The New California is an Old Story

May 23, 2014

The New California is an Old Story

The move from power to finesse in Californian wine is the next big thing, but also a very old story, explains Mike Steinberger.

In case you haven’t heard, the new thing in wine is the so-called New California.

That’s the catchphrase being used to describe a stylistic reorientation in California winemaking – a shift in emphasis from power to finesse, a move away from hedonistic fruit bombs to, well, let’s call them succulent little firecrackers.

Everyone is talking about the New California, not least because it’s the title of an important new book by Jon Bonné, the wine writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Something exciting is indeed happening in California – an experimental spirit that is leading winemakers to dabble with obscure grapes, to plant vines in unlikely locations, and above all, to challenge the prevailing wisdom about optimal ripeness and what balance means in the context of California wines.

However, the term New California is a misnomer: the pursuit of finesse is hardly a recent or revolutionary development in California.

In reality, the power versus finesse debate has been raging for years. From the birth of the modern era of California winemaking – let’s peg it to the late 1960s – there was an inherent tension between the Old World sensibilities of many California winemakers and the fact that California could yield levels of ripeness unimaginable in Bordeaux or Burgundy.

The great California wines of the 1970s – the ’71 Ridge Eisele, the ’74 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, etc – seemed to strike a perfect balance between elegance and thrust. But even those wines provoked dissent. Some people felt that they erred too much on the side of ripeness, and this backlash gave rise to the so-called “food wine” fad of the 1980s, in which grapes were harvested at low brix levels in order to craft wines that put an accent on acidity.

In the mid-1990s, the pendulum swung again, this time in the direction of power. The change came about largely because of the influence of Robert Parker (with an assist from the Wine Spectator’s James Laube, whose preferences aligned with Parker’s), and it was a dramatic shift – the phrase “maximum hang time” became mantra, alcohol levels soared, and extravagant ripeness became California’s signature.

Parker was at the apex of his influence from the mid-1990s through the first half of the 2000s, and because his scores made the market for California wines, producers had a powerful incentive to cater to his whims. Parker wasn’t shy about browbeating winemakers who failed to appease him. In 1999 and again in 2000, he lashed out at the Mondavi family, accusing them of making Old World-style wines that represented a betrayal of the California idyll, which he described as “power, exuberance, and gloriously ripe fruit.” The Mondavis initially rejected his criticism but soon capitulated, hiring Parker’s favorite consultant, Michel Rolland, to assist with their wines.

Judging by the triumphalist, the-Iron-Curtain-has-fallen, rhetoric hailing the New California, you might think that Parker, at the height of his reign, stamped out all dissent and forced winemakers up and down the state to submit to his diktats. Many did join the Mondavis in genuflecting to Parker (and Laube, too – let’s not forget him), but some refused to do so.

Take Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat Winery, north of Santa Barbara. He started in the early 1980s with the goal of making Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in a Burgundian vein. Success came quickly and, for a time, Parker was as enamored of Clendenen’s wines as others were. But by the mid-1990s, the famed critic had done a volte-face: he began criticizing the wines as too lean, and he damned Clendenen with mediocre scores. But Clendenen didn’t budge – he continued making wines in the same style.

Steve Edmunds likewise held firm. Edmunds is the winemaker of Edmunds St. John, one of California’s original Rhône Rangers. His wines have long had a keen following among enophiles who enjoy Rhône varieties rendered in an earthy, elegant style. Parker was once a fan, too.

In 1993, he hailed Edmunds as the “finest practitioner” of Rhône-style wines in the U.S. But by the middle of the next decade, Parker had changed his mind. In 2007, he published a notoriously caustic review of Edmunds’s wines, in which he essentially accused the winemaker of committing viticultural treason. “There appears to be a deliberate attempt,” Parker said, “to make French-style wines. Of course, California is not France, and therein may suggest the problem. If you want to make French wine, do it in France.” It was a broadside that echoed his attack on the Mondavis. But in contrast to the Mondavis, Edmunds refused to stray from his chosen path.

That took some brass ones – Parker still wielded enormous influence seven years ago, and inviting his wrath was a risky thing to do. The saga of Napa’s Mayacamas Vineyards is perhaps instructive.

During the 1970s, Mayacamas made some of the most celebrated wines ever to emerge from California. These Cabernets showed plenty of ripeness, but the alcohol was restrained and the fruit was balanced by brisk acidity and minerality. That remained the Mayacamas style through the ’80s, ’90s, and into the new century. But at some point, Parker became disenchanted with the wines, and he told his readers that Mayacamas was no longer worthy of their attention.

“In the 1960s and 1970s,” he wrote in the 2008 edition of his buyer’s guide, “there was no greater or long-lived Cabernet Sauvignon than that made high in the Mayacamas Hills by Bob Travers. For unknown reasons, the current offerings have nothing in common with those early vintages.” The write-up for Mayacamas didn’t include any scores or tasting notes, which was presumably a measure of Parker’s dissatisfaction.

Mayacamas went being from one of California’s standard-bearers to an afterthought – a wine treasured by those who knew it and liked the style but that pretty much disappeared from the consciousness of the broader consumer market. However, the key point is this: even when Parker was the kingmaker and when ripeness was the undisputed coin of the realm in California, refusniks like Travers, Clendenen, and Edmunds (and Cathy Corison and Mike Chelini and Doug Nalle, to name a few more) kept alive a very different vision of California wines – an aesthetic that valued finesse above all else. That sensibility has now been christened The New California, but it isn’t new; it has been a pillar of California winemaking going back decades.

What is new in California is the ideological climate. With Parker’s influence waning and many consumers tiring of the strapping, high-alcohol wines that he prefers, there is more space for experimentation and stylistic variation. California, you might say, has gone back to the future.

Fall 2022 Wine Club News

The 2022 vintage will be Doug Nalle’s 50th harvest! And the estate old vines turn 95. Big milestones here at Nalle.

Along The Wine Road: Multigenerational Family Wineries

We love reading articles from Along The Wine Road, from there monthly varietals to their winery spotlights. That is why we are so excited to be featured in part 3 of their series on multigenerational family wineries. This series explores the history of family run...

What’s in the bottle?

Where do wineries get their grapes? Nalle is estate grown and bottled, meaning we grow our own grapes and bottle at the winery. It might be hard to tell the difference when you see wines on the store shelf, but a lot of wines are outsourced fruit or pre-made juice...

Wine Grape Harvesting – When and How

In a nutshell harvest looks something like the following although it is my highly simplified version: Starting in August sometime, we begin brix sampling, which means we go through specific blocks of grapes to assess their sugar level. For example, we like to pick our...

Dry Farming and Drought

Simply put, dry farming means no use of irrigation water, and relying solely on natural precipitation. This is an old-fashioned, labor-intensive way of farming. In Dry Creek Valley, this method has traditionally depended on the Mediterranean climate here in Sonoma,...

Crack This Classic: Huevos Rancheros with Corn Tortillas

We love Huevos Rancheros for breakfast and dinner! Savor this egg-based dish with a combination of beans, fire roasted tomatoes, serrano chiles, lime juice, cilantro, hot sauce, and corn tortillas Find this recipe on food.winetrails.net and discover the perfect Nalle...

Not Your Average Chicken Salad

Ditch the celery and mayonnaise for a delicious next-level chicken salad that will have your guests asking for seconds. The dish offers a wonderful combination of fresh crisp mustard greens and pine nuts for the base of the salad, topped with lightly toasted bread...

A local favorite, Big John’s Market

Less than a 5-minute drive from Nalle Winery, one of our favorite partners is Healdsburg’s biggest little independent supermarket, Big John’s.

Indulge in Italian: Shrimp with Toasted Pine Nuts and Pasta

Try this Italian-inspired recipe for your next weekend get-together with family or friends. Lightly browned shrimp paired with a sweet sauce made with lemon rind, raisins, and pine nuts. This dish can be eaten alone, or along with a simple pasta for a full course....

