The “New” California

Checking out the rule breakers who are reshaping California’s vinous landscape.


California, the land of sunshine, free spirits, and big wines. Right? Yes, of course, all that is true but today we are seeing that free spirited attitude change the paradigm for wine production. Some might say that we are witnessing a return to a different style of wine. Fresher, lower in alcohol and having more in common with wines produced several decades ago or, gasp, with the wines of Europe. 

The truth is that the style of wines is indeed changing, though not exactly returning to its previous state. Too many things have changed over the decades. Vine trellising, clonal selection, and rootstock selection, not to mention the influence of climate change all mean that we simply do not have the resources to return to the previous era. Instead we are witnessing the emergence of a new California Paradigm. One that achieves balance primarily through harvesting at a lower sugar level, yielding wines with lower alcohol, higher acids, and a different flavor profile that one typically associates with wines from California. there are different motivations behind the production of these wines but the best synopsis of that motivation comes in the form of a quote from Matthew Rorick, producer of the Forlorn Hope wines.
“I’m not trying to make low alcohol wines, I’m just trying to make wines without adds (additions).”
This mentality, one that does return to an earlier time when wine was made from grapes and didn’t include additions of color, tannins, acids, and the like, is driving a renaissance in California and the results are unlike anything that we have recently experienced from their sunbaked vineyards. It takes guts to make these wines. Guts, and the confidence to do things differently. Markus Bockisch in Lodi, whose wines I shall be reporting on shortly, admits as much when he discusses his Albarino. The idea of picking before the flavors seemed to have developed in the grapes was a difficult one to make, but time has proven that these flavors do emerge in the finished wines. Perhaps frustratingly slowly, but wine is not simply grape juice. It is something closer to magic than to science and the truth is that we still know painfully little about what a finished wines may taste like based solely on the flavors of the grapes themselves.
While all of these developments are exciting, they are not in fact new, though their blossoming in the industry is a new occurrence. One simply has to look at the wines Steve Edmunds has been making at Edmunds St. John for the evidence. Steve’s wines from a decades long path to the past that leads directly to these wines. the mentality to produce that veer from the preconceived notions of what great wines is have always been simmering just beneath the surface in California, and are just now bubbling up to reach a broader audience. Whether that means grape varieties that we may not be familiar with, skin contact whites, or the lower alcohol wines that are symbolic of this trend, they are all fascinating developments.

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