Culture

6 Things We Love and Hate about The New California Wine

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With so many things to worry about—millions of chronically unemployed Americans, the Iranian bomb, veterans going untreated, unparalleled government snooping—you’d think you could relax from time to time with, say, a nice California cabernet that helps you conjure up a feeling of temporary well-being as you savor a meal with family or friends.

Sorry to inform you, but that pleasure may no longer be available to you. According to a new book, The New California Wine (TNCW) by Jon Bonné, the California wines you’ve been enjoying are actually “a ubiquity of oaky, uninspired bottles,” that have fallen into “a stupor,” and those who make them and like them are “stuck in a self-satisfied funk.”

Who knew? I felt particularly humiliated because I had come to California wines relatively late in my drinking career. To my euro-centric palate, California wine always seemed too young and brash and fruity. Until, that is, I actually visited Napa Valley about 15 years ago.

My wife Ellie and I were having lunch outside at Tra Vigne, and we ordered a half-bottle of Shafer Firebreak. That’s a Super Tuscan blend of cabernet sauvignon and sangiovese—but California style, which means that the fruit is amplified. In the sunshine, with my beautiful wife, amidst the vines, eating short ribs… it felt like a seduction. From that moment forward, California started to make a lot of sense.

Now I’m thinking: Why, oh why, does Jon Bonné want to take that away from me? And it was my friend Pat, of all people, who’d suggested I read his book.

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“The pub” is anywhere Pat and Mike meet to chew the fat and drink

You should understand that Pat McCarthy is a professional food and wine guy. His store, DeLaurenti Food and Wine, is the anchor tenant of Seattle’s Pike Place Market, which for me is like heaven on earth. When I walk in, the aromas waft me back to the east coast delis I grew up with. Except the quality of the food is better, plus there’s much more variety.

DeLaurenti’s also sells wine from every region in Italy, as well as a big assortment from everyplace else. He meets with winemakers and wholesalers every day, tasting wines and deciding what to put on his shelves. Then he gets to help customers choose among the nearly 2000 wines he has available.

So here I am, a rank amateur—plus a dinner guest as well. Pat and Meg have invited Ellie and me to their house to try his fabulous “stabbed chicken,” which is a featured recipe in his forthcoming cookbook. Plus he always serves amazing appetizers and great wine—because that’s what he does.

Under these circumstances, I know I’m going to have to be extra tactful in explaining why I think Bonné’s writing continues the “spirit of national masochism” that the late Spiro Agnew famously noticed back in the late ‘60s.

“Yer feckin’ book’s driving me crazy,” I tell him, first thing out of my mouth.

Pat replies, “Try this Ridge Monte Bello 1995 cabernet sauvignon. It’s one of Bonné’s favorites.”

Then he proceeds to explain why he likes the book, listing three main reasons.

1. TNCW provides a history of CA winemaking

Says Pat, “The thing that really drew me to this book is everything I learned about the history of winemaking in California. I liked reading about Turley’s winemaker, Tegan Passalacqua, driving across the state looking for historic vineyard sites and finding a patch of 110-year old zinfandel behind a Carl’s Jr. in Contra Costa County.”

Bonné includes a short chapter on history, but historical anecdotes and factual information are sprinkled throughout the narrative. You’ll learn that Robert Mondavi left the family wine business and went out on his own because of a fist fight over a mink coat. That the Rochiolis got their start selling grapes for Gallo Hearty Burgundy. And that one of California’s oldest vineyards was planted, antebellum, by two Civil War generals: Sherman and Hooker.

Pat says he also likes the detailed maps at the back, showing only the essentials: airports, roads, and wineries. “It’s a good all-round reference.”

2. TNCW introduces new wines that he’d like to try

I should mention that, during this conversation, Pat has been struggling to decant the bottle of Ridge. The cork was dried out, eventually collapsing into the bottle. Since Pat’s temporarily living in a rental, he can’t find all the tools he’d like to have. So he’s rummaging around looking for something to strain and decant the wine—while he’s talking.

“At Delaurenti’s,” he explains, “we’re tasting wine all the time. The reps come in, and we end up sampling a lot of cabs and Bordeaux blends from Washington state. When someone comes in with something different, it gets your attention. Who wouldn’t want to try a vermentino made in Amador county?”

