Sometimes living and working in a conservative place like Charlotte, it’s easy to lose sight of the changes taking place in bigger markets. I was reminded of this during a visit to San Francisco. It had been some time since my last visit and I asked a very well traveled wine friend for some suggestions for some cool places to eat. I was able to visit three out of a list of about a dozen; none of which were in existence during my last visit. Guess what? Gone are the days of the upscale Michelin-star-chasing fine dining establishments (this trend was also confirmed during my recent visit to Paris as well). That is the way with the younger generation of foodies.
Instead, a group of new maverick chef-driven restaurateurs has filled that spot. Most focus on farm to fork, fresh, sustainable and seasonal. Surprisingly, very few California producers were on the wine lists … another change since my last visit. It seems the millennials are forsaking the big extracted wines made popular by wine critics over the last three decades in favor of more balanced wines that play better with the foods they’re eating. Wines that reflect their own unique sense of place and tell a story. The California wines that did made the lists belonged to a small but growing number of gifted young winemaking “radicals” who are forsaking the old way of making wine in California (wines that tend to garnish high point scores) for a more balanced and natural approach, practiced by winemakers in Europe for centuries. Names like Matthiasson, Arnot-Roberts, Massican, Broc Cellars and Odisea are not household names in the wine world yet, but that is changing very fast. Savvy restaurateurs would be quick to get on board and find a place for them on their wine lists.
Leading the revolution in Napa are Steve and Jill Klein Matthiasson, owners of Matthiasson Winery. Steve was recently voted “Winemaker of the Year” by The San Francisco Chronicle, a publication well respected within professional wine circles. The two met while attending UC Davis and have worked in viticulture for two decades. During that time Steve has become one of Napa’s most in-demand viticultural consultants working with wineries like Araujo, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Spottswoode and Hall to name just a few. It’s a testament to his skills and the growing belief that the high alcohol, over ripe model is no longer a sustainable model in the Valley. That demand also allowed them to fund their own place: a small postage stamp 5-acre parcel in the heart of Napa Valley. A real working farm; they produce vegetables and raise livestock there as well as grapes. The wines they produce come from varietals like Ribolla Gialla, Cabernet Franc and Tocai Friulano, as well as the ubiquitous Chardonnay and Cabernet. Their wines are balanced and lower in alcohol. Again, not so much a radical idea as a return to the way wine’s been produced for centuries.
Across the Mayacamas mountain range in Sonoma County you’ll find Arnot-Roberts. Founded eight years ago by Napa Valley natives Duncan Arnot Meyers and Nathan Lee Roberts, their winery is the embodiment of what’s possible as the new generation of winemakers forgo the myopic vision of the recent past in favor of one that reflects a new resurgence of the pioneering spirit that helped found the region. Both of them have deep roots in the California wine industry and share a belief in its future. Everything is hands-on at their facility in Healdsburg. They source their grapes from many sites and growers rather than from their own estate. Those range from Lake County to Santa Cruz. Many of those sources were considered unsuitable for those making wine in the high alcohol style because of the difficulty of ripening the grapes. Like Matthiasson, they share the belief in value of small-scale, artisanally produced wines in opposition to the industrial model.
It’s an exciting time to be in California’s wine history. Perhaps we can one day look back at the last thirty years as a time when the industry was trying to find its identity and place after the setbacks of Prohibition. And like adolescents, there are times of experimentation, successes and some failures. It looks like California wine is beginning to develop a true sense of self. One not based on the opinions of others but one rooted in a sense of place. Cheers!