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California v France: who wins the battle of the bottles?

Updated: Jun 15, 2023

The west coast’s wineries are so varied that you do have to try them all, says Nina Caplan

Nina Caplan

Saturday, May 13th 2023, 12.23 am BST, The Times

In the 1990s, the late Jess Jackson of Jackson Family Wines set Vérité’s winemaker, Pierre Seillan, a challenge: “Can we make a blend in California that’s as good as the best Bordeaux?” Seillan’s reply was positive — but with a caveat. “Yes, if we make it in Sonoma.” The result was three wondrous Vérité wines: the velvety, merlot-based La Muse; La Joie, which is primarily cabernet sauvignon, so needs time to mellow; and the spicy Le Désir, which is largely cabernet franc.

In March, just after the final barrel was filled, I visited the winery’s magnificent new home in Healdsburg. With its airy entertaining area, expansive views over vineyards, and vast barrel room, it felt like a challenge from California to Bordeaux.

It’s not the only top winery here with a French connection. Stéphane Vivier, of Vivier Wines, is a Burgundian transplant and Ted Lemon of Littorai started his career in Burgundy. There are others in Napa Valley, next door. And some debates here are the same as in the old country: is a wine made using a Bordeaux-style blend better or one from a single vineyard à la burgundy?

As in France, that question is not easily answered. California’s soils are incredibly varied: all that tectonic activity means that one vineyard can have iron and clay and sand. There is sandy loam in the valleys, gravel near the Russian River, and cracked limestone further south. This means that almost anything can be grown. Although the reds are mainly made from cabernets, merlots, and pinot noirs, and the whites from chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, you can pretty much plant anything anywhere, and the official quality designation, the AVA (American Viticultural Area), unlike France’s controlled appellations, won’t intervene.

When the owners of Ridge thought cabernet sauvignon would thrive on the slopes of Monte Bello back in the Fifties, that’s what they planted. Seillan feels that “micro crus” — detailed blends from different soil types — make the greatest wine. They are both right, as is clear from the prices: neither will give you much change from £300.

The AVAs, says Vanessa Conlin, Sotheby’s global head of wine retail and an expert on the Napa Valley, are based on notable geographic attributes that should showcase distinct characteristics — for example, soil type, altitude, or proximity to the Pacific Ocean. One of the newest AVAs, West Sonoma Coast, was created in 2022 to showcase the vineyards actually near the coast and differentiate them within the vast Sonoma Coast AVA. In a hot climate, she says, this geographical distinction is important because grapes need to be kept cool — whether that’s by ocean breezes, morning fog channeled down a valley, or high altitude. I went up Alexander Mountain, owned by the Jacksons, to see the volcanic clay-loam vineyards where the cabernet franc grapes are grown for Vérité’s Le Désir, and then I hurried back down. The views across Mount Saint Helena were spectacular, but it was decidedly cold.

In the 1976 blind tasting known as the Judgment of Paris, Ridge’s Monte Bello showed what a high-altitude vineyard can do. It’s hard now to comprehend how shocking that moment was, when Californian wines (mostly from Napa) were pitted against wines from Bordeaux and the French didn’t win. Fifty years later, wines from top Napa estates are as hard to access as Bordeaux First Growths.

A wonderful feature of California is that there is so much choice. Those with a more Burgundian sensibility might enjoy a glass on the garden terrace at Katy Wilson’s tiny winery LaRue, tasting her exceptional quartet of single-vineyard pinots ( If Vérité’s micro crus ( or the racy, savory chardonnays by Hanzell ( don’t suit you, there is superb zinfandel, often from very old vines, such as those from Arnot-Roberts ( Lesser-known whites include grenache blanc from Ridge ( or Idlewild’s Arneis (

While it’s impossible to explore all the California AVAs in one trip (even with help from a concierge service such as All Access Napa Valley), the distance from LaRue to the palatial surroundings of Vérité is only 45 miles. The drive from Burgundy to Bordeaux is more than six hours. Great winemaking is complicated everywhere, but sometimes greatness is easier to experience in the New World.

Jane MacQuitty picks five fabulous Californian wines

2017 The Mascot, Napa Valley

Introducing The Mascot 2017, an extraordinary wine that will captivate your senses and transport you to the stunning vineyards of Napa Valley. Crafted by the renowned Mascot Winery, in collaboration with the prestigious Harlan Estate, this wine embodies the pinnacle of winemaking artistry.

Immerse yourself in a glass of The Mascot 2017 and behold its mesmerizing deep ruby hue that hints at the indulgence that awaits. With each swirl, the air becomes infused with the irresistible aromas of succulent blackberries and luscious black cherries, accompanied by delicate notes of exotic spices, velvety cocoa, and the tantalizing embrace of oak.

Upon your first sip, your palate will be enveloped in a symphony of flavors that dance harmoniously. Experience the seductive embrace of ripe dark berries, tantalizing plum, and succulent cassis, seamlessly melded together with nuances of vanilla and hints of mocha bestowed by the careful aging in oak barrels. The Mascot 2017 is a wine that effortlessly balances power and elegance, a testament to the terroir of Napa Valley.

As you savor each sip, time seems to stand still, allowing you to revel in the wine's velvety texture and impeccable structure. Its velvety tannins caress your palate, while a subtle yet vibrant acidity adds a refreshing touch, ensuring a harmonious and unforgettable drinking experience. The culmination of this sensory journey is a lingering finish that leaves a lasting impression, echoing the wine's depth, complexity, and sheer magnificence.

The Mascot 2017 is more than a wine; it is an embodiment of the passion, expertise, and uncompromising commitment to excellence that defines Napa Valley's winemaking heritage. Indulge in this masterpiece, and let The Mascot 2017 transport you to the pinnacle of vinous pleasure, where the world fades away, and the artistry of Napa Valley takes center stage.

2020 Tablas Creek, Patelin de Tablas Blanc, Paso Robles

A delicious white rhône-aping blend with lashings of exotic viognier-led, sandalwood-scented spice.

2020 Mae Estate Chardonnay, Santa Rita Hills

Try Tyler Winery’s zesty, citrus blossom-scented Mae Estate chardonnay with its toasty, power-punch finish.

2019 Ridge Pagani Ranch Zinfandel, Healdsburg

A bold, beautiful, squished mulberry of zinfandel — juicy yet velvety — from Ridge, one of the Sonoma greats.

2012 Dominus, Napa Valley

A distinguished new oak barrel-aged Bordeaux blend with seductive black pepper, coffee bean, and bay leaf fruit.

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