Two Big Things in California Wine

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:13

    Here's how my big things go. California plantings, in the early days (the 1800s), were both romantic and practical. Immigrants and immigrant sons from Europe tried to grow what they had grown, or had seen grown, in the Old World. Pioneers, and fearing disaster, they stuck to the successful Old World varietals. As a result, in the early part of the century, before Prohibition, there were all kinds of grapes being cultivated all over California, as well as indigenous varietals, such as zinfandel. There was malbec, to name a red-wine grape that has since all but disappeared, and chardonnay, a white that has proliferated. As the New World wine business matured, however (and in the 60s and 70s began to develop pretensions), two core varietals emerged: chardonnay for whites and cabernet sauvignon for reds. Everything else became a hodgepodge, couldn't really compete at the high end, and growers either ripped up the old rootstocks and replanted the money varietals, or retreated into ruinous esoterica.

    I'm going to focus on the reds, because that's where my two big things intersect. The Napa Valley, which led the American charge into premium winemaking, has always favored one of two interpretations of the classic Bordeaux style. So one can buy California cabernets that are distinctly Californian?enormous, mouth-filling, dark, fiery, aggressive, sometimes overwhelmingly tannic and usually brewed up from 100 percent cabernet sauvignon with no cabernet franc or merlot or anything else blended in to nambify the mighty cab impact. Or one can lay in the more Bordeaux-like style (a good example of this is the '96 Chateau St. Jean Sonoma County Cinq Cepages, Wine Spectator's Number One wine for 1999?a steal at $28). These Bordeaux imitators have gained some prominence lately, especially as enthusiasts have become a little bored with the "classic" California cab style. The philosophy that governs this subtler approach is that a great wine needn't knock you on your ass from the first sip to be commendable; breeding is okay and, frankly, in some years the cabernet sauvignon harvest can use a little help.

    The dynamic between these two approaches has truly made for some wonderful vintages in the 80s and 90s. So much so that the wine world has begun to acknowledge the emergence of favored appellations?and within these, designations?in California's AVAs (American Viticultural Areas). This is why freshly minted cabernets now go for $150 on release; the history of success is there, and bets on the future of the vintage can be safely made. Cult cabs are now produced in very limited allocations and sell for steep prices to favored subscription buyers. It's probably only a matter of time before a genuine market in Napa cabernet futures emerges to match that of Bordeaux. And all of this is great news for American wine. Sure, the prices might be exaggerated, but over time they will even out. What's important is that over the next few decades there's every chance that California will displace France as the world's premiere winemaking zone. That's right. I'm serious. We already do food better, so why not wine, too?

    It took chutzpah for California to make it this far, and that brings me to my own private big thing, which is the potential for California to displace not merely France in winemaking excellence, but also Italy. In a buoyant economy, all boats presumably rise, and the overall effect that the last decade has had on California is that there has been opportunity to experiment with varietals other than cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. The merlot craze of a few years back is a deceptive example, since merlot was already around, at least for those vintners pursuing the Bordeaux style. A serendipitous twist of marketing allowed them to buck the time-honored French notion that merlot was too thin to stand on its own, that it functioned best as a way to temper an ungainly cabernet harvest.

    Better examples are the recent success of California syrah, the basic grape of France's northern Rhone Valley, and of course pinot noir, the great grape of Burgundy. Syrah was no big surprise; it could always be grown in California, but it required a public with some education in wine?and some level of boredom, or sticker-shock, with cabs?to succeed. Predictably, California syrah has made good wine right out of the gate. Good, and also affordable ($10 to $20 a bottle).

    California pinot noir, on the other hand, is the biggest stunner to hit winemaking since Americans quit drinking sweet wine and accepted dry. Nobody thought pinot noir could be grown outside of Burgundy, and they were all wrong. Oregon's Willamette Valley led the charge, but for my money America's Burgundy can currently be found in Carneros and the Russian River Valley. These pinots are different from France's, but, ironically, whereas Burgundy's output varies wildly from vintage to vintage, California's is predictable. It's magic, it seems, or naked luck. It's also expensive. Most good California pinot noirs well set you back between $25 and $45 a bottle.

