When you ask someone what they know about California wine, the usual response is Napa Valley followed by rating scores, cabernet sauvignon, and Robert Parker. But what they’re really referring to, whether they realize it or not, are wines made in the cellar more than the vineyard. Over the last few decades and strongly influenced by the Wine Advocate’s Parker, California’s wine brand has become synonymous with oakiness, a fuller body, and higher alcohol content. The good news is Parker gave California a name in the world of wine. While he attracted a cult following, he simultaneously scared many consumers loyal to Old World winemaking, where wines are crafted in the vineyard to capture a sense of place and time, and they wrote California wine off. But there’s a new movement away from those big cabs, and I’m excited to introduce people to California’s new wines, which isn’t as easy as it seems.
As someone who works the restaurant floor on a nightly basis, I’m still surprised by how many consumers are terrified of California wine. When I started working at FIG two years ago, many regulars wouldn’t dare drink a wine from California. Some even said they’d only drink wines from France or Italy. One straight up told me, “Why would we drink Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast when we can drink Burgundy?”
Don’t get me wrong, I love Old World wines. I could drink wine from the Loire of France for the rest of my life and be content. But it’s not a competition of one over another. I appreciate wine for the terroir, for the ability to convey a sense of place, a sense of time. To me, the winemaker’s ability to capture these things with respect is what wine is all about. Some grape varieties such as the great Pinot Grigio have been bastardized so badly that they are misunderstood by even wine professionals. When people come into FIG and I recommend California wine, an overwhelming majority look at me like I have three heads or sometimes even ask if I know how Parker scored the wine (which I don’t). A few will even tell me that to not have a Chardonnay from Burgundy by the glass is an injustice. The good news is this is changing, and Charleston is taking a strong stance. Sommeliers are getting smarter at bridging the gap for consumers, opening palates up to the excitement and possibilities of California winemaking.
Lucky for us all, the California stereotypes are diminishing thanks to people like Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle who just released The New California Wine (Ten Speed Press). Bonné is only one of a growing number of supporters for California wine giving consumers a sense of not just how the wine tastes as a whole but displaying a true sense of terroir.
FIG will be hosting a sold-out seminar on the new California wine this week with Bonné along with Steve Matthiasson (Matthiasson Family Vineyards), Andy Peay (Cep and Peay Vineyards), and John Raytek (Ceritas and Lioco) as part of the Charleston Wine + Food Festival. The seminar will give wine lovers a chance to taste these wines and learn the winemakers’ philosophies on California terroir and the direction California wine is heading. To say the least, I couldn’t be more excited.
A few great California producers to look out for at your local wine shop and favorite restaurants: Matthiasson, Peay, Cep, Lioco, Hirsch, Arnot Roberts, Littorai, Massican, Failla, Rhyme, Wind Gap, Sandhi, Knez, Copain, Qupe, and Au Bon Climat.