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Jon Bonné’s The New California Wine: Worthy Effort Despite Simplistic Polemics

2013 December 11

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Jon Bonné, wine editor for the San Francisco Chronicle since 2006, is one of my favorite wine journalists. He has a nose for intriguing stories, and possesses both a lively writing style and knack for delightful turns of phrase. I also see him frequently at trade tastings and have listened to him speak at wine events, so I have a good sense of both his palate and point of view.

I therefore had high expectations for Jon’s first book, which focuses on new trends in California wine. Overall, I was not disappointed.

The style is crisp and compelling, as is the case with Jon’s Chronicle features. He deftly explains current issues in winemaking, such as clonal selection and stem inclusion, in a way that those fairly new to wine will readily understand. And the book’s last of its three sections lists many of California’s great artisan producers, identifying numerous wines worthy of attention. There are also well designed maps at the back, making it easy to follow Jon’s story of producers and regions around the state.

What gets tiresome for me, primarily in the first third of the book, is Jon’s attempt to heighten the drama of his story with sweeping generalizations and, I believe, simplistic and wholly misleading polemics. This begins, of course, with the book’s subtitle, “A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste.”

There have been significant trends toward more balanced wines among a lot of important, and newer, producers in recent years. I’m okay with characterizing that as a “revolution,” although I think it overstates a trend that has been going on for some time. It also makes it sound somehow unique to California when it has been echoed by similar developments in other parts of the world. It’s when Jon refers to the state’s wine industry in the mid-2000s as “generally ossified” and characterizes some changes in practices by both new and long established winemakers over the past 10 years as “radicalism” that I feel he greatly overstates his case.

I agree with Jon’s assertion that by the mid-2000s, “California wines had become saddled with a reputation for being too simplistic and heavy-handed.” In my view, however, that was an unfair reputation, based in part on wines that at the time received high ratings and praise from two dominant critics.

It’s also important to remember that if California were a country, it would rank as the world’s fourth biggest wine producing nation, after France, Italy and Spain. It’s a much bigger producer than other important winemaking countries like Germany and Portugal. With the fast paced nature of changes and improvements in wine production world wide over the past 20 years, I think most would find it ludicrous to lump together all producers in France or Germany, for example, as doing essentially the same thing, or to refer to the entire wine industry in one of these countries as “ossified.” There are literally thousands of wine producers in California, and an incredible array of diversity and constant improvement here. I am therefore appalled at Jon’s gross and misleading generalizations about the entire state.

There were also plenty of balanced and more classic wines being made in California at that time that received little attention from those critics. Jon admits as much as his story continues, highlighting the longstanding efforts of such producers as Ridge, Dunn, Mount Eden, Calera, Tablas Creek, Dominus, Stony Hill, Cathy Corison, Varner and, I think mistakenly in this regard, Kongsgaard.

Jon seems to have himself bought into the perception of somms and East Coast wine writers when he admits it was his “conclusion when [he] arrived” in California in 2006 “that the wines increasingly tasted all the same.” That’s his perception, and it was certainly a popular one among East Coast wine “hipsters” of the time. I think it was wrong then, however, and that it didn’t serve Jon in getting to the real reasons underlying the recent shift in winemaking styles among many producers here.

Jon Bonné, photo courtesy Ten Speed Press/Erik Castro

Jon’s basic thesis in the book’s first third, echoed again in the last third listing his top producers, is that a relative handful of “radicals” changed the face of California wine by leading a “counterreformation.” The changing styles of Pinot Noir seem, for Jon, to be have been the focus of much of this alleged “culture clash” and “culture war.”

He also refers to different camps as “the extract overlords” and “the new Pinotists,” claiming that “battle flared over the notion of balance.”

I say leave the culture war nonsense to Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. For me, as fun as Jon’s phrasing can be, it’s simplistic hyperbole that obscures more subtle developments and the constant new learning that was going on all throughout this period, vintage after vintage. This is especially true when it comes to a grape that, after all, increased enormously in plantings in a short period of time after 2004’s “Sideways,” finding itself in a lot of new locations that had had little previous experience with it.

