Through the Grapevine: 6 experts weigh in on the world of modern wine

Thoughts on the “New California”

By Peter Plaehn, Advanced Sommelier, Cedar + Stone, Urban Table


Peter Plaehn // Illustration by Brent Schoonover

I belong to just two wine clubs—Massican and Two Shepherds—and both are counted among the “New California” movement, named for Jon Bonné’s book, “The New California Wine.” They rent or share space with other wineries, the winemakers have day jobs, production is minuscule and thus highly allocated; on average Minnesota sees 10–15 cases of some of these wines per year. They rely on their clubs and local tastings to sell most of their bottles because they don’t make enough to distribute widely. Basically, they’re what California wine was 40 years ago—small farmers making great wine.

New California (NCA) wines get a lot of things right: the grapes are almost always sustainable or organic, they aren’t overly manipulated in the winery, and because these guys (and gals) can’t afford to blend from lots of sites, they’re often single-vineyard and really show the place they’re from. Wines like Vaughn Duffy, Idlewild, Argot, and Lieu Dit usually taste more European than Californian. As a restaurant beverage director, I love them because they make food taste better and I get to champion American wine instead of reaching for France. But if a guest says they like big, fruity, juicy wines I steer them clear—I have plenty of Napa Cab for you, sir.

For all the great things NCA wines can be, there’s some freaky shit out there, too. Small scale means lots of experimentation. Co-ferment verdelho in a plastic tub with some albariño, let it sit out in the air so native yeast can ferment it for however long it takes, then bottle it unfined and unfiltered with all the funky impurities in there. Yup, you can buy that. Nerds think that’s cool, and this nerd agrees, but they’re usually too faulty and unpredictable for any program that actually wants to stay in business. Best rule of thumb: ask the sommelier or server questions. Is this the beautiful awesome stuff or the freaky weird shit? I’ll let you know.

Next page: The Case for Wine from Cold Countries

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