I must’ve had my famous blank look, because Pat explains: “Vermentino. You know, the white grape from Corsica…”

It’s possible I was also breathing through my mouth, because Pat adds, “Amador County is east of Sacramento, where I grew up. It’s the foothills of the Sierras.”

“Near Rio Linda? Is that where they got the wine for the Donner party?”

“No,” says Pat. “Only for the after party, which I hear was a lot better.”

3. You meet a lot of eccentric people

TNCW is populated by eccentrics, visionaries, and “whack-jobs,” to use Tegan Passalacqua’s descriptor. They are all winemakers, who for the most part see themselves as farmers first and foremost. Organic is just the starting point with this crowd; biodynamics has gone viral—and even that’s not wacky enough for some of them.

In case you thought “biodynamic” was French for “organic,” here’s how Bonné defines it: “A holistic system based upon two controversial precepts: the use of homeopathic preparations, like Preparation 501, which involves stuffing crushed quartz into a cow horn, burying it, and retrieving it months later to spray in a dilute solution; and a near-spiritual planning of framing activities around lunar phases, which is meant to maximize cosmic forces.”

If that’s not enough to send you looking for your tin-foil hat, Ted Lemon, the winemaker whose photograph graces the cover of the book, argues that even more nuanced techniques are needed because current biodynamic principles “deny the farm its potential to individuate.”

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, Pat has found a sieve and a vase that’s about four inches in diameter and two feet tall. He’s debating whether or not to line the sieve with something, but he doesn’t have coffee filters. “I don’t want the wine to taste like paper towel,” he muses.

Next thing I notice, the paper towel has done its job and now he’s straining the wine back into a small vessel. I tell Pat that he’s “recanting”—and perhaps Bonné should too…

Here are three of the most annoying aspects of The New California Wine:

1. You can’t tell the players—even with a scorecard

Bonné’s bête noir is “Big Flavor.” These are wines with close to 14% alcohol or more, oak, and an exuberant character. “Extreme ripeness was soon seen as being the essence of California sunshine,” he complains.

Yet Bonné lists fewer than 120 wineries that meet his criteria. How about the other 4000? Are all of them guilty of Big Flavor? If you’ve been collecting—which I call “planning ahead”—California classics like Chateau Montelena or Rochioli, should you now just pour them down the drain?

I mentioned this dilemma to David Jeffrey, the owner and winemaker at Calluna, a 10-year old operation in the Chalk Hill district of Sonoma. David apprenticed in St. Emilion, and is already making delicious California interpretations of classic Bordeaux. David wrote back and explained, “I view Bonné as a kindred spirit who would like the balance of Calluna, as well as Chateau Montelena, which is also considered a balanced wine. What he does not like are the massive wines like most of the very expensive so-called “cult Cabernets,”and most of California pinot noir (which tends to be big and sweetish relative to Burgundy).”

If David’s right, this lets a lot of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon back into the game, though there’s no way to know it from TNCW.

But Bonné dismisses Paso Robles, almost entirely, with the exception of Denner and Tablas Creek. That’s hard for me to accept. I agree that Denner and Tablas Creek are among the best that region has to offer. But they are generous, fruit-forward wines with alcohol at 14% or better. If you like those two, then I think there are probably at least a handful of other Paso Robles wines you’d enjoy as well. Plus its landscapes are as beautiful as any you’ll find this side of Tuscany.

2. You can’t buy most of Bonné’s favorites—they’re reserved for sommeliers

By now, the Ridge is coming along nicely. Pat has successfully filtered out all of the cork and transferred it to a mason jar. That gives it a friendly, approachable look, like a jar of purple moonshine.

I say to him, “Other than Ridge, have you tried many others of these ‘new’ California wines? Can you get them in the store?”

We go through the list: Calera—no. Scholium—no. Littorai—no. Matthiason—no.

“The audience for this book is sommeliers,” says Pat. “And I don’t agree with the subtitle, that says this represents ‘a revolution in taste.’ Ridge has been around for decades; the style may not be mainstream, but Ridge is a large, successful enterprise, and the wines have always had plenty of loyal fans.

“But you don’t see ordinary people in this book. People having a glass of wine, drinking it with food,” Pat continues. “His world is populated with wine geeks, so there’s a skewed perspective.”

This is an accurate observation. Throughout the book, Bonné validates his wine preferences in terms of their popularity with the in-crowd. One wine is described as “a particular bit of sommelier catnip.” Another one “caught the attention of wine minimalists in cities like New York and Quebec.”

