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Early Signs Of A California Wine Revolution

New growth on an old vine from "The New California Wine." Credit: Courtesy of Ten Speed Press

New growth on an old vine from "The New California Wine." Credit: Courtesy of Ten Speed Press

California wine is finally getting interesting, and wine lovers can dare to hope that America’s premier wine region will produce more wines of higher quality.

What? Those $200 Napa Valley Cabernets aren’t great wines? Sorry to say, most are not. The good news is a group of winemakers is stepping away from California’s pack mentality to produce wines that reflect both an appreciation of the place the grapes are grown as well as an understanding that bigger is rarely better when it comes to wine.

And, be still my heart, they aren’t afraid to say it. Out loud. In print. San Francisco Chronicle wine critic Jon Bonné has captured their voices and given early support to this movement in his recently released “The New California Wine: A guide to the producers and wines behind a revolution in taste” (Ten Speed Press).

During the past half-dozen years, I’ve met with established winemakers who talk about dialing back the alcohol levels on their wines. They claim a deep longing to produce “European” style wines with greater finesse and character. Then they beg, “Please, don’t quote me!” Inexplicably, they seem to think they can accomplish this transformation so slowly that their public — and the critics — will barely notice the change.

Documenting the historic shift

Shifting directions is risky. Timid American baby boomers learned about wine by leaning heavily on critical scores, buying what they were told they “ought” to drink. So when the two overlords of California wine criticism — Robert M. Parker’s Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator’s Jim Laube — championed high-alcohol fruit bombs, America’s first generation of wine drinkers eagerly fell in line behind them.

The rare winemaker willing to be quoted declaring a dramatic shift in style away from that norm has crumbled when facing angry consumers wondering why they had been paying top dollar for wines that the winemaker suddenly says are not what they ought to be.

From his perch at the Chronicle, Bonné was able to dig deep into California’s wine culture to find the winemakers who never compromised. Years of walking vineyards in every corner of the state paid off in the discovery of Steve Matthiasson, Tegan Passalacqua, Ted Lemon and dozens of other pioneers making wine to suit their personal taste rather than to score critical points. “Just three or four years ago, these guys were really out in the wilderness,” Bonné says.

Their stories of reviving abandoned vineyards in marginal growing areas, cobbling together wineries in deserted warehouses, and striking crazy work-for-free deals with vineyard owners sound more like the do-it-yourself culture that is transforming the American food scene than the big-money mentality that dominates California wine.

More than one kind of California wine

Bonné is a wine geek who delights in highly nuanced details of grape farming and cellar work. And, while that can result in a slow read at times, it’s an important plus. These are the distinctions that make a difference and separate the pioneers from more established vintners. Bonné empowers his readers by carefully explaining these specifics. And, bless him, he spares us the poetic hyperbole that hobbles so many wine books.

“This story was totally evolving as I was writing it,” says Bonné. “It was terrifying and exhilarating.” The first wine writer to make a strong statement about the promise of these emerging winemakers, and by comparison drive home the problems with California’s established wine industry, Bonné takes a risk. The nascent movement is so small it could easily dissipate.

The established “cult Cabernets” will not go away, Bonné says. Rather, support for these new wines will grow. “The people who had given up on California will turn around,” he predicts.  In the future, there will be more than one kind of California wine.

Eventually, “there will be a transfer of power” in the American wine industry, he says. “This emerging generation is drinking with a level of curiosity that is very different from their parents.”

Jon Bonné and Rajat Parr at domaineLA. Credit: Corie Brown

Jon Bonné and Rajat Parr at domaineLA. Credit: Corie Brown

Judging by a recent crowd of young wine lovers eagerly tasting through a selection of California wines championed by Bonné, he’s calling it right. At domaineLA, a Los Angeles wine shop with a reputation for promoting an international selection of well-priced, high quality wines, Jon Bonné and Rajat Parr. was joined by leading Santa Barbara small-production vintners Sashi Moorman and Rajat Parr, partners in Sandhi Wines, and Napa Valley-based winemaker Steve Matthiasson. This year, Bonné named Matthiasson the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Winemaker of the Year.”

The wines had bold, pronounced flavors, yet they retained the lift of natural acidity. All but a couple of the dozen wines on offer were priced below $40 a bottle. And the alcohol levels were all under 14%, a mark of a classic European-style wine.

Questioning the dominance of Napa Valley’s over-extracted and over-priced bruisers will soon go from taboo to “told you so.”

