New World wine doesn’t always get the love it deserves, and contrary to popular belief, California is putting out some of the most honest and terroir-driven bottles on the entire market. With regards to Golden State viticulture, we’re undoubtedly living in its moment of glory. Hear us out.
Compared to the rest of the viticultural world, California’s winemaking scene is pretty young. Grape growing in the Golden State first took place back in the 18th century, which pales in comparison to Old World regions with millennia of history. Spanish missionaries first began cultivating fruit in California to produce sacred wine for mass, though commercial winemaking really didn’t find its footing until about 100 years later. A few wineries began popping up around the area of present-day Napa, though the arrival of phylloxera, Prohibition, and two World Wars put a serious halt on any sort of progress.
The state’s modern day chapter began post-World War II, when vineyard holders were finally able to get back on their feet again. At the time (circa 1960s), California was known for its fortified sweet wines, though winemakers like Robert Mondavi and Heitz Cellars sought to change that. Thanks to new technology and an emphasis on quality, world-class dry bottlings were making their way onto the scene, though the world wasn’t really paying much attention.
That is, until the Judgement of Paris tasting. This 1976 competition would forever change the trajectory of California wine. For the first time ever, California cuvées beat out Europe’s beloved Bordeaux bottlings, which finally caused the state’s wines to capture consumers’ attention. Wines from California continued to find fame over the next ten years and would eventually skyrocket in popularity by the early 1990s, thanks to a little old critic named Robert Parker.
Love him or hate him, Parker really got the people excited about California wines. However, his palate was definitely not one for the weary. Parker regularly doled out 99 and 100-point scores to big, boisterous, and over-the-top reds from California, which caused many winemakers to follow that style in hopes of scoring a coveted 3-figure score. This style of wine continued to dominate the state’s cellars, and basically has, until relatively recently.
Which brings us to where we are now — the modern day age of California Wine (some refer to it as the ‘New California’ a la Jon Bonné). We truly believe that the greatest time to be drinking wines from California is now. Forget the over-extracted styles of the 90s and early 2000s. Today, countless winemakers are producing juice with a quality over quantity mentality, as well as incorporating organic and biodynamic practices in their vineyards. Minimalist mentalities are being used in cellars statewide, leading to terroir-driven, delicious bottles that ultimately showcase just how versatile and soil-reflective wines from California can be.
Take Sean Thackery, for example. This former art gallery director has been pioneering the potential of good California Syrah in the heart of Marin County for decades. Over in Sonoma, Vivier Wines is absolutely crushing it. A self-proclaimed ‘lazy French winemaker,’ Stéphane Vivier uses a minimalist approach in the cellar to create ‘adventurous’ and terroir-driven wines that are incredibly delicious to drink. We’ve also got David and Katharine of DeSante Wines. This husband-wife team scouts out old vineyard sites across Napa, which they farm with utmost respect for the environment placed first, ultimately leading to honest and soil-reflective bottles. Then there’s Post & Vine Mendocino, headed by Rebekah Wineburg, the badass winemaker behind Quintessa wines. She’s currently making a crazy field blend from an ancient vineyard site in Mendocino with a ‘less is more’ mentality. The wine is super good, and the icing on the cake is knowing how (and by whom!) it was made.
Don’t get us wrong — there are still plenty of big-box wineries producing subpar swill in the Golden State. However, we’re thankfully living in a moment where the number of producers combatting these chemical-driven ways are creeping up in numbers at a pretty rapid rate. Before we know it, we may live to see a day where smaller grower-producers’ productions outnumber those of the big-brand soulless estates. But until then, we’ll continue to preach the gospel of honest California viticulture.