The New California, Revisited

Published by Keith Kirkpatrick on 23/05/2018

Head of On-Trade Keith Kirkpatrick takes a trip through the Californian wine scene, five years after the publication of a influential book by Jon Bonné drew the world's attention to the revolution transforming the state's wines.

California's New Wines

Five years ago, in 2013, the then wine editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, Jon Bonné, published his eagerly awaited new book; ‘The New California – A Guide To The Producers And Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste’.

‘What book, by who?’ you say. Well, you may not realise it, but this book has had a great impact on how you buy your Californian wines, either as a retail customer or restaurant diner.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the book was eagerly awaited within the wine trade, certainly within the walls of Roberson HQ. For a few years prior to the book’s release, we had been watching what was happening in California, a growing band of new producers keen to talk about where their wines came from, the specific vineyard sites with their specific terroirs, even particular blocks or rows of vines within a specific vineyard. They wanted to talk openly about their methods in the vineyard and the winery, what they were doing to bottle a wine that was a true reflection of a particular grape grown in a particular location.

They were not talking about how many millions they had spent on a new winery, who their billionaire backers were, how many people were on their waiting list, not trying to keep the source of their fruit a secret, or how much wine they actually made, not keeping the winery door closed to prevent prying eyes from seeing the array of expensive technology fashioning a made to order product with various constituent parts added or removed.

We like to seek out the former and politely decline the advances of the latter.

First Steps and First Successes

In late 2011 we had taken our first tentative steps towards becoming a multi award winning US specialist, shipping at first a small amount of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Jamie Kutch in Sonoma and Bergstrom in Oregon. At this time, in many restaurants, you would find these wines listed under a very generic heading such as ‘USA’ or ‘New World’, usually on the last page of a wine list. The front pages of the same list would be subdivided in to the various villages of Burgundy, the left and right bank appellations of Bordeaux, the DOCs of Spain and Italy. This careful and detailed categorisation was used to emphasise the particular character and nuance of the wines from each village, so why were the wines of the US not treated the same, did people not care, or did they just not know enough about them?

It will come as no surprise to anyone that has tasted the wines of Kutch and Bergstrom that they were universally adored by our restaurant clients from the moment they arrived in the UK, and despite their lowly placement at the tail end of the wine list the wines sold incredibly quickly, no doubt due to excited sommeliers keen to show off their new listings that offered a quality and value that had not been seen from the US before. The wines sold out, we shipped more stock, sold out again and shipped again. It was clear that we needed more wine, the restaurant trade was ready to embrace the new wines coming from the west coast of America.

So, a couple of months before Jon Bonné’s book was due to hit American bookstore shelves in late 2013, we embarked on a whirlwind tour of California, squeezing in visits to as many producers as possible. The post trip debriefs were intense and agonizing, we wanted to bring in so many of the wines but had to at least try and be selective. In the end we brought in around 15 new agencies and dozens of new wines, still a lot, but they were all producers that had exactly what we wanted, wines that spoke of were they were from, the right grapes grown in the right location, farmed in the right way and bottled as an unadulterated and pure expression of themselves.

The wines arrived. Now we had to sell them, get them in front of as many people as possible. With ‘The New California’ about to be published in the UK, why not invite the author to launch his book at a joint event? It made perfect sense, all of our new producers were featured in the book, we can open all the wines and you wouldn’t just have to believe what we were telling you, this award-winning writer is saying exactly the same thing, and he is here in the room to tell you. While we’re at it, let’s get as many of the winemakers as possible over here for a few days, so they can pour their own wines and tell you their story.

On the 22nd of April 2014 we hosted ‘The New California’ tasting with Jon Bonné and a bevy of Californian winemakers, happy to finally have the chance to show their wines to an enthusiastic audience in London. It was a resounding success, wine buyers from all parts of the trade were amazed by the quality, authenticity and diversity of the wines, and most importantly by the obvious differences between, for example, the Pinots made high up in the hills over the Pacific on the extreme Sonoma Coast to those made in the western edges of the Sta. Rita Hills, or a Cabernet made in the Santa Cruz Mountains compared to one from Napa’s Rutherford bench. All excellent wines in their own right, but each had their own identity, the wines from each region and sub region were different, but not because of the winemaker or their winemaking techniques, here was confirmation that California had ‘terroir’.

In the years that followed, another dozen or so agencies have been added to our portfolio, all are producers that make wines that you want to actually drink, not just taste, spit and apply a score out of 10, 20 or 100, whatever your preferred method. I prefer the method of how much of the bottle is gone by the time dinner is ready, and we have a lot of wines scored 75cl in our range.