Top image: The beginning of growth on an old vine. Credit: Courtesy of Ten Speed Press, publisher of “The New California Wine” by Jon Bonné

Corie Brown, the co-founder and general manager of Zester Daily, is an award-winning food and wine writer. "Start Your Own Microbrewery, Distillery, or Cidery," a book she wrote with reporting from Zester Daily's network of contributors, was released by Entrepreneur Books in June 2015.

  • Dennis Lapuyade 1·27·14

    Let’s be careful about anointing winemakers, wine style and taste makers too soon. There have always been champions of less is more: Jim Clendenen, Bob Lindquist, the heirs of Joe Swan, Randall Graham, Doug Nalle, Ted Lemon and many wineries such as Stony Hill, Hanzell. Mayacamas etc. When we see the pressure of money-making and investors demanding growth and profit, today’s taste makers too often become tomorrow’s profit seekers. Taste changes, yes, but

  • Corie Brown 1·27·14

    I agree. The folks you mention have spent a lot of time trying to get their fellow California winemakers to have a more interesting wine conversation. I hope we’re ready to have that conversation now.– Corie Brown

  • mart 1·28·14

    There must be some interesting stuff out there but please lower alcohol is not a hallmark of (a lot of) European wine. Loire Bourgogne etc yes but go to the South or mid/southern parts of Italy and 14% of higher is normal. You want it lower than you have to pick premature.

  • Corie Brown 1·28·14

    My reporting indicates that a rise in alcohol levels in European wine is a response to two things: warmer, sunnier days due to climate change and the popularity of highly extracted wines with pronounced fruit flavors. What’s “normal” is debatable. Looking forward to the American wine world having a robust debate. — Corie Brown

  • Jeff Perry 1·28·14

    A nice review overall, but that first line strikes me as a bit lazy: “California wine is finally getting interesting…” ??? Really?

    Also, the constant focus on alcohol levels seems misguided IMHO. A balanced wine is a good wine, regardless of alcohol content. I would think any “new movement” would put less emphasis on classifying wines this way.

  • Corie Brown 1·28·14

    You are right that alcohol levels are an arbitrary classification. What would be a better indicator of movement away from over extraction?

  • Bill Haydon 1·28·14

    Nice article. I hope that you’re right. I can assure you of one thing though, and that is that this movement will not come from Napa. Having consulted for a year with a group of high end “cult” producers who had watched sales in NYC, Chicago, Boston and DC whither away to almost nothing, one can not speak truth to them. They want to be fed feel good lies, (“everyone still loves California wine” “young sommeliers are coming around” “it’s all the distributors’ fault”) and react viscerally to any attempt at presenting a clear-eyed assessment of market trends. They sit on back vintages of wine and almost in some parody of the refugees in the cafes of Casablanca dream longingly of China and the hope of one day being on that 5:15 container ship to Shanghai.

  • Chris Howell 1·28·14

    Plus ça change . . The trend in California is real, although still limited to a minority. Let’s hope that it means a move away from making wine for immediate impact, and return to making wine for drinking – hopefully with a meal. These producers are aligned with a return to nature, so they will not be making the chemically adjusted ‘Food Wines’ of the eighties. The repeat is never exactly the same.

  • Bob Henry 1·28·14


    A bibliography for your readers . . .

    (Zut alors — it even includes articles from YOU. I am shocked, shocked . . .)

    ~~ Bob

    From Los Angeles Times “Food” Section
    (October 27, 2004, Page F1ff):

    “Just Add Water;
    California vintners use a controversial practice to reduce over-the-top alcohol levels.
    Most have kept quiet about it, until now.”


    By Corie Brown
    Times Staff Writer

    From The New York Times “Dining” Section
    (April 13, 2005, Page Unknown):

    “The Hard Stuff Now Includes Wine”


    By Eric Asimov
    “The Pour” Column

    From Los Angeles Times “Food” Section
    (January 9, 2008, Page Unknown):

    “A Bold Move For Subtlety;
    Ojai Vineyards’ Adam Tolmach is a cult hero.
    And he’s at the front of a quiet crusade to tame California’s monster wines.”


    By Corie Brown
    Times Staff Writer

    From The New York Times Online
    (January 11, 2008):

    “Too Big or Just Right?”


    By Eric Asimov
    “Diner’s Journal: Notes on Eating, Drinking and Cooking” Blog

    From The Wall Street Journal “Off Duty” Section
    (April 23, 2010, Page Unknown):

    “Wines That Pack A Little Extra Kick Bottles;
    with more than 14% alcohol have a bad reputation — but they can be delicious”

    By Lettie Teague
    “On Wine” Column


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