Bonné is at his most irritating when talking about Abe Schoener, “the Pied Piper of wine’s trendy set.” His wines have “hipster chic credibility,” and to prove it, “a bottle of Scholium left in a room full of sommeliers—I actually tried this experiment—was drained within ten minutes.”

This could never happen at my house, because Scholium’s only available to sommeliers. But if I put out, say, a bottle of Rochioli pinot noir, I’d be willing to bet that a room full of my friends could drain it in five minutes. Or less.

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3. TNCW is a crusade against non-believers

“It’s monotheism,” says Pat.

The stabbed chicken is on the table; we’re pouring out the moonshine and the Ridge’s aroma is provoking a lot of excited chatter. But we still have to finish our discussion.

Pat’s right about the religious tenor that’s present throughout TNCW. Bonné says that Ridge’s owner, Frank Draper, believes “the making of wine was sacrosanct,” and that “New California’s winemakers…are true believers in terroir.” Elsewhere, “virgin soil” is required because the winemakers are “plumbing the deeper mysteries that made wine culturally significant.” All of this is “evidence of a counter-reformation.” [Emphasis added].

I tell Pat (and Meg and Ellie) that I’ve always considered great winemaking—and cooking—to be an art form. But all of this religious and cultural significance crapola is a bridge too far. It puts too much emphasis on winemakers and their bizarre superstitions about farming. It puts wine selection too much in the hands of sommeliers at expensive restaurants who are simply bored with classics and assume that you are, too.

I was frankly terrified when I read some of Bonné’s descriptions of his favored wines: “lean and jumpy,” “austere but heady,” “tannic as shit,” and “while compelling, have at times been difficult to drink.” I really don’t want to pay money for that.

I’m particularly defensive about Sonoma pinot noir. In a perfect world, I prefer French burgundies. When they’re right, they’re exceptional. But good ones can be hard to find, even when you pay a lot of money. Common faults are excess acidity and the absence of fruit. Oregon winemakers seem to have interpreted those faults as the essential character of burgundy; by and large they too are making acidic, fruitless pinots.

As a result, California pinot has become my sanctuary, and I don’t want to see it violated. The good ones are consistently good. And I noticed recently that a Rochioli single-vineyard, which somehow survived in my cellar for ten years, had become exceptional. The fruit had mellowed, the structure had held up, it was subtle, restrained, and complex. A revelation!

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Pat’s recipe and Mike’s advice

The threat of the Bonnéists and the hipster sommelier barbarians receded as we enjoyed our new California moonshine together. The Ridge Monte Bello was distinctly California in style—fruit-forward with tangled aromas like walking through open woodland in late spring. I felt there were more similarities than differences relative to other California cabs I’ve enjoyed over the years. In other words: What exactly are we arguing about?

Later in the week I met Pat at the store, and he rounded up a couple of other “new” California wines: A Turley zinfandel and a rosé from Donkey and Goat. Same story.  Excellent wines, but not that different from the other wines that are supposedly destroying California. Could all this noise be more about the philosophy of different winemakers rather than what people can actually taste in the glass?

My advice to readers is to try these “new” California wines without hesitation. At the same time, don’t take Bonné’s negative warnings about Big Flavor too seriously. I think it’s just a bunch of sour grapes.

Now here’s the recipe for stabbed chicken. It will go well with anything you feel like drinking.

PAT MCCARTHY’S STABBED CHICKEN

Place the chicken legs on a sheet pan. With a knife or sharp fork, stab each leg repeatedly on both sides. Season liberally with sea salt, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 4 hours, or up to 24.

Light a charcoal fire or turn a gas grill to medium-high.

Place the chicken on the grill, flesh side down. Cover and grill, turning occasionally, until the pieces are golden brown on all sides (20 to

25 minutes) and cooked through.

Before removing it from the grill, season the chicken liberally on all sides with sea salt, pepper, and oregano.

Turn the heat to low or move the chicken to a cooler part of the grill and let it rest for five minutes. The chicken should be well browned and tender, and the skin should be shrinking from the bone.

Transfer the chicken to a platter and garnish with lemon wedges.

Finish with the juice of one lemon and a drizzle of olive oil just before serving.

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image via cellartracker.com / shutterstock / mythja