California wine: seeds of change

10 September, 2015

Restraint is not a word readily associated with the USA, the land of Man v Food, Muscle Beach and skyscrapers galore.

It has never really been on the minds of the nation’s winemakers either, as they have satisfied the tastes of Robert Parker with big, buttery Chardonnays, monstrous Zinfandels and flabby Cabernets.

But a new movement is slowly creeping in, with a generation of progressive winemakers starting to exercise a bit of restraint to produce lean, elegant, nuanced wines.

OLN joined eight independent wine merchants on a buying trip to California and it was these wines that impressed them, changing their perception of Golden State producers and sending them back to their various pockets of the UK enthused about the state’s wines.

Carroll Kemp, winemaker at Red Car in Sonoma, whose wines are distributed in the UK by Flint, says: “The power of critics encouraged people to make wines that were big and rich. If you made a big, rich wine that Parker liked you could send your kids to college and that can be an aphrodisiac to winemakers.

“But there is a shift. It’s small. It doesn’t start simultaneously with a million people, it starts with a thousand, and it has started.”

He adds: “I’m trying to make very pure varietal wines. I don’t want to manipulate the flavours of Chardonnay. Burgundy is an influence — the Mersault area I have embraced.

“Not many Americans know this style of wine — only half a dozen of us are making it.

“Most Americans don’t drink wine; they drink soda. Of the few that drink wine, most aren’t willing to spend much money, and they drink sweet and manipulated wine. The ones that spend money developed their tastes in the age of Napa Cabernet. But millennials are going for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with more acidity. There is no doubt it’s changing.”

Introducing elegance

Englishman Robin Akhurst, who worked at London wine merchant Lea & Sandeman before moving to New Zealand to learn winemaking and then on to California to take over as winemaker at Sonoma-based Swanson, has also witnessed the gradual shift.

“I’m trying to avoid the cloying California style,” he says. “We are trying to pull back the alcohol and retain some acidity. Some Californian wines are flabby on the palate. We are on the elegant side of things, trying to stop the alcohol from skyrocketing and keep freshness and acidity.”

Huneeus makes a range called Flowers that is lower in alcohol and higher in acidity than most of its Californian counterparts. It sells for £60 a bottle, is beloved by critics and UK collectors alike and is imported by The Wine Treasury.

Export director Marguerite Treat says: “It’s a much more European style. I love Chardonnay, but I would rather drink water than a fat, flabby, fruity, buttery Chardonnay. We make something a bit more subtle.

“It’s taken us a while to get here. We are such a baby country and we had Prohibition, so we had to start all over with wine appreciation. People are becoming more educated wine drinkers and winemakers want to make wine that expresses the terroir. We don’t want to cover it up by putting it in oak for 24 months. Picking decisions are based on the acidity, which makes for a more nuanced, delicate wine. Consumers are seeing that it’s wonderful in the glass and good for food pairing; crisper acid to complement the fruit rather than compete with it. It’s been a slow evolution, trying to spread the word, but we are getting there.”

A movement called In Pursuit of Balance has gained traction in recent years. The group charges a $900 annual fee and acts as a generic body for 33 small Chardonnay and Pinot Noir producers scattered across the Golden State that are united by a single cause: exercising viticultural restraint. Its manifesto, as conceptualised by founders Jasmine Hirsch and Rajat Parr, declares: “Balance is the foundation of all fine wine. Loosely speaking, a wine is in balance when its diverse components — fruit, acidity, structure and alcohol — coexist in a manner such that should any one aspect overwhelm or be diminished, then the fundamental nature of the wine would be changed.”

The group has staged a host of tastings and has started to gain listings in a range of channels. Producers that have signed up are raving about the movement, but sceptics have branded it pointless.

“I hear all about this movement called In Pursuit of Balance,” says Ed St John, vice president of sales and market at Pedroncelli, which is distributed by Amathus. “I say, ‘what the hell were you in pursuit of before?’”

But St John admits that there are a lot of wines that are horribly lacking in balance and subtlety in California.

He says: “I really don’t like some of the trends I see. One of the things that offends me to my core is the big Pinot Noirs coming out of Sonoma County. It’s just inherently wrong. We never make fruit bombs. We have well-balanced wines.”

Baby steps

Whether they love it or hate it, producers accept that the movement has made a big splash and a backlash is growing against flabby, unbalanced Californian wines.

Cameron Frey, vice-president at Ramey Wine Cellars, whose wines are distributed by Berry Bros & Rudd in the UK, says: “People are moving away from big, buttery Chardonnays. They are picking a little bit earlier in general and as a result using a little less oak. You get wines that are a little bit more restrained. We are taking baby steps.

