I went up the coast for inspiration recently - and also to sneak in a maiden off road voyage in the new Cruiser, Suz. She did great, getting us to locations that required splashing through mud (and then reversing and splashing through the same mud again), to the foot of a hill or tree, all of which we'd climb, perch, chat and sip.
Everywhere I looked, I saw those giant trees shaped by time and weather, welcoming us to take a seat. Having spent most of my California childhood in Hang Ten t-shirts at the beach, these pastoral scenes were a surprise. There was a rural serenity, intact and alive, something equally unexpected and surprising. Roads wind around to accommodate the shape of nature rather than blasting through it or extending straight out for speed.
My love for driving was only deepened on these backroads, of course. Driving them has got nothing to do with going fast. Plus you can't be in a hurry when you're too busy fathoming the possibility of mountains and the sea, redwoods and live oaks, two lane highways leading to dirt roads that lead to other dirt roads, all in one scene together. Windows rolled down and the strong breeze rushing through to change our mood with the passing scenery - it was revelatory.
My heart is exploding with California lately, there is just so much to love. My appreciation and pride for my home state is nothing novel. But when it comes to wine (I hate to admit it), I wasn't always a champion of the stuff growing in my own backyard.
My love affair with California wine started later, only recently if I’m being fully honest. My first love was with the old world, which left me pining for trips to Loire Valley, Vallee d'Aosta and Sicily - all which I took, tasted, and learned. But back then, I wouldn't have appreciated the liquid beauty and history I’ve tasted recently in California wines, both old and new.
My California is a clear picture: it's a day of eternal sun, one that first bounces off the ocean to heat your face and melt your ice cream, then it soaks into your skin long after it's tucked itself in below the horizon; it's sunny winters and an always-scenic highway; it's from the past, a memory of a time and place that precedes me somehow; it's an Earl Thollander sketch, with live oaks, two lane roads, cows munching grass that scale rolling hills, and a barn. One that presumably contains people who grow things - not only earn a living but also to feed their families and neighbors, perhaps sitting amongst gnarled, old vines and olive trees. Winemakers of that era didn’t sit in their high towers or palaces that sprawled across $40M estates making remote decisions on how to bend what nature delivered into something marketable.
I’m not the same pup I was when I was snubbing the juice of my own home state. I recently opened a bottle of 1983 Merlot from Rutherford Hill, and it proved once again, that time is a hell of a thing (both in its effects on wine and on people).
This dusty gem that had so clearly walked the miles, made the journey. I tasted several others - 1978 Zinfandel and 1983 & 1984 Cabernet, and even Chardonnay from 1968! They were all alive, filled to the brim with the same wild herbs, eucalyptus, menthol, red berries and white pepper that grow in those Thollander sketches I love so much.
They were resolved, pure, and calling forth a period of time that I know in my bones is what makes California wine so wonderous.
Old wine is aspirational - not because it's high brow, because it feels lived in, like faded jeans and broken in boots. It has a future promise in it, that the adventure I'm having now makes a mark on me I'll only be able to taste later, when I reflect back on it.
And that means I must get out and do life. Taste everything, and be open to it.
But what about California wine now? It'd be easy to say how great California wine once was, a bygone era that we can only fantasize about, long lost unless we score some rare treasures from old relics like Stony Hill and Rutherford.
But that would be such a miss.
Because, oh, the contemporaries! The many new producers making wine in California are as revolutionary as those who made names for themselves in the 1970s. They’re doing things differently, with a consciousness that, at face value might sound hippie ish or like personal philosophy, but is actually impacting the wine world globally - for the better.
For one thing, they're not chasing Big Flavor - that thing that seduced the nouveau rich and satiated the elementary palate demands of sweeter, heavier, more. Those are the introductory cravings of the curious, the neophyte, but anything inspirational, moving, and meaningful comes from a place more complex, and that takes some context to appreciate.
Today’s California winemakers are doing the work of vinters (not the work of god), and they’ve doubled down on the idea that terroir isn’t adorned by a wine diety. They are in tireless pursuit to answer a question: what is California is truly made of?
The answer, I’m sure, is storied and more intricate than I’m qualified to provide. But I know it is full of good stuff. And while I have always been attracted to the allure of Burgundy and Loire, the romance of Italy, the free spirit of Portugal, it’s the bounty here that has got me feeling so inspired recently. I am never going to be a fourth generation farmer or even a first generation winemaker. But I am so incredibly proud to support the producers, to pay tribute, and to taste what it is to be Californian.
Here are images from my trip up the coast, and after that, a list of California producers I am proud to support, drink, and share:
Below are some California producers not to miss. There are more I'm sure, that I've failed to list. I'll continue to update this as necessary, so I don't leave anyone out. When you come across any of these, I command you to drink them! As always, you can shoot me an email to request some or a lot of these bad boys (and gals) and I'll do everything I can to make them show up at your doorstep, be it in California or elsewhere!
A TRIBUTE TO GRACE WINE COMPANY
ANTHILL FARMS WINERY
BLACK SHEEP FINDS
CHANIN WINE COMPANY
DOMAINE DE LA COTE
DREW FAMILY CELLARS
FORLORN HOPE WINES
GROUND EFFECT WINE COMPANY
HABIT WINE COMPANY
HOBO WINE COMPANY
HUNT & HARVEST WINES
ORO PURO VINEYARDS
PAX MAHLE WINES
POCO A POCO
ROARK WINE COMPANY
ROBERT SINSKEY VINEYARDS
SCAR OF THE SEA CIDERS
TENDU WINE COMPANY
TRAIL MARKER WINE COMPANY
WIND GAP WINES
YOUNG INGLEWOOD VINEYARDS