It is fairly common, in the anecdote-sphere (a universe parallel to the blogosphere), for knowledgeable people to say that superpremium California wine is nearly impossible to sell back East, or even east of the Rockies.
According to this take, nobody in America likes California wine anymore, except, possibly, Californians—and even they (or so it’s claimed) are having second thoughts. The culprit? According to the anecdote-spinners, it’s due to the “imbalance” of California wine, an accusation that usually includes alcohol levels, fruity extraction and oak.
The latest expression of this theory comes via a regular reader and valued commenter on my blog. I don’t know if he wants me to name him, so I won’t, but here’s part of what he wrote yesterday, on my “I weigh in on Jamie Goode” post. I will quote him in some detail, because his points are powerfully expressed, and, as I say, one often hears similar views expressed.
“Last Winter [he wrote], I counted the glass pours at three Michelin 1* restaurants while in Chicago, all of whom carry some California wines. The breakdown for 54 total glass pours was 39 European, 9 Southern Hemisphere and 6 Domestic (of which some were Oregon, Washington and Midwestern). That is marginalization [of California], and if the Lords and Ladies of Napashire dare not speak of it with wine writers or their neighbors and let the unsold cases quietly pile up in American Canyon awaiting the longed for Chinese buyer, you can damn well bet that it is coming up in conversations with their accountants.”
I’ll quote more of his comment in a minute. First, let me weigh in that my commenter is absolutely correct that Napa Valley winemakers and owners do not speak of their cases “piling up in American Canyon,” presumably at one of the wine storage warehouses along Highway 29. At least, they don’t speak of it to me. So my commenter is right about that. And although I have no certain knowledge that such is the case, the anecdote-sphere also contains numerous allegations that it is indeed the case: that is, cases and cases of unsold triple-digit Cabernet piling up someplace.
My commenter also wrote: “there are a lot of good, well balanced and not excessive California wines that are probably being unfairly excluded from restaurants and wine bars. Unfortunately, these exceptions that prove the rule are suffering for the sins of the last two decades of excesses in both winemaking style and hubris that came to define California and Napa Valley.”
The reason I’ve long been in such disagreement with the anti-California (and anti-Napa Valley) bashers is because, due to my recent job, I had the opportunity to taste so much great, interesting California wine. And while it’s true that there’s a lot of crapola out there, you can say the same thing about every wine country and wine region in the world. Let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater! I simply have tasted too many wonderful California wines to not realize that our state makes incredible wines; and I often pitied the bashers for not being able to taste all the good stuff I was privileged to try.
So my commenter also is correct when he states that the “good, well balanced” California wines are “unfairly excluded” from the conversation. But whose fault is that? And when did we arrive at this weird, bizarre situation where so many influential and apparently knowledgeable people—Americans all!—are so down on California wine?
It’s quite unprecedented for a large chunk of a wine-producing country’s cognoscenti to hate their own country’s wine. I can’t think of anything similar, in the long history of winemaking in Europe. If anything, the French (and, to a lesser extent, the Germans and Italians and Spanish) have been positively chauvinistic about their wines, as well they should have been; they were proud of what their nations contributed. I, too, am immensely proud of California’s contributions to the world wine scene. So, from an historical persepctive, does the situation here in the U.S.—with so much self-loathing–say something about California wine? Or does it say more about the people bashing it? “The question,” as Jesse Jackson, playing himself on Saturday Night Live, once said, “is moot.”
In the mid-1970s, writer David Darlington tells us in the June issue of Wine & Spirits, “Robert Mondavi defined [the Inglenook Estate vineyard] for [Francis Ford Coppola] as the crown jewel of Napa Valley.”
The wine world loves crown jewels. Petrus has been called the crown jewel of Pomerol; ditto the DRC in Burgundy. The concept stems, of course, from Old Europe, which bequeathed to us not only the idea of an aristocratic hierarchy of vineyards, with one or a few at the top and all the rest clustered below, but of a human aristocracy itself, whose royal heads were crowned with gemstones. It was as natural for 19th century France to elevate four vineyards in Bordeaux to First Growth status as it was to celebrate its Kings as les seigneurs grands plus among lesser royals.
