The New California Wine

In 2010, San Francisco Chronicle wine editor Jon Bonné was writing a short article for Saveur when his editor called him with a problem. She had a slew of stories about California wine that were not fitting together and needed an overarching narrative to connect them. She gave him a week to develop and write the piece. After seven days with little sleep, it was clear that what had once seemed like a disparate movement of iconoclastic producers had reached a critical mass and a new kind of California wine had emerged. The seismic shift begged for more space than a special edition of a magazine could offer, thus his indispensable volume The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste. 

Sophie Menin:  What are the New California Wines? 

Jon Bonné:  These wines represent the continuity of the state’s long wine growing history, what made people fall in love with California a generation ago and where it is going. They are wines made in a style that is relevant to wines around the world, wines that have a sense of place and are meant to be part of a gastronomic experience. They often use varieties other than the northern European grapes to which we’ve grown accustom and are not trapped in a bigger is better arms race. 

SM:  Yet not all the wine and winemakers discussed in the book are new. 

JB:  The book’s theme may be the new generation of winemakers, but it was important for it not to be about just the young and hip. Decades ago, winemakers such as Paul Draper, Cathy Corison and Ted Lemon (respectively of Ridge, Corison and Littorai) chose to stick with values they deemed important and pursued a radically different set of questions as others took an easier path. Their work wasn’t simply to make great wine, but to push ahead an industry that was really in its infancy. 

SM:  What have you discovered about where varietals are doing well? 

JB:  Grenache and grenache blanc are going to be superstars. Red Grenache grows beautifully in Santa Barbara, Santa Rita and the high dessert. The Sierra Foothills are a largely untapped resource for native Rhone varieties, especially the whites. Ron Mansfield is the great pioneer of those grapes up in mountains. 

SM:  Why is table wine such a dilemma in California? 

JB:  For all the quirky things people are doing, the core of the industry is not paying attention to simpler wines so table wine is left to those who make wine as an industrial product. The new winemakers seem to understand that even if you make great wine, you still have a responsibility to make a simpler wine as well. Steve Matthiasson is an example of someone who is pushing forward on this issue. With the Tendu project he is making aggressively priced compelling wines in liter bottles with crown caps. The white is mostly vermentino from Yolo County and he just released a red made from aglianico. 

SM:   Has it been helpful to not be a California native when reviewing for the San Francisco Chronicle? 

Ten years ago, when I began writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, coming from New York seemed like a liability. It was easy for some in the industry to dismiss me as a dude from New York who says wine should be made in a European style. But more relevant than being from New York was that I had just spent five years writing about wine in in Washington State where it was natural to meet talented winemakers without big money behind them. Washington State winemakers constantly have to prove themselves. It gave me an innate understanding of the type of winemakers covered in this book.

Château Latour and the Araujo Estate Winery

When the French billionaire François Pinault’s investment company announced this past August that it had purchased Araujo, an estate that produces one of the Napa Valley’s most prized cabernet sauvignons, a sense of exhilaration swept through the California wine world. Not only had Araujo been included in a highly curated portfolio alongside Château Latour in Pauillac,Château Grillet in the northern Rhone and Domaine d’Eugenie in Vosne-Romanée, Burgundy, it marked the first time the owner of a First Growth Bordeaux had invested (without an American partner) in a Napa winery. The purchase was seen as yet another affirmation that the region’s finest wines now compete in the same league as the most exalted wines on the planet. 

The announcement went a step further, making it clear that the group had not just bought a well-known luxury brand but also a coveted terroir. The CEO of Château Latour is quoted calling Araujo’s thirty-eight acre Eisele Vineyard (pronounced ICE-lee) “unique” and the estate’s “jewel.” 

The Eisele Vineyard has been producing legendary vineyard-designate cabernet sauvignon since 1971, mostly for Joseph Phelps Vineyards until Bart and Daphne Araujo purchased the property in 1990. The Araujo’s immediately understood the specialness of the site and introduced organic and biodynamic vineyard practices to let it speak to its full potential through their wines. If you look at the Araujo wine labels, the designation Eisele Vineyard is always larger than their name on the bottle. 

While Napa does not officially assign vineyards a classification such as First Growth or Grand Cru status, with the purchase of the Araujo Estate Winery by Château Latour,  Eisele can lay claim to being its first star vineyard.