The Year That Broke California Wine

Posted: Aug 02, 2019

Look around. We live in the age of gilded minimalism. In the Bay Area in the year 2019, pop-ups in unmarked buildings draw hours-long lines. Our hottest restaurants are spare, open temples to natural light. We want our butter house-cultured, our grains ancient, our wild ales spontaneously fermented - and we're happy to pay the premium markup.

We privilege heterogeneity. We will stalk Instagram for the limited availability of a naturally leavened bagel that is available nowhere else. Our most of-the-moment bars sling natural wines - the cloudier, the funkier, the better. Obscurity reigns. If you haven't heard of the grape variety (Gringet, anyone?), you probably want the bottle. Even in Napa Valley, where wine trends arrive sluggishly, the most established winemakers have adopted the language of restraint and balance, praising wines that are low in alcohol and high in acidity. Flashy has ceded the stage to subtle.

There are many ways to tell the story of today's Bay Area - a place that, according to one Washington Post writer, is "rotting" under the pressure of $3,700 average monthly rents, IPO fever and infantries of tech bros in company-branded Patagonia vests. But our food culture, and specifically our wine culture - really, our evolving sense of taste - says so much about who we are today and how we got here.

Before we could arrive in this era of understated luxury, we had to boomerang off an era of overstated luxury. Remember foie gras? When restaurants looked like nightclubs? When instead of today's trend of grilling whole animals over open flames, we put food in test tubes? When it was fashionable to show off your affluence, not tastefully hide it? Not so long ago, before we all started drinking pet-nat, San Francisco's most sought-after wines were all blue-chip Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons - plush, smooth and voluptuous, the vinous equivalent of truffles and caviar.

Looking back at the last two decades, we can find a single inflection point where our idea of luxury began to turn, transforming from the extravagant energy of the early aughts to the spartan style of today.

That point is the year 2004.

2004 was the peak between the dot-com bust of 2000 and the financial crisis of 2008. While low interest rates and subprime lending were resulting in an all-time high rate of home ownership in the U.S. - and we know where that went - San Francisco was enthralled by the opening of one blockbuster restaurant after another, most of which, like the economic upswing, would not last long.

And though it might not have looked like it at the time, 2004 would turn out to be the most pivotal year in California wine of this millennium. It was the year that the movie "Sideways" premiered and turned a generation into Pinot Noir drinkers. The year that the California Supreme Court told Bronco Wine Co. it couldn't put "Napa" on the labels of non-Napa wines. The year that California's two most prominent winery IPOs - Robert Mondavi Winery and the Chalone Wine Group - came crashing down. Having gone public in the '80s and '90s, both of these historic wine companies ultimately were seized by larger corporate interests (Constellation and Diageo, respectively) within a two-month period.

Most of all, 2004 was the vintage that finally fulfilled the ideal of ripeness that the California wine industry had been gradually moving toward since the late 1990s. In Napa Valley, winemakers picked grapes at higher sugar levels in 2004 than in any other vintage of the decade: Whereas most years fall closer to 14%, the average '04 Napa Cabernet would clock in at a whopping 15.3%.

It was that very extremity that catalyzed a monumental shift in Napa Valley wine, forcing a reconsideration of the industry's identity. Soon, a group of dissenting winemakers would form an influential opposition group, urging a return to leaner, lighter wines. The former wine critic of this newspaper would later write an entire book about the shift away from what he termed "Big Flavor." Our collective sense of taste would begin to morph. 2004 was the year that took everything too far.

By Taylor Kate Brown
August 1, 2019

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