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Monday Manifestos
The New California Wine Paradigm Unmasked

By Charles Olken

Meet the new paradigm for California wine--just like the old paradigm.

Paul Hoffman, owner/operator of Headbanger wines told me, “I want to make Zinfandel the way it was made thirty years ago”. Eric Asimov, the New York Times winewriter tweeted, “Arnot-Roberts is California wine rethought”. Jared Brandt of Donkey and Goat winery in Oakland, whose efforts to make moderated-alcohol wine with bright acidity has led him to be identified as part of the “new wave” told me that there is no new wave, only a greater emphasis on a style of California wine that has always existed.

From each of these learned gentleman comes both the recognition that the push for extended ripeness in California wine that took hold in the latter nineties and has held sway until the last couple of vintages is beginning to play itself out, and also, if one looks carefully at their words, a further recognition that a lighter yet still concentrated style with brighter acid balance has fast become the order of the day.

It can be called a paradigm shift, of course. It was just a little over a decade when the leader of a seminar on Rutherford-grown Cabernet Sauvignons told the assembled audience of winewriters, “You can forget about those old, tight, tannic Cabs. The public wants wines to drink now, and they are getting them in the fatter, juicier style that is fast taking over the marketplace”. I happened, at that time, to be sitting next to Gerald Asher, who is perhaps the wisest of the American-based writers, probably because he has seen it all. He simply rolled his eyes at what sounded like heresy to folks like us who had cut our vinous eyeteeth on wines that would grow over time into depth and complexity that was nowhere to be seen in our youth.

Today, that winemaker would be laughed out of the room, but back then most people accepted that he was reflecting the new paradigm of his day and did not give it a second thought. Well, it turns out that excess ripeness does not play all that well because wine lovers everywhere, regardless of their love of voluptuous wines, also do want wines with balance. And more than that, all of us have an aversion to wines that have raisiny character.

So, out with the old and in with the new—except for this. The wines of Corison and Cuvaison and Marimar and Ridge, and yes, Donkey and Goat and Arnot-Roberts, have never gone over to the heavy side of the spectrum. And for every name that I have written down, there are dozens more who always produced wines in what is all of a sudden being called “the new paradigm”.

Take the Sauvignon Blancs reviewed in our February issue. There is no question that they have higher acidity levels and lower pHs on average than they would have exhibited five or eight years ago. But, wineries like Grgich Hills, Gary Farrell, Benziger have always favored the brisk, tight end of the Sauvignon Blanc spectrum. Don’t tell them that there is a new paradigm. They have continued to make wines in their chosen styles.

The same can be said for almost every variety. Nalle with Dry Creek Zinfandel. Acacia with Carneros Chardonnay. Edmunds-St. John for Zins and Rhône reds. We are really not inventing a new paradigm here in California. We are finding our ways back to the old paradigm in a process that we have seen play out several times in the most recent decades.

But this time something is different. The swing in preferred style will not do away with other styles. It cannot as long as those styles are also based on balance. Rockpile-area Zinfandels and Syrahs are never going to be light wines. The Sierra foothills do not need to be a place of overt overripeness but the best wines from those slopes are almost always going to be full in body.

And that folks, is the way it should be. The real new paradigm in California wine is not simply lighter and brighter. It is more a case of letting the grapes tell the winemaker what is the best possible style rather than the winemakers (or the markets) telling the grapes what to do. The day is not going to come when all great Chardonnays are going to be made with 13.5% alcohol and 0.70 and higher total acidities. Balance is not just the presence of bristling acidity. In California, it will always include the capture of the fruity potential offered by our vineyards. The real new paradigm is not one style but the acceptance of many styles that produce the best wines. Meet the new paradigm—just like the old paradigm.


by Arthur
Posted on:2/7/2011 10:45:26 AM

"Retro" is the new "original".

What's Old Is New
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:2/7/2011 11:30:16 AM

You know, Arthur, when you think about it, there are many notions from the past that are worth reconsidering beyond pure sytlistic concepts.

--How about head training vines to produce physiologically mature grapes at lower sugars? Might also reduce yields, but if quality is enhanced, the idea will certainly be right for some grapes in some locations.

--How about mixed fermentations such as starting your Chard in stainless and letting it finish in barrel? Could give the mouthfeel that folks want while retaining more brightness and acidity.

--How about producing blends from the best grapes instead of the leftovers after the good stuff has gone into the vineyard designates. I never mind tasting great wines, but how many 100-case lots does the world need? Why cannot great Pinot Noir be produced from several aligned vineyards? Williams Selyem produces very good Pijots labelled Westside Road Neighbors and Eastside Road Neighbors. At the very beginning of Connoisseurs' Guide, we visited Louis Martini to discuss his small-lot bottlings of 1968 Cabernet Sauvignon. He said he was not going to do it again because it took so much away from his basic blend. Where is the middle ground? Can wineries make money by offering fewer lots of wine but keeping quality high for tightly defined blends?

--Zinfandel is still my first choice for red-sauced pastas and the like, but so many Zins these days are too heavy for that purpose. Headbanger is headed back in that direction with its Zins. I am hoping others follow.

--What about all the aromatic whites that got driven out of California? It would not be the worst idea in the world to look for new places to plant Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Chenin Blanc. I have nothing against Tempranillo, Verdelho, Arneis, Cinsault, Marsanne and Roussanne, but if folks can play with those yet to be proven varieties here in CA, why not have another go at grapes that have proven world-wide track records?

we agree..... GASP!!!!!!!
by Arthut
Posted on:2/7/2011 11:48:08 AM
Charlie, Why do you think I'm goblet- training my vines [ ]???I'm also going to be experimenting with Fiano, so I'll try to adapt the Chard paradigm you mention.I'll also be playing with some blends...Don't get me started with the Pinot AVA/location/vineyard designation issue....Zinfandel.... I have almost given up on that variety. Occasionally, there are glimmerings of hope but....Riesling and Chenin Blanc and especially Gewurztraminer were made with too much RS and not enough complexity. So, they became cloying and silly and totally missed their opportunity. There are some great examples of all three done in varietal format, but few and far between.
What's old is new
by Richard Davis
Posted on:2/13/2011 1:04:26 PM

Well, where to start? I've been drinking Zin since the mid-70s and remember the trend to "push the envelop" then, resulting in a number of wines that were over-extracted high alcohol and probably had significant RS (over 0.5%). To say they didn't pair with food was an understatement.

The style of wine I like (and try to make) has good fruit but is dry and has balanced acidity and pleasant tannin structure. There have always been advocates of this style, my concern is the revisiting of a style w/significant RS and high alcohol. 

Zin Will Rise Again
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:2/13/2011 1:45:07 PM

Mr. Davis--

Fortunately, there have always been Zins that have not migrated to the high ripeness side of the spectrum. And while I am not a giant fan of those heavily pushed wines, there are many that do work pretty well with BBQ ribs and pork chops and the like. Seqhesio and Mauritson both make 15% alc wines yet they are not prune juice, do not have RS and do have decent acidity that does not taste of bag acid.

And since beer is always an option, and I like microbrews and the occasional Belgian indulgence, there is always something to drink with pizza.


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