American wines missed the point. A new generation of winemakers gets it though!
America, land of the free, home of the brave. A country that is strange for being as in unison as it is divided. Singing it’s ideology and beliefs, yet fractured along lines that seem irrelevant to most. You get a sense that in many areas of American culture there is any number of influences pushing and pulling it in dozens of directions. At times the culture appears fractured, but other times it manages to find its own path, forging something new that will lead the world.
Wine is a different beast in this country. It is a massive industry, dominated by great barons of viticulture like Mondavi, EJ Gallo, and Constellation. They make brands, not wine. They create products to be consumed, not art to be loved. Very different from Europe where no matter how big or small the winery, it will always remain a reflection or culture and place. The wines of the old world are exceptional for this reason. For decades winemakers in the US tried to copy the likes of Burgundy, Bordeaux, and other exceptional old world regions of note. It became almost an obsession to be as close to these wines as possible, to match their flavors, aromas, profiles. They tended to follow the winds of change as well when people wanted heft white burgundies California went all out for oaky, buttery Chardonnays. When tastes shifted to the likes of Chablis, winemakers pushed their wines into steel tanks, totally missing the point of what Chablis is all about and resulting in thin wines.
Wine is a business, so it’s only natural to try and compete in any way thy you can, but much of American wine became carbon copies of the old world classics trying to maintain a certain profile of what they thought wine consumers wanted, or rather what they told wine consumers to fawn over. Wine became all about ticking boxes and chasing points to appease a few noted critics so that the everyday consumer could not tell the difference between a middle of the road Pinot Noir from Burgundy versus one from California. But what makes burgundy so exceptional, what results in its great red and white wines, is not an obsession over how it should taste, but rather and obsession over tradition, terroir, and culture. By trying to copy what these wines taste like, American winemakers missed the whole point of what made them so awesome and they missed a huge opportunity.
This is America
What is the point that American winemakers of the past few decades missed? A seconds-long clip from the documentary series hit the nail on the head in the most profound way. A tour guide at the Mondavi winery mentioned to guests, as they looked out at the vast splendor of the vineyards, that it had a way of transporting them to far away places like Bordeaux or Chianti. I'm sorry, but dude, you're right there! In California! This is America, not Italy. Its marvelous and magical for what it is, not what you imagine it to be. Every winemaker in the world will tell you that terroir is important to any wine, even the big guys. What they missed was its importance in getting a grape to reflect the place, not about how close it got to other places. California is not Italy, the climates are different, the soil is different, the culture is different.
Thankfully there is a new generation who get the point. The point is that Burgundy is great because it reflects where it is from. Burgundy is great because it tells a story of the fields, the farmers, and the history of the region. The winemakers take great care to guide the grapes through their journey to becoming wine, letting them do as they will. Instead of trying to make carbon copies of those wines, there is a new generation of winemakers in the United States who start with this philosophy and seek to bring to fruition the story of the place through wine. The result is not a series of wines that mimic the characteristics of this wine or that wine from France or Italy, but wines that stand out on their own. These American wines are not great for being close to Burgundy, Rhone, Bordeaux, Tuscany, or even Barolo, but rather they are magnificent because they are left to tell a story that is unique.
Who are these winemakers and why are they so damn awesome?
Sometimes when I see these wines in shops, or when friends speak of them, they still want to talk about them in Francophile terms that still make them sound as if they are less than their French counterparts. They think in terms of Grand Cru Burgundies and First Growth Bordeaux, as if those wines are so much better. We need to stop talking about them that way, and stop holding up to a measuring stick if we are going to truly appreciate them.
To call the work of Samantha Sheehan’s POE winery something that is like a Burgundy (red or white as she works with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) is to sell her short. She is not trying to replicate the great wines of these famed regions, but rather taking the practices that made them great and applying them to her winemaking in California. At the heart of this is the ideal that wine should be an expression of terroir. Doing so means a minimalist, almost entirely natural approach to wine that keeps the wine alive in the bottle, getting better and better over time. This is real Californian wine, you cant call it Burgundy, or Burgundian, because its not in fucking Burgundy! This is as American an expression of wine as you can get.
It comes as no surprise that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the grapes of choice for the expression of place. Great winemakers know that these grapes are the colors through which Burgundy produces its greatest artworks at the hands of its greatest producers. Perhaps no other winemaker exemplifies this more so than the fine folks at Arnot Roberts. Their yearly release of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir is something to look forward to as they take you on an adventure of single vineyard sites from the greatest terroir in the state. To drink through the release is to drink the state’s Pacific coast facing vineyards, something you just cannot get anywhere else. They also have the freedom to work with other grapes, as their initial fall release is often followed by eager anticipation of Syrah and Trousseau Noir.
What is amazing about California right now is the eagerness of winemakers to tell the story of the land and to show how different grape varietals can reflect the terroir in different ways. Winemakers like Matthew Rorick of Forlorn Hope are bringing the eclectic viticultural history of the California back to the forefront. It is a story told from vineyard to vineyard, an expression not just of the terroir but of the people that makes his wine so interesting. We think of California wine in terms of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, not in Picpoul, Chenin Blanc, and Saint Laurent. Yet these wines are just as expressive of the beauty of the state and its diversity.
