Our 'New Calfornia' dinner at Ristorante Lombardo was a big hit. I have to admit, when Tommy Lombardo brought up the idea of focusing on this small segment of terroir-driven California wines, I had mixed feelings. There are many, many great wines in this category for sure. But it is also a category that has sparked great controversy over the past year. The public battle of words between Jon Bonné, the San Francisco Chronicle's Wine Editor, and Robert Parker (who needs no introduction), added fuel to a fire that was already burning. But that is a topic for another post.
For our dinner, Tommy proposed that we feature some of most innovative small wine producers in California, and we set out to taste more than a dozen wines. These are the kinds of wines championed by Bonné in his recent book, The New California Wine. While we made some discoveries that we were excited about, nothing would prepare me for just how well the wines would show at the dinner, proving that these balanced wines are made for pairing with food. These are wines with character and restraint, bucking the decades-old trend in California toward bigger, higher alcohol, jammier fruit. While the big or "Parkerized" style of California wine may not be going anywhere, it should be heartening for all wine lovers to see a new breed of California producers experimenting with new ideas. They are building on what made California a great wine region in the first place, and that is good for all of us.
We ended up without any Cabernet, Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, but that was not because those more mainstream varieties fall outside of our focus on "New California". There is actually much ongoing experimentation with these grapes, and most top producers recognize (hopefully) that nothing has been perfected in California. Producers like Cobb and Sandhi are examples of great Pinot Noir in a new restrained style. For Chardonnay, look for Sandhi and Matthiasson, who are both making great whites.
Here are the wines that were served, along with some great photos from the event, taken by Shawna Stanley.
Sapere Aude Sparkling Rosé - Sapere Aude in Latin translates to “dare to know” and is rooted in the Enlightenment. This producer is making boutique, hand-crafted sparkling wines in the Alsatian tradition. This rosé is made from 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay from the Occidental vineyard in the Sonoma Coast. It is made using the Charmat method, aged on the lees for three months, and undergoes secondary fermentation in tank.
Bonny Doon Vineyard Albariño Monterey County 2013 - A super cool wine from legendary personality, Randall Graham. In the early 1980s, Graham found California’s climate to be well-suited to Rhone varietals (after failed experiments with Pinot Noir), and became one of the original Rhone Rangers. He considers himself a “man of terroir” and strives for his wines to express a sense of place. This is 100% Albarino from the cool Kristy Vineyard in Salinas Valley, and the even-cooler Jesperson Ranch Vineyard in Edna Valley. It is a rare grape outside of the Iberian Peninsula, in southwestern Spain.
Idlewild Vin Gris Yorkville Highlands Mendocino 2013 - This was a huge hit. Grenache from Mendocino County. Idlewild was founded in Healdsburg by Sam and Jessica Bilbro to explore Piedmont varieties and to pay tribute to California’s past by seeking out rare old-vine plantings. With a simple winery in a concrete warehouse, Idlewild’s focus is clearly in the vineyards. This comes from old-vine Grenache, with the goal of maintaining natural acidity and freshness of fruit. Grapes are pressed in whole clusters, adding texture to balance the acidity. Only 200 cases produced.
Donkey and Goat Five Thirteen Red Blend El Dorado 2012 - This Rhone Blend from El Dorado County was another crowd favorite. Donkey and Goat is a family-owned and operated winery crafting natural wines in the Anderson Valley and undiscovered El Dorado appellation in the Sierra foothills. The name is a nod to the companionship of a donkey and goat living at a nearby vineyard. The Thirteen series is a southern Rhone blend using the allowed varietals traditional to Chateauneuf-du-Pape. A blend of 45% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 19% Mourvedre, 10% Counoise and 6% Cinsault, fermented in neutral oak vats. 389 cases produced.
Wilde Farm Heritage Red Bedrock Vineyard Sonoma 2012 - A century-old horse farm, Wilde Farm is making small production wines from exceptional old vines. This comes from Morgan Peterson’s Bedrock Vineyard, planted in 1854 and considered to be one of the most historically significant sites in Sonoma. This is a Zinfandel-based field blend, aged in neutral oak, and it incorporates a number of the thirty varietals planted in Bedrock. Pax Mahle is the winemaker here.
Heitz Cellar Ink Grade Vineyard Port - Touriga Nacional from a legendary winery. Who would have thought? It is actually made from eight Portuguese varietals planted in the early 1990s. It is so good that you forgive the misapppropriation of the Port moniker.