It seems like there are three classes of wine consumers: those happy to buy Two Buck Chuck at Trader Joe’s; a small, monied group of aesthetes quibbling over the wine list at top restaurants; and a vast middle class picking out something with a pretty label at the supermarket for $15-30 dollars. Jon Bonné professes to write for all three types. He’s the wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and he’s just come out with a book called The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste.
What can there possibly be to say about California wine that’s new? “The reason I sort of set out to write this was I realized there’s an entire generation of winemakers who people, for the most part, haven’t really heard of," Bonné told The California Report. "What they were doing was not only interesting and important and of course delicious, but it was really as significant, culturally, as what the first modern generation of pioneers did -- the Robert Mondavis and the Warren Winiarskis -- in terms of looking at California with a global perspective, seeing that this was an amazing place to grow wine."
You might be thinking "Hasn't that been well established by now?" Yes and no. A lot depends these days on how you come down about the trend toward making "fruit bombs." That is to say, big, jammy, fruit-forward wines full of alcohol and sugar dominate the California wine market and have for years. That's put off sophisticated palates, if not the wider drinking public.
Count Bonné among the sophisticates. Fruit bombs, he says, "are very appealing to folks who are just getting into wine, and of course, it’s big, it’s expressive. You can kind of pick out big fruit flavors in it. But ultimately, when you look at the grand culture of wine, the reasons that significant areas have been significant -- it’s because they speak with a specific sense of place.
Folks in the wine world refer to that as terroir -- the taste of the earth and climate in a particular place, as expressed in a bottle of wine. But given that wine grapes are growing all over the state now, and vintners mix and match for taste and cost, how is a wine drinker who wants to taste what a region tastes like know he’s getting terroir?
“Even the French didn’t find these perfect little pieces of land," Bonné says. "There was politics involved. There was convenience involved.” As in which places were ideal for sending wines to market in Paris. “Terroir is always influenced by man. It's no different here. This is in no way to question that Napa Valley is an amazing place to grow grapes, because it absolutely is, but it is not sort of divine providence that Napa Valley is the best place in the world to grow grapes and Lodi isn’t, or the Sierra foothills aren’t. It’s just that Napa had really good marketing.”
Bonné says he's hoping The New California Wine brings attention to the state's lesser known wine regions -- and winemakers -- that are just on the verge of blowing up in terms of consumer awareness.
Today, he says, winemakers are looking for great places with great soil that “just happened to have been overlooked in the past,” places like the southern Santa Cruz Mountains. One of the people Bonné profiles in the book is Bonny Doon Vineyard alum Prudy Foxx. She's been nicknamed the "Grape Whisperer." She specializes in discovering neglected plantings, helping farmers improve their technique, and matching grapes to the right winemaker. Bonné writes Foxx is determined to get the region back on the map, but her day to day life is about solving problems for local winemakers. "Nobody calls me because they're happy," she tells him.
Also profiled in the book: Ron Mansfield of Placerville, a place known as much for its apple orchards as for its grapes. Mansfield realized the local, granite-rich soil many were using for Zinfadel naturally lends itself to Grenache and Gamay Noir, grapes that lead to Rhone style wines. He also differs from the California norm in the way he grows his grapes. Head-trained vines are trellised to a single wooden stake. Mansifeld jokingly calls it the "Mansfield Vertical Cordon," but it's a practice commonly seen in the Rhone -- as well as old-time California.
Farming techniques have changed in a number of other ways. Many winemakers are thinking seriously, critically, about where, exactly, they grow certain varietals. They're backing away from heavy use of new oak. Ripeness levels are drifting downward, especially with varietals that are prone to accumulating sugar to begin with.
The New California Wine is more of a coffee table book than it is a reference guide, and yet it's more of a reference guide than your typical coffee table book. It's really a compendium of bite-sized introductions to winemakers trying to take California in a different stylistic direction.
Time and again, as Bonné arrives at a winemaker's table, he notes a bottle of Old World wine on the table. Bonné is, of course, self-selecting people who share his European-biased palette. But this also serves as a signal to people who've dismissed California fruit bombs to reconsider: come on back, he seems to be saying. The wine is fine.