Let Cali be Cali! And anyway what does “Burgundian” really mean…
August 3, 2012 § 1 Comment
A few months ago, the Wine Spectator dedicated an issue to California Chardonnay. I was struck by how often the adjective “Burgundian” was used to signal a nod of approval to this or that winemaker’s approach. ”Burgundian” came up so often it was almost like a nervous tick of the editing staff, and it’s a strange choice of words in a feature that is supposed to be celebrating the glories of California. If we are to believe WS, all of California has been overrun by Frenchmen of the Eastern Kingdom, and moreover, this is something to celebrate.
What WS was trying to signal, we all know, is many winemakers’ movement away from the crutches that limited the wines in the past: excessive (and sometimes cheaply rendered) oak, malolactic fermentation run amok, a resulting muted acidity, and a general flabbiness that matches nicely with the average American’s midriff (not mine, though — and heavens, not yours). In contrast, many Chardonnays are now being made in a style that is associated with the Cote d’Or and even Chablis: nervous, sharp wines of high acidity and a more subtle array of palette attributes: minerality, white peach.
If WS’s overall message was that California Chardonnays have advanced in quality, that’s great. But particularly in an era when we celebrate each region’s individuality — and particularly when the subject is a varietal such as Chard that is famously adaptable and subject to the vagaries of localism — should we really be couching our approval in words of imitation? Should we, Wine Spectator?! If that’s really your name…
LET CALI BE CALI.
In my continuing effort to advance my own reputation by taking cheap shots at the giants of wine commentary, I set out to find some mid-priced California wines that demonstrate recent advances in winemaking technique but that are unabashedly Californian. And particularly I focused on the grapes that are… what’s the word? Oh right, Burgundian. This includes Chardonnay but also of course Pinot Noir, a varietal that is far less adaptable to differing climates and winemaking styles.
I live in New York. It’s difficult for New Yorkers to remind ourselves that California exists, because it’s so much more pleasant in nearly every way than this festering stinkbox of humidity and exhaust. For wine geeks in New York, it’s also easier to pine away for the fading, rustic glories of the Northern Rhone than to acknowledge the resplendent beauty of Sonoma. What I’m trying to say is that we ignore Californian wine more than we should. We’d rather talk about all four acres of vineyard currently planted in the Hudson valley (unfair, I know. But still…). This means that it would be incredibly difficult to find a wine store with a really credible depth of Californian wine in this city if it weren’t for….
Thank heavens for Jenny Frank and Taylor Senatore! In the depths of 2008, just when we soul-rotted New Yorkers were wallowing in the filth of our own excess, Jenny and Frank opened California Wine Merchants, a wine shop dedicated almost exclusively to Californian wines. And they didn’t open it just anywhere: they staked a flag right in the ground on Bridge Street, in the financial district, around the corner from Bowling Green. You could throw a bottle out the front door and it would probably hit a Bordeaux-addled trader on Wall Street.
Jenny and Taylor knew exactly what I was going for: a handful of wines that were evolved but defiantly Californian. We started with the 2010 Lioco Chardonnay (Sonoma County, $23.99). Crisp? Yes. Acidity? Front and center. But the flavors were a disciplined explosion of banana, ripe pear, lime, and other luscious fruits that find little expression in Burgundy. It’s a terrific food wine and has more than enough personality to stand on its own.
Pinot Noir is extremely tricky territory in California, especially since the wines will inevitably be compared to PN’s more comfortable expression just north in Oregon. While Chardonnay can rightfully be called Chardonnay wherever it is grown and in whatever style, is a jammy, full-bodied pinot still pinot? Is there any way to go besides Burgundian elegance? I don’t drink much Californian pinot and at first I was simply off-put by the viscosity, the alcohol and the fruit in the La Follette Pinot Noir (North Coast, $24.99). The Lafolette does have plenty of acidity, which immediately puts it ahead of many in its class, but on my first taste I found the acid to be simply working against the fruit, rather than holding it up. I found the wine disjointed. La Follette had a much better showing on day 2: more restraint, more unity. The black fruit started to show up a little more. There wasn’t a ton of depth here, but then again how many wines from Burgundy will show much interest in the $25 range?
This really leads to a broader point, one that is central to the problem with New York’s indifferent attitude to Californian wine. It relates to value. There is a perception that California does not provide as good a value as much of the old world. And it’s certainly true that $10 will get you far more from the Duoro, Sicily, or even Chianti or the Languedoc than it will get you from California. For my taste, too, $70+ wines from Burgundy or Piedmont are going to win out every time. But in the mid-range, I think California is extremely underrated for value. Between $15 to $25, there is a lot of really interesting selection that is poorly represented in most New York stores– and it’s just in this range that California Wine Merchants truly excels.
One final wine worth mention: during my last visit, John Bick from Michael Skurnik was serving up a few selections from their California portfolio (they carry the Lioco, in fact). The Heron Merlot (Mendocino County, 2010) at $13.99 happily undercuts my poo-poo of low-bracket wine from California. It also challenges a few notions I have of pure-bred Californian Merlot. The wine had surprising structure, medium-body, and definite length. I would put the Heron against anything from Chianti in that price range.
(Taylor’s dog Maddy, making sure the raccoon is well and truly dead– all because he doubted California value).
Definitely check out California Wine Merchants next time you are downtown, or, if you’re afraid of the raccoon treatment from Maddy, online.