Though it took a few decades, California is now one of the wine world’s most vibrant, passionate and interesting areas of production. Today, there are a number of different choices and options available to buyers of California wine. The story behind how these wines evolved demonstrates how the wine style pendulum can swing back and forth.
In the 1960s and 1970s, California was in its infancy as a wine production area, just on the brink of gaining a global reputation for quality. The Paris Tasting of 1976, organized by wine merchant Steven Spurrier, dramatically put Napa Valley on the world’s radar. At this blind tasting, a 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon and a 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay were the top wines, outscoring renowned First Growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundies. At the time, many of the best wines from Mondavi, Chappellet, Stag’s Leap, and other California producers respected a traditional, Old World style of freshness, acidity, elegance and low alcohol levels.
Then the pendulum swung. By the 1980s, countless so-called “Big Flavor” wines were receiving big ratings from publications like Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate. High-octane, dense, powerful wines made with huge dollops of new oak became the dominant style from California, and these quickly became the norm. For Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, producers like Paul Hobbs, Marcassin, Kistler, Belle Glos, Kosta Browne, Sea Smoke, Martinelli, Brewer-Clifton, Siduri, Foley, and Melville have, for the most part, built their reputations producing “Big Flavor” wines made in an overt, ripe style.
In opposition, a small number of winemakers (Jim Clendenen, Ted Lemon, Josh Jensen and others) have stubbornly continued to make Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines centered on balance, nuance, finesse and acidity. In retrospect, these wines are similar to the wines that won in 1976. In 2011, Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards and Rajat Parr of Sandhi Wines and Domaine de la Côte formed “In Pursuit of Balance,” an association of about thirty-five wineries. IPOB was a platform for wineries to promote dialogue around the meaning and relevance of balance in California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Broadly speaking, IPOB wineries used Burgundy wines as their style model in terms of freshness, elegance, balance and terroir. Their tastings featured roundtable panels of winemakers discussing various aspects of wine growing and winemaking, and how these methods affect the wine in the bottle. This prompted a larger discussion on how technical decisions in the vineyard and winery impacted the wine’s style.
It also opened up a new, younger audience for the veteran winemakers who have worked tirelessly to make balanced, elegant wines for decades. In fact, for years, many California wineries have continued to turn out excellent, fresh, low-alcohol wines that show a sense of place. IPOB helped consumers discover these wineries, and many of their notable wines are made from grapes other than Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Overall, IPOB wines have been of very good to excellent quality, and this has not gone unnoticed by many of the world’s most talented winemakers, including Piero Incisa della Rocchetta of Italy and Peter Veyder-Malberg of Austria, both of whom flew to attend IPOB’s 2014 tasting in New York.
Officially, IPOB ceased activities at the end of 2016, but its founders maintained that the discussions the group fostered would continue in other venues. Excellent examples of IPOB-style wineries are: Matthiasson Family Vineyards, Drew, Tyler, Hirsch, Liquid Farm, Lioco, Au Bon Climat, Calera, Failla, Littorai, Varner, Copain, Kutch, Bluxome Street, and Sandhi. Since the 1970s, California’s best winemakers are continuing to refine their knowledge of the state’s best regions and vineyards like Sanford & Benedict, Hyde, Hirsch, Bien Nacido, Savoy, and Demuth. Fruit from these vineyards will continue to be vinified into both “Big Flavor” and IPOB-style wines. Interestingly, many new wine consumers who are attracted to Burgundy’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but are discouraged by Burgundy pricing should branch out to balanced California wines. Today, California wine buyers have an attractively wide range of options to choose from, for both wine style and price point.