Matthiasson, Broc Cellars, Hirsch, Forlorn Hope
Questioning why we drink what we drink intrigues me. Tasty magical potions don’t just emerge out of the ether as pieces to complete our fickle consumption puzzle. As our tastes and the products that quench them take form, multiple factors are at play from taxes and natural resources to technology and advertising. The influences that brought these tipples into existence extend well beyond the obvious sphere of their origins. Things don’t just simply happen in the bazillion-dollar-a-year booze industry; trends and styles emerge and re-emerge as consumers, critics, and manufacturers enact their never-ending balancing act, an act attempting to arrive at a profitable place between price, quality, novelty, and understandability.
California wine is no different. I’d like to take a brief minute to share my perspective on where we are today with respect to the trends in California wine, why we got here and what, in my opinion, is coming next.
We need to start somewhere and as this blog entry is likely to be a bit longer than usual, we’ll start with the Judgement of Paris on May 24, 1976, as this event truly marked a turning point for the reputation of American wines on the global stage. The Judgment was a blind tasting of French and American Chardonnays and Cabernets. Hosted in France and judged by a panel of renowned figures in the French wine industry. The American Chardonnays and Cabernets faired extremely well against a selection of highly lauded French wines, even going as far as taking first place in both categories. At the point of competing in this tasting, the US was barely four decades removed from prohibition. The tradition of producing fine wine in California had, in some respects, already taken root, there was hardly a massive concerted effort to advance the quality of American wine and push the brand into the international spotlight. That said, the tasting did start a new paragraph in a story penned by the likes of our now celebrated winemakers Draper, Mondavi, Grgich, Martini, Tcheistcheff, Sanford, Lett et. al.
Following the news of this event, investment in California wine boomed, and Chardonnay and Cabernet were planted far and wide in the region, and in a short time, those two grapes became as synonymous with Sonoma and Napa, as Riesling is to Mosel or Sangiovese, is to Chianti. Compounding this new interest in producing quality Californian wines, the decade of the eighties brought with it about phylloxera. This strange little louse decimates vineyards and forces vineyard owners to replant and in the North Coast, farmers used this event to double down on their commitment to Chardonnay and Cabernet as those two grapes commanded the best possible ROI. Winemakers looking to buck the system emerged during this period, namely the Rhone Rangers, proponents of Rhone varietals and epitomized by Randell Grahm’s ABC approach to wine (Anything But Chardonnay).
Toward the end of the nineties, a perfect storm hit Napa. As young vines tend to produce fruit that ripens earlier than that of older vines, the fruit of the vines planted in the eighties met a string of long, warm, productive vintaes which naturally yielded wines with elevated alcohol levels and deep resonated flavors as they hung on the vines for longer than usual. The winemaking style at the moment favored gargantuan wines aged in small 100% new oak barrels. Influential wine critics heralded some of the wines produced during these vintages as perfect, allowing the producers to demand astronomical prices for their wines. California Cabernet became a luxury item, opulent and expensive with depth and power rarely seen in the wine world. Land prices skyrocketed and farming decisions started to take place outside the vineyards as investment poured even more into the region. Ever land your helicopter on a winery’s helipad to pick up your wine club? It’s a thing.
You can imagine what followed. Late harvests of grapes from less than ideal sites became the norm and additives such as acids, mega purple, and wood chips allowed producers to make wines in the style which garnered praise from the mega-wine critics from these plots of land. In other words, technology overcame the shortcomings of subpar fruit from land not suited for grape growing. Vintage variation became a non-issue as wines started to taste the same year after year.
All this is starting to change as a new generation of consumers and winemakers are dancing to the beat of a different drum; a beat which is less dictated by the voice of a critic. While new producers are challenging the dictums of not only the style of wine to make and the production methods to make them, they are also switching out the actual grapes planted in vineyards. Arguing that different grapes are better suited for certain sites within the highest celebrated AVA’s in California.
For the consumer, the internet provides a new path to explore this burgeoning new world of wine which as it is mapped out by a sea of “likes” on social media and the production methods are reinforcing their commitment to sustainably produced products and transparent production methods. For better or worse, today, everybody can be a wine critic and a tastemaker.
