By Robert Haas
The New California Wine, by San Francisco Chronicle Wine Editor Jon Bonné and subtitled A guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste, is an ode to wineries that are producing wines of place, whether single varieties or blends, often working with organic or biodynamic vineyards; wines that are of moderate alcohol levels and speak to their origin. It is a reminder that there is a growing wave of journalists, sommeliers and wine lovers pushing back against what Jon terms “big flavor wine.” Big flavor wines are, in Jon’s parlance, generally highly extracted, high alcohol, low acid, often oaky and slightly sweet on the palate. Many of them have a cult following.
I welcome Jon’s suggestions and enjoyed reading his book. I will search out several of the producers he introduced me to. But in reading the book I kept thinking that what Jon terms a revolution is really a move back to a classic norm.
The advent of boutique wineries such as Joseph Heitz, Freemark Abbey, Chappellet, Joseph Phelps, Clos du Val, Stags Leap, Spring Mountain, and even Robert Mondavi, among others, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s brought California, and particularly the Napa Valley, to the international wine community's attention. Their wines were from specific vineyards, mostly their own, farmed for moderate yields, made in classic style and dimensions. They took their lead from Beaulieu and Inglenook, estate producers before World War II, and looked toward France for inspiration. Their wines were mostly in the 12.5% alcohol range.
From back in the days when my company, Vineyard Brands, represented them, I still have Cabernets from Spring Mountain, Clos du Val and Chappellet from the 1970s, and some Pine Ridge from the 1980s. They have aged beautifully. Their tannins have softened and they are elegantly balanced with plenty of red and black fruit. I recently opened a bottle of Chappellet 1974 Cabernet (12.7% alcohol) and was struck by its mature dark color with no oxidation. It was powerful and densely structured, even still a little reticent with its blueberry fruit. I had the feeling that it had reached a plateau of maturity (at 40 years old!) and would be enjoyable for some time to come.
The “big flavor” wines are really a phenomenon of the last 20 years. As such, they are actually the new kids on the block. Will they continue to dominate the paradigm or are they just a blip on the long-term chart of wine consumption? I welcome the debate, and look forward to seeing whether a majority of vintners will continue to take advantage of the brilliant California climate to harvest ripe, high brix, low pH grapes and focus on lushness and power, or whether more will farm their vineyards to produce phenologically ripe grapes at lower Brix and make wines that focus more on terroir and elegance. Of course, there will be more than one "answer" to this question.
If I’m in harmony with the old standards, I know that the riper styles have their own passionate advocates as well. But Jon’s book is a reflection of a conversation that it is important that the California winemaking community have. This discussion includes advocates of elegance -- both the newer producers he highlights and some established ones such as Calera and Ridge -- and those more exuberant producers, many of whose wines I see also preserving tremendous concentration while moving gradually away from excessive ripeness and new oak. Perhaps this is California’s true strength: that winemakers with well-placed vineyards can, according to their beliefs, make compelling wines across the spectrum of ripeness. In either case, greater diversity in the styles of California wine and the innovation fostered by the conversation itself will make the community stronger. What do you think?