Written by Jancis Robinson MW.
California wine has played a huge part in my life. The first article I had published in a national newspaper was a report on the French giant Moët-Hennessy’s move into Napa Valley via Domaine Chandon published by The Sunday Times of London in the mid-1970s. A few years later I was to meet my husband of 40 years Nick Lander at a tasting of California wine in the American embassy in London. I organised this tasting, at a time when the dollar-to-pound rate was favourable to UK importers of California wine, and many were jumping on the bandwagon. This was in my role as secretary of the Zinfandel Club, an organisation founded by the likes of my friend and co-author of The World Atlas of Wine Hugh Johnson to introduce British wine lovers to the delights of wine from California, the first non-European wine region to make a serious impact on Europe’s wine lovers.
Nick was there in his (short-lived) capacity as a UK importer of California wine, but he soon went on to open L’Escargot, the London restaurant of the 1980s famous for, inter alia, its all-American wine list. I have spent time in California pretty much every year since the late 1960s and have many good friends there. The first time I filmed there was in 1982 for The Wine Programme, the world’s first TV series about wine. I was accompanied by Nick and our first-born in a Moses basket, which didn’t stop Robert Mondavi from insisting we ordered bottle after bottle over dinner in St Helena the night before my 6am call for make-up. “D’ya wanna learn?” he asked accusingly when I demurred.
I witnessed, and possibly even played a part in, California wine’s first big export push. In the 1980s and early 1990s an incredibly handsome young man called Geoffrey Roberts, well-connected thanks to Eton and legal training, imported an array of some of the then finest wines of California into the UK. He was the sort of chap who might be expected to be a Bordeaux fanatic, which helped establish the likes of Calera, Chalone, Heitz, Mayacamas, Robert Mondavi, Joseph Phelps, Ridge, Schramsberg, and Trefethen in Europe.
Some of the most exciting mature reds I come across today in the UK are California Cabernets from the 1970s, sometimes even the 1960s, bought by early enthusiasts of the genre, often introduced by Geoffrey. One notable collection that lives on with occasional bottles on the wine lists of our London restaurateur son Will Lander is that of ex-McKinsey management consultant-turned-hotelier Paul Henderson of Gidleigh Park in Devon who built up an enviable treasure trove of fine California wine there when he owned it.
It is the quality, and longevity, of these bottles, underlined by a couple of stunning Inglenook wines from the 1940s brought to dinner at our London home by the late André Tchelistcheff, that continues to stoke my faith in the ability of the state to produce world-class wine – as so definitively, if tentatively, proved by the famous Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976. This faith was shaken slightly in the 1990s and early years of this century when too many producers seemed to be producing the same sort of unappetising wine from overripe grapes.
The greatest asset of California coastal wine is the coast, or rather the ocean that regularly and reliably tempers the daytime heat with cooling fogs. Europe, Australasia, and Africa have nothing like this. They cannot benefit from California’s extended growing season, potentially allowing a slow build-up of flavour and structure alongside the grape sugars. And even California’s hot interior Central Valley seems to have its advantages for the coastal vineyards in regulating the marine incursions as temperatures rise.
Today California wine seems to be at a hugely inspiring stage in its evolution. Gone is the era in which every wine producer seemed to be headed in the same direction, driven by the same goals, and motivated by the same stereotypes. More and more Cabernet producers are trying to make truly well-balanced, unmediated expressions of their particular spot on the globe. Single-vineyard wines are starting to proliferate.
The French, top French producers, are arriving – which may be a footnote from an American point of view but is significant to us European observers of the wine world. Through ownership, Eisele Vineyard is a sister to Château Latour, Diamond Creek to Château Pichon Lalande and Colgin to Château d’Yquem, which is absolutely right and proper in terms of wine quality.
A wind of change
But the California wine story today is about so much more than northern California Cabernet, however famous that might be. Whole new regions have been developed, and established ones re-evaluated. Perhaps the most striking development has been the move closer to the coast in order to prolong the growing season even more and provide a suitable environment for early-ripening varieties such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Wines of real delicacy and complexity have been emerging from spots on the Sonoma Coast and almost almost as far south as Santa Barbara in, Santa Maria Valley and Sta Rita Hills.
