It’s worth reminding ourselves that a generation ago, when the Mamas & the Papas were penning their seminal hit, many of the wineries that have earned California a place at the top table barely existed. Now, the state is the world’s fourth-largest producer of wine in the world, behind France, Italy and Spain—an interesting statistic given that Prohibition was still in force there as recently as 1933 and it wasn’t really until the ’60s and ’70s that winemaking in the state began to emerge from the fringes to establish itself as an important industry in its own right.
The 1970s was a key decade for Californian wine, a period when winemakers in Napa began to take on the old fine-wine order and create their own hugely successful versions of red Bordeaux and white Burgundy. In many ways, they were pioneer days, when the old order was having its cage rattled from across the Atlantic and the University of California at Davis, around 70 miles northeast of San Francisco, began to forge an international reputation for viticulture and oenology. Nowadays, it is well-known that the top wines from California compare favorably with those in Europe, and for the collector, the price of these wines—on both sides of the Atlantic—has risen, too.
That’s not to say Californian wine has been immune to criticism. European critics have long held the view that the state’s wine—outside of the top niche and the branded end at the very bottom of the market, such as Blossom Hill, Gallo and Echo Falls—has become too expensive and too preoccupied with gaining high numeric scores from the U.S. press and creating blends that are too high in alcohol. In part, this could be cultural. In London wine-trade circles, there is an anecdote about the difference between holding a dinner party in London and New York: In London, your host will inform you that he has found an absolute gem of a wine, before proudly exclaiming that he only paid £10 a bottle for it. In New York, the host will inform guests that he has found an absolute gem of a wine, before proudly exclaiming he paid more than $100 dollars a bottle. Amusing, no doubt, but generalizations should always be treated with caution; in California, the picture is much more complicated.
First, there are plenty of regions such as Anderson Valley, Carneros, Sonoma and the Russian River Valley that are making spectacular wines of finesse and elegance. I recently tasted through a range of more than 70 wines from California and came away with a genuine, newfound enthusiasm for the state’s wines. Littorai, in the Russian River Valley, is a case in point. Its wines are made by Ted Lemon, who studied oenology at the Université de Bourgogne and worked at several Burgundian estates, including Domaines Dujac, de Villaine and Bruno Clair. His wine-making philosophy is distinctly European in the belief that the character and style of wines are a product of their place. His 2007 Cerise Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Anderson Valley has a spicy, deep, intense feel. Wind Gap Syrah from the Sonoma Coast stopped me dead in my tracks with its similarity to the style of wine found in the northern Rhône. With an alcohol level of 12.1%, it has an attractive nose, replete with blackberries and white pepper, while on the palate, its texture delights in its suppleness.
Three Zinfandels really stood out in terms of highlighting the difference in the flavor and character achieved by California’s regions. The 2007 Edmeades Zeni Vineyard Zinfandel from the Mendocino Ridge had a wonderful silky, plummy feel, with a beautiful length. The 2007 Hartford Zinfandel from the Russian River Valley really excited, with an inviting nose of raspberry and cinnamon and an attractive fresh finish, while the 2009 Cline Cellars Big Break Zinfandel from Contra Costa County displayed a distinctive spicy, wild-berry character with enormous power and length.
These wines are by no means inexpensive, coming in at between $30 and $50 a bottle, but the strength of the euro against the dollar has made Californian wine prices in this range a much more compelling proposition.