Jon Bonné’s “The New California Wine” Highly Recommended

Jan 12

The New California Wine by Jon Bonné (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, 2013, 298 pgs, $35) is one of only two books I’ve read (both recently) on the California wine industry that have said more, in detail and philosophical depth, than anything else I’ve read on the subject (the other was An Ideal Wine: One Generation’s Pursuit of Perfection–and Profit– in California, by David Darlington (Harper Collins, 2011).

I mention Darlington’s book, because those who know and like it will, I’m confident, feel just as happy with Bonné’s book. It also takes the long view, reviewing the evolution of the California wine industy, but takes a bold and iconoclastic  opening stand. Bonné, who has been the wine writer at the San Francisco Chronicle since 2006, claims in the introduction that he was dismayed on taking up his position at the Chronicle  that “My first couple of years in California were tough. I hunted desperately for local wines worth praising…but I couldn’t overlook the sad fact that Napa had become a bombastic shell of its earlier, humbler self.” It’s pretty revolutionary…and ballsy… for a book on California wine to begin with negative comments on the state of its wines, and anyone who refuses to genuflect to the received wisdom of the marketing men of the California wine industry certainly has my respect.

However, still in the introduction, Bonné explains that a few pioneers are blazing new paths of experimentation again as they did in the 1970s, planting in new places, championing new grape varieties, using alternative business models, and farming organically or biodynamically. Most of these pioneers look to the Old World for what they can learn from it, without feeling the need to slavishly duplicate it, which Bonné says is the maturation of an American culture of wine. All of this, and the resultant wines, gives Bonné a great sense of hope; “I’ve come to believe that this is the best time in a generation to drink California wine.”

The New California Wine is divided into three parts; “Searching for the New California Wine”, which deconstructs some myths about California (such as that it has the perfect climate for wine grapes or that good wines need to be estate-grown), and also introduces a number of the New Winemakers and their holistic approach to grape farming. He also discusses the rise of “Big Wine” (corporate domination) and “Big Fruit”, or the illusion that riper grapes make better wine.

A recurring theme in The New California Wine is an acknowledging  the importance of the past, whether it’s California’s own pre-Prohibition past or the achievements of winemakers Paul Draper of Ridge or Josh Jenson of Calera in the 1970s, or the Old World models that are inspirations for the New California winemakers who drink blaufränkisch, Chablis or trosseau, and dare to make syrah with an alcohol level that might not “break twelve percent”, because they recognize the importance of acidity, and fresh (not overripe) fruit to pleasant wine drinking. It’s encouraging to realize that the cutting edge in California today is moving away from Big Fruit, high alcohol and heavy oak and that while the bulk (as it were) of the state’s production is in very undifferentiated wines, the paradigm is changing.

In part two, “The New Terroir: A California Road Trip”, Bonné first has an introduction to the concept of terroir in “The Meaning of Place.” While appellations and a hierarchy of place evolved over centuries in the Old World, once the American Viticultural Area was introduced in 1978, it became a cynically instant way to convey, at least on a label, some suggestion of wine superiority. Politics also muddles the picture (as it does anywhere with wine appellations).

“Which appellations are sensible and useful? Which have been contrived by a lust for profit? A hunt for terroir has become clouded in a rush of economic ambition.”  To help answer the question, Bonné points to a couple of examples such as old vines; if they’re still making exemplary wine after 75 or more years, it shows that this was the right vine in the right place. Another benchmark is growers who are re-interpreting existing appellations either through planting grapes for Old World soil affinities such as gamay in the granitic soils of the Sierra Foothills, or in the cool and very vertiginous Sonoma Coast, where instead of planting for maximizing ripeness as is done further inland, growers are planting chardonnay and pinot noir that have long cool growing seasons to retain fresh fruit and high acids reminiscent of Burgundy.

In these regional sections, Bonné helpfully includes sidebars that summarize the statistics of the region; size, acres under cultivation, leading grape varieties and soil types. The book as a whole has helpful sidebars throughout that tackle a large number of topics; one runs across two pages on biodynamics, and is very educational without being obtuse.