If Robert Mondavi did indeed tell that to Mr Coppola (and we must assume he did, for Darlington, the author of Angel’s Visits, is a great historian of wine), his claim must be put into context. Inglenook’s Rutherford vineyard, on the bench just northwest of the Oakville border, was already 100 years old in 1970, and always had produced acclaimed Bordeaux-style wines. There were few, if any, contenders to the throne in Napa Valley that could boast that legacy (Martha’s Vineyard was a mere infant, Harlan a gleam in Bill Harlan’s eye). Napa’s mountains—Spring, Veeder, Diamond, Howell, Atlas Peak, Pritchard Hill—were completely undeveloped, or very nearly so. Thus Mr. Mondavi was on firm historical and qualitative grounds when he praised Inglenook to Mr. Coppola, who must have listened with wide-eyed alacrity.
Today, does anyone think Inglenook is Napa Valley’s crown jewel? I don’t think so. This is not to diss Inglenook as simply to point out that it now has plenty of competitors—so many, in fact, that it would be fatuous for me to try and list them. Let’s just agree that we can no longer identify a “crown jewel” in Napa Valley, or indeed in most of the world’s greatest wine regions. Instead of an aristocratic “crown jewel” we now have galaxies of jewels, glittering and precious and giving us incredible wine.
California, in other words, is a meritocracy, not an aristocracy. Inglenook, for all its past glory, has yet to prove its modern relevance; Mr. Coppola has his work cut out for him (and I wish him luck). Yesterday’s crown jewel may be today’s déclassé property. By contrast, yesterday’s underperforming (or even non-existent) vineyard may be elevated to glorification today, provided (a) it possesses inherently great terroir to begin with, and (b) is given the necessary nourishment (talent + money) to allow the winemaker to express that terroir to the highest degree of international reclaim.
There are not that many wineries with the wherewithal to pull off this feat. Even among those that are owned by the very rich, you’d be surprised how many stint on the required financial investment. Some proprietors, it is rumored, are not even in the game for the long haul, but only for investment or lifestyle purposes. Why invest tens of millions into a property you may not be able to make a profit on when you sell it off? Then too, some proprietors who spend millions on improving their vineyards, ill-advised from the start, may unfortunately own land that is not inherently capable of producing the greatest wine.
Others, a fortunate few, have the twin blessings of wealth and a discerning eye for land. It is with them that California wine’s future lies, and always will. This is the brilliance of our Western-style meritocracy: passion and generational commitment, and not the mere lucky sperm of heredity, now transform vineyards, old and new, into crown jewels.
After a couple years of back-and-forth, the TTB has approved putting a petition for a new Fountaingrove District A.V.A. up for public comment.
I’m not big on most A.V.A. petitions in California, which seem silly to the point of meaningless, but in this case, I give it a qualified thumbs up. The new Fountaingrove appellation, if approved, will cover 38,000 acres—a little bigger than Knights Valley, a little smaller than Arroyo Grande Valley. It’s in the eastern part of Sonoma County, stretching from the Russian River Valley, in the west, through Chalk Hill to the Sonoma-Napa line. If you’ve ever been there, you know this is hilly country; the elevations range from 400 feet to 2,200 feet.
According to the TTB (and I’ve been unable to find a map of the appellation, so I’m putting this together by reading the application), Fountaingrove District also touches the boundaries of Knights Valley, Calistoga, Diamond Mountain, Spring Mountain, Calistoga and Sonoma Valley. That makes it sound kind of sprawly. This is an area of Sonoma that’s not well-traveled and in fact is rather remote; TTB says there are only 35 vineyards covering a mere 500 acres. The region would be characterized as a warm Region II, going by the U.C. Davis scale.
The reason I’m in favor is because the Fountaingrove name is a very old one, with a long winegrowing history. A utopian colony called Fountain Grove was established there in 1875. By 1880, there were at least 2,000 acres of grapes, and by 1900, the Fountain Grove Winery had been established. It survived Prohibition by producing grape juice.
