Tasting California

(by peter)

Back in March, we were lucky enough to spend a week visiting California.

While we’ve subsequently managed to report on the fabulous Bay Area hospitality (mostly eating and drinking) and, more specifically, review The French Laundry, we have so far been remiss in reporting in detail on the wines. Hence this report.

To recap, this trip was a lucky one for us for several reasons.

The sun came out, for a start. Until late March, California had been suffering from a particularly cold and rainy spring. Throughout our week-long trip, however, the sun shone relentlessly and gloriously, teasing out the nascent buds from the vines and putting a smile back on winemakers’ faces.

We were also fortunate enough to be granted access to some of California’s finest wineries and most eminent winemakers – not to mention some very special wines. More on all of this below.

Finally, and in the interests of full disclosure, this was a trip that we had won. When both of us had been awarded the IMW Robert Mondavi Scholarship for overall excellence in the Master of Wine theory exams in successive years, California suddenly became an inescapable and imminent destination (as plucky grandparents steeled themselves for the inevitable child-care duties).

We didn’t have long – a week in total – but we made the most of our time there, carefully selecting wineries, restaurants and destinations that gave us as broad an insight as possible into the Bay Area’s vibrant food and wine scene.

This report is neither a travelogue nor an attempt to record all our visits in intricate detail. It’s more a chance to report on our favourite wines from the trip, as well as discuss what we thought was one of the biggest issues that kept cropping up – that of drinkability and alcohol levels.

Subsequent posts will focus on individual producers, including the legendary Ridge Wine Cellars.

The big issue: drinkability

Over to eloquent sommelier Yoon Ha, of the very fine Benu restaurant in San Francisco. We were talking about Pinot Noir specifically, but his words have resonance beyond this context.

‘There’s a paradigm shift happening in California right now. It’s a move away from big rich styles of wine that don’t age well and towards those kinds of wines which are as much about the unsaid as the said, and which aren’t afraid to display a certain vulnerability.’

Cue groans from many a US wine producer and critic…

The topic of alcohol levels and drinkability is one that is guaranteed to divide opinion, especially along trans-Atlantic lines. To summarise the argument (or perceived argument), European critics tend to disdain super-ripe, high alcohol wines, whereas American winemakers, critics and consumers seemingly can’t get enough of them.

As one Napa winemaker was recently quoted as saying, ‘If one more goddamn Brit asks me about the alcohol in my Cabernet I’ll slug him.’

So why is this the case, and how (if at all) are things changing? We were very interested to explore this issue while we were in California, both in terms of the wines we were tasting and the opinions at the wineries and restaurants we visited.

First off, let’s consider what might be termed the accepted status quo in the US.

As one winery executive told us, ‘Higher alcohol makes wines easier to understand for consumers who may not know much about wine. Alcohol gives wines a sweetness that’s very attractive. People don’t tend to worry too much about high alcohol levels in the US.’ In short: high alcohol drives sales. (And UK critics should stop banging on about it…)

The phenomenon is perpetuated by America’s most prominent critics, who champion styles of wine with ripe fruit, high alcohol and inherent generosity.

This situation is exacerbated by what might be termed ‘the cult of the winemaker’: those who regularly gain high scores are lauded, their wines sell out even at stellar prices and their stock rises. (And the opposite also applies – winemakers who don’t achieve desirable scores can end up losing their jobs.) As a result, winemakers are unrepentant in targeting such recognition – and understandably so.

Personally, however, we find ourselves actively searching out wines with moderate rather than high alcohol levels. This may be something to do with the fact that young kids (very early starts) and hangovers not mixing… But it’s just as much to do with the fact that we rarely find higher alcohol wines which go well with food, or are easy drinking.

Any wine can be balanced – but not every wine has refreshment value, a much overlooked and very important quality in wine.

Many of the wines we tasted on this trip, while flattering aromatically, became porty, fiery and almost undrinkable on the palate. One iconic red table wine bore the alcohol level of 16% on its label. (Incidentally, in the US the labelling tolerance for alcohol levels can be anything up to 1.5%, which is worth bearing in mind given a wine sporting 14% on the label could be as high as 15.4%.)