How To Get The Perfect Yolk: Eggs Sunny Side Up

Need inspiration for next weekend’s brunch? Indulge in fried eggs served sunny side up over white rice Cuban style! We can’t get enough of the sautéed pineapple and plantains paired with a spicy habanero sauce.

Catelli’s Burrata & Prosciutto Pairing

 You would be hard pressed to find a Catelli’s review online that mentions their Burrata and Prosciutto and doesn’t carry a 5-star rating. This delicious appetizer is made with triple-cream mozzarella and San Daniele Prosciutto, which is served between fresh arugula...

Catelli’s Lasagna Pairing

Visitors say that you will feel like you’re lost as you venture those few extra miles up 101, or perhaps 128 if you’re coming from the east. But let your stomach be the guide and you will be delighted by the delicious food and family feel of this Geyserville gem....

Catelli’s Meatball Sliders Pairing

Even if you are new to Catelli’s, you may have heard of their famous meatball sliders on Guy Fieri's Diners Drive-Ins & Dives. This dish arrives as a trio of sliders, meatballs cooked to order, and covered in a light and flavorful slow cooked tomato sauce. Our...

Club Members Get The Goods

Let the good times roll! Thank you @kahana11 for sharing your good times with Nalle! Join the Squirrel Club for priority access to our zintastic limited production wines and new releases twice a year (spring and fall) at 20% off.   View this post on Instagram...

Wine On The Dime – Nalle Zinfandel Review

Join Wine On The Dime & Boozy Chef as they review our 2017 Dry Creek Valley Classic Zinfandel at the Historic Pearl in San Antonio, Texas! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNNYV2CEZq0

Decanter – The Zenith of Zinfandel

Quality fruit + great family = a rich tradition of food-friendly wine! "Doug Nalle & his wife Lee started their winery with the intention of making elegant, lean & complex Zins in the European style of noble red wines" - Decanter Read More

Lee’s Famous Creme Caramel/Flan

This is great for a large crowd. It has become Lee's most-requested dessert in the Dry Creek Neighbor's Club. She usually has to make a double-batch and rarely has anything left over to take home! 1/2 c. sugar 4 Tbsp. water, plus 2 Tbsp. cold water 4 whole eggs 4 egg...

Auntie Norma’s Tamale Pie Recipe

This is a family recipe featured in the Savoring Dry Creek Valley cookbook. Ingredients for cornmeal crust: 1 c. yellow corn meal 1 tsp. salt 1 c. cold water 2 c. boiling water Preparation: In a medium saucepan, mix corn meal with cold water. Add boiling water and...

Mexican Style Chicken Kiev Recipe

4 whole boneless, skinless chicken breasts (12-oz. ea.) 1 can whole green chilies (7-oz.) 1/4 lb. Monterey Jack cheese 1/2 c. fine dry bread crumbs 1/4 c. Parmesan cheese, grated 1 tsp. chili powder 1/2 tsp. garlic salt 1/4 tsp. ground cumin 1/4 tsp. ground black...

Easy Baked Chicken Kiev Recipe

4 whole boneless, skinless chicken breasts 1/4 c. butter or margarine, softened 1/2 tsp. oregano leaves 1 Tbsp. parsley, chopped 1/4 lb. Monterey Jack cheese 1/2 c. fine bread crumbs 1/2 c. Parmesan cheese, grated 1 tsp. oregano leaves 1/2 tsp. garlic salt 1/2 tsp/...

Artichoke, Leek and Potato Soup Recipe

This is a Food and Wine Affair Recipe by Dan Berman, now applying his food expertise on the Big Island of Hawaii. Serves 8 Ingredients: Nalle Chardonnay, 1/2 cup 1 lb potatoes, peeled and sliced thin 1/2 lb yellow onions, sliced thin 1/4 lb leeks, white part only,...

Cinnamon Cure for Pork Recipe

The following recipe was used by Barbara Hom of Night Owl Catering (nightowl2@earthlink.net or 579-7801) at our Passport events. You'll love them just as much as the attendees did. For 1 whole pork loin or 1 pork shoulder or butt. Ingredients: 2 cups water 1 cup pinot...

