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.”
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?
JB: I think the important thing to remember is that in some way, in a pioneering sense, the California wine industry was always pushed by hobbyists. Warren Winiarski came out, leaving an academic post, to chase these dreams of wine. Robert Mondavi was an outlier because his family had always been in wine, but whether it was the Barret family at Chateau Montelena, whether it was Paul Barret who had kind of dabbled in wine but really wasn't trained as a wine maker — everyone who founded Ridge, they were all scientists out of Stanford.
Almost every one of the great wineries at one time were created out of people who were hobbyists. Even in the era of big flavor, people wanted to come into the industry from other professions. It happened that those professions were often very lucrative and they came in with vast quantities of money and so their version of being hobbyists was slightly more upscale. But that's always been what drove it — people who love wine and feel like they can pursue this wine manifest destiny out here.
But I think the flip side of that now is — it's great and it's definitely what's driving the advancements in California, all of the new era. But we're at that point now where we're all going to have to start being a little more critical. There are absolutely astonishingly good wines from people who have only just opted into the industry. But most of the ones that are really successful come from people who spent some time apprenticing, who really decided they were going to make a fundamental career decision.
Especially in that fringe of natural-ish California wines, I think there are some wines that are going to be brilliant, and there are some that are going to be awful. And I think that, as with anywhere, we all can love the notion of the new but there are going to have to start being some real discussions about quality.
In terms of the book, there were people who might have gotten more attention in the book but I really struggled with their wines. There were a handful that I ultimately had to leave out because I felt that the wines were uneven enough that I couldn't in good conscience put them in.
And there are retailers who are questioning why wines that they've advocated for aren't in the book, and the simple answer is that this wonderful pioneering spirit is absolutely there, but not everybody wins in the course of a great revolution. Most of what's out there now is amazing. American wines and wines from this coast are better now than they've been, certainly in a generation, maybe ever. But by no means is that uniform.
SI: One of the things that's worked so well for Oregon is that, you know for the most part what you'll be getting when you reach for a good Oregon Pinot Noir, and I wonder if you can explain if you see something emerging in California — and I know it will vary by region — but if it's not these huge, bonk-you-over-the-head wines, what is it? These aren't wines that are just strictly imitating the Old World either. Do you see a distinct style that's emerging that is California? I think that's going to be part of the issue for people trying to get into California wines if they haven't in the past.
JB: My closest analogy would probably be that you could no more talk about what California wine is than you could talk about what French wine is, or what Italian wine is. French wine is Burgundy and Bordeaux, but it's also the Rhone and the Loire and Languedoc and Champagne, and hundreds of appellations. And these were places that people said were bureaucratically important enough that they had a distinct style and a distinct terrior.
California overall, the beauty of it is that there's this great diversity, and frankly that it doesn't have to be one thing. People ultimately need to be able to talk about the different regions of California the way they talk about Piedmont and Sicily. And I think over time there will be things that emerge as true strengths. Obviously Cabernet in Napa, when its made right, is absolutely extraordinary, the Rhone family of varieties in the Sierra Foothills and especially El Dorado are extraordinary, and it really only took a couple of people making great wines there to demonstrate it.
But we're still on such a short timeline. To be able to cast all of these things definitively in stone is impossible. That's obviously a difficult challenge if you're trying to write an authoritative book, but I think you look for optimistic signs, you look for things that show a seeming continuity, and overall you try to understand what the zeitgeist is, what California's gestalt is.
And the books' thesis really is that where California's gestalt is heading is in wines that have both nuance and restraint, and the things that people have loved not just in the Old World but in great wines from everywhere that weren't impacted by this hammer-head approach to flavor. And yet they still have fruit, and they still have some sense of exuberance, and they still are generous in their way.
It was an interesting moment a few years ago when I realized that I had to start talking about the fruit in California wines that I liked. Because it was the only way to communicate to people who were skeptical about the style that these weren't these earthy, funky wines that maybe they didn't like. That these were still very much California wines, they were made here and were reflective of their origins, that they were delicious and they were complex, and they could have the best of both worlds. They could speak to classic European sensibilities, they could speak to the best of New World sensibilities, and they were rooted in place.
I think the fact that there are so many produicers that are pulling that off here is a testament in part to this perfect feedback loop that winemakers have with this new generation of chefs and wine buyers and restaurateurs. Here, in New York, in Atlanta, in Chicago, in Charleston, where the food has evolved to be something that's bold but more nuanced.
And there are now American wines that match that, there are Californian wines that match that. It makes me incredibly happy because it means that we can have a gastronomic language that is purely Californian but doesn't have to exist in the shadow of the 1970s.
SI: I think that's been a frustration for people who have been really excited about where American food has gone in the last decade — that there haven't been a whole bunch of American wines that seem to work with that food. And maybe wine from Europe will taste good with that food, but in spirit, in that sense of newness, don't match that food.
JB: Three years ago there was a huge complaint that San Francisco restaurants weren't paying any attention to California wine. And it's interesting to me how in two or three years a lot of wine lists here have absolutely embraced California, they just have embraced a California that matches the food, that matches the ethos of the restaurant.
So some of it is a bit of nagging in the media, but I think a lot of it is simply a lot of hard work by really avant-garde winemakers to show that these wines have a very specific context with the food here. And if you truly believe in the bounty of California as a restaurateur, you have to at least acknowledge the bounty of what's here in the vineyard as well as what's in the field.
Bonné will be appearing for a book signing and California wine tasting with some of the producers featured in the book on Sunday, Dec. 12 from 2-5 p.m. at Domaine L.A. The tasting will be $15, and signed copies of the book will be available for $35. Later that evening, Bonné is hosting a wine dinner at Goldie's, along with along with winemakers Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman (Sandhi, Domaine de La Cote) and Steve Matthiasson (Matthiasson Wine). The dinner is $60 per person. For reservations, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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