It was a tough year for the Californian wine industry in 2017, but it was also an important one. After wildfires spread across the North Coast, December brought even more devastation to Ventura and Los Angeles—where the damage to people's lives and livelihoods continued to compound. We touched on fire's impact on wine in last month's column, but what does this have to do with trends in 2018? Well, perhaps we will see a renewed embrace of California's offerings. Everyone wants to help, especially by buying bottles from producers who are actively working to hold the American wine industry to a higher standard.
A lot of sweeping change that is impacting the greater agricultural world are trickling into viticulture, and California's wildfires are forcing us to reexamine our industry standards. There are fashions within the niche realm of wine that are fleeting trends, and then there are broader social concerns about the impact of growing grapes and vinification that give rise to genuinely new ideas. Underneath and around California's wine world there exists a centuries-old pioneering spirit that learned its lessons from the Old World, and utilizes a style of winemaking that is as transparent as possible in expressing a sense of place. Learning about wine means learning about culture, and our culture in America right now is experiencing great growth and change.
The rise of sustainable and organic growing have had a major impact, spawning many different kinds of both private and government-sponsored certifying organizations, from the biodynamic Demeter USA to the federal USDA organic seal of approval, alongside many different informal pockets of sustainable winemaking that have little use for certification. I don't mean to imply that these kinds of wine are any better or worse than those made using more conventional growing and vinfiying methods, only that they have changed the conversation about viticulture in a profound way. Just as industrialized methods of production are beginning to be questioned, so too the world of winemaking is experiencing a fashionable reinvention of its origins, with the goal of achieving a more refined product.
After all, wine was originally symbolic of a miracle: Grapes are transformed through the hand of man and nothing else; not commercial yeasts, not GMOs, not additives like Mega Purple.
Ridge Vineyards is an eminently approachable point of entry into the world of non-interventionist, pre-industrial, arguably "natural" wine, particularly the East Bench zinfandel ($36). Ridge is a member of the Old Guard of the new California viticulture, having used a more minimalist approach to winemaking for years. Generations of Ridge's winemakers have eschewed artificial adjustments of acid and sugar and yeasts in favor of a more "hands-off" approach. There is even an ingredients list on the back. Why isn't that more of a thing in wine? All other food products have to put down additives and caloric content. I feel like it would cut down on a lot of confusion, and eliminate the need for strict certification.
Related to the reexamination of American wine's origin story is the trend toward lower-alcohol wines. The tendency to reduce it to mere alcohol content as opposed to a piece of our cultural heritage is a vestige of Prohibition's effective erasure of the burgeoning American wine-drinking culture in the early part of the 20th century. Wine was the happy medium between beer and spirits, but still today a lot of people are turned off by the cheap high-sugar/high-alcohol examples that saturate the market and almost ignore the product itself entirely.
Nowadays, some people are asking for something different. There are artificial ways to take out alcohol, but in the case of Matthiasson, the solution to producing a low-alcohol vintage is to merely pick the majority of the fruit early, and the rest much later, combining two different levels of ripeness to craft a chardonnay with a unique balance. All of Steve and Jill Matthiasson's wines are low-alcohol, but the 2016 Linda Vista Vineyard chardonnay ($31) stands out for its refreshing tension between the expected chardonnay flavor profile and zingy structure.
Finally, there is a movement towards drinking outlier varieties of grapes. People are getting more experimental and flexible in their approach to wine, branching outside usual suspects of cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir to drink barbera, grenache, and carignan-hardy varieties that are naturally easy to grow and disease resistant. The Lioco Sativa carignan ($31) is made from dry-farmed, 70-year-old carignan vines from a single mountainside vineyard in Mendocino County. It's bold and unique, but it's also a medium-bodied red with plenty of herbal and spice notes that make it remarkably food-friendly. And the grapes are harvested by hand rather than machine, giving jobs to workers at a time when jobs in California are sorely needed.
Wine is, after all, a reflection of culture, and to talk about it is to talk about the fears, feelings and dreams that might shape our tastes this year. Happy New Year, thanks for reading, and may the future be bright and full of toasts and celebrations.