“Burgundy monks have been making Chardonnay since the Middle Ages. Why try to fix something when it’s not broken? We can’t make a white Burgundy; that’s not what we’re doing. We have great weather, great sunshine, we aren’t in Burgundy, but there is a fundamental level of winemaking that we aren’t going to mess with.

“Because of the climate we still get broadness, texture and exotic flavours in our Chardonnay that don’t come out of a cool climate like Burgundy. We don’t have that minerality and strong steeliness, but there is a little overlap. We get the same earthiness.”

Evidence of an appetite for change to a more European style of winemaking may be good news for UK retailers looking to make up for a run of short harvests in Burgundy. Sales from the Golden State are sliding on this side of the pond — exports to the UK dropped 8% in 2014 versus the previous year, according to the Wine Institute of California — and a shift in viticultural approach may re-energise the market.

Linsey Gallagher, vice-president international marketing at the Wine Institute, says: “The UK is the number-one export market for Californian wine in volume, and neck and neck with Canada in terms of value at the moment.

“The UK is a very competitive market. We are not only trying to build business in large supermarkets; for a long time it was just about that. We have a great diversity of wine and that’s not what always makes it into the UK market. In the UK we have a lot of value stuff and then a few cult Cabernets, but there are some great wines in the middle tiers and we are gaining traction there.

“There are a lot of steak houses and restaurants opening in the UK and they are stocking a lot of Californian wine.

“We are building up the right part of our portfolio. We will never be the low-cost producer on a global scale — our land costs are too high — but in the middle tiers we can win. I hope more of these can find a home in a great wine market like the UK.”

Breaking stereotypes

Steve Messinger, international committee chair at Sonoma County Vintners, believes the main challenge faced is breaking down stereotypes that UK buyers have in mind when it comes to California, stereotypes often formed many years ago when the offering was inferior.

“Vintners have to be serious about the UK market,” he adds. “A lot of people rushed there when things were bad in the US but then came back to the US when things were better again here. People think it’s Blossom Hill White Zinfandel or Kistler Chardonnay. It’s either cheap and cheerful or expensive.

“But California does a wide range of wines at every level. That £15–£20 level is what we do really well. I wonder why people aren’t seeing those brands in the UK. It’s a distribution issue: with the exception of two or three, wholesalers say they have a Californian winery and that’s it. They would never have just one from France or one from Italy.”

Melissa Hahn, export manager at Beringer — which, along with the iconic Ridge, was the winery that most impressed the UK retailers — agrees that distribution is a major challenge facing Californian producers in the UK.

“US companies are not great at exporting and in the wine industry it’s bad,” she says. “For a lot of US suppliers, when you go international it’s like the icing on the cake. The focus is always on the US. They might sell a couple of cases but that’s it.

“Someone calls up and says they will take your brand in the UK and you say OK without asking anything about what they will do with it. They could not be marketing it properly or doing nothing with it or destroying your brand.

“When I first got into the wine industry, coming from a company like Chanel where the distributors are amazing, I was talking to these people distributing my brand [a brand she worked on before moving to Beringer] who were terrible, really incompetent. The whole industry has to really up the ante.”

She agrees that California needs to champion more premium tiers in the UK, so Beringer is removing its entry-level Classics range, which retails at £5.99, from the British market. The cheapest Beringer wines on offer now will be the Founders’ Estate range, which is twice as expensive.

Hahn says: “We want to get out of entry level, where Chileans are coming in at £4.99 or cheaper and we can’t compete. That will help the perception of Beringer.

“We make more margin on the higher-end wines and this is our focus. Classics is huge in the US, but Founders is a better entry into our luxury portfolio and helps us tell the story of our brand better.”

UK opportunities

Overall, producers are optimistic and confident in the UK market. Christopher Lynch, president at Napa winery Chimney Rock, which is part of the Terlato group and is distributed by Matthew Clark in the UK, says: “The UK is a tough market. It is full of the best wines from around the world and it demands good prices and deals. It’s one of the biggest wine markets in the world and it’s all exports. Wine buyers are experts and very demanding. There is an audience largely focused on classic appellations but willing to explore New World wines.

“It’s a tough market to make money from and five to 10 years ago some producers were turning to other countries instead because the grocers were dominating pricing, but there is an openness and willingness to discover new wines among independents and in the past few years a real niche market has opened up in the UK for premium Californian wines.”

Fellow Napa producer Michael Honig, owner of Honig Vineyard, adds: “We think there’s a lot of potential for the UK. But a lot of people have gone to China and the Far East. They love Napa over there.

“We have struggled in the UK for a number of reasons, but we are looking at the UK with serious intentions. The quality is improving, the dollar–sterling exchange rate is improving and we are hopeful. I think there are a lot of opportunities in the UK.”

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