Inspired by the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux, The California List, which was launched on Wednesday in London, is a new 51-strong list of seminal Californian wine producers, being formally acknowledged for the first time for their impact on the UK market. Judged by a panel led by Jancis Robinson MW and including Ronan Sayburn MS, the List was launched at a ritzy West End reception, with 32 of the producer’s wines being poured including library stock of Harlan Estate, Opus One and new wave producers such as Radio-Coteau. Peter Dean was our man at the launch who heard from Robinson, Sayburn and others about the rationale behind the concept.
“I talked to California winemakers in the past about ‘can you do Grand Cru system?’ and it’s too complicated but I think we came up with something that was pretty accurate,” says Ronan Sayburn MS about The California List.
Scroll down to see which estates made the final California List.
Inspired by the 1855 Classification in Bordeaux and Langton’s Classification of Australian wine, the California Wine Institute UK has produced The California List, a list of 51 seminal Californian wine producers that it hopes recognizes the ‘best in class’.
The California List is a list of the top Californian wine producers – estates renowned for their quality, fame and overall impact in the UK – as chosen by a five-strong panel made up of writers Jancis Robinson MW and Stephen Brook, wine buyers Sarah Knowles MW and Mark Andrew MW and chief executive of the Court of Master Sommeliers Europe, Ronan Sayburn MS. Like the 1855 Classification the list focuses on the producers and not individual wines.
No tasting process was involved, rather the judges’ past experience and in-depth knowledge of the Californian wine market, with three selection criteria used – quality, availability and impact. Quality had the greatest weighting in the scoring system with judges focusing on how well the producer’s wines and price points compare to their Californian and world peers; the number of estates was also not predetermined, rather it was governed by how many estates achieved the judging panel’s threshold score and above.
The California List is intended to be a snapshot of California wine in the UK market at a single moment in time, and will have further editions, published every two years.
“We just hope we can do it without the acrimony and lawsuits currently dogging a rather longer-established wine classification in France at the moment,” says Jancis Robinson MW.
“I’d say California wine is in a moment of transition or flux anyway,” she says, “The average British wine drinker is not that well informed about California wine which is why it’s particularly useful to develop this classification to help steer them in this new and changing landscape.”
“I would say California’s wines are right up there with the top wines of the world, the French can no longer say we have the monopoly on the world’s finest wines.”
Although the list includes pioneers like Chateau Montelena and Robert Mondavi it also recognises estates that have been active in the UK market for five years or more.
“There were some great new up and coming producers like Arnot-Roberts and Kutch side by side with your Opus Ones and your Robert Mondavis and your Dunn Vineyards,” says Ronan Sayburn MS, “so it was a broad range and it didn’t mean that you could have started a winery ten years ago and you were going to be excluded from something so prestigious.”
Sayburn stresses the impartiality of the judges as being wine lovers rather than producers or key vendors of Californian wine.
“I was very interested when I first heard the concept,” Sayburn adds, “I talked to California winemakers in the past about ‘can you do Grand Cru system?’ and it’s too complicated but I think we came up with something that was pretty accurate.”
Although there are no specific commercial objectives for how the California List is to be used in the UK market, for Sarah Knowles MW, who is a wine buyer for The Wine Society, it allows established and upcoming producers to have a commercial tool to use as they see fit.
“I think an object like the list will give a focus for producers to really work in or out of that and I hope that it raises the profile of some of the lesser-known wineries that we’ve included across the UK trade.”
Robinson adds “As these new wave producers mature so this classification will continue to evolve.”
Those not making the final cut will be hoping to rectify that in years to come – especially those new estates and ones from younger and/ or less prestigious wine regions. Napa unsurprisingly dominates the List with 33 entries and Sonoma second with 11 estates. But of California’s other 27 wine regions only three are represented – five from Santa Barbara and one each from Paso Robles and Santa Cruz Mountains – with none from the Sierra Foothills, Inland Valleys nor Southern California.
The California List’s 51 estates
These are the wineries picked as the most vital for the UK market:
Arnot-Roberts, Au Bon Climat, Bond, Cain, Cardinale, Caymus, Chanin, Chateau Montelena, Colgin, Corison, Dalla Valle, Diamond Creek, Domaine de la Côte, Dominus, Dunn, Eisele, Frog’s Leap, Harlan, Heitz Cellars, Hirsch, Hyde de Villaine, Inglenook, Joseph Phelps, Kistler, Kongsgaard, Kutch, Littorai, Matthiasson, Mayacamas, Mount Eden, Opus One, Peter Michael, Radio Coteau, Ramey, Ridge, Robert Mondavi, Roederer Estate, Sandhi, Schramsberg, Screaming Eagle, Seghesio, Shafer, Silver Oak, Sine Qua Non, Spottswoode, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Staglin, Tablas Creek, Turley, Vérité and Williams Selyem.
The California List does not have any additional ranking within it and is in alphabetical order. A booklet and poster have also been produced to display the List publicly with its design intended to “reflect the meritocracy of California itself.”
California Wine Institute UK trade directors, Justine McGovern and Damien Jackman, explain:
“Our vision for creating The California List was to have framed copies of the artwork on the walls of fine wine retailers, restaurants and in people’s homes. It will reinforce the brands that have really built the California category in the UK and inspire people to learn more, and taste more, from these producers. Our plan is to undertake the process every two or so years which means that eventually there will be a series of posters all with a different look and feel, and different producers (some coming in, some dropping out) that sit together like the Willis Wine Bar posters.”
To discover more watch this video produced by the California Wine Institute.
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