The New California Wine by Jon Bonné
“Foucault talks about conditions of possibility, that have nothing to do with individuals, but with conditions that allow individuals to launch change.”
Like newly grafted vines that take years to bear quality fruit, the New California Wine movement took time to take root. In the long shadow cast by the best of the Old World properties, Jon Bonné, in his recently published, The New California Wine, A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste, draws a verbal map across time, inclusive of California’s original wine growers of the 19th century whose work is reflected in the efforts of the new winemakers today.
Scripted in three parts: ‘Searching for the New California’, ‘The New Terroir’ and ‘Wines of the New California’, the text reads like a family genealogy, tracing the reemerging properties and techniques that have now come full circle to the present, beginning with the 1800’s and looping past the now short-lived yet all defining “Big Flavor” era that was led on a leash by the likes of Robert Parker.
Steve Matthiasson of Matthiasson Family Vineyards
Writing with his ear to the ground and with dirt beneath his nails, Bonné is the wine writer at the San Francisco Chronicle since 2006, who first broached the topic of new California wines in a piece for Saveur in 2010; and then relied heavily on Steve Matthiasson of Matthiasson Family Vineyards and Tegan Passalacqua of Turley, along with Ted Lemon of Littorai, Paul Draper of Ridge and David Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards, for the foundational material of his book. Here, he illuminates the path that similiarly led to the establishment of Clos de Vougeot by the Cistercian monks at Cîteaux, illustrating the shorter-lived California family tree to include the work of E. W. Hilgard, who experimented with varietal plantings during the late 19th century, while Paul Masson was planting Chardonnay and Pinot Noir cuttings imported from France, alongside Robert Mondavi who reignited the search for California terroir in the 1960’s.
Kevin Kelley of Salinia Wine Co.
Passing the flame, one grower often leads a maker to a plot, who in turn passes knowledge of a parcel to a second grower, and so on. Soon, just as in our own Domestic Portfolio, there appears a crosshatch pattern bridging connections that lead to the development of a community. As Steve Matthiason told us earlier this year, “…Ten years ago, there was no seed. In Napa, there was Abe [Schoener of the Scholium Project] and me. We didn’t know about Arnot-Roberts in the other valley.” But if it wasn’t a collective movement at the start, then how did it happen that Matthiasson, Dan Petroski of Massican, Tegan Passalacqua and Schoener all started ten years ago or more, hunting terroir driven sites for both new and established varietals in California? “Foucault talks about conditions of possibility,” added Matthiasson, “that have nothing to do with individuals, but with conditions that allow individuals to launch change.”
In our portfolio from the start, it was Robert Sinskey, one of California’s original organic winegrowers, who ultimately led us to Matthiasson, the viticulturist who chose to pick fruit early—long before everyone else opted to follow his steps—while John Lockwood of Enfield Wine Co., our most recent addition, got his start working with David Mahaffey, Ted Lemon and Ehren Jordan who established Fallia in 1998. Kevin Kelley of Salinia Wines practices the art of ‘leaving shit alone’ in the cellar. While working the vineyards at Heintz, where his parcels have been organic since 2005, he worked with Ted Lemon to push the property to embrace organic practices.
Matthew Rorick of Forlorn Hope
Matthew Rorick of Forlorn Hope who came to town this weekend to showcase three small bottlings alongside Bonné’s publication, just purchased a historic property in the Sierra Foothills with schist soils and a swathe of true limestone where he plans to graft Chenin Blanc, Trousseau Noir and Green Hungarian, because these were the varietals that were planted to the area both before and after California’s great Gold Rush. With these wine growers, as with all of those who are featured in The New California Wine, it is imperative to honor origins while asking critical questions before walking the next step. Carroll Kemp of Red Car Wines, joined forces with Littorai, Failla, Freestone and Peay, to establish the West Sonoma Coast Vintners, because as Bonné writes, “…in a way, the Sonoma Coast is one big lie.”
“The boundaries of the AVA are confusing,” said Kemp. “The job of an AVA is to bring clarity to the consumer, but Brice [Jones of Sonoma-Cutrer] created a giant AVA so he could sell wine grown and vinified in the same area. It’s a giant AVA.”
As we move forward, both in the detailed redefining of California and in the development of our Domestic Book, it’s the consumer who benefits, from the winemakers’ commitment to terroir and the transparency that comes along with it. “New California’s winemakers share similar sensibilities,” writes Bonné, “an enthusiasm for lessons learned from the Old World, but not the desire to replicate its wines; a mandate to seek out new grape varietals and regions; and, perhaps most important, an ardent the belief that place matters.” It’s been a few years in the making but it’s certainly been worth the wait.