One crack
opens a chasm.

And what do you do for a 50th Anniversary Issue?
Start a fight.
Why not?

I guess The Nose should have suspected that, working in a foreign language department, some people might take exception to his remark about French wine. Even before this piece was written, people were already on his case. Little did he know, he had written his own warrant. Shunned, he wandered the halls alone.

One day, a week or so after the last newsletter came out, the Nose was lunching with a French colleague in the company of others. Towards the end of the meal, this person turned to him and said, "Oh yeah, I forgot; I'm not supposed to be talking to you."

Hm...depending on what that Nose says, we may never shop at The Bottle Store again. Another person asked, "How can you compare what cannot be compared? Americans have many things to be proud of, but the French definitely have their wine." OK, OK, peace, brothers and sisters! Fraternity, and give me a little liberty!

We can compare what we like, can't we? We are not comparing apples and oranges, as one person suggested: we are comparing grapes and grapes.

The Nose merely reached a saturation point lately having heard so many strange things about the differences between French wine and California produce that he wanted to expose some of these myths. We are all open to an exchange of ideas, right? Let's just take this as an exercise (or x-air-cease, as the French say) in contemplation, a meditation. One line revealed more about human nature than the novel could tell; now let's see where this passage may lead.

All of the statements here are taken from real, local conversations. Furthermore, one underlying assumption is that we are talking about wines and pricing as they pertain to the Midwest.

1 I feel more comfortable about French wines because of the various controls over them; California wines have too few appellations and designations.

I am not into wine because I am a control freak. First of all, wine is interesting because ultimately grapes cannot be controlled. The various French systems of classification can be as stifling as they are enlightening. They can serve as a good reference point for many people, but such classifications take years to change. The caste system does not assure me that I am talking to a holy man — and Robert Parker is not a prophet. Does the tenure system guarantee that the professor before us is a well-rounded, wise, and complex person? The best values will probably always remain outcaste, "second class/growth" wines; our challenge is to discover these as they are emerging.

2 California wines are purple prose; French wines are bottled poetry.

California wines are movies; French wines are films.
California winemakers are apprentices; French winemakers are the masters.
(Variation: California wine is craft; French wine is art.)

This is truly biased, pompous talk that is too often pushed onto novitiates at wine tastings. If it is done with mirth, that is fine. Highbrowed seriousness should be looked at with great suspicion. We should be leary of any comparisons that take this form.

Taste is very difficult to account for. If we did the ol' brown bag test, most of us would fail.

3 French wine has so much history and tradition behind it.

Yes, it does. But so what? Many people I talk to in this part of the country feel that those traditions are too reserved. (Now what does he mean by that?) While drinking a luscious California cabernet with a friend one evening, he turned to me and asked, "Why don't the French make wine like this?"
I said, "I am sure that they could; they have access to all kinds of great fruit. They just don't want to."
French wine has its own narrow, condensed band of flavors, and this range constitutes a tradition of sorts. Within this band of flavors there is great subtlety, but this range of flavors is still much narrower than California wines. This made another local person say that, "To me, French wines are too predictable."
Even French oak, used to store and age wine, is often described as tight; American oak, on the other hand is more open and broad. These types of oak affect the final flavors and aging process. Having said this, some of the best wines that I have tasted have spent time in both kinds of oak.

4 French wines are pure; American wines are suspect.

What is purity? The recent discovery that Chardonnay is a cross between princely pinot and a coarse plonk called gouais shoots this myth all to heck. According to a New York Times article on this subject, varieties derived from crosses are legally forbidden to bear the label Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée. So much for control, and this brings us full circle.

If you spend $30+ for any wine it better be darned good. The test comes nowadays when you try to buy that good bottle for around $12 - $15. (Again, I don't care what you can buy in France for that amount; "OK, I'll send you a postcard!") Being a fair and open-minded person, after I heard some of the above remarks, I went out and made an effort to collect over a case of French wine ranging in price from $8 to $20. In selecting this wine, I listened to the advice of experts and anyone who claimed to love wine. Over time (I won't say how long), I proceeded to take this excursion through France with friends and family. I concluded that, for the wines in that $12 - $15 range, I would rather be drinking a California red. Sorry.

When I started to think about this article, another colleague said to me, "Now you won't be comparing cheap wines from Bordeaux with fine cabs from California, will you? That would be unfair." No, we are not doing that. However, the best values that I did find were some very inexpensive wines ($7 - $9) from Bordeaux. California prices have steadily crept up with good reviews and the recent taxes in Illinois, such that there are few good values under $8 anymore.

I agree with another friend who said that some of the very best values in French wine are their whites. (Did the Nose really say this?) Matching an inexpensive French white wine with cheese and good fare can be beyond compare.

Now that wasn't so bad, was it? I hope that I will still be on speaking terms with most of you. After receiving input from some of our readers, The Bottle Store is stocking more French wine than ever. Happy Holidays!

November 1999