Jon Bonné's landmark book The New California Wine was released this month, and in it he describes a taste revolution in the Golden State. A smallgroup of creative producers with Old World sensibilities are making exciting, often biodynamically farmed wines that aim for balance (i.e., lower ripeness) rather than high scores.
I can't think of a better way to understand the changes currently underway than to sample a few wines Bonné mentions at this year's Thanksgiving meal. I advocate for an all-American, all-Californian pairing with your turkey and stuffing. You'll be surprised at how nuanced and food-friendly these new wines can be.
Many of the producers are not available in the Madison market, but a few are, and are worth seeking out.
Wells Guthrie of Copain Wines is one of the leading lights of the new generation of winemakers. Some of his stunning rosé is still in town, but his Tous Ensemble Pinot ($26) is also a great place to start. Fog rolls into the Anderson Valley and makes for fresh, bright pinot with mushroom and mineral flavors.
The story goes that Matt Licklider and Kevin O'Connor met in the alley behind the restaurant Spago in Beverly Hills and lamented the sad state of American chardonnay. Out of their ongoing conversations was born Lioco, their wine label that went on to be an immediate success in restaurants. The Sonoma Chardonnay ($20) is light and lithe and has great acidity for food. Many Lioco bottles are available in the Madison market at reasonable prices, and all are worth snapping up.
The Santa Rita Hills have gotten a bad rap for producing huge wines whose over-ripeness blows away any sense of terroir (note the absurdly big, arguably mute wines of Sea Smoke). But Brewer-Clifton Pinot 2011 ($43) is an important part of the ripeness conversation currently taking place in California. Both Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton are winemakers to watch, and have had enormous influence in finding vineyard sites now cultivated by advocates of less exaggerated fruit.
If there is a poster child for the New California wine, it is most likely Arnot-Roberts. Their Griffin's Lair Syrah ($60) from the Sonoma Coast is graceful, cool-climate juice with flavors of black olives, minerals and earth. If it is true that Syrah loses its character as the grapes get too ripe, then this bottle will display all of the characteristics that the new, cooler Californian wine is all about. And that is something to be thankful for.