In my 2005 book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, I wrote: “In the 1930s, the old Fountaingrove Winery, north of Santa Rosa, grew some, or is said to have grown something called Pinot Noir.” I got that information from the 1942 book, ABC of America’s Wines, by Mary Frost Mabon, then the Food and Wine Editor for Harper’s Bazaar (and one of the first serious female wine writers). She wrote, of Fountaingrove, that the winery was bought “in 1937…by…a gold-mining king [and] racehorse-breeder,” proving that rich people bought into wine country lifestyle long before the present era. Concerning the Pinot Noir, Mary wrote (somewhat ambiguously) that “You will find the ’35 [Fountaingrove] labeled ‘Sonoma County Pinot Noir’ under both the Schoonmaker and Colcombet labels.” Yet in her review of it, she refers to it as “Fountaingrove Burgundy” and calls the ’35 “one of the top wines of California…velvety, smooth, and well-finished, as they say, with much character, a good bouquet, and a dark color,” although she also added that “it is a wine that matures very slowly and needs age.”
I just wanna point out that this is good, clean wine language. The flowery stuff wasn’t invented until my day, but Mary’s description pretty much tells you all you need to know about that wine, doesn’t it?
Anyway, speaking of Frank Schoonmaker, I have also his (and Tom Marvel’s) 1941 book, American Wines, where they say “Fountaingrove’s hillside vineyards at present include plantings of Pinot Noir which are among the largest in the state”; they call Fountaingrove “[one of] the important fine wine vineyards” in Sonoma County.
Whether that long-ago wine actually was Pinot Noir, or something else, we will never know. Julian Street, in his 1948 book, Wines, tasted a Fountaingrove “Pinot” and remarks, “…the Cabernet and Pinot Noir from this vineyard revealed them to be identical in color, bouquet, and flavor. They were fair wines, but the twinship was a little surprising.” Well, that’s the way it used to be done before Big Gummint moved in and made people tell the truth.
At any rate, even if the terroir wlll no doubt be further understood, the Fountaingrove name does have provenance in this part of Sonoma County, which is more than you can say about some of these appellations. I’d guess the petition will be approved, and one of these days there will be a Fountaingrove District, the hundredth-and-something. What they do with those 500 acres of grapes is anyone’s guess, but good luck.
The search for “the new” is the story of California. Whether it was the reinvention of the self, or the society, the Golden State always has lured those restless with the existing order, and anxious to replace it with something innovative and, they hope, better.
This reinvention reinvents itself constantly. Nowhere is it better reflected than in our cuisine, as Joyce Goldstein’s book, Inside the California Food Revolution, makes abundantly clear. But we have to look no further than the current contretemps over what makes wine “balanced” to see it in another, and possibly ideological, form.
Joyce wrote her book to chronicle the rise of California cuisine, with its emphases on freshness, locality and seasonality, but she turns her eye also toward the evolution of California wine. “As California chefs began cooking more innovative food,” she writes, citing names like Ridge, Chalone, Calera and Bonny Doon, “they began seeking more innovative wines.”
By “more innovative wines,” she meant wines that aspired to something greater than the jug ‘burgundies,” “sauternes” and “rhines” that dominated production up until that time (around the 1960s and 1970s). This surely was innovation which was needed; if California ever was to become a wine state (and it seems to have been destined to), it would have to turn more towards a European system of proper appellations and noble varieties.
It worked. But we also have to admit that there was much to be admired in those old wines, with their faux names. They were cheap, they were clean, they went well with food, and they were pretty good, if my memories of what I drank in the late 1970s (just as that era was trailing off) are correct, and I think they are. Those old jug wines were vin ordinaire that appealed to vast numbers of American consumers, and without them blazing the trail, the rise of the boutique winery would not have been possible. Far from condemning them, we ought to celebrate them.
Still, that period of innovation—the boutique winery era–was a good and necessary one. We come now to another period, which may prove to be more of a hiatus than a legitimate tipping point. It is characterized by a somewhat noisy cadre of wine writers, critics and restaurateurs critical of what they perceive as wines whose alcohol levels, fruit extraction and oak render them “unbalanced.” Rather, this cadre says, wines should revert back to their original purpose, of being less assertive and more amenable to accompanying food, rather than dominating it.
Which sounds rather like the role the jug wines played in this country post-Prohibition through the 1970s. They were wines to be enjoyed as part of the overall experience of dining and socializing, not wines that demanded to be the diva-like stars of the table. Now, it’s good that we have a movement that desires to see wine restored to its proper place in the hierarchy; but where the new critics have a bit of ‘splaining to do is this: there is nothing particularly affordable about the wines they celebrate. Unlike the jug wines of the past, which anyone could afford, these new darlings of the School of Balance can be as pricey as the big, oaky varietal wines they decry.
