Jon Bonné arrived in California to take over the wine pages of the San Francisco Chronicle in 2006. He originally hails from New York, grew up on Old World wine, and by admission harbored grave doubts about the state of California’s wine industry when he landed.
The fact that he wrote judiciously about the wines of the Pacific Northwest when he was at Seattle Magazine didn’t matter to entrenched California wine interests, which immediately considered him—and still do– a hostile outsider.
Since then, Bonné has gone on to established himself as a critic of national import. Many in the wine industry follow his articles as closely, if not more closely, than the newspaper wine writer of record, Eric Asimov at the New York Times.
Much of the reason for this, I believe, is that Bonné is one of those rare critics who are the right voice in the right place at the right time. There is a revolution in taste underway, as his forthcoming book The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste makes explicit. And Bonné is on the ground in the primary battleground state of California, there to accurately tell the tale.
For the past thirty years the United States has been in the clutches of a baby boomer generation that has been convinced of the usefulness of the 100-point wine-rating system first espoused by Robert Parker of the Wine Advocate. Parker had his flash moment during the big 1982 Bordeaux vintage, after which he transformed himself from an attorney into something of a one-man Consumer Reports of wine.
Parker’s palette is unabashedly tilted toward bold, pleasurable fruit-forward wine—hedonistic is the word the mega-critic likes to use. It is a style that Bonné dubs Big Flavor, and its anti-intellectual, unbalanced slant has meant that over the years some winemakers have produced two types of wines–one for European taste, which they claim is more restrained and refined, and another for Americans.
In California, Bonné picks out the warm year of 1997 as the moment when Big Flavor reached a point of no return. Parker rated many of the huge wines from that vintage highly, and the “more is more” mentality translated into an arms race between ever bigger-flavored bottles of expensive Cabernet.
This is, unsurprisingly, around same time the country became enamored of gas-guzzling SUVs.
What started as a benign attempt to create a ‘rational’ wine rating system, and thus assist consumers in their purchases, became over the decades a restrictive wine regime.
The Parker-points way has been a boon to producers and salesmen because the system creates stability, predictability, and a clear set of characteristics as goals. It is the perfect fit for a technologically inclined American wine industry that approaches grape growing in terms of margins, efficiency and manipulation.
Parker’s once-admirable Nader-like advocacy for consumers in the wine marketplace has had the unfortunate side effect of reducing wine to a commodity product like toasters or vacuum cleaners. It also has created an opportunity for winemakers to target Parker’s palate and aim specifically for high ratings, thereby reaping big financial rewards.
Big Points for Big Flavor are technologically achievable in the field and lab with Big Money. Wineries fueled by the financial industry and dot-com cash depend on fail-safe techniques to achieve the ripeness of flavor demanded by Parker and other critics: irrigation, formulated yeasts, extensive use of the herbicide Roundup, and the addition of any number of the 200 additives allowable by US law (such as Mega Purple for color).
The vineyards themselves became chemical war zones as grapes are treated like any other cash crop, albeit one with an added rating system and a monster marketing apparatus.
But in quality restaurants, sommeliers long ago had had enough. Despite commercial success in exclusive retail outlets, cult mail-order lists and steakhouses, Big Cabernets and the buttery, Big Chardonnays that accompanied them were difficult to find in smart wine programs in New York.
This is because golden-era, Parker-esque wines–despite all the hype–are wretched partners for food. They lack the balance necessary to make any sense outside of the point system from which they spring.
A number of budding wine aficionados over the past few decades increasingly began exploring lively European wines, a journey of discovery made possible by a growing bevy of importers like Kermit Lynch, Louis/Dressner, and Neal Rosenthal. After tasting Old World nuance, it was hard not to agree that Big Flavor was falsely sustained by a parochial American wine regime.
Even in Napa Valley itself, the epicenter of Big Flavor, bartenders and sommeliers would say of the area’s huge cabernets: “We sell them, but we don’t drink them. They’re for tourists.”
The attention of sanity-based wine drinkers first moved to Sonoma from Napa, and then largely abandoned California altogether to focus on the wines of the Pacific Northwest. When in 2010 Bruce Schoenfeld finally asked in his Travel+Leisure article “Is Walla Walla America’s New Wine Capital?” many readers had believed this to be true for almost a decade.
The Great Recession was a tipping point that not only sent a shudder through the Big Flavor wine regime, but also revealed a generational shift in wine taste that had been long fomenting. Bonné claims the breakthrough year was 2011. Already in 2010 he had written an article exploring the changes afoot in California in a Saveur article that would become the inspiration for The New California Wine.
With the advent of Instagram in 2010, I began seeing visible anecdotal evidence of an emerging set of trendy California bottles captured in sommelier-friend photos across the country. Grapes and styles once alien to domestic wine appeared: Trousseau, Cinsault, as well as so-called orange wines like Wind Gap’s Pinot Gris. Abe Schoener, former St. John’s dean turned winemaker, had been making exploratory wine since 2000.
