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Book points way to new direction in California wine

Jon Bonné (credit: Erik Castro)

Jon Bonné (credit: Erik Castro)

When Jon Bonné left New York in 2006 to become wine editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, he was already known through his writing as a harsh critic of the California winemaking industry. As he recalled recently, “The wines had grown really monotonous and somewhat self-satisfied and kind of self-justifying. They had also grown quite expensive.”

To be fair, he wasn’t alone. A lot of wine lovers had become critical of what Bonné termed “big flavor” California wines — those high-alcohol, high-acid, highly manipulated bottles that showed the stylistic preferences of the winemaker but seemed less concerned with showcasing the terroir, or distinctive flavors imparted by a vineyard’s soil and climate. If someone was looking for a red wine with earthy flavors or a mineral-driven white, he or she would ignore fruit-forward bottles from California and look toward the Old World.

But, as it turns out, there was an “only Nixon could go to China” scenario at work. Bonné had arrived in California wine country at a time when a new generation of winemakers — folks who had actually been raised with wine at the dinner table — had begun to fashion more expressive, more naturalistic efforts designed less for high scores in wine publications and more for the tastes of self-selected consumers. He had arrived at just the right time to champion this new wave in California.

Bonné profiles these winemakers in “The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste” (Ten Speed Press, $35) — a fascinating new book that has raised hackles. Part viticultural travelogue and part editorial manifesto, some have said the book profiles an important transformation in the California wine industry. But others, including influential wine critic Robert Parker, deride it for championing thin-bodied niche wines with flavors that many find unappealing.

Bonné also takes aim at Parker’s signature 100-point scoring scale, which he blames for creating manufactured demand and rewarding certain cult winemakers who produce intensely concentrated, highly alcoholic and mind-bogglingly expensive vintages. In the 1990s, these kinds of wines got so much good press that they became the de facto gold standard for California red wines.

Bonné was in Atlanta recently, where he met with readers over a dinner at Empire State South, and with local food service and wine professionals over a tasting at Quality Wines & Spirits, the Atlanta distributor that sells a number of the bottles Bonné wrote about.

At the tasting (which I attended) he poured seven wines that illustrated different points from the book. Among them was the 2011 Pinot Noir San Andreas from Hirsch Winery — a wine that came from the huge Sonoma Coast American Viticultural Area, but specifically from a vineyard within it that lies directly above the San Andreas Fault.

“The uplift of sedimentary soil from the old ocean gives it a dark mineral intensity,” he said. Looking around the room, I could see that some people weren’t thrilled with this wine, which was tight and funky but, as Bonné said, “not ungenerous.” It certainly did not exalt in the pretty cherry fruit I associate with California pinot noir, and I was grateful.

He later poured the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon from Corison Winery in the Napa Valley. Bonné had chosen winemaker Cathy Corison as the San Francisco Chronicle’s winemaker of the year in 2011 in large part for her insistence on making wines that express the grape varietal’s character and battling the trend toward high-alcohol wines. (She keeps all her product under 14 percent.)

“This is as close an approximation of what Napa cabernet would taste like if people hadn’t decided to go in a different direction. They are polarizing wines,” he admitted.

I found it fascinating, with that briary, twiggy flavor of cabernet out there, unsoftened by any merlot or hidden behind a big wallop of fruit, alcohol and wood.

I could taste exactly what Bonné was talking about, and for the first time in years, I vowed to start exploring more California wines.

- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog

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