Last week I had the chance to attend a talk by a famous American wine writer and author of the new book, “The New California Wine”, Jon Bonné. Bonné writes the wine column for the San Francisco Chronicle and his book has drawn both praise and criticism for its critique of some of the most famous California wine producers.
I think we’ll do a podcast to discuss this book, along with a few others I’ve been reading but the summary is essentially that big, fruity, lush California wines, which get huge praise from Robert Parker, in particular, are terrible, overblown, and the result of vineyard manipulation and winery magic. He posits that a new guard of wine producer, who is copying the producers from the late 1970s and early 1980s (Ridge, Chateau Montelena, Chappellet, Grgich Hills), is emerging. These producers are trying to elicit the best of California’s vineyards and wines — focusing on terroir and on winemaking that is uniquely California, rather than trying to mimic French producers who have very different climate, land, and winemaking traditions to follow.
Although I agree with a lot of his conclusions — I find a lot of the high scoring wines too rich and full for my taste and can’t really drink them — I think he does a disservice to the folks who have helped build California into a well-known, globally relevant wine producing region, with an identifiable style. I, too, prefer the old and new guard of more subtle producers but I think Bonné, in his attempt to make a point, throws the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. You can think Caymus or Harlan (both “cult” wines that have high alcohol content, and are fruit and tannin bombs and are very expensive) suck, but you can’t say that they didn’t help put California on the world map. Without them, this new Renaissance wouldn’t be getting a second look.
Do I agree that these new producers are the wave of the future? More that they will coexist and grow to equal the big styles.
And on a gossipy, personal note, I have to add one other thing — I talked to the guy for a little while and although he’s from New York, I think he may be from a New York that I’m not accustomed to — a little white glove for this girl (my family was working class Jews who worked their way into better positions but we still like dives and traditional places). Still, his writing is interesting and I was glad to have had an opportunity to hear his point of view on the dynamics of California and it’s changing landscape.
I’ve visited many of the wineries or tasted wines that Bonné referenced in his talk, but I was excited to try a bunch of others in the tasting that was used to illustrate the high level points of his talk. If you’re interested in some of these new guard producers, here are my notes from the tasting on the “New California.” For the most part, I’m excited and on board with these guys and I’d recommend you give most of these a try to see a side of California you may not have seen…
Wine 1: 2011 Qupé Wine Cellars Marsanne, Santa Ynez Valley (Central Coast), $18
Yellow in color with high aromatics — lime, flowers, green herbs were strong. It smelled like spring in a glass. The texture is notable — full with lower acid but the flavors made the wine lively. Lime, grass, tarragon, and buttered savory herbs came to mind but there was still the lingering aroma/flavor of flowers, which made the wine really nice.
Drink or sink? Drink. An excellent wine.
I’ve reviewed Copain’s wines before and am a big fan so its no surprise I liked this one. Pale straw with green highlights and aromas of green fruit — lime and green apple especially. Great acidity, a very faint oak flavor, and just a light, fresh herbal flavor with a little bit of green apple. The wine was kind of tightly wound, but I liked the acidity and thought it worked with the fruit flavors.
Drink or sink? Drink. Not the best Chardonnay I’ve had in this unoaked style, but pretty good and refreshing nonetheless.
Wine 3: 2011 Hirsch Winery San Andreas Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, $60
A light plum color with a transparent rim, a littler darker than what I’d expect from Pinot but the smell was delicious — woodsy with raspberry notes and a little like salt water (maybe from the coastal breezes on which the vineyards are situated?). An earthy wine with light strawberry flavors, a medium-bodied texture with a hint of saltiness, yet very simple.
Drink or sink? If it were $40 less then I’d call it a drink but for the price, it’s a sink. This reminds me of a regional wine from Burgundy (like something from Beaune) but much more costly. For the money, I want more complexity in my Pinot and this was very one note. I would pay $17, but not $47.
Carignan has many different faces. The main one is a highly pigmented, rustic blending grape used in the Rhône. But in California, when made from old vines, it can be rich and layered and that’s exactly what LIOCO produced. A dark, opaque purple with pepper spice, pomegranate, cranberry, and orange aromas and flavors. The wine is full and rich but with medium tannins and acid.
Drink or sink? Drink. A deep and layered wine. Great.
Wine 5: 2011 CEP Vineyards (Peay’s lower tier) Syrah, Sonoma Coast, $25
Damn this was dark! Purple and opaque with the most delicious aromas I’ve smelled in a California Syrah yet! Dusty earth with pepper spice and a little bit of raspberry. The taste delivered on the smell — pepper, dust, light raspberry, with mild tannin and acid — the wine was easy to drink, refreshing, but flavorful.
Drink or sink? Drink. Cool climate Syrah, without the overdone fruit, is definitely one of my favorite wines, and this hit the spot!
Wine 6: 2011 Marietta Cellars Zinfandel, Sonoma County, $16
Another dark plum, nearly black wine with thick legs from the high alcohol and blackberry and black pepper aromas. The wine tasted like fresh strawberries and raspberries, and a touch like a graham cracker. Strong acidity and light tannin with a super long finish. I loved that the alcohol doesn’t hijack the wine — it’s a lighter style Zinfandel.
Drink or sink? Drink. For this price, the value is outstanding. This isn’t the jammy, plum-pie tasting wine that you’ll find from Lodi or Dry Creek Valley, it’s got a medium body and lots of flavors to keep it interesting.
Wine 7: 2010 Corison Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, $80
Cathy Corison is an old-school winemaker, whose style is much closer to the old generations of winemakers. She practices restraint in the vineyard and in the cellar and let the grapes speak for themselves. If you want to taste what Cab used to be before it became overblown alcohol/fruit bomb-like, look no further than here.
The wine was dark purple with thick legs from the 13.6% alcohol. It smelled floral and earthy with some coffee and green pepper notes too. It was like eating a fresh picked blackberry with some green pepper and earth to boot. With moderate tannin and acid, this Cabernet really tasted like it came from the land and it reminded me of some of the better wines I’ve had from Bordeaux, which manage to strike a balance between fruit and earth, while remaining medium-bodied and not too heavy on any of the structural elements — alcohol, acid, tannin.
Drink or sink? Drink. If you’re into big Napa Cabs, you probably won’t like this one, but I loved the lighter touch and the restraint of this Cab. I didn’t have it with food, but I bet it would be unbelievable with everything from mushrooms to filet.
Have you had any of these wines? What do you think? Is this the “new California” as Bonné suggests or just a countervailing movement? Leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts!