The New California: An Interview with Jon Bonné

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 01-31-2014

Bonné discussing his book in Brooklyn with Abe Schoener.

Bonné discussing his book in Brooklyn with Abe Schoener.

“Slowly, I encountered other winemakers with similar beliefs. I found people who remained committed to restrained, compelling wines that spoke clearly of their origins — and who shared my frustration with California’s modern style.

“Some… had been toiling for decades; others were upstarts with the same energy and ambition as the pioneers from previous generations. Eventually, the brushstrokes began to turn into something recognizable: the seeds of a new movement, a new California wine in the making.”

These words appear in the introduction to The New California Wine, the just-released book from Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle.

To say I’m excited about Jon’s book would be an understatement. The wines that fill the pages are both compelling and delicious – and all the producers he highlights deserve the attention.

Last week, Jon and I chatted about his book. Check out the interview below!

David White: What inspired you to write The New California Wine?

Jon Bonne: I think it was just realizing, after seeing a lot of clues, that there weren’t just some people doing interesting things in California, but really a sea change that was starting to happen. It was finally something that was worthy of spending the time that’s required to do a book.

Second, it was really important to get there early because it had been about a decade since there’d been a serious California wine book — and it was a moment that needed to be captured, because you just don’t get too many moments like this. So it was a very distinct case of right place, right time.

In your book, you obviously spend lots of time discussing the new, exciting producers. But you’ve said that a defining moment in your understanding of where California wine is headed was a meeting Paul Draper at Ridge Vineyards. So talk for a moment about how a winemaker like Draper fits into the New California paradigm. In other words, you talk a lot about the folks who have been doing the same things for decades – Paul Draper, Josh Jensen, and Cathy Corison – but also folks like Steve Matthiasson and Matt Rorick, who are relatively new. How do those two planets align? Is what’s old new again? 

There were two things at play there.

One, it became really clear to me that if I simply made this about people who had come to this relatively recently, it was going to diminish the book. It was going to make it just about new and shiny things, and make it look like, “Well this is just the millennial wine book.” And I really didn’t want it to be that, mostly because I felt that this wasn’t about the amount of time someone had spent working to make California wine and pioneering, but it was about style. It was about an ascetic, and a social change that was taking place.

So I had to include people like Cathy Corison and Paul Draper and Josh Jensen, who had really been inspirations for a lot of younger winemakers and whose wines had come back into currency. It’s important to remember that Ridge and Calera, after having sort of found their way into the background for a long time because they just weren’t doing flashy, were finding a new audience once again. So it became evident I had to include them.

That leads to the second point, which is that there’s obviously a stylistic continuity between the wines they make and the wines that some of those younger or newer winemakers in the book make.

More specifically, and this is what I thought was really important, there were two generations of pioneers that I needed to capture somehow.

One is the current generation. But the second is a generation that included folks like Draper, Cathy Corison, Josh Jensen, and Bob Travers of Mayacamas. And honestly, that really included, more than anyone probably, people like Robert Mondavi and Warren Winiarski. And that generation — the generation that pioneered great wine in California 40 years ago — had spiritual similarities with the current generation. What’s happening now is really a new iteration of the pioneering spirit that put California on the world stage in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

So I needed to include the people who had really been the original pioneers and kept the faith. But also, there was a kinship. If you look now at how those two generations have come together, I think there’s finally this realization that what made California great as a wine region is very much being explored again, and being explored in a similar way to how it was successfully explored about 40 years ago.

So guys like Josh Jensen and Paul Draper avoided the rise of what you call “big flavor.” Let’s talk about that for a bit. In one interview, you note that it isn’t just about alcohol but that it’s about “some fundamentally cynical beliefs in what California can achieve.” What do you mean by that? To what do you attribute the rise of big flavor?

There are a lot of pieces that go into it. But here’s what I meant by cynical:

When you make a conscious decision to grow grapes beyond the point of reasonable physical ripeness; when you find yourself irrigating in late-October or picking semi-raisinated grapes and then having to tinker them back to vitality in the cellar. Or when you have to do wholesale chemistry modifications on your wines because you’re aiming for a certain style profile, because you’re aiming  to get only soft tannins, or to minimize what the tannins would be even though you’re making a relatively tannic variety like Cabernet. Or when you have to go through this acidification, de-acidification process because you have to preserve the grape must from getting bacterial things and yet you know that you’re going to face critics who have a very evident dislike for acidity in their wine. At that point, you’re simply achieving a scientific feat, but ultimately, there is a break with the longer traditions of wine.

That’s not to say that you never intervene in the cellar. You have to in some way. But where things moved to were from saying, “Well we believe that there’s great wine to be made here and we want to step in as little as possible,” to saying, “Here’s our toolbox and, man, we’re going to use every tool we can in order to craft this line, to sculpt this wine into something that will have a very specific appeal to a very few number of palates.”

So what happened? Well, looking at the various threads, number one was a massive replanting in the late 1980s and early 1990s that dovetailed with a massive influx of money into California wine country — and people who were very accustomed to success wanted to be as successful in wine as they’d been elsewhere, and expected it to happen fast.

There was also a shift in the way that wine criticism was done, where sole critics picked up more and more power. And frankly, they were pretty happy to anoint wines that didn’t have a track record and weren’t using matured vines, that didn’t really have the things that were typically considered to be benchmarks for quality.

This isn’t to say that you have to have them. But I think there was a willfulness in what the Old World had done, always insisting that, “Here are the quality hierarchies and here are old vines.”  So it was the downside of California’s pioneering spirit. It was people saying, “Well, we think we should just achieve everything right away.”  It was this kind of preface to the dot-com era in hubris, where fame is something that you can turn on in two cycles.

So really, within the course of a decade — but really in just several years — wines went from being something that were a little more stoic, a little bit more moderate, to being absolutely, unabashedly forward and rich and ripe and sometimes high, high in alcohol. Mostly because it was clear you would get rewarded for making wines like that and you would get punished for making wines that weren’t like that. That was the proposition. Honestly, that was Robert Parker’s conclusion: Mother Nature had given California ripeness and exuberance. And if you did not agree, then you would be punished for it.

To what extent are American consumers to blame for the ascension of the overripe, over-extracted style of wine that became so popular? In other words, couldn’t one argue that if Parker was wrong, consumers wouldn’t have listened to him?

There’s something very chicken and egg about the success of these wines and the scores that drove them. It’s hard to talk about the American palate because one of the reasons that a lot of wines like this were successful was that they were being acquired by a very different type of consumer than had bought wine in, let’s say the 1970s. There were a lot of new consumers coming into wine. They had a fair amount of money. They didn’t want to go through the traditional paths to connoisseurship because it was kind of a drag.

You know, who wants to sit around tasting clarets for five years before you feel you’re ready to understand Cabernet? If you’re relatively new to wine, what’s appealing?  Impact is appealing; sweetness is appealing; wines that leave an impression. That can be alcohol. That can be new oak. That can be lots of things.

So it’s not a surprise that wines like these were successful because I think at some point — and it’s still not clear to me whether this was the wine industry, critics, some combination — there was a decision that there was much more money to be made by pursuing a new consumer who really had a very different sensibility than wine connoisseurs of old, and there would be a positive feedback loop for wines that appealed.

So I think that was very much a result of the era. And it was somewhat generational. If you look at who was starting to really get interested in wines in, let’s say the mid-to late-1980s, it was really the first generation of Americans that were that were accustomed to buying wines varietally, that could go to the wine shop and buy a Chardonnay or buy a Cabernet.  This was system of promoting wine that spoke to the era.

I think that the success of wines that are appearing now in California is a testament to the maturing of the American palate.

Would you say, without hesitation, that American consumers are growing more comfortable exploring the unknown?

Yes. But also, we’re coming into a generation of wine consumers who grew up with wine on the table. Wine was never foreign. They never experienced the Robert Parker elevator pitch — you know, you drink Coke as a kid and then one day you discover wine. For his generation, I think that was very much the case. So the fact that they had a like-minded expert helping to guide them was very appealing.

Now, as their kids are starting to come into the market, this is a generation that never felt that wine was an alien thing. So sure, that means that Teroldego or Cortese or Trousseau are not unusual or scary. But as much as anything, it means that they’re omnivorous and curious. And I say they, sort of not including myself only because I suspect a fair number of the folks I’m talking about are younger than me. I’d say my generation largely grew up in the same way, but Generation X isn’t as appealing to demographers.

These wines are finding a market really only because there are people who are curious. There are people who have, you know, an evolved sense of food preferences that go along with wines. And it’s interesting because the knock against some of the sort of esoterica is that, well, you’re never going to have the Trousseau equivalent of Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve. But the truth is you don’t need to.

If you look at the way table wine exists in the old world, most is pretty garbage. In Italy, it’s made out of things like Trebbiano. So if Chardonnay is destined to be the Trebbiano of America then sure, we can bitch about the fact that there will never be mainstream Trousseau.

But the thing is, the grapes that people are experimenting with in California aren’t just experimental, they’re sideshows – and that’s the case in Europe, as well, if you look at volume. There’s not a ton of white Burgundy in the world. There’s not a ton of red wines from the Jura. There’s not a ton of Barolo. That doesn’t mean that they’re not the benchmark for quality or that they’re not great representations of terroir. It just means that it’s not a surprise; great wine just is not made in huge volumes.

I want to talk about wine on the dinner table, but before we get there, I want your take on the screed Robert Parker recently published on his website, where he called the “low-alcohol movement… a phony anti-California, anti-New World movement by Eurocentric, self-proclaimed purists.” He went on to criticize the “preferred method of wine production” among these people as “the crazy notion that fruit should be picked long before it’s ripe.”

He goes on, but I’ll leave it at that. Some have interpreted this as an attack on you and Eric Asimov. Do you see it that way?

You could, probably, but you could also say it’s directed at Alice and Antonio and a long, long, long list of would-be enemies. There was more than a whiff of Colonel Kurtz in that write-up. I guess my question is, who is Robert Parker to say what ripeness is in an objective way?

I think we’re coming to the realization that all critics come to this task with knowledge and biases. I realized that I had to embrace my own sensibilities and my own biases if I was going to write the book that I did and do the work that I wanted to do.

By all means, Robert Parker is allowed to have his biases. He’s allowed to like big, ripe wines. But to simply declare, as a matter of absolute conscious — as an objective statement — that anyone who likes to make a lower alcohol wine is picking notably under-ripe? And only big and exuberant wines demonstrate full ripeness and terroir? It is not only bizarre, but ignorant of the fact that those decisions are a bias unto themselves.

I think you could have a reasonable debate as to what ripeness is, especially when looking at the Sta Rita Hills. I mention that because if you look at some of other comments he made, they’re about wines that are in some way tied to Rajat Parr, who is probably another person who is somewhere floating unnamed in the midst of that essay.

But his declaration is basically, “these crazy fuckers are out picking a month too early.”

So if you were someone else down there, if you were a Sea Smoke or Melville, you’d be picking at the appropriate time. Now obviously, you can have a debate about that — and a good portion of my Sta Rita chapter deals with this discussion about what’s appropriate in a place where ripeness is not a two- or three-day window, but really a six week window before the grapes start to decompose.

It’s fair enough to have that debate. And it’s fair enough if you believe that you’re correct in one part of that debate. But I think what was troubling is that that nothing but super ripe wine is allowed to exist. And that is an odd stance from someone who really has done an awful lot to promote diversity in the rise of California.

To be fair, it’s not coming solely from him. There are a number of cases where there are people who talk about simply rewarding quality or accepting a diversity of styles and then turn around and really condemn all but one, very ripe style that’s been successful in the past.

Even I acknowledge that, for me having staked my place in what I think is the best path forward for California wines ascetically, I’m not naïve enough to think that all of a sudden all wines are going to be that way. I think there will be a diversity. I think that’s great. I think that if people want to make big robust wines that that are exuberant and are fruit forward and they can do it in a way that’s not massively intrusive in a technological and chemical way, then great. And if they can find the market for them, wonderful.

I think the fact that something like Turley Zinfandels exist – and are honestly quite appealing to both me and to a palate like Parker’s — is testament to the fact that there can be exuberance and terroir. But I think that an informed critic is going to really look at the way that wines come about. And if there’s dark science on the way to 12 percent then there’s an issue with that. And if there’s dark science on the way to 15½ percent, there’s a problem with that, too.

I don’t want to keep talking about Parker, but I think I’m most bothered by the lack of curiosity. You like Turley Zinfandel. You like Larkmead Cabernet. So does Robert Parker. But he has no interest in something like an Arnot-Roberts Trousseau.

My conclusions about style and aesthetics in California wines came from tasting an awful lot of wines that I didn’t like. And it may well be that other people have come to their conclusions about different styles after tasting a lot of wines that they didn’t like. If I had lived through the early ’80s and tasted thousands of weedy, under-ripe Bordeaux, I might well be a proponent of big flavor. But I didn’t. I came to it from a different perspective and I tasted an awful lot of really awful, big flavored wines and concluded that such wines weren’t a path forward that did justice to California’s legacy.

You have a chapter in your book called “The Table Wine Dilemma.” You say that it’s a “big remaining challenge” for New California Wine and is still largely the domain of Big Wine – and talk about “the Whole Foods gap.” In other words, the same people who want free-range chicken and organic, locally sourced spinach are happy to pick up a $5 bottle of who knows what when they purchase wine.

If you look at the sales data, it backs up that statement. The average bottle of wine in the United States sells for just $6.22. A full 90 percent of all wines sold cost less than $12 per bottle. Americans like to drink cheap.

How does New California bridge that gap? Are Americans going to have to just recognize the fact that to have authentic, artisanal wine it’s going to cost more than $6.22? Or can we make real wine at a price like that – maybe with, say, French Colombard? We love to pretend that the Chardonnay from, say, Lioco or Matthiasson is affordable. But those are still at premium price points when it comes to how most Americans think about wine.

The first thing to acknowledge is that this isn’t solely an American problem. If you look at the endless oceans of supermarket wine in the UK and the average price there, we are by no means the only culture that likes to drink cheap.

I think that the solution lies somewhere in the middle. It’s hugely imperative for the new California winemakers to find opportunities to make less expensive wine. But it’s a challenge for California overall to do that, because I don’t think that we should be confronted with the option of either beautifully farmed but very expensive grapes on relatively expensive land, or somewhat chemically farmed grapes in industrial vineyards, as our only two options. I think there has to be some middle ground in which you can farm grapes virtuously for a table wine. And there can be both sustainability and a reasonable living to be made there. I think that California growers really need to stop getting completely shafted on a regular basis in furtherance of cheap table wines.

That said, there is absolutely a mandate for newer winemakers in California to take their talent and apply it to less expensive wine. And I really think it’s got to happen broadly. There’s got to be a lot of folks doing it. I think the $15 realm is the first step. It’s got to step down a little further than that, although I don’t think that it can go too far. I just think the economics become almost impossible at some point.  And the flipside is that consumers are going to have to acknowledge that the ethics of a $5 or a $3 wine — and certainly the sustainability of that model — are questionable. You have to cut a lot of corners. You have to use water in a way that is probably not sustainable, since most cheap grapes grow in generally arid places.

This isn’t just an American problem. This is a problem that Australia also faced, and it has really hobbled a big portion of its industry because they relied so much on cheap wine.

Wine writers – and other wine professionals, too — are going to have to do a much better job of educating consumers about what the intrinsic value is at $5, $10, and $12. And that there’s virtue. There is a purpose in buying a wine made by a relatively small winery or a small business that’s interested in making a specific wine that doesn’t lean on industrial scale.

And that’s where the Whole Foods gap comes in — people who are willing to pay a premium for whatever it is, say tomato sauce made by a small company rather than Ragu, are going to need to extend those values into wine over time.

There’s probably no bigger challenge for California overall, and certainly for small producers in California, than figuring out how to take the table wine mandate back for themselves and really to promote the rise of American artisanship.

Your optimistic future of American wine consumption has “real” wines – and I’m only calling them that for lack of a better descriptor — on the dinner table every night. And obviously, you’re an advocate for New California largely because you’re in San Francisco and you’re writing for the Chronicle. But is this vision more easily realized with wines from, say, Spain? Labor is cheaper there and land has been owned for hundreds of years.

So to get “real” wine on the table, should we just promote something like Spanish Garnacha, even though it’s imported? Or do you think it’s economically feasible to have local wine? On that note, do you pay any attention to the “other 47″ as they’re sometimes called?

Yes, I’m waiting for the new Indiana wines.

Ha!

Or, as several people asked me over the weekend in D.C., when will I be writing the new Virginia wine.

So is it Garnacha?  I would argue that it’s Garnacha now. That’s really, to a large extent, where people are going for that middle ground between fancier wine and really cheap industrial wine — they’re going to Spain. They’re going to cheaper parts of France. They’re going to Italy. They were to some extent maybe going to Australia, but Australia had a very different model.

The difficulty is that while it’s feasible to get those wines from Spain at the prices we do now, it’s in part due to the state of the Spanish economy — and I don’t know if the model for the Spanish wine industry is an ideal one in terms of labor costs and everything else. But, you know, there will probably always be somewhere cheaper in the world to make wine from.

But I do think we are going to have start asking questions about the sustainability of wines from anywhere. And I’m not simply talking shipping costs and some of the other concerns with imported wines, because if someone wants to drink a Spanish wine, they should, but not necessarily because it’s a buck cheaper.

I just question whether those wines will all stay as cheap as they are. One thing, to be fair, is allowing, let’s say, Garnacha to, to exist as an inexpensive wine is that more often than not, those are fully mature vineyards in not terribly well respected places. And so they’re advantageously leaning on Old World farmers, which is great but limited. It’s a finite model.

Can it happen here? Sure. I think that’s going to be part of the maturing wine culture. I think that really the big issue here is going to be land prices, and not just in California but anywhere, because I would love it if there were more Ohio table wine, or more Virginia table wine, but I cannot imagine that Virginia wine country is notably less expensive than many parts of California.

I think it’s going to be an uneven move forward. But I think it’s going to happen. I think there will be more states that do mature in their wine industries — and I think that’s essential to actually getting more people to drink wine. Typically, Americans have come to learn about wine by starting with cheap wine – it could be from the Old World, it could be from California — and eventually, they move up. But more often than not, they start with cheap, industrially made wine and their tastes evolve.

I think the prospect of having small, local wineries making a quality product — maybe not the great wines of the world, but a quality wine — makes wine a local business.  It could be Virginia. It could be New York. It could be Michigan. It could be, you know, Arizona. It could be Colorado. Many different states. And ultimately, it’s what the Europeans have grown accustomed to, which is that wine is an industry that surrounds you, rather than being something far off.

I think California wine is great, to your point about me being here in San Francisco. California wine is great and it’s local if you’re here. But really, for everyone else in the country, it’s still a faraway place.  Maybe less intimidating, but still far away.

So when you’re living in Georgia or North Carolina and the prospect of going to wine country and drinking a decent wine — one that’s maybe, you know, $15 or so — is a reality, then you can recognize wine as a product that’s distinctly agricultural and local. And I think that that is going to be the next great step in the maturing of American wine culture. And I really think it has taken the first sort of baby steps toward that transformation.

I want to talk about the maturity of the American palate. I was talking with Jasmine Hirsch recently about IPOB, and I got the sense that she thinks the battle is over in San Francisco and New York when it comes to alerting people to, let’s call them more elegant, restrained Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from California.  But she doesn’t think that the rest of the country has really caught on yet. Is that your sense as well? Are the folks on the coasts ahead of the curve?  

In other words, do you ever talk to regular wine consumers in Indiana – and if so, what’s been the reaction to your book? Have you seen evidence that the palate is maturing outside the coasts and is embracing wines beyond what you’ll see on the list at a place like Morton’s?  

Well, I wouldn’t worry about access to steakhouse Cabernet going away tomorrow!

We’re in process. Obviously, if tastes were going to change, they would change first in New York and San Francisco, or maybe in Los Angeles. But I’ve been consistently surprised. I mentioned in the book about how these wines are getting a reception all over the country — and you can go into markets like Charleston, like Atlanta, like Phoenix. For example, there was an In Pursuit of Balance trade in event Phoenix that probably had an even more interested audience than the ones I witnessed in San Francisco.

I think there’s a subset of people all over the country who are interested — who fundamentally want to drink American wine, who very much believe in it. And even if they had sort of fully sided with the European wines before, the prospect of drinking American wine is appealing. They simply haven’t found wines that speak to them.

None of this changes overnight. But I think that there’s an interest that is far beyond just the coasts. And to be fair, we’ve only had this conversation for maybe a couple of years. So it’s not a surprise at all that it would take some time for people to realize that there are options in places where the wines are less accessible.

It’s also important to note that when you get outside of some major markets, even people who are interested are facing a complete mess of distribution. A lot of big distributors have a no interest in these wines entering the market because, quite honestly, it’s much easier to sell pallets of Caymus to steakhouses. And it’s much more profitable than having to go around and convince sommeliers to put Trousseau and Verdelho on their wine lists. But again, we’ve had this conversation now for perhaps three or four years, at most. And I think just even in the time that the book has been out, it’s been interesting to see how fast the conversation is evolving. So check back in a couple of years and we’ll see where the American palate is. I think we’re going to be in a much more interesting place.

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