The general revolution in taste that had been already long underway as a generational and economic shift elsewhere finally had hit producers in the Golden State.
The impact of the sea change in taste became more evident to me when in a 3rd tier Midwestern city like Madison, Wisconsin, Andrea Hillsey, a former sommelier, opened Square Wine Company in 2012. Her store is devoted entirely to wines with an Old World sensibility, and she carries domestic bottles that are in keeping with this aesthetic.
Much of the excitement at her shop centers around the new crop of Californian wine that Bonné and Asimov have mentioned in articles over the past couple of years: Arnot-Roberts, Scholium Project, Matthiasson, Litorrai, and others. The excitement over these bottles among a young group of budding wine aficionados was, and still is, palpable.
Conversely, the Bordeaux-style blends that were, and largely still are, California’s benchmark—and comprised young consumers’ parents’ favored choice—are not discussed. The Bordelaise, never ones to miss a trend, launched BurdiGala in New York last year to combat the growing problem: baby boomers are in fast decline, and their children are not consuming in the same way.
To call the big change afoot a revolution in taste is a bit of a misnomer. What becomes clear in Bonné’s book is that it is also a revolution in philosophy and practice. The book dives headlong into a discussion of the clashing practical approaches to winemaking, and this forms a substantial portion of the book’s well-written and über-informative pages.
As Bonné describes, the change from power to grace in the glass is also a change to minimal intervention rather than technological control, to indigenous yeast rather than predicable inoculation, to creativity rather than efficiency, to dry farming rather than irrigation, and to biodynamically farmed vineyards rather than ones that have been desertified with Roundup.
Bonné tells this story at ground level, sometimes vineyard by vineyard. He zeros in on Tegan Passalacqua, a winemaker and vineyard scout who is re-discovering forgotten vines that have become interesting test sites for the new generation of creative winemakers.
Bonné explains the fact that these ‘new’ obscure grape varietals showing-up on hip restaurant wine lists are actually a rediscovery of grapes that pre-date Prohibition. The vineyards were always there, but they languished in the era of Big Flavor. Obscurity isn’t the point, diversity and creativity is.
There is the story, for instance, of the relatively obscure grape Trousseau, once used to plump-up American-made Port, but now used to make a stunningly beautiful, and justifiably famous, Jura-style wine by Arnot-Roberts.
The book is divided into three sections. Bonné first lays the groundwork for understanding what’s at stake, what the differences are between the practitioners he highlights and those of Big Flavor. This is followed by a section covering each of California’s major wine areas, with details on the important players in each area. Then there is an in-depth guide to important new wines by varietal. Finally, a series of helpful maps.
Bonné is taking the full story of the current wine renaissance public in a way that his articles could not. The book is, for all practical purposes, the new generation’s winemaking philosophy IPO.
The fact that there is nothing directly manifesto-y about the book makes it all the stronger. Bonné goes straight for Big Flavor’s jugular by telling an entirely new story. And he tells it, I think, as well as it could be told: clearly, evenly, concisely.
It could be argued that not since Frank Schoonmaker advocated for quality by focusing industry attention on varietals has a critic been positioned so closely to a set of ideas and a group of winemakers whose time has come. Certainly, I can’t remember the last time I read a book about wine with quite so great a sense of thrill—as if a lot of smaller stories I’d worked to gather on my own were bundling into one.
The last such book might have been Kermit Lynch’s Adventures On the Wine Route, which set the tone for an entire generation of importers that are now also getting their due. It seems no accident that Lynch’s memoir from 1988 is being reissued alongside Bonné’s book this November.
A recent New York Times Magazine article on Lynch confirmed the zeitgeist in the form of a question: “For the longest time, the Robert Parker way of thinking about wine was ascendant. Now the Kermit Lynch way is in fashion. Why do you think that happened?”
My fear is that the revolution in taste may be more of a moment than a movement. As Bonné notes, just three companies produce 64% of California wines sold in the United States. While we can rejoice that a small cadre of winemakers is beginning to produce wines of character in sustainable ways, this is not the story of the vast majority of grocery store bottles.
There is also a macro-economic picture to consider: the US has been priced out of the Bordeaux market that it has impacted since the 1950s. Big Flavor’s marketing efforts have moved on definitively to China. Robert Parker sold the Wine Advocate to Asian investors this year, which is also the regime’s new clientele. The new California wine is appearing in the bloody aftermath of the US’s markedly decreased global relevance.
Worse, there are signs that some of the great producers (new and old) are following in the footsteps of their Big Flavor predecessors and selling-out. The investment group of former Screaming Eagle co-owner Charles Banks has recently purchased Wind Gap, Qupé and Mayacamas.
But even if the revolution proves to be more of a moment, Bonné has written a book of remarkable depth that will be of interest to this new generation of wine consumers. Let us hope it is the landmark it deserves to be, and an inspiration for other winemakers to listen to the land–and what the terroir has to say– rather than telling it with chemicals.
The wine book of the year– if not of a few more yet to come.