Cigar Aficionado

The California Wine Rush

One of life's curiosities is that identical twins, over time, turn out to be not quite so identical after all. Their genetic material is the same, all right. But how they react to life's innumerable challenges shapes them differently. It takes time for these changes to become recognizable.

So it is with wine, especially California wine. California seems like an orphanage of wine look-alikes: all white wines seemingly are Chardonnay; all reds, Cabernet Sauvignon. That's not true, of course, but the casual observer could be forgiven for thinking so. There is a lot of twinning in California wine growing: Half of all the vines planted in Napa County and two-thirds of those planted in Sonoma County are either Chardonnay or Cabernet.

Still, even seemingly identical Chardonnay and Cabernet twins, row upon row of them, are turning out differently. This, even though they are raised identically, nurtured with the same drip irrigation, trained on the same trellising systems and pruned pretty much the same way. What's more, the grapes are all made into wine using French oak barrels, computer-controlled presses and similar aging techniques. Yet the latest wines are tasting increasingly different.


While the variations may seem incredible, they were predictable. Like twins, nothing in California wine was ever as identical as it seemed. Now, finally, we're able to see this clearly for ourselves in the exceptional 1994 vintage. This stellar vintage, like a perfect snapshot, captured the evolutionary moment for us.

The '94 vintage was great throughout the West Coast, as Oregon and Washington also had history-making wines. It was well-nigh perfect: warm, but not too warm; a long, lingering autumn; no rains to harry pickers and no extremes to hurry winemakers.

Make no mistake, though: vintage perfection does not, in itself, make for real differences. A vintage is just the weather of one growing season. What makes '94 a landmark year is that it brought fully into focus the emerging distinctions that make California wine utterly different than it was even 10 years ago.

So what changed? And how do the wines themselves tell us?

If you talk to winemakers--some of them, anyway--all you'll hear about is wine-making technique. Consulting enologists (as winemakers-for-hire loftily characterize themselves) will expound like carny barkers, using big words like polymerization, cold maceration and phenolic extraction. Jargon aside, there have indeed been changes in wine making. In the past decade, California winemakers have steadily polished their red wines, making them less tannic, smoother, rounder, better balanced and more accessible upon release. The trick, they say, is to achieve this without sacrificing depth, dimension and potential longevity.

With white wines, there's an increasing awareness that merely tossing wine into a new French oak barrel is not enough. This is partly a revised aesthetic awareness that a lavish vanilla-scented oak taste won't carry a wine. But partly it's practical: French oak barrels now cost upward of $600 each, double what they cost a decade ago.

So, yes, there have been noticeable changes in wine-making techniques. But not that many. All the wine-making techniques and technologies used today were common 10 years ago: sophisticated wine presses, barrel fermentation, small oak barrels, stirring the lees, or sediment, in barrel-fermented Chardonnay and so on.

Actually, there is a new wrinkle worth mentioning--tunnels. California wine country is becomingly increasingly honeycombed with tunnels; they are everywhere today, especially in high-priced precincts such as Napa Valley and Sonoma County. Because such tunnels are extremely humid (about 90 percent humidity), the evaporation rate of wines stored in porous small oak barrels is dramatically reduced. Barrels stored in conventional structures such as a warehouse lose about two gallons of wine per barrel per year. In tunnels, the evaporation rate is half that.

To see an enormous tunneling machine rumble through the vineyards is to witness something grotesquely at odds with the gentility of wine growing. This is a malicious-looking phallic symbol: a 20-foot-long cylindrical snout with a rotating spiked mace at its tip. The machine, technically known as a Dosco Road Header Mark II-A, is imported from England, where it was used for coal mining in Nottingham. The operator simply rubs the snout against the hillside, where the cutting bits claw at the rock, reducing it to rubble. While the tip claws at the rock, it also insistently rubs up against it, the length of the apparatus arcing up and down. Keep at it and you've got a tunnel.

Since wines evaporate less in the tunnels, every gallon of wine saved means an extra five bottles of wine to sell. When you're getting $25 or $50 a bottle, this "found wine" adds up to real money. Wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon need to stay in barrels for up to two years; others, like Chardonnay, require at least a year.