The California Wine Market Develops

We’re by no means trying to take all the credit, but due to the activity of Roberson and a few other UK specialist importers, the way that US wines are represented on restaurant wine lists bears absolutely no resemblance to how they were just a few years ago. The wines are now often afforded the same luxury as their European peers, you may find Sonoma subdivided between Coastal or Valley, Alexander Valley or specific parts of the Russian River Valley, maybe even a feature on the vineyards located in the Petaluma wind gap. Is your Napa wine from the south, the mountains, if so which range, or the far north? Santa Barbara, is that Sta. Rita Hills, Ballard Canyon or Highlands?

This is ultimately great for the producer, importer, restaurant, wine drinker and retailer. The path followed by wines from newly discovered, temporarily trendy or in California’s case, re-invigorated, wine regions goes like this: sommeliers get excited by something new that offers amazing quality and value compared to what has gone before, the restaurant customer gets a greater understanding of the region/wines and can decide on their preferred style, they then confidently go out and buy from their local wine shop, the importer needs to place another order, the winemaker is happy see their wines being recognised and appreciated for what they are.

California is not a new discovery, nor is it temporarily trendy, the re-invigoration is permanent, and the wines are here to stay, but is there a danger of it all getting too confusing, too intricate? If the swing from generic ‘USA’ to pages of sub AVAs on a wine list is tipping you over the edge, fear not, there may be over 200 wines from the US available on our website, but we are here to help you find your ideal wine.

The New California, Re-explored

There is still great value to be found in Monterey, Contra Costa and Amador, all regions that are little known, but there are plenty of substandard examples on the market from these parts, so you’ll need to be steered in the right direction. Santa Barbara and Sonoma are a source of beautiful, profound wines with nuance and style. The Santa Cruz Mountains and Napa are where you will find classically styled and structured wines, but all of these regions are capable of producing wines which define California and its individual terroirs.

Starting in the South and moving North, here are some top picks, all great examples of what each region has to offer.

Just to the north of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara County is home to the Santa Ynez Valley. The rest of the California coast is pretty much all North to South mountain ranges, but here the mountains make a sharp turn to run west to east and these transverse hills provide a corridor for cool winds to be sucked in from the Pacific year-round, up through the Sta. Rita Hills towards Ballard Canton and Happy Canyon. So, despite being much further south, this region has a much cooler climate than regions in Northern California, lending an elegance and fresh acidity to balance the fruit intensity of the wines.

At the very western edge of the valley, just a few miles from the sea, you will find the vineyards of Sandhi and Domaine de la Cote in the Sta. Rita Hills, benchmark Chardonnay and Pinot Noir of a quality to rival any produced in Burgundy. Introduce yourself to winemaker Sashi Moorman’s wines with the Sandhi Santa Barbara Chardonnay before exploring the single vineyard Sanford & Benedict Chardonnay and the Pinots of Domaine de la Cote, Bloom’s Field and La Cote being two excellent examples of the individual nuances of different vineyard sites.

Moving inland, where the temperature rises as you move away from the sea, you will find the landscape and planted grape varieties change, but the constant cooling wind is still there. From the John Sebastiano Vineyard, try the excellent Piedrasassi Sebastiano Vineyard Syrah, or if you’ve been a fan of Austrian wines in the past, you must check out the Tatomer John Sebastiano Gruner Veltliner. Graham Tatomer also has some Gruner in the Kick-On Ranch Vineyard which lies just outside the Sta. Rita Hills, on the way towards the Santa Maria Valley, fruit from these two vineyards is blended into the deliciously fresh and textured Tatomer Meeresboden Gruner Veltliner.

Driving North from Santa Barbara County, the temptation is to just keep going, history may tell you that many of the wines from the Central Coast are generic, a bit overdone and boring, it seems too hot and geographically sprawling to be interesting. But If you head up in to the hills to the west, where the abundant sunshine is tempered by some elevation, limestone soils and cool winds crossing the mountains, you will find plenty of quality, and quite often at a bargain price. From vineyards dotted along the route you’ll find the refreshingly light but fruit packed Jackhammer Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, both made without the use of any oak, or if you prefer a little bit of buttery vanilla but not too much try the Moobuzz Chardonnay and Pinot from Monterey County, these wines deliver a lot of reward for a small trade up from your average supermarket offering.

Continuing north, just as you reach San Jose and San Francisco, you will see the Santa Cruz Mountains to the west, this region is home to some of California’s most historic vineyard sites, a complex mix of soil types and micro climates that are perfect for producing great Cabernet, Pinot and Chardonnay. Ask most people to name where you’ll find a great Californian Cabernet and most, if not all, will instantly reply Napa, but in the Santa Cruz Mountains you will find classically structured wines with the potential to age for decades, true expressions of the right grape grown in the right place. You’ll not get much more classical and structured than Mount Eden Cabernet Sauvignon, while new producers such as Jason Charles are doing their bit to lift these wines out from the shadow of Napa, his Vinca Minor Cabernet Sauvignon shows drinkability in youth but still has that Santa Cruz structure as its signature. You’re also in the right place for a Chardonnay fix, whatever your preferred style, Arnot-Roberts Trout Gulch gives you a wine with intensity, precision and tension, while Mount Eden is richer and broader.

