Having followed the evolution of the California wine industry since 1972, I’ve seen many changes in winemaking styles to appeal to new markets and critics whose rankings drive sales. In the past two decades, one trend is for the higher-priced, higher-scoring California cult wines to be very similar in style – big extract, thick, high-alcohol fruit bombs that lack any sense of place.

I was reminded of this recently in reading through various pitches from on-line wine merchants hyping their higher-priced spreads. Here are a few excerpts:

Deep color, super-ripe; explosive bouquet; deeply buried tannins; deep, dark and muscular; bombastic youthful richness; explosive aromas; very full-bodied and dense; a show-off style Cabernet! (Explosive aromas); muscular, hefty mouthfeel; deep color, super-ripe and imbued with lots of chewy, chocolate-y tannin; California Power Juice; this red takes no prisoners (nose of unsmoked cigar tobacco, pen ink blackberries).

Sound appealing? Lots of explosions on the palate, and over-the-top, one-dimensional tongue-gripping wines that can be fatiguing and woefully difficult to match with cuisine of any kind.

In contrast, wine lovers can find a sense of place and style in some of the more nuanced Cabernet Sauvignon wines from Oakville and Rutherford. Maynard Amerine, the legendary scholar from UC Davis, noted some 40 years ago that the best Napa Valley wines showed a similar style in the nose (herbaceous, then layered with black fruit, berries, cocoa and hints of mint) and a correspondingly pleasing complexity on the palate, which could improve with age and could be matched with fine cuisine. There is a sense of place if one doesn’t go for bombing the palate with dense fruit, big oak and high alcohol.

The classic wines from Napa in the 1970s and 1980s (BV Private Reserve, Caymus, Robert Mondavi Reserve, Phelps, Spring Mountain, Heitz, etc.) had alcohols in the 12.5 to 13.5 range mostly. I’ve continued to taste the more classic older California wines over the years and have been pleased. There is a Napa Nose – herbaceous, berries, mint, light oak and hints of spice. As with fine Bordeaux and Burgundy wines, they could age with grace and be enjoyed with food. Today’s monsters don’t go well with much except ripe cheeses and barbecue. In Bordeaux, even wines on the Left Bank with high percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon offer nuanced styles that do evolve, have some sense of place and become more memorable, rather than a dried out one-dimensional fruit bomb with 15.5 percent alcohol.

For wines of incredible finesse and style, the Grand Cru, Premier Cru and even village wines of Burgundy show off Pinot Noir at its finest. No fruit bombs there. One of the pleasures of exploring Burgundy is enjoying how styles can change even from neighbors in the same appellations or adjoining plots on the same hillside. In California, unfortunately, some of the high-scoring Pinot Noirs come across as remarkably the same – one dimensional and almost Syrah-like in some cases.

For further exploring, the array of fine California wines available at non-cult prices is impressive. Consider the wines from Rutherford  in Napa Valley (Beaulieu, Grgich Hills, Cakebread, Bella Oaks, Bosche, Caymus, Heitz, Whitehall Lane, Round Pond) and Oakville (Martha’s Vineyard, Dalla Valle, Mondavi, Opus One, Plumpjack, To Kalon, Groth, Phelps Backus), to name a few.

Next: tasting notes from older classic wines from California.