Thursday, October 09, 2014

Ancient Italy and the New California ~ An Auspicious Convergence

I had some unused vacation time and thought it might be a good idea to head out to California and “do” a wine dinner or two. I’m writing this as I am mid-week in a series of three wine dinners back home. What could have gotten into me that I would take the time and expense to go to California and do on my vacation time what I do weekly?

The answer is that I didn’t do exactly the same thing.

For one, California is miles apart from Texas. And in some ways, years. The trends, the movements, the changes, often come from the coasts. Texas is a very strong and independent place. But in many ways, Texas is also very stubborn and change-adverse. That makes it at once wonderful and very frustrating. Wine-wise though, if something is happening in California it will eventually head to the center of the country. They usually don’t start in Texas. I’ve seen this for 30+ years now.

Last night I was at a reception for a very successful Napa Valley winery. They make Cabernet, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Once upon a time one of the Cabernets got a perfect 100 point score. I went into the tasting thinking, “I’ll have the Sauvignon Blanc, that can’t hurt me too much. “ I really thought that. I sipped on the Sauvignon Blanc. It was pleasant. It wasn’t overdone. The oak, if there was any, was way in the background. Any grassy effects were complimentary, not extreme. The alcohol was in balance. It was a perfectly good quaff.

I moved on to the Chardonnay. At that time I was talking with folks, mingling, not really thinking about the wine. But the one thought I had was, “Wow, these folks have really dialed down the oak and the alcohol. This wine is actually pleasant to drink!” At that time one of the family members got up to do a little welcome talk. I knew her original winemaker; he is a Napa Valley legend. Since then they’ve had another winemaker. But the news the owner brought was that a new winemaker was transitioning in and the current one would be transitioning out, in the next five years. “We know a winery needs young energy. Our parents are handing the winery over to me and my sibling. And likewise, we have to hand the winemaking over to someone who will be making the wine for the people who will be drinking it.”

It was said in a room full of salespeople and I’m not sure many in the room got what she had just said. Thanks to having been in California a few days before and still on “California time” I surmised this very successful winery knows they changes that are brewing in the New California and they don’t want to be left behind.

This New California thing is much bigger than people in Texas think. To my way of thinking it is a wonderful confluence of new sensibilities dovetailing with what is going on in places like Etna in Sicily, in Piedmont, in Offida, for God’s sake. Everything is changing.

And during my weekend on the floor of two sister Italian restaurants, I saw the young servers embracing the revolution, being agents of change, in concert with California and Italian winemakers. And it’s not just those two places either. In France, in Germany, you name it, even Argentina and Australia. Everything is changing.

I wonder when some of the old stalwarts of style will stop talking and start listening? No one is trying to prevent anyone from drinking oaky, high alcohol, hedonistic wines. They’re out there. Go for ‘em. Drink ‘em up. Put ‘em in your cellars. If you’re in California you can BYOB them to many of your favorite places.

This is what happened last week on my first night in Oakland. Two fellows came in, meeting another two gents. Boy’s night out. Everyone was supposed to bring a special bottle. I saw one bringing the quintessential Super Tuscan, 2007 Sassicaia, and a 2001 Brunello from a small estate. At first I thought it odd they’d bring a bottle to a place that has such an outstanding wine list. And then I thought, “Gee, why doesn’t this happen more often in Texas?” California is produce-supportive. It seems right, coming from a state that feeds much of the country with its lettuce, tomatoes, fruit and much more. Why not support a Tuscan grape farmer in California?

The wind-up is they also bought several interesting bottles that we were featuring that night. They weren’t into excluding Sicilian wines at their table. They were celebrating. I was a little bit jealous of their access to these experiences.

I am extremely excited about the fire that the New California wine movement has lit under me. I like many of the wines I’m trying. I think the established wineries have gotten a jolt, which can only be good for the competitive aspect. Winemaking is becoming less about a multi-millionaire’s vanity project for his circle of titans and more about humble folks finding interesting grapes and making them taste delicious. And affordable for those of us who aren’t titans. Italy has been doing this for generations. Once again, that confluence of cultures, Ancient Italy and New California.

I’m in. I’m all for the revolution. I’ve seen them coming from Italy and France for some time now. And with the wave coming from California, maybe being in little ‘ol Texas, change-adverse, painfully conservative and stubborn as a worn out mule, just maybe the convergence here in flyover country will cause change to happen for the better. Whether my Texan neighbors and colleagues are ready, well that’s another thing. But one thing is for sure: Everything is changing - and here it comes.

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