Moreover, most of these high-alcohol, low-acid, soft-tannin New World trophy wines simply do not age well.

High alcohol never softens or moderates over time, unlike other elements in the wines. Low acidity, another hallmark of ripe modern Californian reds, means the wines lack inherent stability and refreshment value. It’s not uncommon to hear tales about iconic Californian reds, bought at stratospheric prices, which have completely fallen apart after as little as ten years in bottle.

(The likes of Piedmont reds are exceptions to this high-alcohol rule. Many a Barolo and Barbaresco comes in at 14-14.5% – but these are saved by their naturally high acidity and tannin levels, meaning the wines have great balance, refreshment value and savoury food-friendly character.)

You could argue that maybe they’re not meant to age. But I’d wager that a fair few of those (including restaurants) who spend several hundreds of dollars on a bottle will want to cellar some – whether it be for later drinking or simply for investment purposes. And if the wines start falling apart not only will the investment risk being devalued but the drinker’s market will also dry up.

In short, the bottom could easily fall out of the market. And that’s hardly a sound long-term perspective for a fine wine industry.

Given all of this, it was heartening for us to witness for ourselves what Yoon Ha terms the ‘paradigm shift’. Though maybe that’s overstating it a bit…

From Dutton Goldfield’s sleek Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, to Benziger’s brand new De Coelo coastal project, to Ridge’s famously elegant Santa Cruz reds – there is a small but definite movement supporting elegance and restraint in California wine. It’s more a gentle ocean swell than a tidal wave in terms of its momentum, but it’s significant in its presence and its increasing support in the US, especially among the sommelier community.

What’s more, from tasting some back vintages it’s clear that this style of wine is an inescapable part of California’s history. Robert Mondavi’s Cabernet Sauvignon Reserves from the 1980s rarely had more than 13% – and are tasting utterly charming over two decades later.

Does this mean that all California wines will shortly be unashamedly ‘vulnerable’?

Of course not.

Every wine producer has the right to make whatever kind of wine they want – and the overwhelming body of opinion in the US wine (and drinking) community is still seemingly in favour of big styles of wine.

But fashions and tastes change.

Wine is a long-term business in which it’s all too easy to get caught up in the here-and-now. I’d suggest it’s those producers who focus on crafting wines of elegance, drinkability and – at the top end – which speak of the place in which they were made, who will endure.

Time will tell.


Trip summary

Most welcome surprise: super elegant Pinot Noirs from the likes of Benziger (De Coelo), Dutton Goldfield and Littorai.

Best wine of the trip: Ridge Monte Bello Vineyards 1995, Santa Cruz Mountains

Best meal of the trip: The French Laundry. Followed by Benu. And Perbacco…

Most memorable experience of the trip: the bustling Saturday farmers’ market at the historic Ferry building on the San Francisco waterfront. Quite probably one of the best foodie destinations in the world.


Our top wines from the trip


Note: we didn’t taste many whites on our trip. We got the sense that producers were keener to show us their reds…

Dutton Goldfield Dutton Ranch Chardonnay Rued Vineyard 2009, Green Valley of the Russian River Valley, 13.5% (c.$45) – Burgundy lover Dan Golfield prizes elegance over power and it shows in his wines. This Green Valley Chardonnay is subtle and graceful, with restrained aromas of blanched nuts and minerals, together with toasted nutty and lemon hints. Lovely entry: savoury and smooth. Layered flavours. Softer and plumper than most white Burgundy, but it’s very elegant in a Californian context. Savoury, not fruit driven. Subtle. Elegantly textured. Not at all shouty. Seamless. Touch of spice. Lovely long finish. Could be slightly more focused on the finish, with a bit more bite – this errs on softer side – but these are quibbles. It’s fantastic Californian Chardonnay. 8/10

