‘California List’ of Top Wines Stirs Interest – and Controversy

Publication of the UK list draws debate about who’s on and who’s not and raises questions of whether it was a bad idea – or very clever marketing. Roger Morris gauges the reaction.

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Photo: California Wine Institute
Photo: California Wine Institute


  • A group of leading UK critics drew up a list of 51 leading California wineries. The list does not focus on individual wines, but on producers with a presence in the UK
  • The reactions to the California List range from surprise to support – and relief to be included. Its media coverage suggests it may have an impact.
  • Students of wine history will note the difference between classifications based on price - 1855 Medoc and Liv-ex - and ones based on quality - California List - and ones with a range of criteria - St Emilion.

Last week, the California Wine Institute strayed into territory where angels fear to tread by releasing a compilation of that region’s top 51 wineries active in the influential UK market – a crème de la crème selection chosen by five leading British wine experts and dubbed “The California List.” Two years in the making, it attempted to bring together what were judged to be the best California wineries – not wines, nor vineyards, nor sub-regions – and thus a limited classification, as there were no further rankings within the alphabetical list.

But, as “best of” lists tend to do, the California List immediately grabbed attention within the wine community because, whether you are an owner, a winemaker, a sommelier, a wine buyer, a wine critic or a wine consumer, your favorite wineries were either on The List or they weren’t. 

Reactions on Twitter

Across the Twittersphere and in online forums, wine geeks argued whether the selections were accurate and if it even made sense to create such a list to begin with. Overall, however, the tone was more of collegial disagreement than expressions of outrage.

“Sounds like complete nonsense,” tweeted Mark Manning (@dmanning77). Giorgio Tedeschi (@GGTedeschi) said, “Surprised Marcassin is not included,” one of many tweeters who wanted to add to the list. From Australia, Brian Fletcher (@fletchwine) counseled, “Let the market decide.”


“Rather …on it than not.”

When contacted, Hugh Davies, whose Schramsberg winery is one of the 51 listed, stated a simple truth:  people love lists. “As a winemaker, sports fan and history enthusiast, I have leaned towards liking lists,” he says. “They give us an opportunity to categorize and more formally reflect on a subject.” But Davies also recognized a second simple truth: owners of wineries left off the list might not be too happy. “If there is a list,” he says, “I would certainly rather have us on it than not.”

Rob McMillan
Rob McMillan

“A list of our own…”

In announcing the list in London, the institute’s UK trade directors, Damien Jackman and Justine McGovern, issued the organization’s purpose statement: “The wine world is full of classifications. They may be hierarchical rankings of vineyards, or ratings of historic performance in the secondary market, but these classifications can help shape how consumers and the wine trade engage with a region. When it comes to California, we wanted to create a list of our own. A list that did not focus on individual wines, but on the producers that have been the most important in creating and driving the California wine category in the UK. A list of exceptional California producers renowned for their quality and overall impact in the UK.”

The three criteria, McGovern said, were the high quality of the producer’s wines, their general availability and a few years’ track record of performance. More than 200 producers were considered by the panel recruited by the institute: wine writers Jancis Robinson MW, the group’s spokesperson, and long-standing Decanter writer Stephen Brook, as well as Sarah Knowles, wine buyer at The Wine Society, Mark Andrew, co-founder of Noble Rot restaurants and magazine and Ronan Sayburn, head of wine at 67 Pall Mall and CEO of the Court of Master Sommeliers Europe.

A Brief Review of Classifications

Formal and informal classifications have existed for a long time. When Napoleon III asked Bordeaux wine brokers to name and rank of the top wines from their region to provide context for their appearance at the 1855 Exposition Universelle de Paris he wasn’t doing anything very revolutionary. A writer called André Jullien had published a simple version in 1816 and there were several other attempts over the following decades, including one called “The Classification  of the Wines of Bordeaux and Particular Grape Varieties by a broker called Paguierre in 1829.

Most of these, like the ‘official’ 1855 classification requested by Napoleon III were hierarchies based on the prices the wines were able to command.

The five-tiered classification of “growths” of Left Bank red wine estates and a two-tiered classification of the sweet white wine producers of Sauternes and Barsac drawn up by the brokers was, they said, based on a century of experience. Its collegiate nature and link to the Universal Exhibition led to it being set in stone until Baron Philippe de Rothschild was able to chisel in his Château Mouton-Rothschild in 1973 to move from Second to First Growth in 1973, joining the four original designees.

Today's Bordeaux Classification

Today, wines like Chateaux Palmer (Third Growth) and Lynch Bages (Fourth) regularly stand alongside the best in the region, while underperforming classed growths do less well than Crus Bourgeois that did not feature in the 1855 list at all.