Bonné then takes you to nine specific examples of places in California that he believes show a great sense of place, at least for certain grape varieties. Some of these places like Contra Costa County or Lodi might be considered low-rent by Napa Valley fans (significantly, that area isn’t mentioned) and one, Ventucopa, I hadn’t even heard of, which is part of what I like about the book, feeling like I’m re-discovering a familiar topic in new ways.

The concluding section of the book goes from the regions to the building blocks of wine; grape varieties. Unsurprisingly, we see pinot noir, chardonnay and “cabernet” (including mention of cabernet franc). Interesting, the ubiquitous merlot is missing, but we also see a section on “Revising the Rhone”, “The New Whites” and “Back to the Future” subtitled “Zinfandel and Beyond.”

Within each grape section Bonné lists those he feels are leading producers of these grapes, in “a curated selection of wineries and wines that reflect the best of the New California.” Vintages are not listed because of the short shelf life of such information but Bonné says his selections have showed well across several vintages. He also helpfully includes a dollar sign system to alert you to wine price. He also includes a map section where the vineyards used to source the wines can be found. Each grape section has “The Three Bottle Tour” sidebar, highlighting leading producers in three different regions of the state. Each section also has a “More Notable Wines” section for up-and-coming producers or those whose production levels are very limited.

Bonné is one of the few writing on California wines to describe a visit to the highly unfashionable but highly utilitarian vineyards of the hot Central Valley near Madera, where the french colombard (a k a ugni blanc) vines squeeze out an astonishing 23 tons per acre to supply the plonk for Big Wine. After his discussion of the economics involved, you wonder why people bother spending up to a million dollars an acre re-engineering the steep hills of Sonoma Coast to make $100 pinot noir for a limited market, when the numbers are much more favorable in Stanislaus.

However, Bonné overlooked a significant part of the California wine industry equation: the wholesale tier and how Big Wine overwhelmingly dominates what shows up on retail shelves and in family restaurants across the country outside of the Golden State. The consolidation of the wholesale tier in the U.S. means a plethora of “critter” label and copy-cat boring corporate California wines cluttering up the shelves, and high prices for the few high quality independently produced wines one can scout out. It’s also hard to keep up with the major once-independent brands like Rex Goliath, Rosenblum, Ravenswood and Edna Valley that have been bought out by the wine giants, to distinguish them from true independents.

In the UK, the brands of Big Wine giants Gallo and Constellation are the only widely visible California wines on retail shelves, because smaller producers with higher prices have concluded that the economics (including high import duties for non-EU wines) don’t justify their efforts in that market. The irony of Bonné’s book is that while he convinces the reader that there is a new Renaissance underway in California wine, the wines are virtually unobtainable in trade channels for many U.S. consumers elsewhere in the country and overseas. Bonné should have addressed the “elephant in the room” for those readers who are eager to discover The New California but are limited by trade, tax and supply issues outside the Golden State.

Despite this, The New California Wine is an indispensable guide for those who may have given up hope for originality and terroir-driven wines from California. There is enough for everyone to learn something new and encouraging about the industry and the wealth of California’s as-yet hardly tapped potential. The rise of the Millennial wine-drinking generation is another source of hope; they couldn’t care less about Robert Parker or the received wisdom of glossy consumer wine magazines, and will be the most open-minded to new grape varieties and new styles.

Both Millennials and cynical Baby Boomers will be encouraged by the details of dedicated growers and winemakers daring to champion chenin blanc, tocai friulano or albariño in the New Whites section, or old vine carignane from Mendocino or Contra Costa counties, or valdigué (a k a “Napa gamay”), or the very obscure trousseau noir detailed in “Back to the future”. Zinfandel fans will be encouraged to hear of the return of lower alcohol levels by simply picking earlier instead of diluting raisined and overripe grapes with water.

The New California Wine is the most thoughtfully written, educational and encouraging book on the California wine industry I’ve ever read and I think it will be a benchmark work as the industry evolves in new directions.

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