A Restrained View of California Wine

Jon Bonné's 'The New California Wine' offers rewarding vignettes, but minimizes much of what California's established vintners have accomplished
Nov 18, 2013

Jon Bonné insists he doesn't dislike all California wine, but he's hardly enamored with much of it. He makes that point clear in his new book, The New California Wine, A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste.

"From the moment I arrived, [in 2006]", writes Bonné, the wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, "I had to confront my own deep skepticism about California's winemaking reality. Again and again I was disappointed by what I found to be the shortfalls of California wine: a ubiquity of oaky, uninspired bottles and a presumption that bigger was indeed better."

Bonné tracks the history of California wine from the 1960s, and sees twin tales of financial success and spiritual decline. He criticizes what he sees as a largely complacent industry producing cookie-cutter wines.

"Technological manipulation had become pervasive not only for cheap table wines but also for expensive ones. And there was little doubt that this was the right path forward. By the time I arrived in California, a sense of entitlement pervaded the industry. Question California's path? Question the hard-fought victories of Big Flavor? Blasphemy."

But today, Bonné contends, Golden State wines are in a state of much-needed "revolution," undergoing a sweeping overhaul from mindset to grape variety. He identifies a new generation of winemakers rewriting the rules of contemporary winemaking.

To find the cutting edge, Bonné turns to an eclectic mix of vintners, some old, some new, and wines, some mainstream and others outliers. Among the approximately 125 names, you'll likely recognize some—Ridge, Hanzell, Littorai, Calera, Continuum and Turley, for example—but more are offbeat, under-the-radar and esoteric. They may be the darlings of certain big-city sommeliers, but most wine lovers would be hard-pressed to find them at a local wine shop.

The vintners leading Bonné's revival are willing to seek out new grapes and sites, encouraged by what he sees as a small but growing fan base disillusioned with modern, riper styles and fascinated with the likes of Ribolla Gialla, Tocai Fruliano and even old-vine Colombard. The fulcrum in Bonné's lever is often centered on alcohol, not flavor, 14 percent being the general line of demarcation.

Bonné is more infatuated with the stories behind the wines, and the vintners' passions and visions, than with the wines themselves. He is at his best with these vignettes. He also gives some of California's lesser-known appellations their due.

But he dismisses the state's largest wine companies; indeed, many are factories. Yet many others of these large brands have explored new territory in California and brought an innovative spirit to farming and technology.

To support his arguments, Bonné picks and chooses information, omitting inconvenient counterevidence. For example, those leading his revolution are fervent in their belief in terroir, as if that's something new in California. Bonné minimizes the accomplishments of the California wine industry in the past 30 years and marginalizes the good faith and strong sales of the riper wine styles he thinks are undermining it.

While at points thoughtful, Bonné's manifesto comes across as preaching to a converted few who apparently don't appreciate the diversity of styles and the kinds of wines many of us find as exciting and expressive. Kosta Browne Pinot Noir, in his book, is for "novices." Nor are the economics of wine given much weight. A few acres of Ribolla, however exciting the wines can be, can't and won't replace Cabernet in areas such as Napa.

If he wants to make the case that wines of restraint are the future for California, he must explain why it's for their own good to wean people away from what they like.

Bonné's excitement over these "different" wines and their producers mirrors the current generation's recent excitement over today's popular Napa offerings—full-bodied, flavorful wines made from fully ripened grapes.

To Bonné, the pendulum has swung, and a new generation is about to rearrange California's wine landscape. Yet for now he's identified more of a small grass-roots movement than an upheaval. How deep and wide that movement will spread remains to be seen.

The New California Wine, A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste, Jon Bonné (Ten Speed Press, 304 pages, $35)

Read James Laube's review of Jon Bonné's The New California Wine in the Dec. 31–Jan. 15, 2014, issue.

United States California

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