With the romantic gesturing towards Pinot Noir in the film ‘Sideways’ and the meteoric rise of wine critic Robert Parker, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Californian wine is all about the bright lights of Napa Valley and the generous styles of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir that she produces.
Fast forward to today, and a new generation of young, innovative winemakers are shaking up the Californian wine scene. Their focus is on making fresh, naturally made styles of wine from a diverse stable of grape varieties that herald from lesser known (and less expensive) pockets of California.
Championed by the former San Francisco Chronicle's wine writer, Jon Bonné, in his book 'The New California Wine', these are just a handful of the producers leading the way:
Ultramarine & Cruse Wine Co.
Michael Cruse is a man with sparkling ambition. A scientist and a thinker, his obsession with bubbles has seen him challenge California’s tentative history of crafting quality sparkling wines by founding his Ultramarine label. Here, Cruse brings together the two sides of his personality to create wines of technical balance and feeling that are reminiscent of the artisanal, Grower Champagnes coming out of France. These wines are made in tiny quantities, but keep your eyes peeled for his Sparkling Valdiguié Pet-Nat that he makes under his other label, Cruse Wine Co.
Bedrock Wine Co.
A far cry from the flashy wineries that line the Silverado Trail, Morgan Twain-Peterson made the first 3 vintages of Bedrock in a chicken coup. In 2012 he encouraged his buddy Chris Cottrell to come onboard and the duo have been focusing on creating wines that celebrate site and a sense of place (over varietal) ever since. They gather fruit from both their own ancient vineyard in Sonoma Valley and work with growers in unique spots on California’s Northern coast that they fondly refer to as the‘viticultural backwaters’. The resulting wines, such as the Bedrock Heritage, are a blend of up to 26 grape varieties and a testament to California’s ability to make super aromatic wines- red in particular- that are full of distinction and character.
When you drink Chris Brockway’s wines something special happens - you are forced to give into the exhilaration of not quite knowing what's in your glass. Inspired by the French and older style of Californian wines he drank growing up with his stepfather, Chris makes wines from grape varieties such as Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc that had previously fallen out of favour. Keeping costs down on the production side and the end product, Chris makes his wine in an industrial estate (aka ‘urban winery’) in Berkeley, opening his doors at the weekend for admirers to come in and enjoy a casual glass or two.
Founded by two friends, former sommelier Kevin O'Connor and fine wine importer, Matt Licklider, Lioco was born as a nod to the style of wines coming out of California back in the 1980's. Moving away from the ‘bigger is better’ mantra, the Lioco wines have an honesty and purity to them that can be hard to find in California. Look out for the ‘Sativa’ Carignan from Mendocino County. Carignan is a fast disappearing grape variety in California and this wine is full of wild mountain fruit from over 75 year old vines that is sure to create a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.
For UK readers, some of these wines are available from online wine merchant, Roberson.