Robert Mondavi Winery Fumé Blanc Reserve 1999, Napa Valley 13.5% (13% Semillon) – we tried several vintages of Mondavi’s trademark white, including the current release 1998 (see note below) and the famously rare I-Block (which we drank at The French Laundry). While we found the 2003 disappointing, this library bottle showed how well this wine – if not from all vintages, or all styles – is capable of ageing. Subtle notes of white nuts and glazed lemons with a slight woolly hint. Creamed dried apricots. Waxy hints. Quite restrained, actually, especially versus the younger vintages. Good waxy nutty lemony tones. Very nice. Touch of bitter pith. Still a ‘minor-register’ wine: lacks the real core and concentration of a great white. But very good. Maybe slightly more drinkable than the younger vintages, partly due to the lower alcohol. Along with the 2008, this is one of the better FBs. Lemony acidity really perseveres on the palate. 6.5-7/10

Robert Mondavi Winery Fumé Blanc Reserve 2008, Napa Valley, 14.5% (c$40) – the Fumé Blanc is all sourced from Mondavi’s prime To Kalon site, some from 1960 vines, and it is 100% aged in barrel, a quarter of which is new. Classic creamy butterscotch nose. Oak quite dominant. Ripe lemon hints. Full palate profile, quite rich, but underscored by bitter lemon pith notes and fresh citric acidity. Much richer, more impressive than straight Napa version of this wine. Good harmony and unity. Rich but not OTT. Not the minerality or real focus of very good white Bordeaux, for example, but a fine homage. Bit bitter on finish and hot – could do with slightly less alcohol (cf the 1999). While Sauvignon Blanc may not be the best suited grape to Napa, this is a fine example of its type. 6/10



Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Estate 2007, Santa Cruz Mountains, 13.3% ($40) – elegant tobacco and plummy notes. Seems more open and inviting at this stage than the Monte Bellow (see below). A blend of 58% Cabernet Sauvignon and 42% Merlot, it’s not green in any way but definitely full of graphite, warm earth and herbal tones. Almost fern-like, with comforting aromas of warm forest floor. Firm initially on the palate: not at all sweet or fluffy. Immediately engages the senses. Texturally, it’s firm but fine. Juicy. Shot through with herbal and graphite tones. Utterly food-friendly in its grip and serious savoury character. Elegant and refined. Speaks the language of food, of heritage, of nobility. Outstanding wine. 8.5/10

Ridge Monte Bello Vineyard 2007, Santa Cruz Mountains, 13.1% ($145) – a blend of 79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 9% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc. The 2007 vintage was ‘agonising’, according to winemaker Eric Baugher, with an unusually cool early autumn demanding patience and courage to delay the harvest date. But the result is spectacular. Cassis fruit with graphite and herbal tones woven into its fundamental texture. Light white pepper hints. It’s claret-esque but not at all claret. Savoury Californian Cab. Roasted pepper notes. Some meaty earthy tones; something approximating warm fern. As with all the best wines, hard to define and delimit in language. On the palate, it’s fluid and grippy. So young, so vital – firm fine tannic architecture, beautifully juicy fruit, layered graphite tones. This will age imperiously well. Has everything in balance. Not the showiest at the moment but will be brilliant in time. Plumpness of youth but also savoury fine juicy elegantly drying tannins. Layered, replete but not at all dumpy. 9(-9.5)/10

Ridge Monte Bello Vineyard 1995, Santa Cruz Mountains, 12.5% – a blend of 69% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot and 3% Cabernet Franc. The vintage was cool and late, unlike the hot 1996. Winemaker Eric Baugher admits that he and Paul extracted ‘perhaps too much’ from the grapes. But it’s still one of his all-time favourite vintages. ‘When it was young, it was undrinkable,’ he smiles, ‘but it certainly helped it age well!’ And so it has. A youthful colour given the age (the effect of low pH?) Lovely aged fruit nose. So scented, so evocative. Graphite, fern, warm earth, dried red fruit. Roasted pepper. graphite and tobacco. Beautifully aged, elegant CS in a claret mould but of its own kind. Almost ashen, tarry hints. On the palate, it’s grippy and tight initially, with a lovely juicy acid core running through it. Tannins are still very firm – probably could have been less extraction. A firmer style; I think the 07 may age more gracefully as it has better inherent balance. But this is still a wonderful piece of history in the glass. Even in this more ‘burly’ style, it still has Monte Bello’s hallmark elegance, savoury notes and grace. Needs food. But a wonderful wine. 9.25/10 (Susie: 9.75/10)

