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A Golden Age for the Golden State

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Much is made of so-called “golden ages”: of television (the 1950s), of Hollywood films (1930s-1940s), of rock and roll (the 1950s and 1960s), of Ancient Greece (somewhat mythic; Hesiod referred to it as the time of heroes, gods and men).

In wine, Bordeaux is sometimes said to have enjoyed its golden age in the 18th century, as the great chateaux were consolidated, often with architectural gems, and the wines were widely exported, resulting in an increase in price. What about California?

Earlier this year, Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer penned a piece, “Is this really a golden age for wine?” When he turned his attention to California, he saw only a single place–Napa Valley–and answered his own question in the negative. “Napa’s golden moment,” he declared, “is now past.” True, Matt did perceive golden age-iness in other places in the world, such as the Cote d’Or, Central Otago and Willamette Valley. But as for the rest of California outside of Napa, nada.

Well, he’s entitled to his opinion, although that Napa-centric shortsightedness is harder to forgive. But let me suggest why I think this is the golden age for California wine as a whole. I actually agree with Matt that Napa Valley is getting “a little thick around its middle.”  He’s right that Napa no longer bursts with the sense of excitement it did in the 1960s and 1970s. In Napa’s behalf, though, it can safely be said that it’s making its best wines ever. Napa Valley remains the point of reference for all of California, and for that matter, for the New World. You’re either for it or against it, but you can’t escape Napa: any statement about California automatically includes a reference to it. Napa’s sort of like the Clintons are to American politics: you may love them or be tired of them, but they are still the 800 pound gorillas.

Matt erred in not considering other regions in California. I have argued, passionately and publicly, for Paso Roble’s recognition as a hotbed of innovation at this time. Nearby Monterey also is in a state of remarkable ferment, with younger winemakers moving there to see what they can do (just as they did in Napa in the 1960s and 1970s). As for Santa Barbara County, I’m a huge fan: there’s no thickness to its middle. Santa Barbara growers and vintners absorbed the lessons of more northerly wine regions, improved their viticulture and enology to the most exacting standards, and now are turning out impeccably tailored wines, of nearly every variety and blending type in California. I could continue to list smaller appellations that I think are performing at very high levels.

There are additional factors at play that keep California exciting. Vintners have developed an exquisite sensitivity to their vineyards: the degree of coordination of root stocks, varieties and clones, trellising, pruning and harvesting decisions has never been as well understood as it is now. (Obviously, I’m referring to the highest level of wineries.) The inrush of young blood is having exactly the kind of galvanizing effect it always has in all areas of life: winemakers in their twenties and thirties, who hope to establish good careers, realize they have to do things differently from their forebears, and this they are doing: witness the explosion of serious new wines from varietals that were hardly ever planted in California before the 2000s.

In furtherance of California’s Golden Age, we’re now going into two consecutively great vintages–2012 and 2013–that will result in stellar wines. Quality is going to soar as they are released over the next 5-6 years. It’s an exciting time to be making, and drinking, wine: A Golden Age for the Golden State.

  1. Judi Levens says:

    not even a mention of Sonoma?

  2. I’m thinking about Sonoma. Hmm.

  3. or Lake and Mendocino?

  4. I’ve never understood why so many readers find Matt Kramer insightful. Perhaps it’s his gift for delivering the uninteresting and/or obvious in a style of prose which seems to hyptontize some. I typically find myself rolling my eyes when I read his stuff

  5. Hank Wetzel says:

    I was thinking, wow he did not mention Sonoma County, and then I saw Judi’s comment. I am sure living in a golden age. From cattle land my family and staff have created vineyards and a winery that are bountiful.

    Sonoma County is so complex, with diverse growing areas, each influenced in a unique way by soil and proximity to the Pacific ocean. This has helped to create an abundance of successful grape growers and wine producers that thrive.

    Hank Wetzel
    Managing family member
    Alexander Valley Vineyards

  6. I think that “golden ages” are recognized primarily in retrospect. That’s true of all of the examples that you mentioned, and I could add a few more from the history of art. While they’re happening, everybody is too busy making history to recount it accurately. So yes, let’s speculate about whether we are presently in one, realizing that we could be proved wrong in a few years when we learn that the REAL action was elsewhere.

  7. Agreed re Monterey as a golden age comer, Steve, and let’s not forget Livermore and the Santa Cruz Mountains.

  8. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    I find the “golden age” for California Cabernet Sauvignon was the
    pre-phylloxera replanting era of the 1970s and 1980s — when the pioneers of Napa and Sonoma realized their ambitions to make a wine that could stand side-by-side Bordeaux. (Sometimes eclipse them.)

    A “touchstone” wine like 1984 Caymus “Special Selection” brings a Cheshire cat grin to anyone’s face who has the privilege of drinking.

    Still available for those who seek them out at auction:

    http://www.latimes.com/features/la-fo-wine23apr23,0,4955529,print.story

    For all other varieties, I think we are currently living in the “golden age” of California wine.

    ~~ Bob

  9. Stephen Collum says:

    All other regions are still behind the tiny hidden area of Calaveras !

  10. Just want to add my voice to the chorus of people who feel some of the most exciting wines are coming out of Sonoma.

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