Barbara’s Asian Cole Slaw Recipe

This recipe was also used by Barbara Hom of Night Owl Catering (nightowl2@earthlink.net or 579-7801) at our Passport events. Mix in bowl: 1/2 head shredded red cabbage 1/2 head shredded green cabbage 4 green onions chopped fine 2 tbs toasted sesame seeds 1/2 cup...

Three Berry Sauce for Nalle Pinot Recipe

Ingredients: 1/2 cup raspberries 1/2 cup blueberries 1/2 cup blackberries 4 tbs chopped shallots 1 tbs chopped ginger 2 tbs butter 1 cup Nalle Pinot Noir 2 cups beef stock 1 tps 5 spice powder (available in the spice section of most markets) 1 tbs honey 4 tbs soft...

Braised & BBQ’d Short Ribs Korean Style Recipe

Serves 4 Ingredients: 2# boneless beef shortribs dipped in flour 1 carrot peeled and cut into 6 pieces 1 onion peeled an cut into 1/8s 6 cloves garlic 2 stalks celery cut into 2" pieces 1/4 cup corn oil S and P to taste Enough stock, wine or water to cover- about 1-2...

Korean Style BBQ Sauce Recipe

Ingredients: 1/4 cup Ko chu Jang (a soybean paste w/ red peppers) available in Asian markets 4 garlic cloves chopped 2 T rice wine vinegar 2 T soy sauce 1 T sesame oil 1 T sesame seeds toasted 2 green onions - chopped 4 tsp sugar Preparation: Mix all Ingredients:...

Decanter – Heart of Zinfandel

Our 2015 Dry Creek Valley Zin was a top pick in Decanter magazine's 2018 "Heart of Zinfandel" article! Rich & juicy with blueberry + cherry aromas, this Zin is both refreshing & complex. Read more: Read More

Poke Recipe

Ingredients: 1# grade no. 1 ahi - cut into 1/2" cubes 2 roma tomatoes - peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2" cubes 3 green onions - chopped 1 T cilantro chopped 4 Tsp soy sauce 1 T sesame oil 1 T toasted sesame seeds 1 Teaspoon cinnamon 1 tsp chili flakes Salt and pepper...

Wine Weirdos – Nalle Zinfandel Review

Short, sweet, and to the point! Watch Mike and Brandon from @wineweirdos review our 2015 classic Dry Creek Valley Zin in under one minute: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=laWrgYmhwFw

Zinmaster Nalle Winery of Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma CA

Join Zinmasters April & Andrew Nalle as they discuss Nalle's 100+ year family history, the power of Zin & Andrew's winemaking philosophy on Episode 218 of Wine for Normal People https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8c9KaGS9Gw

Dry Creek Valley—Top 10 Wines You Can Buy Now

Yesterday, I published my Top Ten Wines of the Year that I pulled from my own cellar—wines that I had purchased or that I had received as a gift. Based on a few comments and a couple of emails, it was clear to me that some of you actually read this blog for...

California: Sipping Sonoma Flavors

What makes Sonoma County special? Doug Nalle talks fermentation, climate, and wine critics with New Zealand writer Alex Robertson. Read the full article: Read More

Sense of Restraint About Zinfandels

Eric Asimov THE wine panel generally explores a particular region, genre or vintage in all its manifestations. We might examine the 2007 Barolos, for example, or survey recent Mosel kabinett rieslings or Mendocino pinot noirs. Our tasting coordinator, Bernard Kirsch,...

Bohemian – Nalle Winery

We loved meeting @northbaybohemian columnist James Knight during his visit to Nalle in 2012! James explores the physicality of our wine, the crispness of the tannins, and Andrew’s studies at the university of Doug. Read More

Zinfandel – Is Bigger Better?

In the 2002 Wine Enthusiast article, "Zinfandel: Is Bigger Better?", contributing editor Paul Gregutt dubbed our 1999 Dry Creek Valley Zin a top pick due to its precision, vivacious berries & lip-smacking acids. You can give it a read here: Read More