Everybody loves a bargain. That anonymous $7 bottle of Merlot provides equal parts pride and satisfaction if we enjoy it. But do we feel the same about food and reach for the cheapest price that we can find without knowing anything about where it was grown and how? Probably not, because an increasing number of people prefer organically farmed fruits and vegetables. We question the nutritional value of that cheap leaf of spinach and whether we’re getting a residue of agricultural chemicals that were surely used to grow it.
But the argument is about not just nutrition and health but also taste and freshness and regaining an appreciation of what food can be at its best. Restaurants have caught on to the concept, too. Not just high-end menus name farms and growing practices, but even inexpensive ones are beginning to provide that information.
If you want to know why you should consider the origins of the wine you drink just as you do your food, read “The New California Wine” by Jon Bonné, who is the wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. Knowing something about that bottle you just bought does not include the score that might have been on the “shelf talker.” That score gives you a cursory indication of taste and value, but not remotely enough of either.
Bonné’s “New California Wine” is first a history from Prohibition to the present and the trends that drove it. In the 1970s, the Judgment of Paris established California wine as world-class. At the same time, “Brand California” developed, as cheap mass-produced wines were enabled by research at the University of California, Davis. The1980s introduced “Fighting Varietals.” Chardonnay and Cabernet won and obscured other wines, dominating the market.
In the 1990s, the vine louse phylloxera forced attention on viticulture as owners replanted thousands of acres. “Cult wines” were born, especially in Napa, as millions of dollars flooded into the area for replanting. Names like Harlan, Colgin, Bryant Family, Dalla Valle, Araujo, and Screaming Eagle appeared in tiny quantities and sold for record prices, glorified by Robert Parker and other wine critics who stoked demand. The formula that these wines established, best described as dense, ripe, and high in alcohol, and the vineyard practices that underlie them became the model for everyone else, including many Europeans.
Bonné describes the recipe for “Big Flavor” in both cheap California wines and expensive ones alike and the winemaking manipulations and additives in the cellar and in the vineyard. The result of these practices was a pervasive sameness that characterized California wine, no matter whether it came from Napa or Paso Robles, whether cheap or expensive, whether Cabernet or Zinfandel.
The inevitable back-lash occurred in the last decade among consumers, who rejected California wines for European ones, among notable restaurants that refused to serve them, and among a few winemakers, who had a long history in the business. But especially younger winemakers revolted, and especially those without their own vineyards, who could make reputations by buying fruit from small, old, obscure, pristinely farmed vineyards that imbued their wines with a sense of place, identity, and character, mostly absent from California wines at any price. Others went looking for land, where they could achieve similar results, and still others employed sustainable, organic, or biodynamic farming practices that gave the fruit and wine the best balance and flavor possible.
Jon Bonné quotes veterans Robert Mondavi and Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. He talks with Paul Draper at iconic Ridge Vineyards. And he introduces us to the new guard, like Steve Matthiasson in Napa, whom the San Francisco Chronicle just named “Winemaker of the Year.” Bonné especially singles out Tegan Passalacqua, Nathan Lee Roberts, Duncan Arnot Meyers, Ted Lemon, Abe Schoener among others and talks to them about wine in the post “Big Flavor” era that is evolving.
Bonné writes about certain areas and appellations, where these new wines are flourishing. He talks with leading winemakers in Contra Costa County, Sonoma, Sierra Foothills, Santa Cruz Mountains, Lodi, Anderson Valley, Santa Rita Hills, Paso Robles, and Ventucopa. And he writes about Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet, the Rhone varieties, and the new whites, how they might have gone astray and where they are taking a new direction.
In Bonné’s closing chapter, he compiles a list of vanguard wineries that are leading the way to the potential that California has always promised. Over time, you will have heard some of these themes in these pages, but this is a must-read now for those who want to advance their appreciation of wine to the next level.