New Releases from California

So there I was, signing copies of my WineAccess Buyer’s Guide at the spectacular Wine Library store in Springfield, New Jersey and conversing with a succession of wine lovers on various categories of wine, when suddenly I was having an out-of-body experience. I heard myself rhapsodizing about some unusually fresh, balanced and understated California wines I had tasted in the past few days—wines whose site character spoke more clearly than their extreme ripeness, sheer extraction or fancy new oak barrels. (In answer to your next question, the wines that moved me were syrahs from Tensley and Arcadian, and pinot noirs from Rochioli, Talley and Loring.)

Although these bottles represented a range of growing regions, winemaker philosophies, and approaches to vinification and élevage, they all had several important characteristics in common, including varietally accurate and interesting flavors, good energy in the mouth, and the glorious sweetness of fruit that is California’s long suit. Perhaps a couple of these wines could have been mistaken for a moment for their French cousins, but not for long: they boasted an urgency of fruit that French vignerons can only dream about. That’s not to say that they’re as complex as their French counterparts, or as likely to evolve gracefully and last in bottle, just that they struck me as wonderfully successful and distinctive wines that largely avoided the jammy character that makes too many of today’s California wines monotonous.

As long-time readers of this publication are aware, I’m a major fan of the best wines from California, yet I’m constantly amazed at the way some publications grossly overrate wines that are simply large. Those who taste too much or too fast may be scoring wines on their immediate “impressiveness” without sticking around long enough to discover how boring or overbearing many of them can become as they open in the glass. Wines that catch one’s attention on first sip can quickly become repetitive and hard to swallow—and these bottles are as likely to cost seventy-five bucks as twenty-five. The top wines from California belong on the table with the best from anywhere, but to suggest that wineries below the level of the very best are making wines that merit the same scores—or prices—as the top examples from Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône Valley is, to this taster at least, just wishful thinking. It’s unfair to producers because it encourages a feeling of complacency. And it sets up credulous consumers—particularly those seeking complexity of flavor, balance and some degree of finesse—for expensive disappointments.

Happily, current evidence suggests that many producers in California are finally backing away from X-treme wines. Some of these winemakers have decided they don’t enjoy these heavy drinks after all; others are dissatisfied with the way some of their past vintages, from overripe or overworked fruit, are developing in bottle. Even sky-high ratings can’t make these wines easier to drink. Of course, it’s possible that the 2005 vintage, a harvest in which the fruit struggled to ripen in some areas and growers were frequently forced to pick their grapes early due to encroaching rot, may turn out to be something of a blip in the inexorable trend of global warming. But I hear too much these days from the makers themselves to doubt that a growing number of California’s winemakers are coming around to the conclusion that more isn’t necessarily more. And I was almost surprised by the array of fresh and sappy examples of California wine I tasted in recent weeks—and was happy to follow to the bottom of the bottle. Some of these wines were even pretty good value.