Talking With The New California Wine's Jon Bonné About the California Wine Revolution

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Mon, Dec 9, 2013 at 6:26 AM
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When Jon Bonné moved to San Francisco in 2006 to take up his post as wine editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, he immediately faced a perception by the wine community that he hated California wine. While this certainly wasn't the case, Bonné did struggle with some of the things California wine had become known for -- the problem of a lot of money, a lot of business interests, and what he calls the era of "Big Flavor."

But what Bonné has witnessed unfold since then is a revolution of sorts. Many of us have had an inkling that something special is happening in the California wine industry -- in his new book, The New California Wine, Bonné chronicles the wines and winemakers changing California's industry in a way that turns that inkling into a solid foundation of excitement. He also traces the history of the industry here, and explains practically everything you need to know the fully understand why California wine became what it is, and where it's going.

Bonné will be in L.A. next week (see event details at the end of the post). We spoke to him about his book, what exactly the new Californian wine is, and the possibilities for "a gastronomic language that is purely Californian."

click to enlarge Jon Bonné - ERIK CASTRO
  • Erik Castro
  • Jon Bonné

Squid Ink: Despite the fact that you came to California to write specifically about wine and I didn't, a very similar kind of thing that happened to me when I came here. Like, alright, I can't afford to be a snob about California wine anymore, I have to figure it out and not dismiss it. And I was immediately surprised at how excited people here are about what's going on in California. I hadn't heard any of that on the East Coast. I wonder if you're seeing a change in that, and beginning to see people elsewhere paying attention to what's going on here now.

Jon Bonné: It's funny because in some ways, the really good shops in New York and Charleston, and even Atlanta, and the restaurant people certainly -- they were earlier on this curve than a lot of people here. Only in that the closer you are to the industry here, the more pull you get to the legacy brands and the pull of both what California does very right and very wrong.

SI: So you see people in California having more resistance to the interesting things going on here?

JB: I think that the best wine buyers in California are absolutely on it, and love that there are wines that speak to pretty expert sensibilities and refined sensibilities, and allow them to talk about artisanship and small scale production in an absolutely American context. Because for a long time, because of those interests, they kind of by definition had to talk about imported wines, and then they were labeled snobs because they weren't supporting the local industry.

It was interesting because there was this very quick trajectory from California just being happy to be in the conversation in terms of wine to California having an absolute presumption of superiority. And it really took, 10 years, 15 years? If you look at how the industry was functioning in the mid '80s, they were just looking at how to get people to understand varietal wines. And you go from that to where things were in the late '90s and early 2000s, people simply believed that these were the best wines in the world, they were being told by a certain handful of critics that these were the best wines in the world, and it was a very strong display of -- self-reinforcement.

I was going to say hubris -- there is a lot of hubris in what happened. You look at the trajectory of the styles of wine and how things changed as rapidly as they did, and the influence of money and the influence of the changing wine criticism, and none of this was intrinsic to what California could do, it all came down to market pressures and to people -- for the most part -- wanting to make a lot of money very fast.

SI: I think most wine drinkers come at it from a place that isn't super informed about the business and history of it and much more just thinking that the wine a place produces is intrinsic in some way to that place. One of the most interesting things to me about the book was that I hadn't considered the why of it, and how did California come to have this bigger-is-better sensibility. You go into the fact that it's everything from Prohibition to the University of California to Robert Parker. There's a lot of things that went into the wine of California becoming what it was.

JB: My parallel for this is that Alice Waters was the pivotal person for changing the way that Americans, at least in an elite way, looked at food. And if you consider the notion of farm-to-table, if you consider all the things that are only starting to feel comfortable now, it was a 20-25 year trajectory between the first seeds of this in the '70s, and organic produce being something that the middle class expected.

It took about a quarter century for people to start asking the tougher questions, it took Michael Pollan, it took this sustained scratching at the surface of Big Food. And wine is just much earlier on that curve. I talk about "The Whole Foods Gap" in the book, the thing where the same people who want their organic spinach are happy to pick up a $5 bottle of whatever, that was farmed God knows how, because they just haven't made that leap to wine.

In terms of California, it was very easy for these industrially farmed, industrially made wines to gain currency because wine criticism was still very rudimentary. There were not people asking tough questions. It was only five or six years ago that we were all writing stories saying "well actually, wine from organic grapes is a good thing." So we've only had that conversation essentially within the confines of the Obama administration.

So that to me was the great reveleation in the course of writing the book. Even I had come to assume that the strains that put together the big industry of California wines that I had trouble with, I had always assumed that they were very deeply ingrained and these were long term trends.

But I realized that these were short term trends. It's a slightly damaged, difficult industry that was rebuilt out of Prohibition. There was this glorious moment of clarity in the '70s when there were enough folks who wanted to work at a small enough scale that they could really look at how to make great wines they could benchmark against elsewhere in the world. And then that went out of control, and really went out of control in the '90s, and so what we're seeing now is this echo.

It has the significance of the work that was done 40 years ago, in terms of putting California on the global stage in a global context. These are wines that are absolutely Californian, but these are wines that relate to wines elsewhere in the world rather than simply being all power and magnitude. And the notion that California was all about impact was so much younger than I expected. I really thought it was a 30 year timeline maybe, and to figure out that it all happened within about a decade, blew me away.

SI: You profile a lot of serious, career wine makers who are pushing for something new, hence the title of the book, but then there's also in California more than anywhere else right now people who are farmers or hobbyists who have another career. I wonder if you see already a gap between the "new" and then maybe the "new-new"? And are those wines exciting or are they a flash in the pan?

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