There’s a small wine revolution going on high up in the Sierra Foothills, old gold mining country where the age of those counties’ ancient Zinfandel vines is at last being truly appreciated. Indeed, partly thanks to Prohibition which robbed wine producers of a market and disinclined them to go to the trouble of pulling out vines, California is one of the world’s hotspots for vines with a seriously long history. I salute The Historic Vineyard Society, as far as I know the earliest initiative in the world to save ancient vines from being uprooted. It has been emulated in Barossa Valley and in South Africa but when on JancisRobinson.com we compiled a global register of old vines, the greatest concentration by far was in California. (Most European wine producers, with an uninterrupted commercial imperative to supply a market, would efficiently replace vines once their productivity started to wane.)
These vines, many of them Zinfandel, some a field blend of ancient stumps known in California as Mixed Blacks, are an important part of California history and can provide some of the most distinctive wines in the world. I am delighted that there is now such deep appreciation of what distinguishes the California wine scene – particularly the rich heritage of the often-Italian immigrants drawn to make their fortune on the west coast. Cabernet and Chardonnay no longer dominate wine lists to the extent that they did at the end of the last century. Many of the younger producers, long on ambition but short of cash, are specialising in less well-known grape varieties that are far less expensive than Napa Cabernet and are managing to fashion some truly exciting wines from them.
A range of light, delicate, truly thirst-quenching wines is also made nowadays. And the range of appellations continues to expand. On my last trip to California in February 2020, just before international travel became a distant dream, and at a London tasting just afterwards, I discovered the quirks and delights of Red Hills Lake County, Mokelumne River, Cienega Valley, Green Valley in Solano County, Lime Kiln Valley, Yorkville Highlands, Dunnigan Hills, Clarksburg, Mendocino Ridge and Clements Hills. The amazing wines of Contra Costa County were already well known to me as I had filmed there long ago. Can anywhere else in the world field more extraordinary wine country than Oakley’s ancient vine stumps in the sand, underneath the power lines of the nearby PG&E power plant? So quintessentially American!
I know life is difficult for those wanting to start out in wine production in California. Ordinances and planning regulations make it tough to build a winery almost anywhere. But trust the California spirit to react with a rash of some of the funkiest urban wineries known to man. In my work I see many countries now making some great wine. But their export success has been limited by a lack of charismatic characters prepared to travel the world to sell wine and generally enhance that country’s wine reputation. Language is often a problem. May I, as an English speaker, make the point that California wine producers include some of the wine world’s most compelling characters, living in a more sophisticated environment than most wine countries, and that all of them speak the language that is – so far – the commonly accepted lingua franca?
As the average age of America’s wine drinkers declines, I should imagine that the old stereotype of the most celebrated bottles being available only to those on a heavily curated mailing list will decline. Younger consumers want variety and stimulation, rather than the reassurance of a high score awarded by the palate of a third party. But, with wine distribution being – still – so heavily regulated and circumscribed in the US, and with so few, increasingly dominant, distributors, selling direct to the consumer will surely only flourish. I hope, selfishly, that California wine producers will revert to taking export markets seriously.
Nature has not been kind to California recently. Drought and fires have been almost perennial afflictions. But I am confident that, living in a nation of wine consumers keen to embrace wine in all its many guises and at many different price points, producers will rise to the challenge with ingenuity and skill. Such challenges could not help but make the California wine industry aware of the imperative of making the most of our planet’s resources. I’m delighted that there is considerable awareness of the need to proceed in a truly sustainable fashion, whether in terms of viticulture, ecosystems, conservation during winemaking, or human capital.
I wonder how many producers and consumers of California wine realise just how lucky the state is to benefit from such a skilled labour force in the vineyards? All over the world vine growers are seeking viticultural expertise but are increasingly realising how rare it is in human form and are, often reluctantly, envisaging complete mechanisation in the vineyard. For decades California’s vines have benefited from knowledge and techniques handed down from generation to generation in the vineyard. Long may these vital stewards of the vineyard y be as celebrated and treasured as the state’s fine bottles! (And, please, may those bottles not be too thoughtlessly heavy...)