What do these new wines taste like and are they worth the extra money? Well, the answer to that question is a big fat “well, that depends.” Bottle variation can be a factor from smaller producers of natural wines and the higher acidity of some of the wines can be challenging for some consumers. For me, however, the short answer to the question is a resounding yes. Many of the leaders in this shake-up of the status quo are either celebrated wine consultants who have worked with some of the most renowned brands in the industry and make very sound wines with depth and complexity or they are pioneers, seeking out and planting in new or overlooked areas of California and implementing new techniques which often open my eyes to new possibilities in wine and flavor. In terms of style, if pressed to select one cohesive factor that would unite such a heterogeneous movement, it would be the dedication to a revised concept of what the word “balance” implies. The new generation of wine producers proposes that the alcohol and sugar levels in modern Californian wine has gotten away from us a little bit and grapes need to be picked a bit earlier. Fresher brighter wine is often more versatile in its the ability to pair with our modern cuisine as well as being simply more refreshing to drink. The wines are more delicious than opulent and more refined than bombastic.
There is a lot of interesting juice coming out of California these days from Sierra Mountain Orange Wines to Carneros Albariños to Oakville Refosco. I’d imagine this trend will continue as we see major brands experiment with other varietals. A Calistoga Sagrantino may not be that far of a stretch if it doesn’t already exist. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic, if you have a chance, come to say hi at the shop.
Here are this week’s selections:
Brock Sparkling Chenin 2015 – $36.99
This is a Pet-Nat (Pétillant-Naturel, a wine bottled while still fermenting which gives the wine effervescence) is made by one of the most exciting wine makers currently working in California, Chris Brockway. An astounding number of grapes make up the wines on his label from Valdiguié, Sangiovese, and Syrah to Tocai Friulano and Trousseau Noir. This bottling features a sparkling Chenin Blanc which boasts a complex nose ranging from mineral to pear. The palate is broad and has bright enough acid to go with white sauces or pork.
Matthiasson White Wine 2015 – $42.99
Recipient of the San Fransisco Chronicle’s Wine Maker Award in January 2014 and perennial semi-finalist of the James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Professional, Steve Matthiasson’s impact on the direction of California wine cannot be overstated. After consulting for the likes of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Araujo Estate, Spottswoode, and Hall, Matthiassion has slowly amassed his own vineyard as well as access to some vineyards with highly-celebrated fruit. This white blend is composed of Sauvignon Blanc, Ribolla Gialla, and Semillon and Tocai Friulano. As the winemaker explains, “The Sauvignon blanc brings a clean fresh citrusy acidity and some tropical character. The Ribolla gialla brings seashell minerality, nuttiness, and structure to the blend. The Semillon contributes viscosity and waxiness that adds gravity and weight. The Tocai friulano adds spicy aromatic notes. The acidity and fruit expression is balanced by a rich lees character and a faint backdrop of creamy oak. There is interplay in the wine between lightness and richness, and focus and complexity.” If you are noticing the names of a couple of grapes from NW Italy in that mix, you are correct. The white wines of Friuli are a part of the inspiration for this wine as are the other great white wines of the world and it shows.
Matthiasson Red Wine Napa Valley 2013 – $85.99
In Jon Bonné’s book, The New California Wine, he writes “Steve Matthiasson’s white wines garner more attention, but his work with reds might ultimately have a more crucial impact. Matthiasson is on a mission to show that Bordeaux-native varieties can ripen in Napa below 24 Brix.” His red wines are wines of elegance and finesse, thought-provoking and incredibly cellarable. I’ve had the fortune to taste through his 2013’s multiple times and they have blown me away each time with how focused and perfumed they are. These are wines that harken back to the period before the +15% ABV was common. If you haven’t had a chance to work through some of Matthiasson’s wines, do it.
Forlorn Hope The Kerrigans 2015 – $32.99
In Sierra Foothills of California, Carignan is known as Kerrigans and Matthew Rorick of Forlorn Hope has created an incredibly delightful wine from this grape. The nose is fresh, deep, and complex, expressing red and black fruit with herbaceous and savory notes while the palate of this wine is bright and fresh. This is a wine that pairs phenomenally with New American Cuisine.
Hirsch Sonoma Coast Reserve Pinor Noir 2012 -$104.99
With a nose expressing savory herbs and brambly bright fruit, this cold climate Pinot Noir has gorgeous, persistent acidity and an infinitely long finish. A thoughtful and age-worthy Pinot Noir from an iconic producer on the Sonoma Coast.
Thank you for reading and hope to see you around the shop soon,