Heading inland from San Francisco, you’ll find more wine producing regions which are either unfashionable or relatively unknown in the UK. Much like the Central Coast, some of these areas have been know in the past for mass production and dubious quality, but again if you look to the hills or for a producer with the right history and philosophy, there are many bargains to be had.

In Contra Costa County you will find Viano Vineyards, a Piemontese family that arrived in California in 1920 to farm vineyards planted in the 1880s. Never tempted by the technology of mass production or the desire to change the style of the wines to chase sales, they do not irrigate or use any chemical treatments on their land, all the while retaining a traditional and thirst quenching style suited to any occasion, their Cabernet Sauvignon and Hillside White are two of the best value wines in the whole of California. Next, in to Green Valley in Solano County, a tiny strip of viticultural land where Chris Brockway sources the fruit that goes in to his Love Red. The vineyards here are cooled by the breeze coming off San Pablo Bay. A longer than expected growing season and old vine Carignan and Syrah of over 50 years of age guarantee quality grapes, but being a small unknown AVA means the fruit prices here are significantly lower than in the neighbouring Napa Valley, so this wine reaches you at a price way below what you might expect for its quality.

Further inland still, Amador county is home to many a great value wine and a traditional home to Zinfandel, the grape that has unfortunately become a bit of a caricature, its image ruined by lakes of undrinkable, high alcohol supermarket plonk. But, as ever, if you know where to look you will find joyous, fresh, fruit driven wines that will have you coming back for more. Sobon Estate is sustainably farmed and all their wines display the smoky, darker red fruits you would expect from Zinfandel, soft tannins and plush texture, but it is all done with a fresh natural acidity and moderate alcohol. If you love Zin but have been let down on too many occasions, try the Shenandoah or Rocky Top bottlings.

And so, back west to the Napa Valley, California’s most famous and name checked wine producing region. Here we find wines with an abundance of up front fruit, plush texture and deep flavour, but quite often too much of all of these, along with excessive alcohol. It would be very easy to assume that everything from here looks the same, tastes the same and comes in the same heavy bottles and handmade wooden cases. But not so, try the Watson Ranch Chardonnay from Arnot-Roberts, a hillside vineyard at the southern tip of Napa that is exposed to the cool air coming off the bay, the wine has fresh acidity and some delicate nuance, but its backbone is broad, structured and textured, absolutely classically styled chardonnay, just without the slap dash make up that is applied to many a Napa Chard. Similarly, the Linda Vista Chardonnay from Matthiasson is a fresh and ethereal wine, but a little leaner than the Watson Ranch, you could say it’s a Puligny as opposed to a Chassagne.

For the Cabernets, you’ll find the style you like in either Corison or Matthiasson. To continue the French analogy, if you like Pauillac go for Corison, or if it’s St. Julien go for Matthiasson. If it’s neither of these and you actually prefer St. Estephe, go back to the Santa Cruz Mountains and Mount Eden and co! As an introduction to Napa, you could not do much better than to explore the Wines of Hunt & Harvest, a Cabernet, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc made by Long Meadow Ranch, a trio of wines that give a true expression of what Napa wines should be like at a price that is not prohibitive. Finally, for something truly special, venture up in to Mount Veeder to the west of Napa where you will find the historic Mayacamas Vineyards. The current owners took control from the 2013 vintage and they have had an immediate effect on restoring the wines to their previous glories from decades past. Their first year at the helm and the 2013 Cabernet is already one of the best Napa Cabernets I have ever tasted, the 2014 is yet to be released, but it is even better again.

On the other side of Mount Veeder, you enter Sonoma. This is a region littered with great wines, but the problem is that it is such a big region, the Sonoma Coast AVA covers almost 750 square miles, far too big to give the wines a common identity. So, you need to break it up in to smaller chunks. On what you might call the extreme Sonoma Coast, you will find wines that are made within a few miles of the sea, climates so extreme that you are at the very edge of where it is possible to ripen grapes. When conditions are this hard and the growing season so long, you find fruit in small compact bunches, packed with flavour, sweet and savoury, complex and framed with a fresh acidity retained by the cold winds and fog. Anything from Hirsch Vineyards, for example the San Andreas or West Ridge Pinot Noirs, or Jamie Kutch’s Sonoma Coast or Falstaff Pinots will give you an unforgettable experience of what is possible when vines are pushed to the limits of survival. From further south, in the area know as the ‘Petaluma Wind Gap’ due to the channel of cold air sucked in from the Pacific (just as happens in the Sta. Rita Hills in Santa Barbara), you will find vineyards capable of producing world class, elegant and nuanced wines, Wind Gap Armagh Vineyard Syrah or Gap’s Crown Pinot, and Arnot-Roberts Clary Ranch Pinot Noir are three to look out for.

Happy exploring!

Keith kirkpatrick

Keith Kirkpatrick

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