Thanksgiving approaches, and the wine anxiety begins. Relax! What matters is the company around the table, not the wine on it. Choose something unassuming, juicy and light; the stuffing and yams are heavy enough. Recently, some local wine professionals convened for a tasting, and they suggested cru Beaujolais, Austrian zweigelt and even old Rioja.
Good choices, but shouldn't we drink American wine to celebrate our deeply American holiday? The problem, though, is that most American wine is conspicuous in price and character, heavy on the palate, and its high alcohol is hard on the body. How to proceed?
There's a quiet riot going on in California, a winemaking "third wave," to borrow from American feminism, with which it shares Bay Area countercultural roots. Call it The New California Wine (Ten Speed Press, 304 pp.), as San Francisco wine writer Jon Bonné does in his just-released primer on what he calls the "counterreformation." (This principled, wry, thoughtful book is also a concise and engaging history of all that came before.)
Our merry band of tasters recently met to audition some of these protesters, mostly small-production wines in surprisingly good supply in these parts. Some of the grapes have strange, obscure names (valdiguié?), as do their makers (Kenny Likitprakong, Pax Mahle), who include former philosophy profs and punk rockers and other tuned-in, turned-on dropouts. Some wines merely taste "interesting but hard to wrap your arms around," as one of us described that valdiguié (an admirer disagreed: "guzzleable"). But strange trips are better than the same drips, which is what Brand California's "Big Flavor" industrial complex has mostly manufactured for 20 years.
Worse, the blowsy, boozy, boysenberry style has gone global. All that sticky-thick, eight-dollar stuff at the megamart, be it from Australia or Argentina, is the chemical-heavy cut-rate version of the opaque monoliths that fetch copious amounts of green and critical ink.
The third wave differs from the establishment in a key way: Almost none of them own vineyards, because they can't afford them. (In Napa, $300,000 per acre is normal.) The trend is toward urban warehouse wines, many made in Berkeley from purchased fruit, a tradition borrowed from the 1990s garagistes of Bordeaux—although in a very different style. Thus the hunt for good, affordable grapes is paramount. The New Californians find more obscure varieties in out-of-the-way places, not only the far corners of Napa and Sonoma but also Lodi, Amador and Santa Lucia, where forgotten parcels of gnarled vines sowed long ago, often by immigrants (planting vines as planting flags), now bear lovely, mature fruit—threatened, of course, by developments.
This is not Mondavi's cabernet California. It's not even the Beats' San Francisco. It's Steinbeck's California: hot and dry, or foggy and steep; itinerant and plainspoken; and shadowed by big business—not grapes of wrath, perhaps, but grapes of rust, risk and dust. Decades-old plantings, especially zinfandel, petite sirah and carignane, have long acclimated to California, a place that isn't actually ideal for growing most wine grapes. "The Big Flavor school of viticulture was hinged as much on flawed beliefs about California's climate as it was on a deliberate hunt for ripeness," Bonné writes.
The problem is counterintuitive: The weather's too nice. Unless the California sun's effects are properly mediated, grapes overripen until they're too sugary. Big Flavor unwisely embraced this overabundance, sometimes by adopting European growing practices unsuited to California's terroir. They began to push ripeness even higher, artificially turning a photosensitive substance into a misguided, decadent style.
The third wave protests by borrowing from another Bay Area tradition: the counterculture. (Think the Free Speech Movement, Haight-Ashbury, Black Panthers, even Chez Panisse.) The new dispensation isn't so radical; it does have a tacit ideology, but the stance isn't revolutionary at all—the revolution seldom is. Take "the observational approach to nature," says esteemed Sonoma winemaker Ted Lemon. Find good grapes and make honest wine.
"That's as it should be," says Sheri Murano, North Carolina's only Master of Wine, as she surveys the bottles. "So why is it news?"
WINES WITH SOUL: Our tasting's best-liked wines elicited comments like "light on its feet" and "elegance." Arnot-Roberts' refined, grown-up 2012 trousseau had baking-spice notes (pumpkin pie time!), and at under $30, it's the award-winning duo's cheapest available release.
Cheerier were former skate-rat Kenny Likitprakong's wines under his Hobo label (Steinbeck indeed), one of three he maintains. The low-rider, low-alcohol zins are quite groovy, but Hobo's 2011 Sceales Vineyard Grenache is a step up: graceful, warm and beguiling. "I'm not a big fan of grenache, but I really like this," Murano said.
Pax Mahle, under his Wind Gap label, also makes a delightful Sceales Vineyard Grenache. There must be something special about the site, planted with 90-year-old vines "more like small trees," Likitprakong told me, in "somewhat sandy, loamy, volcanic soil." Tramp romance notwithstanding, Likitprakong retraces a refreshingly mundane route to Sceales (pronounced "seals"): "[Vineyard owner] Ralph Sceales' daughter used to be my daughter's preschool teacher. Apparently he couldn't find a home for the grenache, so she hit me up one day. I avoided it because she didn't even know what kind of grapes they were and I assumed the worst. Finally, I went out to take a look and be a nice guy. Needless to say, I was pretty surprised that a gem like that was unspoken for."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Going to California."