One winemaker that built a tunnel is Rutherford Hill Winery, a large operation in Napa Valley. Its $1.6 million tunnel holds 8,500 barrels, which enabled the winery to retain an extra 36,000 bottles a year and ultimately recoup the cost of the tunnel in five years.

Randy Dunn of tiny Dunn Vineyards, high on Napa Valley's Howell Mountain, also has tunnels. Nobody's idea of a fashion follower, Dunn looks and talks like a ranch hand. But Dunn happens to make one of California's best and most expensive Cabernets. If you can find a bottle, you'll pay 70 bucks. He sells most of his small-production wines directly to consumers--in other words, retail. Every gallon of wine he saves is money in his pocket. He figures that his tunnels will pay for themselves in about seven years.

What makes these tunnels interesting goes beyond economics. By retaining more of the wine's water in the humid tunnel while losing a disproportionately larger amount of alcohol from the porous barrel, the tunnels have subtly changed the taste of some wines. Wine is, after all, mostly water, with a small amount of alcohol. Since alcohol is more volatile than water, a grower can--to a certain degree, anyway--pick riper grapes yet avoid the correspondingly higher level of alcohol in the resulting wine.

Such fine points aside, the real change in California wine has been winemakers' attitudes. Put simply, they've grown up. The young winemakers who surged into prominence in the 1970s and early '80s are now middle-aged. They've got 15 or 20 vintages under their (expanding) belts. They've traipsed to France and Italy like diplomatic couriers. They've had wine-making successes, as well as highly educational misses.

Collectively, what they've learned--or so their '94s tell us--is that finesse is prized, purity is appreciated and restraint is a virtue. That these qualities appear so often in a vintage as opulently fruity and rich as '94 tells us that a new maturity of palate has taken hold.

The proof is how comparable many California Cabernets are to the best red Bordeaux. Or how close California is edging to a Burgundian standard in its Pinot Noirs--which not even California's most enthusiastic boosters were predicting a decade ago. Chardonnays, of course, made their mark long ago. Yet today's versions are better: more refined, restrained and balanced, even in the lush '94 vintage. Merlots are slowly getting better; Sangiovese still has a long way to go, though.

But the biggest change of all is not in wine making. It's in wine growing. The word admittedly sounds odd, yet it's the source of goodness in the world's best wines. Simply put, great wines are not made, but grown.

What happens in the vineyard--where it's located and what's grown in it--is almost everything. "Ninety percent of wine making has nothing to do with the winemaker," says Roger Boulton of the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California at Davis. "All a winemaker is doing is preventing spoilage, introducing some style characteristics and bottling it."

The story (and the glory) of California wine in our time is what might be called the "fine wine ambition," which took hold in the late 1960s when winemakers were no longer content to produce bulk wines selling for a pittance under plagiarized names such as Chablis.

When you trace the effects of the fine wine ambition anywhere in the world, you will discover the same pattern. The first wave is money: newcomers with cash to spare are entranced by wine. They take risks; they make dream wines with little regard for business payback. That was California in the late '60s and early '70s.

Then owners came to grips with the business of fine wine. It takes tons of money, which must be recouped. That means higher prices. But fine wine lovers aren't fools. There are standards. If you're making Cabernet, then you'd better keep an eye on Bordeaux. With Chardonnay, it's Burgundy. To get your price you've got to produce better wines with every vintage.

Throughout the 1980s, California kept up. The best equipment was purchased. No expense was spared. But eventually vintners realized that California wine making had achieved pretty much all that technology and technique could do. The next level of improvement had to be won in the vineyards.

That's when real change occurred. No matter how good a vintner's Cabernet Sauvignon was, there were too many on the market to differentiate one from the rest. The pressing question became, How was yours better? The answer--if you were lucky in your vineyard--is that your site had something to say.

Take Napa Valley's Spottswoode Winery, for example. Vintage after vintage its Cabernets stood out from the pack, a mark of good wine making to be sure, but ultimately of place. To this day, no other Cabernet is quite the same as Spottswoode's--and it's not for lack of others' trying.

Thus, the final threshold of the fine wine ambition is when you've realized--and accepted--that the world's greatest wines taste like they come from somewhere. That you can't make such profoundly distinctive wines, you can only grow them.

So what we're seeing, never more so than in the '94 vintage, is a rapidly increasing emphasis on place. Just check any wine label. Never before has California seen so many wines distinguished by district and single vineyard designations.

