The California Wine Rush
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97
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Cognoscenti no longer talk about Napa Valley Cabernets, any more than a Burgundy lover lumps together all red Burgundies as Pinot Noirs. The emphasis is all on place. Increasingly, the most expensive and sought-after Napa Valley Cabernets are distinguished by district. Cabernets privileged enough to say Stags Leap District, Howell Mountain, Rutherford, Oakville or Mount Veeder all command higher prices than a generic "Napa Valley" Cabernet.
The reason is obvious. Those attentive to fine wine know that a Stags Leap District Cabernet consistently tastes different than one from, say, Howell Mountain. Where Stags Leap District is soft, velvety, voluptuous and redolent of bitter chocolate, Howell Mountain is firm, detailed, tannic and profound. You can tell them apart in a blind tasting.
Throughout California, this awareness of place has transformed what people grow, how they make wines and, above all, how they talk about them. Take Zinfandel, for example. For years, only Ridge Vineyards took the trouble to designate its vast array of Zinfandels by the vineyard. Most other producers were content to add a county name to the Zinfandel label, and let it go at that.
No longer. Both winegrowers and wine fanciers have come to realize--and celebrate--the importance of place to Zinfandel. A Zinfandel grown in Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley tastes utterly different from one grown in the neighboring Russian River Valley. Dry Creek is dense, tarry and even a little stern, while Russian River is delicate, fragrant and strongly reminiscent of Pinot Noir. The fact that both are Zinfandel is almost less important than where they are grown.
This emphasis on place has come to prominence with the '94 vintage. There have never been so many Zinfandels with such site-specific labels. The Haywood Estate in Sonoma Valley, for example, issues two Zinfandels, both from the same vineyard called Los Chamizal; the newer Los Chamizal bottling will carry the designation Rocky Terrace to indicate that the Zinfandel was grown in a small plot of the vineyard. This newer wine is denser, richer and more profound. And, with only 900 cases produced, it's also more expensive.
Never have Zinfandels commanded such high prices. This, too, is a result of reaching the final threshold of the fine wine ambition. If a Zinfandel or Pinot Noir or Chardonnay grown in one spot consistently tastes better than the same grape grown somewhere else, people gladly pay more for it. That's why Burgundy's Richebourg vineyard gets $200 a bottle while a Pinot Noir grown just a few hundred (less perfect) yards away will fetch only $50.
California's new appreciation of place has transformed its wines, as well as its wine making. When winemakers prize "somewhereness" above all, their wine-making techniques will change to reveal this distinction. They'll use less new oak, so as not to mask the intrinsic flavor of the wine. They'll keep vineyard lots separate, the better to explore and reveal subtle--but real--distinctions. Above all, they'll get out of the way.
This new deference to place made the '94 vintage so exciting. For the first time, the new attitude coalesced with a spectacularly good growing season. Everywhere you turn in the '94 vintage you can find the results: in the luxuriant Chardonnays of Santa Barbara County's Santa Maria Valley; the pinpoint distinctions of wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains; the stunning new Pinot Noirs from the cool reaches of western Sonoma County; the delicate wines from Mendocino County's Anderson Valley; and the general abundance of wines proclaiming a particular, often small, appellation.
"If only we could bottle it," goes the old line about success. Well, that's just what California's winegrowers can do. The proof really is in the bottle. (For California's best, turn to page 345.)
Matt Kramer is the author of Making Sense of California Wine (William Morrow & Co.) and a regular columnist for Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication. Wine Spectator's Picks for the Best California Wines for 1996 California Pinot Noir
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