It would make more sense for a critic to scream from the rooftops the virtues of under-$10 wines that could slake the thirst of a nation that’s not as wealthy as it used to be. That would be one thing; I could jump onboard that train. Instead, the critics of the big California style are calling for a new elitism: of low-production wines, made by people they perceive to be personally interesting—wines with modest alcohol levels, and moreover made from grapes that in some cases aren’t even fully ripe. This is the result of the increasingly strident call for “more innovative wines,” which sometimes seem like it has more in common with obsessive-compulsive disorder than with providing us with wines of deliciousness. But then, every wine writer/critic also is a journalist, and journalism, in its essence, is the insatiable search for the new, the radical, the innovative, the undiscovered. That is the strength of good journalism: it prods a complacent culture onward. That also is the weakness of journalism that seeks simply to unearth whatever happens to be new that day, and disregards what is lasting. Innovation, for its own sake, is meaningless.
It had been years since I dined at the Stanford Court Hotel, on top of Nob Hill, so I was looking forward to meeting some folks there last night—not for dinner, just for a few drinks. Still, I wanted to check out the restaurant menu. Reading—no, make that devouring—Joyce Goldstein’s new book, Inside the California Food Revolution, I was curious to see how the menu had evolved from 20 years ago, when Fournou’s Ovens, the hotel’s grand restaurant, served what I recall as rather rich food, French-influenced, and heavy on the meat.
Alas, the menu has evolved, but not as I’d anticipated; as it turns out, there is no restaurant at the Stanford Court, just a rather plain bar menu (sandwiches, steak and such). I asked the concierge about that, and he replied, “New ownership—changing times.” Indeed.
Which brings me back to Inside the California Food Revolution. The mark of a great book is that it gets you thinking. I loved the juxtaposition Joyce, and many of the chefs she interviewed, set up between the Los Angeles and San Francisco culinary scenes of twenty years ago. L.A. was “food as fashion,” in Joyce’s words, as well as “overdone, very over-manipulated…places to see and be seen,” according to another restaurateur. By contrast, S.F. chefs were obsessed with purity, quality ingredients, seasonality and eclecticism.
The problem with appealing to fashion is that, quoting the former owner of a famous L.A. restaurant, Citrus, “the life of a restaurant is very short [in L.A.]..very trendy. You’re good, you’re busy, and then, when a new restaurant opens, say good-bye to your business.”
Well, you can say that about any restaurant, to some extent (Daniel Patterson’s Plum just closed in Oakland, after a run of several years), but San Francisco and the Bay Area seem more willing to bless a great place, like Boulevard, with longevity than L.A. is. There is, of course, a wine tie-in to all this: I have often wondered about the lifespan of some of these super-expensive California lifestyle wineries, which pop into existence (often in Napa Valley) with the alacrity of mushrooms after an autumn rain, only to disappear just as quickly. With a hired “name” winemaker, the brand enters the “you’re busy” phase, which is quickly succeeded by the “good-bye” phase, unless the owner is so wealthy that he can afford to ride an ocean of red ink.
Still, there was one thing both the Southern and Northern California founders of the California cuisine revolution shared in common: a passionate ingenuity bordering on the naïve. As one of them told Joyce, “Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, a lot of chefs weren’t [classically] trained. That was freeing. You weren’t tied down to a set of rules and told, ‘You have to go this way.’ No, I don’t, because I don’t even know what the rules are.”