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

96 / Rochioli Pinot Noir Russian River Valley West Block Reserve 1994 / $48

95 / Dehlinger Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Reserve 1994 / $32

95 / Rochioli Pinot Noir Russian River Valley East Block Reserve 1994 / $60

94 / Gary Farrell Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Rochioli Vineyard 1994 / $50

94 / Rochioli Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Three Corner Vineyard Reserve 1994 / $40

94 / Williams Selyem Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Rochioli Vineyard 1994 / $60

93 / Dehlinger Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Goldridge Vineyard 20-Year-Old Vines 1994 / $32

93 / Talley Pinot Noir Arroyo Grande Valley Rosemary's Vineyard 1994 / $32

93 / Williams Selyem Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Riverblock Vineyard 1994 / $34

92 / Saintsbury Pinot Noir Carneros Reserve 1994 / $35 California Cabernet Sauvignon & Blends

98 / Groth Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Reserve 1992 / $70

96 / Colgin Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Herb Lamb Vineyard 1993 /$40

96 / Dalla Valle Maya Napa Valley 1993 / $75

95 / Chateau St. Jean Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County Reserve 1990 / $38

93 / Araujo Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Eisele Vineyard 1993 / $40

93 / Conn Creek Anthology Napa Valley 1993 /$30

93 / Cornerstone Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain Beatty Ranch 1993 / $33

93 / Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District Hillside Select 1992 / $50

93 / Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 1992 / $45

93 / Simi Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley Reserve 1992 / $40 California Zinfandel & Blends

96 / Turley Zinfandel Napa Valley Hayne Vineyard 1994 / $27

94 / Turley Zinfandel Napa Valley Moore Earthquake Vineyard 1994 / $25

92 / Alderbrook Zinfandel Russian River Valley Gamba Vineyard 1995 / $20

92 / DeLoach Zinfandel Russian River Valley O.F.S. 1995 / $25

92 / Martinelli Zinfandel Russian River Valley Jackass Hill 1994 / $25

92 / Rosenblum Zinfandel Mount Veeder Brandlin Ranch 1994 / $20

92 / St. Francis Zinfandel Sonoma Valley Pagani Vineyard Reserve 1994 / $24

91 / Rabbit Ridge Zinfandel Sonoma County San Lorenzo Reserve 1994 / $23

91 / Ridge Geyserville Sonoma County 1994 / $20

90 / Ravenswood Zinfandel Sonoma Valley Monte Rosso 1994 / $20 California Chardonnay

95 / Beringer Chardonnay Napa Valley Private Reserve 1994 / $20

95 / Kistler Chardonnay Sonoma Mountain McCrea Vineyard 1994 / $38

95 / Matanzas Creek Chardonnay Sonoma Valley Journey 1993 / $75

95 / Peter Michael Chardonnay Sonoma County Cuvée Indigène 1994 / $60

95 / Rochioli Chardonnay Russian River Valley Reserve 1994 / $28

95 / Saintsbury Chardonnay Carneros Reserve 1994 / $25

94 / Kistler Chardonnay Russian River Valley Dutton Ranch 1994 / $36

94 / Marcassin Chardonnay Alexander Valley Gauer Vineyard Upper Barn 1994 / $39

94 / Peter Michael Chardonnay Sonoma County Mon Plaisir 1994 / $40

94 / Truchard Chardonnay Napa Valley Carneros 1994 / $19 Other Top California Wines

94 / Matanzas Creek Merlot Sonoma Valley Journey 1992 / $125

93 / Navarro White Riesling Late Harvest Anderson Valley Sweet 1994 / $14

92 / Alderbrook Muscat de Frontignan Late Harvest Sonoma County Kunde Vineyard 1994 / $20

92 / Bonny Doon Muscat California Vin de Glacière 1995 / $15

92 / St. Francis Merlot Sonoma Valley Reserve Estate 1992 / $24

92 / Mumm Cuvee Napa Brut Napa Valley DVX 1992 / $30

91 / S. Anderson Blanc de Noirs Napa Valley 1992 / $22

91 / Ferrari-Carano Fumé Blanc Sonoma County Reserve 1995 / $17

91 / Scharffenberger Blanc de Blancs Mendocino County 1991 / $23

91 / Sean H. Thackrey Syrah California Orion 1994 / $38