What’s So Great About California Wine?

What's So Great About CA
Lots of things are great. Anyone reading this blog for any time at all knows I am a dyed-in-the-wool aficionado of old-world style wine. So, you may ask, what is it that suddenly put me on the path to write about California wine? Deep, dark despair, dear readers, and it’s all Doug Shafer’s fault. I’ll come back to this is a moment so please forgive my being discursive.

Forget about all the other stupendous attributes offered up by California like its weather, its culture, food, natural beauty, movies stars, the Pacific, and its mountainous terrain. There are a million things to love about California and a few things to loath, but apart from these, its wines are certainly worthy of your attention. Think about this for a second: approximately 333 million cases of wine were sold in the US in 2012 (yes, million and cases). These numbers are so unwieldy I had to put them into an Excel spreadsheet. This calculates to just shy of 4 billion bottles of wine (3,996,000,000 actually). Wow, that’s an impressive number! More impressive is the fact that two thirds of that volume is wine from California! That’s extremely impressive. Even with Monsieur Rolland, good luck Virginia.

Notwithstanding the fact that AA may be doing a brisk amount of business, that’s a lot of wine, and actually we’re not even close to the highest consumption per capita (in the +15 year old category!?!?!?!). Not surprisingly Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen are at the bottom of the per capita ranking; if we could only get those guys to loosen up a little . . . Anyhow in the US, we have a large and thirsty enough population to be the leading nation in the volume of wine consumed. Some will be proud that we are the ‘winner’ in that category, assuming that’s anything to be proud of – see previous comment about AA.

Back to CA, I’m happy that the domestic wine industry is doing so well, even though my personal preference is French wine. Going into any US retail wine shop or restaurant is like walking through a minefield of fruit bombs, something I fear more than an atomic bomb. Still, I get the seductive part of California wine, and not all of them fall into the anonymous, nondescript, lack of terroir, near-soft drink classification and it would be unfair to categorize them as such. I have enjoyed many bottles of fine California wine on numerous occasions and have had pleasurable conversations with some of the region’s most celebrated winemakers.

I recently had a small but nice wine dinner with a couple that is very dear to my wife and me. It began with hor d’oeuvres and Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, of which I am always fond. Moving on to dinner consisting of red snapper and a somewhat elaborate couscous salad, we enjoyed a bottle of Domaine Colin-Deléger Chassagne-Montrachet 2010, which was to perfection on every level. Taking a break from food, we left the dining room for the comfort of the living room and enjoyed a bottle of Richebourg DRC 2003 (mind-blowing). After that, it was time for dessert and I know that our esteemed guests, Tom and Jo Ann, typically enjoy port. They have a wonderful collection of wine themselves including numerous bottles of mature high-end port. I love port but I don’t collect it so I had only one choice that would work, and that was Shafer Firebreak 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Dessert Wine.

As for Mr Shafer: All of Doug’s eponymous wines are amazing and collectors know that Hillside Select is regarded as one of California’s very best. But this ’06 Firebreak is something out of this world. I originally only had two bottles and this was my last one so to put it concisely, I am desperate for more. As Doug explained at a Shafer Wine dinner in Austin about four years ago, in 1981 he, and his father John (who founded Shafer Vineyards in the Stag’s Leap District in Napa Valley), originally planted a small number of rows of Sangiovese around their home after it was almost destroyed by wildfire that made its way through part of Napa Valley that year. They aptly named the wine from these vines “Firebreak”, which by design, the vines were meant to slow down impending doom should wildfire breakout around the area again. At one point Doug made a Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon blend but I’m not sure if it was a dessert wine; it appears not to have been.

I recall Doug mentioning the fact that they were not thrilled about how its Sangiovese was performing so I believe they ripped those vines out and replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2006 vintage was made with 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, and having a whopping 18% alcohol I’m reasonably sure it was fortified, while earlier vintages seemed to have been around 14% alcohol. Although there are yeasts available that will produce that prodigious amount of alcohol I don’t believe there would be enough residual sugar left to be deemed a dessert wine. It was the last vintage produced (as far as I know) and is impossible to find anywhere in the country, partially because they only sold it to someone in person, at the winery. I’ll spare you the story about how I acquired two bottles, signed by the maestro himself, without having gone to Shafer Vineyards.

This very fine dessert wine had wonderful expression, complexity, balance, and purity of fruit with a mile-long finish. As mentioned, it is ‘port-like’ but because it was made with Cabernet Sauvignon, it has a very different fruit profile than the Touriga Nacional grape typically found in the best vintage port. I savored Firebreak each of the three times I’ve had it and was certainly happy to have had great friends to share it with, especially fine wine collectors. It went perfectly with dark chocolate macaroons and ripe organic black, dark red, and blue fruit.

I will at some point get to Napa to visit Shafer Vineyards and beg for more, but I’m not sure if they even have any left. I don’t know why the decision was made to discontinue making this treasure but if you can ever get your hands on it, it will rock your world, not unlike the rest of the great Shafer lineup. Just like the Shafer story, the Shafer family, and Doug (truly a nice guy and a rock star winemaker), this august bottle is superbly unique in a world of ‘me-too’ wine.

David Boyer

Photo: Shafer Firebreak label – at this point, it should be relabeled as “Shafer Heartbreak” – sadly, it’s gone

4 comments on “What’s So Great About California Wine?”

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    Because of instability in temperature its getting difficult to maintain the originality of wine and its taste.
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    Adam From Redstonecatering

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    Thanks for great Article on California Wine. I’m one of the fans of this great drink. California is the leading wine producing state—making more than 90 percent of all U.S. wine—and also ranks first in wine consumption.

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