Can California wines be balanced? My friend Vinotas posits that in order to have balanced wines, vines need to be stressed and the conditions to stress the vines are not present in California. His argument is more nuanced than that I urge everyone to read his two part series on why we sells French wine. I'm going to try to refute some of what he says, however.
Balanced wines are harmonious unto themselves and better complement a meal, which is a huge plus. Vinotas asks "how can you eat anything with an oaky, sweet CA Cabernet that's 15-17%/volume?" Fair enough, but let's dig in a bit there. It's unlikely that he has ever had a non-fortified wine that is 17% alcohol. I've only had one California wine that was that high, a Zinfandel, and it wasn't very good. Notwithstanding the lack of 17% wines, Eurocentric drinkers will often cite them as evidence of the lack of balance. I see that as a red herring. Let's work our way down. The only wines that are 16% that I own are Zinfandels and they are generally not as serious wines, meant to drink over the near term and have massive walls of fruit to hide the alcohol. Can you drink them with food? Sure, if you like ribs or chili (and who doesn't). The argument in favor of California wines gets far more complicated once you hit 15% APV. That is especially true for California Pinot Noir. To the extent there was a trend towards over-sized Pinot, I think that pendulum has begun to swing in the opposite direction with even people like Brian Loring admitting that his wines were insipid. It is easier to defend Cabernet where the alcohol may be hidden by fruit and tannin.
Again, it is a question of balance with the balance being between the fruit and the structure (tannin and acidity). The more alcohol, the more fruit and tannin needed for cover, which makes it harder to keep them in balance. That does not mean it is impossible, only difficult, and there are any number of winemakers that get it right.