My test of a wine book is the number of wines that sound so intriguing I jot them down on a running list that I tuck into my wallet for my next trip to a wine shop.
The list I accumulated while reading Jon Bonné’s “The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste” (Ten Speed Press, 298 pages, $35) is much longer than even that title.
A lot of good it will do me. In randomly checking websites in the directory of producers at the end of Bonné’s book, my growing suspicions were confirmed: Many of the wines that excite him are available only at the wineries or in restaurants of the nation’s flashier cities.
They’re precious by both their limited availability and their cost. In the buying-guide section of the book, Bonné groups wines into four price categories, from $ for wines $20 and less to $$$$ for wines more than $80. Very few wines are designated with $.
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Bonné works in one of those flashy cities as the wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. Though he’s lived in California only since 2006, he’s immersed himself passionately in the state’s wine scene, and with “The New California Wine” provides a smart and stimulating survey of a significant if small shift in how several of the state’s vintners make wine.
He introduces his book with a prescient quote from pioneering California grape grower Arpad Haraszthy, dated 1891; “The finest wines in the state ultimately will be made not by large producers but mostly by ‘men of small property and limited means, and do the greater part of the work themselves.’ ”
For the next nearly 300 pages those are just the kind of grape growers and winemakers Bonné profiles in a series of sympathetic and colorful vignettes. Basically, they’re undertaking a correction in the way wine is made in California by showing as much interest in creativity as in the sanitation practices they were taught at UC Davis, favoring indigenous yeasts over commercial cultured yeasts and seeing soils more as incubators of complexity than sources of water.
Stylistically, Bonné favors wines of “nuance, restraint, and a deep evocation of place.” He doesn’t have much patience with what he calls “Big Wine” and “Brand California” – wines made from grapes excessively high in sugars at harvest, high in alcohol, tricked up with laboratory additives and so saturated with oak that place of origin is lost.
Not long ago, I caught up with Bonné to ask him a few questions prompted by his book:
Your conclusions are based on a relatively short span and little experience for several of the winemakers you profile. Are you confident these winemakers still will be following the techniques you value a decade from now?
There was no way to ensure that any of what I was capturing in the book would be true 10 years from now, even five years from now. At best I was capturing a particular time for California, and a particular movement.
The techniques and style you value long have been pursued by several other California winemakers who get little or no acknowledgment in the book. What sets apart those who you did profile?
It’s possible some of them might reasonably have made it into the book. Others, I would assert, are pursuing some of the right techniques but have very different views about ripeness or viticulture. And, of course, the other issue is quality. I faced a number of people whose work is noteworthy but whose quality of wine wasn’t at a level that I felt merited inclusion. One issue that I think often gets lost in discussing philosophy or technique with California winemakers is that philosophy isn’t enough. There are absolutely people who have the right ideas about style or terroir, but aren’t necessarily executing on them. That’s important; otherwise, it becomes an exercise in dogma.
Most consumers seem pretty happy with “Big Wine” and “Brand California.” Sales continued to grow even during the Great Recession. To them, expression of varietal or style trumps a sense of place. Shouldn’t there be room for wines of “commercial endeavor” as well as wines of “cultural expression”?
Sure. But they shouldn’t expect to be discussed in serious critical terms, any more than Cheesecake Factory and Olive Garden expect to receive consideration from serious restaurant critics. Industrial wine will always be with us, but part of the maturing of American wine culture means that we stop talking about “Big Wine” and “Small Wine” in the same terms, and that we have some frank discussion about what it means to make some of these commercial wines.
You acknowledge that the wines of one winemaker you champion – Abe Schoener – often fail. Don’t you think that criticism also applies to other winemakers you feature, given that at least some of their winemaking is experimental and high-risk?
Any winemaker who wants to aim for exceptional wine has to take some risks. Abe is a good example of someone for whom risk might actually trump final quality. That’s not an economic gamble I’d ask people to take. But I don’t actually see that much risk taking place in these cellars. Indigenous fermentations are now a pretty standard practice for small-batch fermentations. Whole-cluster usage is hardly a radical concept anymore. If anything, picking fruit at lower pH and higher acid is a natural protection against microbial faults. For me, the difference in recent years has been that technology like reverse osmosis allowed winemakers to be sloppy, or to make deliberately risky decisions about ripeness and chemistry, knowing they could just fix them later. These new approaches, which really are just old approaches done with better understanding of microbiology, are the equivalent of modern hearth cooking, of Chez Panisse-ing, if you will. They’re about going back to basics, with enough skill to make it work.
You write often of the link between the composition of soil and how it affects the nature of wine, but most references are breezy, and more subjective than scientific, at least in the telling. Do you regret not including a chapter elaborating on the relationship between soil and wine character?
I think that topic wouldn’t really have had a place in this book, only because we don’t really know that much about the subject, at least in California. UC Davis sided with climate over soil because climate impacts were quantifiable; soil impacts weren’t. The topic really deserves more attention than I could have given it in a book that already required too much work dealing with viticultural science and ampelography. That’s my sidelong way of saying: Stay tuned. I suspect scientists will be struggling, mostly in vain, for the next 50 years to provide quantifiable results. It’s why terroir is such a beautiful and terrifying concept.
For consumers brought up on “Big Flavor” and “Brand California,” what’s your advice if they want to explore the wines of the minimalists, other than to buy your book?
Go to their local wine shop, and ask for some examples of what’s really interesting in California right now. The book is a good guide, but there are a lot of good retailers around the country who are interested in a different style of wine coming from California, and they’ll ultimately be any wine lover’s great resource.