California Gems

An article in the July 19 edition of the New York Post noted that wine has become a category in "that precocious verbal game known as the snob-off." It's a hipster version of old-fashioned one-upmanship, only with "obscurity" and "newness" as the trump cards instead of "exclusivity" and "expense." In fact, "for the ultimate battle of yupster wit, the Final Jeopardy category is always wine." Mackenzie Dawson, the article's author, recounted a conversation in which a friend needled him for ordering a glass of rosé. "It's so...1970s. And not in a good way."

Dawson went into action: "'It's not the same thing as White Zinfandel, and it's huge in Europe,' I said, breaking out the big guns. 'Americans just don't get it. When I went to the Dalmatian Coast in June, it was all anyone drank.' Ten points for mentioning the Dalmatian Coast."

"I had no idea," I wrote the friend who e-mailed me the article. "I thought the yupsters thought wine was too bourgeois." Apparently, I was mistaken. Ed Moore's wine shop/bistro 3rd Corner has never stocked a White Zinfandel, and, he says, "Three years ago, we wouldn't have sold a single rosé. But now, we sell the heck out of them. We had a nice little rosé from Italy for $6, and we flew through ten cases." And it's the young people who are buying them. Things have changed.

It's not just the rosés, of course. Says Moore, "This entire generation is into wine, wants to drink wine. They're sophisticated; we constantly have kids coming in here who know at least more than their adult counterparts -- their parents. They aren't fixated on oaky Chardonnays. They're into Gruner Veltliners, Sylvaners -- much more receptive to trying lots of different things. If you sit with them for a little bit, they're willing to take your word for something and try it." And while Moore used to see the occasional cherry-picker in the shop, checking the labels against the latest scores from Robert Parker, he says that's not his customer base. "We've gotten to the point where we don't even put up any point-of-sale material" -- the kind of thing that might tout a 92-point rating. "The whole idea is, 'Trust us. We brought it in.'" If people have questions, they can ask the staff. And it's an idea that's working.

Besides ignoring scores, the oenophiles of the new generation find it easier to ignore brands. "People are experimenting more; it's not 'We always buy Chalk Hill' or 'We always buy Rombauer.' I think people in the restaurants and retail shops are pushing other varietals, trying to show people there are other choices out there." And that brings us to the biggest shift -- the one that has taken folks away from our sunny shores. Moore was surprised during his last visit to the restaurants of San Francisco. "I went to Boulevard, and I would say that better than 80 percent of their by-the-glass list was imports, and better than 70 percent of their bottle list. Another place up there -- Blue Plate: almost all imported wines, interesting stuff. When San Francisco does that, it's kind of a wake-up call." The city is practically surrounded by wine country, and yet it's casting its eye abroad. What's wrong with California?

Moore may have started his career as a Francophile, but he's a longtime fan of California wine. He championed plenty of domestic brands when he owned Thee Bungalow, and he recently bought a chunk of a friend's cellar laden with '70s California gems. "I have yet to have a bad bottle of this stuff. The Pedroncelli -- I think it's '79 -- is exquisite; gorgeous fruit, great acidity. If you came to me with anything from Cuvaison '75--'79, I'd buy it all. It's all Philip Togni wine. I'm sure the stuff was nasty upon release because it was so concentrated, but you open one of those wines today and it's -- 'I want more!'"

But you won't find a great deal of California wine at 3rd Corner. "It's not that we're not fans of California," he explains. "It's just hard to find what we think are values." The days when Moore was a fan were the days when "you were paying $10--$14 for the best California wines. You weren't paying $60, $70, even $90. Pretty much how we pick anything we bring in here is, 'If it's a $10 bottle, it better taste like a $15 bottle.' There's enough choice out there; we can pick from the whole world." It's not that Moore is opposed to expensive wine; he's got plenty of it in the restaurant's wine vault. You can get the Guigal La Landonne for $197 (and drink it onsite with dinner for another $5). And on the California front, he's got a bottle of the '96 Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cepages for $89. What annoys him are wineries that use high prices to enhance their image, charging $60 for a wine that fails to blow every $30 bottle in the marketplace out of the water.

That said, he knows that "we couldn't make a living if we had nothing but $50--$60 bottles. There are a lot of people who don't want to spend much more than $15. Find me a $4 or $5 wine that tastes like it's $10 -- and they're out there -- and you'd be amazed how many people will buy that wine." Especially if they trust the person selling it to them.

Not surprisingly, that tendency is especially pronounced among the young, who usually have less money to spend. (And who, per the Post article, aren't always quick to measure status by expense.) Says Moore, "I think California winemakers need to understand that they've got this entire generation -- these are lifetime buyers. Usually you don't start the habit until you're 35 or 40. I keep reaching out to guys in the business: 'Do you realize where your market is now? Get out there; find out that 22- to 32-year-olds are in love with wine, but they're not in love with big California Chardonnays or big California Cabernets. They're looking all over the place, and they're looking in the $10--$15 range. They're not going to spend much more than that, but they still want a decent bottle of wine.'"

The response? "Sometimes, it's that glazed-eyed sort of thing: 'What is this guy talking about?' They're still cranking out $40, $60 bottles of Cabernet -- or higher. There's not much you're going to tell them, except, 'No, we don't buy from Robert Mondavi anymore. I'm sure you sell a lot of Woodbridge; the price is cheap. Now get creative and work Woodbridge into something that's interesting for $10--$15.'"

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