Jon also seems to attribute a lot of power to a handful of so-called “radicals”–Northern California based winemakers like Ted Lemon, Abe Schoener and Steve Matthiason–in influencing the changed styles now coming out of California.

Frankly, as well respected as winemakers like the ones Jon names are among a number of their peers, I think the changed direction of a lot of California winemaking in recent years has much more practical and mundane roots than Jon’s asserted but ill explained “revolution” or “counterreformation.”

Wine has, over its long history, been a very cyclic product, changing relatively swiftly in style due to changes in culture, the influence of certain taste arbiters, and, sometimes, to factors owing more to nature than anything else. This has been demonstrably true for the last two hundred years, with a major ongoing trend throughout Europe and elsewhere from sweet to drier wines, but with frequent pendulum swings along the way due to a variety of factors, including weather.

Frequently changing styles and tastes in wine are simply one of the constants of this unusual product. Looking at the history of winemaking even just in the U.S., these changes have happened remarkably fast, especially given how long it takes for a vineyard to mature, and for wines to be made and ready to market.

A lot of high profile California wines did get to extremes with respect to ripeness and alcohol—partly because newly planted clones and the like throughout the 1990s made that kind of ripeness possible, and also because that style was encouraged by high point scores from the two most influential critics of California wines: Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator’s James Laube. I’d say the most extreme swing of the pendulum in this direction can be traced to the 2002 to 2004 vintages.

From my conversations with winemakers around the state, it’s clear to me that a number of them began to question at that point whether those were the kinds of wines they personally wanted to drink, let alone be known for.

I think the switch from 2006 to 2007 on the part of two critical darlings for the ripe style—Copain and Kosta Browne–to picking earlier, creating wines with lower alcohol and more balancing acidity, had a lot more impact on mainstream winemaking than Abe Schoener’s admirable but often eccentric projects.

That said, I think there’s still lots to commend about Jon’s book. My favorite section is the second—“The New Terroir: A California Road Trip”—in which Jon vividly sketches some of the key regions where more balanced wines, often from previously neglected grape varieties, have been produced in recent years. Those include the Santa Cruz Mountains, west Sonoma Coast, Sierra Foothills and Santa Barbara County’s Sta. Rita Hills.

Jon has clearly logged the miles, both by car and on foot in those areas. He also gives a great sense of grape growing and economic considerations in places like the Central Valley and Sierra Foothills that are the best descriptions of those areas I’ve seen.

I particularly appreciated Jon covering a huge region with a lot of historic importance and potential like Lodi, which was entirely omitted from Matt Kramer’s otherwise excellent and authoritative 2004 New California Wine. Jon himself, however, virtually omits substantial appellations like the Santa Lucia Highlands and Livermore.

One gathers from Jon’s book that his journeys have often been in the company of Turley’s longtime viticulturist and now winemaker, Tegan Passalacqua. Tegan is a passionate advocate both for California’s historic vineyards and a return to many of California’s traditional practices, like dry farming and head pruned vines. I’ve mentioned him as well in my stories here about the Historic Vineyard Society. Tegan has some very strong opinions. Based on the number of times through the book that he’s mentioned, one might call him Jon’s “muse.”

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Turley winemaker Tegan Passalacqua

My final criticism of the book is that its structure results in a great deal of seemingly unnecessary repetition. Many of the profiles in the first chapter are excerpted from stories Jon wrote for the Chronicle over the last several years. Those same winemakers and their wines, however, get repeatedly mentioned in other sections as well. And in the book’s last section, where Jon’s recommendations of wineries and wines are divided into six chapters loosely based on varieties or types of wines, material about a producer he likes who makes great Chardonnays and who is therefore covered in the Chardonnay section gets virtually repeated when he deals with that producer’s Pinots or Rhone varieties in sections that follow.

