In our country, if a little of something is good, then a lot of it must be better. And so it has become with many of our wines from (especially) California and Washington.
In our country, if a little of something is good, then a lot of it must be better. It's the "Ivory Soap syndrome": at 99 44/100ths percent "pure soap," Ivory sells itself as a better soap than one less "pure."
And so it has become with many of our wines from (especially) California and Washington. We top the charts with wines heady in high alcohol; gobs of extract (color, tannin, body, heft); and long aging regimens in oak barrels that often leave some white wines tasting like tree juice. The high alcohol level issue alone has become a buzz topic in the past year or two. Is it global warming (so that grapes ripen to excessive levels of sweetness and pigment)? Is it consumer demand for oomph? Is it good old American chest thumping?
In any case, we can't get enough of it. The West Coast cult cabernets (often selling — out! — at well above $200 a bottle) come in at 15 percent alcohol or more by volume. California zinfandels don't surprise anyone any longer with 16 to 17 percent booze levels. If a chardonnay doesn't have any oak aroma or flavor, it's conveniently dismissed as "not American, too French" in style.
I fault myself, in my former years. I used to love putting power to my palate, tasting big, strapping, molasses-y zins that were red wine martinis and stained my teeth and tongue eggplant-purple. I'd say, "Man, these are gonna age forever." They didn't; they fell apart after 9 or 10 years, devolving into something like weak tea with a shot of vodka.
Chris Farley wines make an impression, that's for sure. But they don't function well, by and large, where wine matters: at table, in the cellar, on the palate.
Nowadays, for wines from my homeland, I am all for what best could be called "the Quiet Americans" (apologies to Graham Greene). These are American wines that turn down the volume. They're subtle, nuanced, understated and great with food.
Some recommendations of specific wines follow, but first it might be helpful to pass on a few pieces of broader advice. Two overall categories of American wines are worth searching through.
Cool climate regions
For the most part, cooler growing areas make for grapes that retain their acidity and do not ripen to extremely high levels of sugar. That makes for wines that sport moderate levels of alcohol, crisp definition on the palate and humble flavor profiles.
Such areas are the Carneros district that straddles the southern ends of both Napa and Sonoma counties; much of the western regions of Sonoma and Mendocino counties, those up against the Pacific coast (areas such as Green Valley, Russian River Valley, Anderson Valley); a pair of areas in the Central Coast, Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys; and Monterey, Santa Cruz and Edna Valley.
Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, zinfandel and many a chardonnay — especially if grown in warm regions with generous sunshine — just simply have an issue being demure. They may make for some of the West Coast's most famed wines, but they often are a caricature of big, blowsy wines.
For Quiet Americans, stick to (some, not all) wines made from riesling, sauvignon blanc, pinot gris, chenin blanc, even some gewurztraminer (from, say, Anderson Valley). For reds, pinot noir often nods hello. Some cabernet and syrah, in the hands of a skilled and sensitive winemaker, aren't behemoth wines, but can go trippingly down the tongue.
Bill St. John has been teaching and writing about wine for more than 30 years.
Recommended Quiet Americans
2009 Poet's Leap Riesling Columbia Valley Washington: At 12.9 percent alcohol, this comes close to the great rieslings of Germany (in fact, it's made by a German, though it's 100 percent U.S. fruit). Slightly off-dry, with lots of exuberant, citrus-y, persistent aromas and flavors. $20
Mumm Napa Cuvee M Napa Valley: Many sparkling wines, with their zippy personality, are fine examples of Quiet Americans (they flit; don't flaunt). This slightly sweet blend of several grapes is the bubbly that you will want to serve with many cheeses or desserts. $20
To prove to myself that it could be done, I truffled out two California cabernet sauvignons with alcohol levels at or below 13.5 percent, silky textures and, yet, lengthy and delicious flavors.
2008 Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles: This is Deal City for its smooth touch, moderate tannins, solid dark-fruit flavors and amazing price. $14
2006 Jordan Vineyard & Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley Sonoma: Proof that California can produce elegant, graceful, aroma-heady and flavor-packed cabernet — if the winemaker decides to. A rare 13.5 percent alcohol and one of Sonoma's great cabs. $52
If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.