    So, having matched, to a degree, both of France's great winemaking regions (in style if not necessarily staying power), California can now move on to do battle with the altogether more incoherent Italians. Because, let's face it, Italy makes no sense at all. I don't really get French wine beyond the useful basics (it takes a lifetime and a hefty bank account), but I really don't get Italian wine (it takes a lifetime and...well, another lifetime). This is partly because Italy, as befits a nation that wasn't unified until the mid-to-late 19th century, never applied the same rigorous organizational matrix to its viticulture as France. There are effectively two main regions in Italian winemaking: the North and the Middle. In the North?Piedmont?one finds Barolo and Barbaresco; in the Middle, one finds Tuscan Chianti. Then there are the gajillion little table wines and quaffing wines and so on that make up the remainder of the dizzying Italian viticultural universe. The cliche about Italy is that every podunk village from Palermo to Milan has a vineyard and a local wine. Imagine if every town in America had its own recipe for Coke.

    The Barolo and Barbaresco grape is nebbiolo, the world's only true competitor for the glories routinely bestowed on cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir. There aren't any notable California nebbiolos yet, but the Golden State is trying. The Chianti grape is sangiovese, and in California it's another story, planted all over the place before Prohibition, but largely forgotten until recently.

    In a sense, the California assault on Italy is the reverse of its assault of France. Where great red wine was concerned, California went right for the Bordeaux style (to a degree, this was simple practicality?cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot are hardier varietals than pinot noir). With Italian-style reds, however, California has chosen to first take on the "lesser" Chianti style. Remember: Chianti, for quite a while, suffered from its straw-bottle, red-sauce, checkered-tablecloth, rotgut image, and Tuscany didn't help matters by keeping the winegrowing region as disorganized?as individualistic?as possible. But then, about 15 years ago, the Super Tuscans came along. These were blended Chiantis from ambitious producers, such as Antinori, juiced-up Chiantis that added a percentage of cabernet sauvignon to the sangiovese. (A bastardization, as far as some genuine wop wine boosters are concerned.)

    They took the wine world by storm. And so what's afoot in California, in regions such as the Alexander Valley, are some attempts to produce an indigenous Chianti, and eventually a native Super Tuscan. My prediction is that if they pull it off, the Alexander Valleyans will appoint themselves the Tuscany of the American West, and the race will then be on to achieve California's authentic Barolo and Barbaresco imitator. When this happens, wine-wise California will indeed have it all: a Bordeaux (Napa), a Burgundy (Carneros and the Russian River Valley), a Rhone (the Central Coast), a native red varietal (zinfandel), a Tuscany (the Alexander Valley in northern Sonoma County) and a Piedmont (to be named later).

    My anticipation breathlessly builds. No shit, I'm convinced it'll be the holy grail for American viticulture in the next century. In the meantime, here's a sangiovese pick for you, from the Alexander Valley: Seghesio's '97 "Nonno's Clones," part of a tradition for this producer that dates back to 1910. Eighteen bucks, and one of the best pasta wines I've sampled in years. Blackberries on the nose, blackberries on the tongue and a mellow, genially tannic finish that lingers, but not too long. Enough blackberries to keep Galway Kinnell happy forever. Yes, $18 is a bit much, but we're dealing with harsh economics here?Seghesio could have ripped up their old-growth sangiovese vines and put in something more marketable. What you're paying for here is bravery. Want a perfect wine to wash down a Bolognese sauce, like the one Mario Batali whips up at Babbo (the best daggone Bolognese sauce in New York)? Seek out the Seghesio. I've listened to New York merchants degrade domestic sangiovese, but I'm tired of hearing it. I want a Tuscany to the West. I picked this wine up at a Ralph's (that's a grocery store) in Los Angeles, and if Crossroads in Manhattan doesn't carry it, try e-mail ( or give the winery a call at 707-433-3579.