I must be in San Francisco. I can't see anything. Well, I'm almost in San Francisco, but the plane suddenly lurches upward in the fog—you can tell it's going up, because all the underseat baggage flies past you like an avalanche. I sort of didn't want to ask the pilot what had gone wrong.
But it sure improved my appetite for an evening of New Zealand wines and fusion food at the Slanted Door. Since my last bite had been grits, biscuits and gravy at the Austin airport, I was keen to eat something that might remotely go with wine. The food was a delight and demonstrated once again how brilliantly adaptable New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is with spicy food. And I could enjoy Harvey Steiman seated on my left pondering over the conflicting attractions of Placido Domingo and the Giants' first World Series since—oh, ask Harvey.
But that wasn't why I was on the West Coast. I wanted to see what else California could grow except the inevitable Cabernet, Pinot, Merlot and Chardonnay gang. California often makes a brilliant effort in turning out good wines from varieties that, frankly, would prefer cooler conditions—i.e. the above-named four. But innovation in the vineyard is frequently stymied by the requirements of marketing men and finance directors to only produce wines that fit into the easy-to-sell, four-lane freeway.
Yet there are hundreds of varieties that would benefit from California's conditions. Indeed there are scores of varieties that used to thrive there a century ago when the marketing man was the guy growing the grapes and making the wine—or maybe his wife—and what grapes you grew often depended on what your grandfather had planted on his arrival from Italy.
There's no doubt in my mind that planting or reviving a whole swath of Italian red and white varieties would make the California wine scene more vibrant and exciting—and cheaper; these wines rarely need much new oak, if any, and don't benefit from ludicrously low yields and high alcohols. Italian cuisine is always popular in the States, in a variety of manifestations. Why do we have to accompany it with domestic Chardonnay or Cabernet, or stuff from Italy that California could outshine for a lot less money?
Barbera, a native of northwest Italy, has 6,931 acres planted in California, but almost all of it is in Fresno and Madera, where it broils. There are just 163 acres in Amador and 65 acres in Sonoma. They need to be cherished and propagated. There are only 122 acres of Dolcetto, another northwest Italian native, but this can make a cracking bright, appetizing cranberry- and blueberry-tasting red, as Palmina in Santa Barbara showed with its 2009.
There are 157 acres of Lagrein—an excellent Alpine grape from the foothills of the Dolomites—mostly in San Luis Obispo, a good idea, so long as it's planted in the cooler parts. Lambrusco is a smashing, zesty grape from central Italy—yes, grape, it's not just sweet, fizzy wine—but all its 93 acres are in boiler-house Madera. And Teroldego, a Trentino grape from north of Verona, makes lovely juicy reds, but California's plantings of 79 acres are mostly around San Joaquin, after Sonoma gave up on its 24 acres only a couple of years ago.
Add in a few French oddballs—Cambiata does a seriously chunky Tannat whose 2007 still needs a year or two—but what about Counoise, or Mondeuse, or more Mourvèdre? Include Portugal with its dizzying array of fascinating, original flavors—York Creek makes a dense yet scented blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cão and Tinta Roriz in Sonoma County—and the state's red wine offerings would start to look far more scintillating.
And there are whites, too, that are more suited to most of California than Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc can ever be. Cool-climate Albariño and Grüner Veltliner don't seem likely candidates, but Dancing Coyote in Clarksburg does a remarkably good job with them. George Vare and Grassi in Napa make a tiny amount of Ribolla Gialla. It's delightful. So let's see people planting Garganega, Arneis, Inzolia and Pecorino (yes, it's a grape, too) as well. T-graft an acre or two of unwanted Chardonnay or Merlot to something exciting and become a new-wave wine champion.
Chris A Elerick — Orlando, FL — December 28, 2010 11:37am ET
Brian Loring — Lompoc, CA — December 28, 2010 2:19pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — December 28, 2010 2:55pm ET
Pinnacle Imports — Missouri — December 28, 2010 4:34pm ET
Andrew J Grotto — Washington, DC — December 28, 2010 6:10pm ET
Todd Wielar — Chapel Hill, NC — December 28, 2010 8:39pm ET
Louis Robichaux — Highland Village, Texas — December 28, 2010 9:45pm ET
Bruce Abbott — Fairbanks, Alaska — December 28, 2010 10:37pm ET
Chris A Elerick — Orlando, FL — December 29, 2010 10:35am ET
Steve Shaffer — Oakland, CA, USA — December 29, 2010 2:23pm ET
Mark Lyon — Sonoma, CA; USA — December 29, 2010 3:12pm ET
Don Rauba — Schaumburg, IL — December 29, 2010 11:19pm ET
Brady Daniels — London — December 30, 2010 4:49am ET
Boris Abad — Quito, Ecuador — December 30, 2010 5:56am ET
David Rossi — Napa, CA, USA — December 30, 2010 11:25am ET
Troy Peterson — Burbank, CA — December 30, 2010 1:37pm ET
Keller Ford — Cape Girardeau, MO — December 31, 2010 10:42am ET
Andrew Kiken — Calistoga, Ca — December 31, 2010 5:03pm ET
Joe Dekeyser — Waukesha, WI — January 2, 2011 11:19am ET
Anthony Clapcich — new york — January 5, 2011 5:27pm ET
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