By no means is this movement of American expression restricted to California. Oregonian wineries are getting in on the action too. Day wines for one is showing that great expressions of terroir are not only found in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (and they do make amazing Pinots and Chards) but in wines ranging from Tannat, to Pinot Blanc, to Aligote. The message is shared too, where the winery’s “Day Camp” is home to Jackelope, Burner, and Granville Wine Company.
What becomes clear is that wineries all over the country are no longer following a formulaic sense of what wine should be, but rather a natural progression of what a wine can be. What makes these people so awesome is their tireless adventure to take the philosophies of the old world and match them with the freedom of the new. Whether it is through Pinot Noir, or Chardonnay, or Riesling, or Albariño, these winemakers are letting mother nature do the talking. When you let nature do the talking you come out with something unique, something that cannot be matched, or rivaled, and something that stands out in a world of uniformity.
Wineries and wines to seek out
To have a wine that captures a sense of place the number one “hack” if you will, is to look for wineries that have a minimalist or natural philosophy on winemaking, but does not go on for days about how they are a “natural winemaker.” These are the winemakers who know that if you want to get a sense of terroir then this is how it should be. Some of my favorites are.
A small two person team that has a keen eye for the exceptional. All of their work is single vineyard and small lot, working predominantly with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah however their smaller releases from grapes that are off the beaten path are an exceptional treat if you can get them.
I dont think there is another winemaker in America who is as straightforward about what they stand for as Samantha Sheehan’s POE Wines. Her mission is making wines with a real sense of place using traditional, old school, old world techniques. Not trying to mimic Burgundy, but instead using their techniques to bring the terroir of California to the forefront. Her Chardonnays can range from fresh and floral to having the minerality of a sea breeze while her Pinot’s (mostly Noir, but also Meunier) can range from vibrant, to rich, to silky, to hearty.
To understand Antica Terra’s allure you have to understand the place that it comes from being at times very Oregonian and other times so different from the rest of Willamette Valley. The terrain is difficult and the vines struggle to thrive, but what the manage to squeeze out vintage after vintage is exceptional. If there was ever a vineyard that could be considered an American “Grand Cru” then this could be it.
A name that describes a band of soldiers who lead the charge headfirst into the enemy line, Forlorn Hope is a winery that favors long shots. Mathew Rorick’s fitting tribute to wines that lead the charge against the usual, the regular, the boring bits of American wine. Matthew is a winemaker who favors the unknown, the lost, and their bitter battle to stay alive. He works with off the beaten path varietals from unknown appellations and lets the grapes tell the story of where they come from. His wines have a rich story to tell in every bottle and capture a sense of California that you will not find from anybody else.
How could I create a list about amazing American wines and not include something from the amazing Chris Brockway? This time though, I am going for his partnership with Tim Elenteny that is the Brea Wine Company. Brea Wince Company focuses on a classic varietals like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon to create wines that showcase the awesome terroir of California.
Wines of Substance - The Wines of Charles Smith
Forget Kung Fu Girl and the Velvet Devil. Charles Smith has moved on since selling those brands and is now focusing on making awesome wines that scream Washington wine to the rest of the world. The Wines of Substance single vineyard Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon are masters of this, simply putting the wine at the forefront through minimalist production methods. K Vintners make for some seriously rich and decadent wines with the Syrah being among the best in the world. There is also the Sixto Chardonnay only line that has resurrected some old vines in Washington and like the musician they were named after, been brought back to life to tell their amazing story.
End note: The future is Cru
While writing this I thought about how much Gran Cru and Premier Cru classifications have meant to Burgundy in particular, with vineyards receiving legendary status as some of the best vineyards in the world. Naturally I wondered if this would ever happen in the United States. Are the Cru worthy vineyards in the USA, and do we want to classify them as such?
Part of me thinks that this is inevitable, that the right viticulturists working with the right winemakers in the right vineyards will help to establish America’s “Cru” vineyards and help to designate them as such. Doing so will allow the world to take American wine as seriously as they do the French and other old world wines. They will help us evolve the discussion of American wines from copies of the Burgundy and Bordeaux to genuine wines of real, authentic, American place. In essence American wines will be taken seriously on their own merit, not just whether then can live up to the expectations of other wines half a world away.
The other part of me also fears that happening. Ever since the Napa Valley came to worldwide prominence in the 1970s it has gone from being a place of rich, authentic winemaking to being a hotbed for millionaires and billionaires to make expensive wines and show them off to their millionaire and billionaire buddies. Any “Cru” classification will only attract those people seeking to hold on to something elite, something that nobody else can have, something will be the show stopping piece of their wine collection. The thought of that saddens me, but it is a double edged sword.
I do think that as this generation of American winemakers comes to further prominence, so will the vineyards behind them which will become hot commodities. Classifications will help us entrench wine as a part of American culture but it will also bring with it the greed that is entrenched in every part of our society. Still I think that in the future we will have no choice but to stand up and tell the world about American terroir, an American sense of place that will change the industry for the better, and forever.