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Fay Estate 2007, Napa Valley, 14.19% ($95) – marital discord resulted from this next pair of wines: Susie slightly preferred the Fay to the SLV, Peter marginally the reverse. Elegant cedary herbal dark fruit nose. Something quite attention-grabbing here, even if it’s also quite high-toned. Ripe cherry fruit as well as cassis. Sous-bois hints, though still quite young. Elegantly textured with a touch of warming spice. Good bones and core to fill out the generous architecture. Silky, rounded, generous. Very impressive style, holds itself well. Quite full-on but still grounded. 7.5/10

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon S.L.V. Estate 2007, Napa Valley, 14.29% ($125) – Peter’s preference over the Fay (clearly not a cheap date). Elegant dried herbs, cedar and forest floor hints. Does have a vague claret-esque elegance to it in its tobacco tones and sense of breeding. Really elegant, polished texture. And yet a very savoury palate composure and finish, not at all sweet or turbo charged. Very pleasantly harmonious on the finish, albeit a bit grippy – seems younger than the Fay somehow – perhaps it has more ageing potential..? Big but holds itself very well. Poised. I’d prefer it with 1% less alcohol and it would be fabulous. But even so it’s really elegant and complex. Very savoury. Very impressive. Not to my personal taste but it’s a classic. Good acid core, especially vs the Fay. Just more crunch, core and overall balance than the others. 8/10

Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 1980, Napa Valley, 13% – almost looks younger than the 1985 – the product of a cooler year? This was a cool, rainy growing season, largely overlooked at the time. Nonetheless, winemaker Genevieve Janssens describes 1980 as a ‘sleeper vintage’. Brick rim around a dark ruby core. Lovely cedary leafy red fruit nose, hints of dried mint. Warm earth, sweet dried red fruit. Real bell pepper – vibrant and fresh. Sappy. Toffeed apple age. Tannins are elegantly drying. Lovely wine to drink. Elegant, savoury. Very persistent. Proves that wines don’t have to be over-ripe and heavy going from this prime To Kalon site! Lovely focus and persistence. Really classy wine. Savoury. Perhaps could have more complexity and depth, but great stuff. 8-8.5/10

Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 1985, Napa Valley, 12.5% – elegant aged ruby hue. Lovely nose that melds animal savoury notes with dried and fresh red fruits. Touch of funky animal character. Fluid. Savoury. Doesn’t have quite the focus and grip of the 1980 – it’s softer, plumper, and for that reason not quite so satisfying. Still has the bell pepper and savoury edge, but just a bit softer and not quite so serious. But the tannin hasn’t dried out and it’s still ageing very well. 8/10 (NB: Susie wasn’t a big fan, viewing it as somewhat dried out and thin, and marking it 5/10.)


Littorai Les Larmes Pinot Noir 2007, Anderson Valley, (13.9%, c.$40) – a quite beautiful bottle of wine enjoyed at Benu in San Francisco on the recommendation of sommelier Yoon Ha. (He also recommended producers like Peay, Brewer Clifton, Copain.) Sappy, cultured aromas with herbal hints. Unashamedly fresh and vibrant. Gorgeous nose. On the palate, it’s rounded with a brilliantly food-friendly, gently bittersweet finish in the way of all top Pinot. Elegant. Susie thinks it’s slightly over-oaked and a bit too polished. But it works for me in the context as the oak gives more of a sous-bois, earthy character than full-on creamy coconut notes. Full but elegant, so rewarding and refreshing, and brilliant with food. 8-8.5/10