It was that disregard for “the rules” that enabled chefs, including Joyce Goldstein, to do their own thing. They figured that, if they liked something, others would, too. There’s a connection, I suspect, between that approach and the loss of Fournou’s Ovens: the grand hotel restaurant, with its banquettes, snooty somms, heavily-sauced food and pontifical atmosphere, is no longer suited to today’s dining needs, which are more casual. Joyce anticipated that at Square One, her own restaurant, when she opened it (after leaving Chez Panisse) in the mid-1980s. Today, I look at a place like Boulevard, which I think and hope will never close. It’s as California-cuisine-y as you can get: the California Lamb Prime T-bone, “wood oven roasted, served off the bone, with zuckerman banana fingerling potatoes with fresh turmeric, aleppo & coriander sauteed bloomsdale spinach, thumbelina carrots, our cardamom orange blossom yogurt, huckleberry molasses, sicilian pistachio aillade, and roasted lamb jus” is a triumph of World ingredients, a happy concoction of elements no one would have conceived of before the California food revolution tore down the walls. Yet Boulevard is noisy, happy, relaxed and fun—all the elements I associate with California (and Northern California, especially). And when you think of it, that’s what we want in wine, too, isn’t it?
In the 1980s and early 1990s, I was a fairly frequent visitor to Square One, the restaurant Joyce Goldstein had opened, in 1984, in the Jackson Square neighborhood of downtown San Francisco.
There, I was treated like a regular, mainly through my acquaintance with the sommelier, Peter Granoff, whom I had met earlier when he’d served in the same capacity at the old Mark Hopkins Hotel. Well do I remember strolling into Square One on any given night, usually by myself after an evening of doing something else that had brought me to the area from my home in Noe Valley. I’d take a seat at the bar and order something off the chalkboard menu—a little pizza or focaccia, some fettucine, wood-fired grilled shrimp—while Peter surreptitiously brought me tasting sips of the most interesting wines of the evening. Peter also held regular wine tasting classes in a small room of the restaurant. It was there that I learned, more than anyplace else, about Condrieu, Cote Rotie, Spanish sherry and other wines to which I would otherwise have had little access.
These were not mere wine tastings. Peter’s boss, Chef Joyce, provided delicious little plates to wash down the wine. One night, a blind tasting of Monterey County Chardonnays (Estancia, Morgan, Pinnacles, Talbott, Chalone, Wente and so on) was paired with a signature crab cake with mango salsa, and ginger-marinated pork loin on a bed of corn pudding.
That food was, of course, California cuisine, or what came eventually to be called California cuisine, although Joyce herself, after extensive research for her new book, Inside the California Food Revolution, writes that exactly who coined that phrase remains a mystery. Not mysterious at all, though, is what California cuisine means. Joyce Goldstein: “…restaurants broadened from formal and ceremonial to more democratic and casual. Kitchens that had been hidden were opened up to become part of the dining room. Chefs who had toiled behind closed doors in anonymity became stars. Ingredients such as arugula, baby greens, and goat cheese, virtually unknown previously, became household items…”. California’s fabulously diverse ethnic constitution, including Mediterranean, Asian and Latin American cultures, also became part of the mix that contributed to the new, complex combinations that constituted California cuisine, whose “one common element,” Joyce writes, was “fresh, seasonal ingredients, preferably raised nearby.”
I hadn’t known Joyce had written this book until I ran into her son Evan, an old friend, at a wine tasting event. I’d told him how much I’d always longed for a formal history of California cuisine, which was restaurant-based long before it became a staple of home kitchens. Evan smiled and told me there was one: He arranged to have the publisher, University of California Press, send me Inside the California Food Revolution. If you’ve ever hankered for an insider’s account of everything and everyone from Alice Waters and Chez Panisse to Wolfgang Puck, Jeremiah Tower, the French Laundry, Laura Chenel, Zuni Café and, yes, Joyce Goldstein (as insider as they get), this is the book. It recounts, in loving terms, what Mark Miller (Fourth Street Grill and Santa Fe Bar and Grill, both in Berkeley) describes as “California cuisine[‘s] revolutionary [nature], in terms of not only its fashion, its style, but also its culinary ethos.”
The California food revolution cited in Joyce’s title spilled over, of course, to the California wine revolution—or perhaps it’s fairer to say that both were the result of the revolutionary attitude that always has characterized California. In the book, too, you will find references to Paul Draper and Ridge (whose wines Alice Waters celebrated early at Chez Panisse), Randall Grahm and Bonny Doon, Josh Jensen (Calera), Dick Graff (Chalone), Bob Long (Long Vineyards) and others. Interestingly, Joyce, in retrospective hindsight, goes back to this period to foreshadow wines “with overly hard tannins, too much oak, and in time, higher alcohol levels”—shades of today’s ongoing debate. But that is another story.