It takes about three hours to drive east from San Francisco to the oddly named hamlet of Oregon House in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. As winegrowing locations go, it's pretty remote. The hills are rugged, and so too are some of the denizens, who are known to grow a highly lucrative crop other than grapes.
I've been to Oregon House several times, because it's the location of one of California's most improbable wine producers, Renaissance Vineyard and Winery. Created by the Fellowship of Friends, a Bay Area religious (philosophical really) order, Renaissance once nurtured 365 acres of vines on terraced hillsides.
Today, Renaissance is slowly exiting from wine, with the majority of those vines having been uprooted and replaced with olive trees or simply nothing at all. Its wines vary in quality, but at their best—notably Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah—they are magnificent: austere, detailed and discernibly minerally, likely thanks to the granitic soil.
But it wasn't for Renaissance that I recently spent three hours driving to Oregon House. Rather it was for Clos Saron, the creation of Renaissance's longtime winemaker, Gideon Beinstock. No longer involved with either Renaissance or its parental Fellowship of Friends, Mr. Beinstock, 58, has privately nurtured his own miniature winery and vineyard, named after his wife, Saron.
I revisited Clos Saron, which I've seen before, because I like to be reminded of what's happening below the glossy surface of what might be called "commercial" wine. Perhaps inevitably, the public impression of American wine is about scale. We read about (and see on the shelves) the wines of seemingly ever-larger and ever-expanding California and Washington wineries that appear to dominate the wine landscape.
A casual observer could be forgiven for concluding that these commercial juggernauts are American wine. Yet nothing could be further from the 21st-century truth. Subtly, it's the miniature likes of Clos Saron that are increasingly, if quietly, reshaping America's vision of fine wine.
Look at Oregon wines for example. Nearly everybody who likes wine now knows—as they assuredly did not 20 years ago—that Oregon produces fine wines, particularly Pinot Noir. So, name a really big Oregon winery. You can't, because none exists. The great majority of Oregon's 400-plus wineries produce fewer than 3,000 cases a year, with many issuing half that amount or less.
California's Clos Saron, for its part, issues just 600 cases a year, with that minuscule production divided among seven different wines, including a superb rosé, several red blends, an outstanding Syrah and the winery's signature Pinot Noir crafted from minuscule yields (as low as one-third ton per acre) from non-grafted vines.
Wineries such as these no longer constitute a sideline to the American wine industry. Their numbers (and local influence) have grown to such an extent that they now are the American wine industry. After all, what size wineries do you think exist in the 50 states that now produce wine? With a handful of exceptions, nearly all of the wineries in Virginia, New Mexico, Arizona, Ohio, New York, Idaho, Colorado and other states are of artisanal size.
These small, local wineries are slowly but certainly reshaping what American wine lovers expect in and from their wine experience. For example, American wine drinkers increasingly are expecting to drink local. They expect to see their local production on their local restaurant wine lists. They expect to either be able to visit their wineries or be able (or even have to) order directly from them. Not least, they expect to experience something different.
This last point is key. Today, if you want to experience a wine that is at all different from anything that might be understood as "mainstream," you have to drink "small." Put simply, big wineries are all about predictability.
I've written about this phenomenon before, suggesting that today's wine landscape is divided between what I call "wines of fear" and "wines of conviction." True, small wineries can be fearful and make their wines accordingly. But mostly they don't, while big wineries almost invariably do. They have too much to lose, after all. In fairness, they're reaching for the broadest possible market. And you know what that means.
"Small producers are the ones showing us the way to a greater wine goodness."
Take Clos Saron, for example. Mr. Beinstock decided recently to forswear (or nearly so) the use of sulfites in his wines. This means that although he does apply sulfur to his grapevines (the last application typically a month before harvest), he uses no sulfites (which are various forms of sulfur) in the winemaking process, either during fermentation or barrel aging or before bottling.
This is radical stuff. Personally, I'm not entirely persuaded that it's wise, as a judicious use of sulfites ensures that wines do not suffer microbiological spoilage. But Mr. Beinstock, after decades of winemaking, has concluded that sulfites prevent a wine from reaching its fullest expression.
"A wine with no sulfites has a greater dimensionality. Sulfites do clean things up," he noted. "But they also slow the evolution of the wine, both short-term and long-term. And it does add something to the wine. You can taste it. It's hard to describe, but I find it a kind of dirty taste, somewhat earthy, somewhat sweet, like dirty burnt sugar that's vaguely medicinal."
Lest you think Mr. Beinstock an unswerving ideologue, he notes that starting with the 2011 vintage, two of his wines—his Tickled Pink rosé and a dry white blend called Carte Blanche—will each see a very small addition of sulfites before bottling, a minuscule 10 parts per million. (A conventional low-sulfite addition before bottling would be four to six times as much.)
Why is he doing this? "Well, there is always the possibility of spoilage, and while I've discovered that, with additional bottle aging the so-called spoilage does disappear—it's hard to believe, I know, but I've seen it for myself—the fact is that these are wines meant to be drunk young and not aged.
Also, I don't want people to experience unclean wines," he added. "To make sulfite-free wines requires scrupulous cleanliness at every stage in the winemaking. It's not easy. But I think it's worth the effort."
When pressed, Mr. Beinstock conceded that he himself cannot taste in his finished wine a sulfite level of 10 ppm. When asked why then doesn't he employ this modest prophylactic addition to his other wines, he said, "Maybe I will. I need to see over time."
Tasting Clos Saron's singular—and singularly fine—wines and talking with Mr. Beinstock reminded me yet again why smaller is better. Do I concur with his ultra-hands-off approach to sulfites? Actually, I don't. It seems an unnecessary risk. (I felt the same way when talking with winegrower Frank Cornelissen in Sicily, who also eschews sulfites.)
But I may well be wrong, and the likes of Messrs. Beinstock and Cornelissen nothing less than visionary. More important, small producers such as these—and many who are far more conventional in their winemaking—are the ones showing us the way to a greater wine goodness. They reveal to us new winegrowing locales or the particularities of tiny vineyard sites that have something to say.
It's the small producers who show us not only what can be done, but what might be done—and done better. Size does matter—and it turns out that smaller is indeed better.