As wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, Jon Bonné is the leading voice in a general-interest publication covering the heart of the California wine industry. He’s also controversial, for he has been one of California wine’s harshest critics.
In “The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste,” published in November by Ten Speed Press, Bonné argues that California’s wine industry has been on the wrong path for more than two decades, pursuing bigger, riper wines and higher point scores from critics at the expense of the character that made California wines great in the first place.
“Again and again I was disappointed by what I found to be the shortfalls of California wine: a ubiquity of oaky, uninspired bottles and a presumption that bigger was indeed better,” he writes.
Bonné is not the only prominent writer to criticize the prevalent style of California wine. Eric Asimov of the New York Times champions winemakers who strive for a more elegant, lower-alcohol style of wine, and I have sounded similar themes in this column. Bonné, however, is harder to ignore because of his base in San Francisco. Many in the wine industry regard him as a pest.
Bonné writes of the suspicion that greeted him, a New Yorker, when he arrived in San Francisco in 2006. Resentment still echoes today. “He’s anti-California,” one prominent Napa winery executive sniffed to me recently, explaining why he refused to read Bonné’s book.
Critics of the prominent California style are often accused of being effete Euro-snobs intent on finding “nuance” in their wines. (There is a depressing amount of jingoism in the debate over wine styles.) But Bonné doesn’t argue that California should make European-style wines. Rather, he wants California to return to the style of the 1970s, when the Golden State’s wines first triumphed over the best of France in the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting.
That was 30 years before Bonné joined the Chronicle. “How fast things changed — from just being happy to be in the conversation to winning the Judgment of Paris, then wave after wave of investment by the wealthy and bored eager to prove their egos in a new field,” Bonné told me recently during a visit to Washington to promote his book. “After 30 years of being told how awesome it was, California had drunk the Kool-Aid.”
Bonné’s book should be mandatory reading for all fans of American wine. He details how California became divided between Big Wine: the three companies (E&J Gallo, Constellation and the Wine Group) that produce nearly two-thirds of the state’s wines; and Big Flavor, the exorbitantly priced cult wines that favor extraction, oak, high point scores and exclusivity. From boring to . . . well, expensive and boring. Bonné searched for something between the innocuous supermarket wines and the cult cabs.
He found a few familiar holdouts for the old California style in Paul Draper at Ridge, Ted Lemon at Littorai and Josh Jensen at Calera. Over time, as Bonné explored California’s wine regions, he met others. Most, such as Steve Matthiasson with his eponymous label or Sashi Moorman of Sandhi, are consultants with high-profile wineries who are staking claims to new California wine with their own labels. They typically cannot afford their own vineyards but negotiate agreements with growers to allow them maximum say in how the grapes are farmed. Bonné celebrates winemakers who get out of the winery and into the vineyard.
There’s a weakness to his argument. Big Flavor has been successful as a paradigm for California wine not simply because a few wine writers have championed it but because consumers have welcomed it. The style pendulum may be swinging back toward restraint over hedonism, but the wineries Bonné favors are the fringe.
Producers such as Scholium Project, Anthill Farms and Hirsch make small amounts of wine available primarily through direct-to-consumer sales or allocated in small amounts to restaurants. And they are not cheap. These producers are not about to become the new face of California wine, except to a dedicated minority of wine drinkers.
Right now, consumers like things as they are. As James Laube, California editor of Wine Spectator and a champion of the California style Bonné disdains, wrote in November: “If he wants to make the case that wines of restraint are the future for California, he must explain why it’s for their own good to wean people away from what they like.”
Bonné’s response to that criticism is unprintable here. He is content to be at the tip of a movement, like an art critic challenging his readers to question their perspectives and prejudices when viewing a painting.
“What I think is troubling is that there are still folks talking as though taste, which is what wine criticism is really about, is objective,” he says. “The evidence points dramatically to the contrary.”