Nonetheless, it’s easy to find information in the book and I think it works well as an up-to-date reference on some of California’s most interesting producers, especially newer producers. I also commend Jon for his lucid summary of California’s winemaking history.

In sum although I disagree with Jon about the reasons behind the apparent trend toward less ripeness and greater balance in many California wines–and frankly groaned in reaction to a polemic that, to me, amounts more to name calling than any convincing attempt to elucidate cause and effect–I think Jon tells the stories of individual winemakers and appellations in a very compelling way. I therefore recommend the book to those of us who love California wine and who are interested in some of the more interesting wines being made these days.

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4 Responses leave one →
  1. Dan Fishman permalink
    December 13, 2013

    Nice review… well balanced!

  2. December 16, 2013

    There should be no questioning the motivation of California winemakers like Brian Loring and Michael Browne. The truth is, they, like most artisan winemakers, strive to craft wines that reflect the terroir of their sites they work with and they often succeed. Bonné may not agree with the results, but their passion and dedication is every bit as ingrained and admirable as the winemakers that Bonné reveres. It is not only dangerous but medieval for the wine industry in general to initiate or support a style war when it comes to wine. As Charles Olken recently commented, “There is simply no calibration for taste.” Let’s separate liking from appreciating and emphasize what a winemaker sets out to accomplish.

  3. Bill Haydon permalink
    December 16, 2013

    I’ve never understood lumping Abe Schoener in with some of the younger proponents of balance (say, Gavin Chanin). Schoener’s wines are freakishly unbalanced and excessive, not to mention often undrinkable. There is nothing restrained and balanced about them. While coming at it from a different angle, they nonetheless have far more in common with the overblown buttery Chardonnay or 16% alcohol Cabernets in their excessive, over the top style, high prices, illusions of scarcity and good ol’ fashioned Napa Valley hucksterism. They’re precisely what this movement is fighting against.

  4. February 25, 2014

    Thanks for the insights, Richard.

    What I found bravest about Bonné’s book was his fearlessness in standing up to corporate wines, which have had the biggest impact on the state’s economy (as the state’s most profitable agricultural crop).

    What I found most wanting in the book was the non coverage of wine as a business and agricultural player in California. This is inextricably integral to the wines we see.

    In addition, the wines in the New California Wine are drunk by less than 1-5% of all wine drinkers, due to their mostly prohibitive prices. In a sense, this is a book about “Wines We Like For the Five Percenters.”

    The greatest uncovered story in California wine today is the industry’s much trumpeted move toward “sustainability” (partly real but mostly a PR plan) and the growth of the organic movement in Napa and elsewhere. (That’s why I’m personally writing about this.) The water use story also remains completely under covered. The days of cheap wine from dirt cheap water may be waning… or not. In the meantime, not one wine writer has talked about the depletion of the Central Valley aquifer which is covered only by the New York Times science section (despite being satellite photo research conducted in California).

    I am continually dismayed at the lack of coverage by wine writers of the topics that most matter to those of us living here – pesticides and economic impact. How many people know what fertigation means or that almost all vines in the state are like crack addicts, force fed a steady drip of water, fertilizer, and poisons by both indies as well as megacorp wineries? It’s not just the Central Valley or Salinas, it’s Napa-Sonoma-Monterey County as well.

    It’s time these topics started to be part of the cost/benefit equation in looking at individual producers and their farming methods as well as the manipulation in the cellar. Here the Italians are way ahead of us with guides like Slow Wine which list each producers’ farming (i.e. chemical, organic or Biodynamic).

    For me, Bonné’s newspaper columns are great intros to wines I might now know about, but the book’s title suggests a more comprehensive sort of narrative, which is not delivered.

    My list of best books about California wine still puts Conaway’s Napa and Darlington’s An Ideal Wine (both of which tell me things I didn’t know) at the top in terms of illuminating what’s really real in California.

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