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Monday Manifestos
California Becomes France and France Becomes California

By Charles Olken

Global warming is destroying France. Every year gets warmer and earlier in the vineyards. The grapes are riper, and the wines have already changed even though some Francophiles refuse to admit it.

In the meantime, coastal California is getting cooler and cooler. It is our natural air conditioning, the refreshing fogs and ocean breezes that are responsible for our wonderful climate—except that here on the coast, global warming works in reverse. As the interior heats up, the cooling effects of the Pacific Ocean rushing in to put out the fiery heat gets stronger. And as it gets stronger, it makes the coast colder—which, in effect, makes our harvests later, longer and ripens our grapes are lower sugar levels.

And as these phenomena repeat and increase, California is going to have a climate more like France and France is going to overheat and will have no choice but to pick super-ripe intense grapes or to harvest its grapes in July and August. But when the temperatures heat up, there are two other phenomena that come into play.

We in California know them well. Grapes picked earlier in warmer climates may have adequate sugars but do not have mature flavors. All those lighter, lower alcohol French wines are about to become green if the picking sugars do not rise. By contrast, grapes picked at physiological ripeness will be very intense, full of flavor, a delight to drink, but they will be lower in acidity and higher in pH. And, in France, where the addition of acidity is not allowed, the wines are going to get flatter and flatter in character.

Ultimately, the laws in France are going to change. We have already seen harvests where the Government relented and allowed the watering of the vineyards. Sooner or later, the vineyardists are going to get their ways and established winemaking techniques that we use here all the time to make our incredibly successful wines will necessarily be allowed in France. Spinning cone alcohol reduction, acidulation, mega-purple, water replacement will all become more and more widespread in France even while they are being phased out here. We know this is true here. We have seen the dramatic increase in lower alcohol, higher acid wines that increased coastal cooling has made possible.

And when these shoes get on the other feet, we will witness the greatest conversion of belief since Martin Luther. All of the Francophile winelovers and wine critics, the ones who excoriate California wine for the very things that make it different and successful, will now find those very characteristics to be exactly what wine is meant to be. And what will they say of California? California wine will be too thin, too understated, too cerebral.

I know this to be true because I saw it all in a movie last night. No, not Mondovino. And not a movie about wine. I saw a French movie last night, complete with subtitles, and I loved it because it was French. I have always loved French movies. It is why I chose to study French while attending a “Latin” high school growing up in Boston. And, like those wine critics who cannot see past the end of their noses when French wines come to call, I can’t see past the screen when I am watching a French movie.

I get it. In movies, I am hip. In wine, I am fighting an uphill battle. But sooner or later, the shoe will be on the other foot. Look out France, here comes California wine.

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Maybe Australia
by Sherman
Posted on:8/15/2011 10:13:57 AM

It would seem that if we follow the argument reductio ad absurdum, we would see France becoming Australia ;) They will have to pick super ripe grapes early in the year, add acid and add some critters to their labels.


And if California is going to become France, perhaps the Central Valley will become the Languedoc? We can only hope --

Sooner Rather Than Later
by Marcia Macomber
Posted on:8/15/2011 11:08:44 AM

What a lovely balance of explaining the technical nuances of climate change effects on our favorite crop and perspective on the long-term picture for both France and California.

I suspect them’s fightin’ words with Ms. Dugan, about France’s wines losing their je ne sais quoi, but I wouldn’t dream of putting words in her mouth (or from her keyboard). I’ll be interested in the ensuing discussion here….

I also suspect Sherman is onto something as well. However, it seems many more changes will be necessary (beyond climate change) for the Central Valley to become a Languedoc!

by Michael Donohue
Posted on:8/15/2011 11:53:21 AM

I have got to think the same coastal cooling you refer to has to benefit maritime vinicultural areas like Bordeaux and the Loire, just as it benefits a realitively tiny strip of California's coast. How far inland I wonder do such benefits carry? Not as far as Napa from some of the weather data I've seen (and let us not forget the vast majority of the state's vineyards are much further inland. Your prediction of increased homogeity in winemaking is disturbing at best: more spinning cones and mega-purple are not as appealing to me as unfined, unflitered, unirrigated naturally fermented grape juice. Call me crazy, but I admire some of the stubborn Franch traditions, like making rose through skin contact instead of just blending surplus red and white wines. The rush to progress/Parkerization or Frankenwine needs to be measured, not wildly embraced.