Ridge Geyserville 2008, Sonoma County, 14.8% ($35) – a blend of 72% Zinfandel, 20% Carignane, 6% Petite Sirah, 2% Mataro, from old vines first planted in the late 19th century on rocky soils in the Alexander Valley. We tasted some younger barrel samples as well as an elegantly evolved 2003, which demonstrated how well this wine can age. And it’s no surprise: despite the high alcohol and robust body, this wine is all about tight, firm tannin and more acidity than you’d find in most Zins. Aromatically, it’s all about bright notes of dark cherry, Some raisined, pruney hints but subtle ones. Baked herbs. With time in glass, lovely floral top notes and blueberry hints emerge. In the mouth it has pleasantly grippy tannin to keep it grounded, as well as raspberry and plum fruit. Still broad on the finish and a little too alcoholic to be easy drinking, but it’s lively and engaging. A very serious take on Zin. 7-7.5/10

Benziger De Coelo Terra Neuma Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Sonoma Coast, 13% (c$70) – we tried the 2008 vintage over cheese in this stunning new vineyard in the far westerly reaches of the Sonoma Coast (west of the Green Valley/Russian River Valley appellations). While it still betrays a certain lack of gravitas and weight that only established vines of Pinot can give, it is exceptionally promising in all other regards. Aromatically, it has a wonderful perfume, with evocative hedgerow fruits, sappy leaf and a hint of dried herbs and sous-bois. Real sense of vivid nature here. Resinous hints, notes of flowers and ginger. Opens up over time in the glass – this is still young. On the palate, it is grippy, fluid and grounded. Focused and refreshing. But with a lovely spicy, personality and vibrancy. Susie sees a touch of northern-Rhône spice in there. So elegant: a potential standard-bearer for California Pinot Noir. One to watch. 8/10 (Susie: 9.25/10)

Dutton Goldfield Pinot Noir Freestone Hill 2009, Russian River Valley, 13.5% – Both Susie and my favourite of DG’s wines, from one of their coolest, most coastal Pinot sites, incidentally not far from Benziger’s De Coelo vineyard. This vibrant red shows aromas of bright creamy red fruit. It has a succulent, savoury palate with a touch of well integrated spice. Seems young, quite poised and ready to pounce, but still very self-contained. Lovely balance of power but also freshness. A bit more breadth and complexity to it than some of the others in the range, albeit very approachable now. So silky and sexy but very ageworthy and cultivated. Spice on finish. I’d wait 2-3 years to start drinking this. 8-8.5/10

Dutton Goldfield Pinot Noir Devil’s Gulch Vineyard 2009, Marin County, 13.5% – though the majority of DG’s fruit comes from Steve Dutton, his partner in this venture, Dan also sources a small amount of fruit from ‘old friends’ with prime sites elsewhere in coastal California. Marin County is just north of the Golden Gate bridge, still very cool, and this wine shows a distinct character, with notes of dried herbs and sappy red fruits. Lovely succulent red fruit on the palate, grippy and engaging. Wonderful harmony on the finish. A different style from the Russian Rivers and Sonoma, very appealing. Plush texture but not at all big in style. Sits very easily in its skin. Maybe not as tight and focused, thus ageworthy, as the Russian Rivers. But it’s a lovely style, really impressive. 8/10

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Merlot 2006, Napa Valley, 13.8% ($45) – Sourced from cooler sites in southern Napa and Carneros, this Merlot has a classic nose with hints of age. Elegantly raisined, pruney and plummy notes. Fruit cake hints. Touch of leathery animal tobacco tones. Savoury, old school: like it! Elegantly drying texture. Again, it has a deliberate restraint to it that is very appealing. A bit hot and hollow but that’s Merlot… It has panache: a certain craggy sex appeal. A silver fox of a wine. Won’t be to everyone’s taste, though. One of the nicest Napa Merlots we’ve tried. 7.5/10