It's a little early to start talking holiday gifts, but if I were going to put just one new book on my must-buy list for wine lovers, it would be The New California Wine by Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle. This book brings to life the people and places of California's current wine scene: the innovators, the experimenters, and risk-takers who are making some of the most exciting wines in the country today. He profiles each of the state's major growing regions, pointing out producers who are pushing the boundaries, farming super old, low-yield vineyards, or planting new sites on the edges, where grapes need to struggle to reach ripeness. It's an exciting book about an exciting time in our country's wine history, and it will leave you thirsty to taste some of the many wines he recommends.
I snagged Jon for a quick interview about the book, about what he drinks at home, and about his thoughts on restaurant wine lists (in San Francisco and NYC) as well as the debate over alcohol levels and balance in wine. Shall we get started?
What are you drinking these days at home, Jon Bonné?
Right now I'm deep in my Top 100 Wines tastings, which means I'm mostly drinking water and coffee. But I've been on a roll in the past few months with lots of verdant white wines, perhaps celebrating San Francisco's end of Fogust and the start of actual summer. Pigato, Arneis, Albarino, Grenache Blanc.
Last weekend included a Liebenberg Smaragd Riesling from Alzinger. Those wines are so good they almost make me cry. And the Kinero Grenache Blanc, from Anthony Yount in Paso Robles. When everyone gets over their Chardonnay bias, Grenache Blanc will be waiting there with a smirk.
What are your go-to drinks for late summer and early fall?
Again, invoking San Francisco's wonky seasons. This is when I actually kick into true summer mode. I've been on a slight Soave kick lately. Vinho Verde. Light reds like Schiava and Trousseau. Gallons of rosé. I'm jealously hoarding my last few bottles of Valdespino's manzanilla en rama, but I suspect those will be empty before long.
Your book, The New California Wine, comes out in November. Why this book now? What inspired you to write it?
The process began a good five years ago, at a time when any talk of California wine really focused on the status quo. I kept discovering people who were pushing the boundaries of what California could do—Matt Licklider of Lioco, Abe Schoener of the Scholium Project, Steve Matthiasson and so on. In the course of my reporting and reviews, it became really clear that their work wasn't just a sideshow. This was where California wine was heading. And in large part that's because they were bringing back to the industry the same global perspective that brought success to California's previous generation of pioneers—the Mondavis and Winiarskis.
In 2010, I wrote a piece for Saveur called—of course—"The New California Wine." It neatly tied together all the changes I'd been writing about, as a sort of manifesto of where the state was headed. As I write in the book's introduction, that was the catalyst for me to spend another two years assembling the larger story.
That extra time was fortuitous, because this has brought about a critical mass for the New California. A lot of other writers have become entranced by what's happening out here. That reinforces what I've believed for a long time now: This isn't a blip and it isn't the result of an echo chamber. It's a transformational moment for California wine.
If you could use three wines to illustrate what's going on in California now, which would they be?
The nice part is that it's impossible to come up with just three, because there's enough happening in enough different realms.
But let's start with the Arnot-Roberts Trousseau. As I said when I made them my winemakers of the year last year, this is a perfect encapsulation of what's happening here right now: a native Jura grape, revived as a Port variety in California, harvested by two Napa hometown boys and made into a wine that is utterly Californian.
Next, Broc Cellars Vine Starr. Chris Brockway has all this hipster wine cred—quirky varieties like Valdiguie, making wine in a Berkeley warehouse. And yet he was willing to devote himself to making a Zinfandel that would speak to people who swore that grape off. It's a transformative wine.
Finally, and not to dismiss the new era of white blends from Matthiasson or Dan Petroski at Massican, but let's talk about Chardonnay. If you look at what John Raytek has done with that grape, both for his own Ceritas label and for Lioco, it is a complete rewriting of what California Chardonnay can be.
How would you describe the differences between wine programs at San Francisco restaurants and those in New York?
