five vineyards were sold to the Heublein conglomerate, famous for its ready-made cocktails and even more famous for introducing vodka to America. The (to my mind) unenviable task of trying to bring BV back to its early glory, while at the same time making money for Heublein, has fallen to a very nice and very able man, Thomas B. Selfridge. Selfridge became BV’s full-time winemaker in 1979, having been its oenologist and viticulturist since 1973; he is also the president of BV Vineyard. He has to make 12 or 13 different wines, including champagne, and to travel around demonstrating to the world that BV is both traditional and innovative. The answer to the question of why BV has to make so many wines depends on whom you ask. The most frequently given explanation is that you have to have a full line in order to survive. Seeing that quite a number of California wineries are doing fine with only a few wines, I tend to view this argument uncharitably, seeing Heublein’s hand over BV.
But I could be totally wrong, of course. What is for sure? That there is too much wine that must be sold, that the competition is fierce, and that BV now makes very good wines, if you want to spend up to around $13 for a 1982 Cabernet or a 1983 Chardonnay. Or, if you’re feeling rich, you can spend approximately $21 for a Cabernet Reserve or a Sauvignon Reserve, keeping in mind that California wines with Reserve on their label are the best wines the producer makes.
To end on a practical note: In buying any wine–but especially inexpensive wine–patronize a store with a good reputation. Reputation is a valued possession, which no store wants to lose. You will normally get good wines; and if a particular wine turns out not to be everything it ought, you will have recourse, which you wouldn’t with a discount store. At the very least, you may be sure that your wine has been properly stored.