There's a long-running debate in wine circles about whether California wines can ever compare to Old World powerhouses France and Italy. To hear some sommeliers and critics tell it, the question can be resolved with a simple two-letter word: No. As in, California can't compete. The thinking goes like this: For years, Napa and Sonoma winemakers have made wines that purposely exploit grapes ripened in the hot California sun, leading to high-alcohol Zinfandels, Cabernet Suavignon and the like. But now, a few diehard winemakers and a notable critic — Jon Bonné — are arguing, in essence, against their fellow wine snobs, suggesting that a movement has developed that makes California wines noteworthy, delicious and, like, totally worth drinking.
Bonné unfurled the blueprint to this pro-Cali philosophy late last year with his excellent, insanely thorough book, The New California Wine, which spotlights a group of winemakers who are exploring the idea of terroir, picking grapes before they reach maximum ripeness and even experimenting with natural wine. That's Littorai's Ted Lemon on the cover, amongst the vines. I spoke with Bonné about all this earlier this year, just before he went head to head at a wine symposium with the man many people blame for propelling a once-promising wine region off the tracks, Robert Parker. Not coincidentally, Parker's role in making California wine into a high-alcohol commodity ran through my conversation with Bonné, which is excerpted, edited and condensed here.
You start the book with the story of how you moved to San Francisco to become wine editor of the Chronicle, harboring a bit of a bias against California wine, right?
Yeah, I think that’s what we couild say: there’s a healthy schism now between the new direction of California and the legacy of maybe the past 15-20 years. What became clear was that I needed to talk about my own personal journey to find these wines in the course of explaining why I thought it was important.
From there, I had to cover the wines and some of the geography, but I also needed to talk about things thematically to help explain why change had come. Whether it was the farming, whether that was a revised cultural history of what grapes were really appropriate for California, how people were changing their thinking, whether it was talking about the economic realities of trying to be a winemaker — there were some very serious themes that most wine books don’t tend to tackle because they’re complicated and they get beyond simply serving as reference. But the narrative of why these changes were taking place is so important.
It seems like it’ll focus on the new producers, but then you go into things like terroir, which is maybe the first time a book has gone into this sort of detail for California wines, right?
To be fair, I think Matt Kramer tried to get to a lot of that material when he wrote his book on California 10 years ago, but the thinking then was still emerging, and it was still a point where there wasn’t a complete flood of random and not particularly meaningful AVAs* that had shown up. There are a lot of books that have talked about it, but more or less following the road map that wine marketers had set out. In general, it’s tough to tackle the question: Is this terroir meaningful? Has it been around long enough that we can make conclusions about it? I looked at Andrew Jeffords' The New France, where obviously [France] has a longer history with its terroir. I think he took a clear-eyed look at whether the different regions were performing at the level that they could be and whether they had the value that they’d been ascribed. Beaujolais was making much better wines than people thought, Burgundy was struggling. It’s rare to focus on that for California.
So you take that same approach to a vaunted California region like Russian River?
It was important to take a step back from saying we know that this region is important now because it has this appellation and ask: Are these relevant or have they been abused? Like Russian River Valley, where the leap from this kind of nebulous geography that it was ascribed to it [becoming] essentially a marketing term was really fast. The chance to ask more serious questions about what in fact its potential was had sort of been skipped. Or was outpaced by the need to make its quality a sure thing. And that’s sort of the history of California: 10 steps ahead and two steps looking back.
You talk in the introduction that people maintain this bias against New World wines. Robert Parker has been vilified. Did he have too much power? Is he to blame for going down the wrong path. Is it possible to overstate it?
I don’t know if it’s possible to overstate it but what we’re seeing now is that the wine world is issuing something of a corrective. What I think people were frustrated by was that it was very hard to get consumers to pay attention to other sources of criticism. Now there are many more consumers coming into their wine-drinking years now who are never going to need scores to buy wine. They will find many other paths to discover the wines they’re interested in. I don’t think there’s anything instantly revolutionary as one day Bob’s influence vanishes, but I think there’s an increasing number of people who don’t need that affirmation. They don’t need the points.
Do you think even those who have avoided New World wines will find it's safe to dive in?
It’s something I’ve had to think about, how fast will things change? It’s not as though all of the sudden all the people are going to start drinking these wines tomorrow, but it’s also interesting to me that from the moment the book came out, people have basically accepted that there has been sea change in California, and there’s a new era that is going forward and these are going to be benchmark wines. What I hope is that maybe all of that was there and the book just scratched the surface. This coming year is going to demonstrate just how fast the evolution of California is happening.
What are you drinking lately?
What would have been nice would have been to get a hiatus, but I went very quickly from having to wrap up the Top 100 Wines, which involved tasting a lot of West Coast wines, right into the holidays — and it is in fact almost possible to get burned out on champagne. I’ve been mostly just trying to go back and taste things that are interesting. I need to spend time with sherry. I’m ratcheting back Californians just a touch but I’ve been tasting zinfandel that’s reminding me how much I love great zinfandel. I was tasting the 2012 Bedrock "Old Vine" and was amazed at how pure and beautiful a wine it is. It is that wine that can be completely intellectually and hedonistically satisfying at the same time without falling into that heavy-handed hedonism that California got in trouble for.
*AVAs are American Viticultural Areas, federally designated wine regions.
Note: Jon Bonné will be traveling to London next month with eight California winemakers for "The New California Tasting." The event at Kings Fund, Cavendish Square on April 22 will showcase some of the winemakers featured in Bonné's book as well as some key players this new movement, including Jamie Kutch, Jasmine Hirsch and Rajat Parr — names to study further if you're interested in California's evolution. More info and ticket sales for the London event here.
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