The Graves – and Pessac Léognan – which was classified in 1953, and then again in 1959, is still awaiting a revision, while Pomerol soldiers on without any kind of official hierarchy. Saint-Émilion on the Right Bank, stands alone in having set up a system of Grands Crus Classés that would be revised every decade.

It was this model that the creators of The California List are mimicking in planning periodic reviews of their list, with a first revision being scheduled for 2024. The difference is that the Saint-Émilion list is a government-sanctioned ranking with legal status, that has regularly resultedin neighbors verbally trashing other neighbors and in legal disputes. Most recently, these led to chateau owners going to trial for alleged offenses. and top châteaux deciding not to be classified at all. Much of the argument has centered on the criteria used to rank the estates. Does it make sense, some asked, to take into account the chateaux’ reputation and marketing efforts? Surely, a blind tasting of 10 recent vintages would be sufficient.

First Official Californian Classification

By contrast, California – and the United States in general – has been free of estate, vineyard or other legal classifications except for those of geography, such as “Napa Valley” or “Sonoma County.” The only classifications are unofficial ones of reputation in the marketplace, aided by wine critics’ rankings at the top price levels and by social media at the economy level. High scores received by wineries such as Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estates put them at the top of price rankings, while wine brands such as Kendall Jackson and Josh are seen as leaders in volume.

The one attempt to rank American wines came in 1982 when there were few American wine critics and fewer collectors of American wines to read them. A New York-based food writer, Roy Andries de Groot, who was legally blind and had to be driven from winery to winery with his guide dog, Atheña, ranked the 200 top wineries in the country into four categories – Great, Superb, Noble and Fine – and published them in his book, The Wines of California, the Pacific Northwest & New York. Only three wines made that top “Great” category – Stony Hill, Heitz and Schramsberg, the latter two also showing up on the current California List. De Groot’s list was largely ignored by some in California who made unnkind comments such as, “I think the dog must have been doing the tasting.”

Photo: California Wine Institute
Photo: California Wine Institute

More Kick Back than Push Back

The California List is getting more respect and will mostly likely have a greater impact.

Evan Goldstein, president and CEO of Full Circle Wine Solutions, lauded the effort. “I think that it’s a solid list and while, of course, I might have a few I would add and a few I would leave off of their effort,” he said, “I believe it’s strong and frankly helpful for those trying to navigate the world of California wines and understand the ‘who’s who’ and where they stand in our pantheon.”

Doug Frost, both a Master Sommelier and a Master of Wine, who runs the wine program at The Restaurant at 1900 in Kansas City, does question the utility of the list. “I would have to admit that from the viewpoint of a U.S. wine professional, this has little value beyond its ability to create marketing opportunities in the UK,” he says, “though that is a worthy enough endeavour for the California wine industry.”

Among US professionals who do question the California List’s accuracy is David Parker, publisher of the price bible, Wine Market Journal and owner of Benchmark Wine Group, which claims to be the top U.S. retailer of back-vintage wines.While noting that any list will be “viewed as inaccurate by many,” he says, "We are surprised to see the following on this list because these do not have the reputation for consistent quality of the others – Chanin, Domaine de la Cote, Frog’s Leap, Radio-Coteau and Seghesio.” Omissions he would add to the list are Abreu, Bevan, Bryant Family, Futo Family, Hundred Acre, Kapcsandy, Lokoya, Scarecrow, Schrader, Sloan, Tusk and Ultramarine.

Price or Quality? Different Criteria in Wine Classifications

Live-ex, the London-based exchange which tracks sales on the second­­­­­ary market cherished by collectors and investors, has several listings that include top-end California wines. Robbie Stevens, its Americas manager, notes that, from its Power 100 list of top traded wines, Screaming Eagle, Opus One, Harlan Estate, Sine Qua Non and Dominus are also on the California List while Schader is not. In its top 200, Hundred Acre, Scarecrow and Promontory are not on the California List. Liv-ex also has its own California List of wines traded on the exchange, It excludes no fewer than sixteen of the 51 chosen by the UK judges. ­­­­­

These discrepancies reflect the differences in the way wine classifications are drawn up. Liv-ex, like the brokers of 1855 focus robustly on price. Robinson and her team thought quality to be paramount, while the St Emilion authorities thought it necessary to consider other quite separate factors.

Positive Feedback and no Legal Disputes – so far

McGovern happily notes that feedback to the list “has been very positive. Producers who made The California List want raw files to print the list and distribute to their clients. We have been blown away by the reaction.”

But Robinson, the list’s lead creator, with an eye to St Emilion, struck a cautionary note in a post-announcement interview with the Buyer. “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,” she is quoted as saying.

So far, there are no reports of anyone calling their solicitor.

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