Climate change
by Robert Hattaway
Posted on:8/15/2011 2:11:33 PM

For the official Napa Valley Vintners release which offers greater detail on climate change please see

California becomes France...
by Emmanuel Mathe
Posted on:8/15/2011 2:23:15 PM

As a Bordeaux wine broker I would agree with the climate change in France and the higher level of alcohol in most French wines over the last few years but surprisingly the effect is not the most "dangerous" on still wine but mostly on sparkling wines and spirits. The Champagne region or Cognac region may face some problems in the future with a warmer climate because they need more acidity in grapes than Bordeaux or Languedoc. But the effect needs to be evaluated over a long period of time. Right now for example the summer in France has been very bad with lots of rain. Also don't forget that both US West Coast and French West Coast benefit from the Gulfstream effect. As a conclusion I would say that Californian and French wines may become closer in style (more balance), which I think is good, but climate is one part only, the soil and technics are different so at the end French wines will stay French, and Californian wines will stay Californian. I hope both even better in quality but still different.

France Becomes California
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:8/15/2011 2:48:29 PM

Mr. Donohue--

I tend to taste wine blind and really don't care how wine got to where it is so long as the process is not ultimately harmful to the plant material or the humans who consume the wine.

But, that said, the suggestion that your preferred methodology is limited to France simply does not hold water. Most of the wine that folks who read this blog, or my publication or vitrually any other publication, is not produced using extensive methods of interviention. Certainly, rose can be made by combining red and white. That is how Rose' Champagne is made for the most part so it is not an unheard of process in France, just as making rose' here through saignee is also not unheard of. Neither is native yeast fermentation.

The rest of what you say may be true enough although I think the fog that develops along the CA coast is not typical of Bordeaux. And I would refer you to the data contained in Mr. Hattaway's link for a more definitive discussion of what hot years do to temperatures in the Napa Valley.

Thaniks for posting. We are still decades away from knowing where all this climate change is going. My speculation is just that, but it is not without some justification just as it also not without a bit of tongue in cheek.

Marsha, My Dear
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:8/15/2011 2:50:26 PM

Hi, nice to hear from you.

I suspect that our Ms. Dugan has not checked in because she is being nice to me instead of tearing me limb from limb.

I too like Sherman's take on things.

climate, schlimate
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:8/16/2011 7:40:19 AM

Isn't there some other subject connected to wine that we can politicize today?

what is the Cali word
by Bryan Maletis
Posted on:8/16/2011 10:19:53 AM

If people who love French wine are called Francophiles, then what do we call those who love Cali wines? Sweethooths?

We just tasted a bunch of Central Coast Syrahs and Rhone Syrahs blind. Your above argument did not hold any truth with regard to the wines we tasted, maybe someday it will, but for now, Cali is all about fruit, while France is all about terrior.

As for the rosé argument, we had a Cenral Coast Cali rosé that read 16.1% ABV on the label, maybe someday this will change, but it is not happening today.

The Word
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:8/16/2011 11:20:28 AM

We are called wine lovers.

And your conclusions are greeted here with great skepticism. 16.1% Rose? Sure. Someone did that. I just looked over the notes of the Rose's I tasted recently.

Twenty-seven wines ranging in alcohol from 12.5 to 14.5.

Funny thing about wines from the Rhone. When one visits the winemakers there. one never hears the word terroir. One hears of wood choices, ripeness levels, fermentation temperatures, even soil types on occasion but not really because they did not choose their vineyards by soil type.

One hears the very same things here--except, because our vineyards are newer, there is, in fact, a greater emphasis on soil type and on climate in discussions. When you are operating in vineyards that are hundreds of years old, as they are in the Rhone, those types of choices are no longer part of the calculus.

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