It's interesting, because in a way New York has adopted exactly what San Francisco's strength has been in recent years: the jazzy, comfortable-in-your-shoes sort of list that thrives on a distinct point of view. I mean, yes, that approach can lead to hipster critical mass on the Jura or unsulfured qvevri wines, or lots of other excesses of nerdiness. But the best New York lists have a healthy omnivorousness right now. I'm thinking of Patrick Cappiello at Pearl & Ash, bringing this ridiculously diverse selection to a Bowery storefront. Or L'Apicio, where Joe Campanale somehow created a mind-meld of Italy and the New California. Or Vinegar Hill House. It's hilarious to me when people describe that restaurant as Californian, because to me it's as Brooklyn as it gets: quirky and curious and comfortable with itself.
As for San Francisco, it has tons of great wine programs, of course. But I'm admittedly struggling a bit more than I was a year ago, when I wrote about how the recession, and the resultant shrinking wine lists, had in fact created a great flourishing of the curated, philosophy-driven list—San Francisco doing what San Francisco does best, which is being distinctive rather than obvious.
There are stellar examples at the high end, like what Chris Baggetta is achieving at Quince. And a lot of the really fun free-form programs at places like David Lynch's St. Vincent or at Camino in Oakland, or favorites like La Ciccia and Nopa, remain benchmarks for individualism. But there just seems to be a contraction of creativity this year. I'm really hoping that reverses itself.
Talk to us a little about alcohol levels in New World wines. Some folks have a firm boundary—say, they won't drink anything over 14%, while others worry that a push toward low-alcohol wines leads to watering back and otherwise adjusting what the terroir gives you. What's your take? Are lower-alcohol wines always better? Or is there wiggle room? Can a red wine be balanced at 17% ABV?
Seventeen percent might be extreme, but I think Tegan Passalacqua and Ehren Jordan's work at Turley at recent years shows that balance can exist over 15 percent—and here are the key words—in certain circumstances. Choosing between watering back and serving up high octane is kind of an awful choice, versus farming well enough to achieve true balance in the fruit. But Turley is that example that shows you can have, at least with Zinfandel, relatively early-picked, unspoofed wines at an honest 15 percent.
I actually think there's great danger to drawing ABV lines in the sand. The 14-percent line is essentially just a leftover from outdated federal tax structures. So it's ridiculous to see it as some magical barrier beyond which balance is lost.
That said, when I apply Occam's razor to my regular tastings, what am I forced to conclude? That more wines under 14 percent are balanced, compelling and expressive of their origins. And more often than not, wines above that level show just what they're sometimes accused of showing: high alcohol; too much oak; not enough balance.
In the book, I put those wines under the rubric of Big Flavor. That isn't just about alcohol. It's about critical praise, about misunderstandings of viticulture, and about some fundamentally cynical beliefs in what California can achieve.
Have you found that your taste and preferences have changed at all over the years since you've been a wine critic?
I've gotten better at identifying when a wine isn't quite right—not just cork taint or brett but whether a wine's components are out of whack. That's important if you believe that minimal manipulation leads to wines that are not only more delicious, but also have longer lives.
Preferences? I think I've actually become more tolerant. It used to be that I considered Gruner Veltliner a fad grape, for instance. I've come to see just how much it can make a world-class wine.
What's next in California wine? What's next in the wine scene in general?
California Cabernet is due for a culture war. It's reasonable that Cab fended off stylistic change for longer than, say, Pinot Noir. But as more wine lovers revisit classic California Cabs of the 1970s and '80s, they're asking why it's harder to find wines today that show the same grace. I suspect Cathy Corison will have more company soon.
Generally, I think Americans are less afraid of wine than they have been in 30 years. People are more comfortable drinking what makes them happy. Hence, less fad, less ego, less braggadocio. Less unicorn wine and more delicious.
More California Wine on Serious Eats
Harvest Begins in California: Snapshots From Dirty and Rowdy Family Winery
Ribolla Gialla: The Rest of A Rare Grape's Story
7 Great California Rosés You Should Be Drinking Now
Weird, Cool Wine: Give Valdiguié a Chance
Christina Turley on California Wine
Alvarelhão: Forget What You Think You Know About California Wine