California's New Wave Hits The East Coast

By Stephanie Johnson

You could sense change in the air when Paul Grieco hosted Terroir Wine Bar's first-ever California wine event in January—a sold-out tasting with Jon Bonné, wine editor for the San Francisco Chronicle and author of the recently released book The New California Wine. "Up until last year," Grieco says, "if I had 500 selections on my list, you could count on two hands the number of California wines." Now Terroir's California section is growing, with wines from Santa Barbara to El Dorado County being poured by the glass. What has changed?

In The New California Wine, Bonné identifies a trend in California wine that he calls "Big Flavor:" a move, particularly taking hold in the 1990s, toward flashy wines with increasingly high levels of ripeness and alcohol, and posh price tags to match, spurred on by a handful of prominent wine critics. That was certainly the stereotype of California wines held by many New York sommeliers, who turned toward the Old World for more restrained styles of wine. Matt Stinton, Terroir's corporate beverage director, admits that he largely ignored California wines early in his career. "People told me, 'Don't bother; they're all huge, extracted wines.'"

Within the last decade, according to Bonné and others, the California wine industry has experienced a revolution. A new generation is making wines that are lower in alcohol, with less emphasis on ripe fruit and more focus on a sense of place. Buyers in New York have begun to take notice.

"We're seeing more wines of terroir from California and we're excited about them." —Matt Stinton

Eleven Madison Park, a Michelin three-star restaurant with a list that includes 35 pages of Burgundy, has made significant additions from California within the last six months. "We are really looking for the best matches for our food, and now we are seeing many balanced wines of terroir emerge from California," says sommelier Cedric Nicaise. Pascaline Lepeltier, beverage director at Rouge Tomate, is also a fan. "Now there are people in California who are more connected to the vineyard, making more balanced wines at good prices. We are selling California all the time."

Word is also spreading in new ways. Patrick Cappiello, who built a largely French list at Pearl & Ash, has assembled a constellation of new-wave California producers including Massican, Bedrock, Arnot-Roberts, Liquid Farm and Clos Saron. He sees social media as a game changer for advancing wines like this. "In the past, people bought whatever Robert Parker told them to drink. Now word spreads through social media in a more communal and global way. It's not just one person's palate. It's 25 or 50 or 100. The more you see a wine being talked about, the more you want to buy it."

Some California wine aficionados point out that balanced California wines are not a completely new phenomenon. Soho restaurant Zoe opened in 1992 with an all-domestic list. "We were trying to bring a bit of legitimacy to California wines," says Scott Lawrence, Zoe's buyer for 15 years. "People in the industry thought we were nuts." He had to hunt down wines from producers like Ted Lemon, Paul Draper and Cathy Corison, and grower David Hirsch, who Lawrence feels swam against the tide and maintained a focus on terroir and balance. Zoe closed in 2009, and Lawrence is now the domestic portfolio manager for Michael Skurnik Wines. He sees California's new generation of winemakers building on the work of the earlier terroir guardians, but also experimenting with esoteric grape varieties and methods like carbonic maceration. "Now you have better domestic wines than in the past, a greater range of styles and a proliferation of smaller distributors who are going out and preaching."

Ariana Rolich, domestic buyer for Chambers St. Wines, believes that greater selection and access have helped drive the trend. "You used to have to hound your reps to get them to bring you these wines." Dan Weber, a buyer at Flatiron Wines & Spirits, agrees: "The attitude in New York has absolutely changed. [Distributors] like Bowler and Polaner are putting these wines out front at their tastings and making their sales teams go around and pour them."

Sommeliers are noticing their customers' attitudes changing as well. According to Cappiello of Pearl & Ash, "We're seeing a new generation of wine drinkers who are more adventurous and are not driven by older brands. Who would have thought I could sell a trousseau gris from California? But now I can only get one case and it sells out immediately."

This article first appeared in Wine & Spirits, April 2014.