Off the Beaten Path

In 2011, acclaimed sommelier Rajat Parr, partner and proprietor of Domaine de la Côte and Sandhi in Santa Barbara’s Sta. Rita Hills, co-founded In Pursuit of Balance, a non-profit organization that puts the spotlight on California-made Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The response has been strong.

With 33 well-regarded wineries joining In Pursuit of Balance (such as Au Bon Climat, Flowers and Twomey), and 2015 events spanning New York, San Francisco, Houston, Osaka and Tokyo, there is undoubtedly a desire among industry influencers to illuminate wines that are balanced, non-manipulated and redolent of California’s unique and motley terroirs. The rich, powerful Cabernet Sauvignon that stole the show at the 1976 Judgment of Paris may have long defined the aggressive style of winemaking favored by Napa Valley behemoths, but today, California, the country’s largest producer of wine, is fast becoming known for leaner, refined expressions made outside of the saturated epicenter of fabled tasting rooms.

Changing Perceptions

“The overall perception here is that the California wine pendulum is swinging back towards more restrained and balanced wines,” says Jennifer DiDomizio, who runs the shop California Wine Merchants with Taylor Senatore in New York’s Financial District. “In the rest of the country, I don’t think it’s changed much from the idea that California wines are generally big, bold and in-your-face. In many other states, the selection of California wines is more homogenized and includes less choice from larger scale wineries.”

A visit to California in the 1980s and 1990s would have assured copious glasses of oak-forward Chardonnay and tannic Cabernet Sauvignon churned out by large-volume producers, the Bordeaux varietals and luxurious styles dominating the scene. Of course, the predilection for these wines remains strong. They are very much a thriving component of California’s winemaking tradition, forever entrenched in its culture.

Then the other trends started to emerge: the Rhone Rangers championing grape varieties from the South of France, the planting of “Cal-Ital” grapes, the ascension of well-hidden AVAs, and the rise of indie producers trying to compete with the big guys’ impressive marketing muscles by flexing their own quality wines made without fanfare.

In particular, California Wine Merchants’ stock revolves around bottles from such small wineries, so DiDomizio says hand selling remains an important approach for the shop.

“We sell a good deal from Matthiasson, Red Car, Robert Sinskey, Banshee and Rivers Marie,” she says. “Red blends are exceedingly popular right now, from Rhone and Cabernet to ‘kitchen sink’ blends that include more than a handful of grape varieties. People don’t seem to care about the specific grapes, as long as the wine tastes good. Otherwise, Pinot Noir remains a great seller and Syrah is making a bit of a comeback.”

Although California Wine Merchants’ customers are knowledgeable and seek out the unconventional, DiDomizio says tastings, and specific tasting notes drafted for each bottle, are a vital part of educating all those curious folks who wander inside.

“The point-of-sale notes convey the story behind the winery and include our impressions of the wine when we tasted it,” she adds. “We provide our comments in lieu of critics’ notes or scores. Sharing with our customers which wines and producers we are excited about gets them excited, too.”

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Emerging AVAs

Propelling this interest is the advent of AVAs beyond the North Coast’s most-celebrated winemaking regions. There are over 200 of them spread throughout California. One by one, we’ve seen offbeat locales like Paso Robles, Lodi, Monterey and Santa Cruz get the limelight for their less-famous-but-stellar wines, often made on family-owned estates.

Dennis Carroll, CEO of Wine Hooligans, a brand development company that works with such California wineries as Cycles Gladiator, Broadside, Robert Goyette, Stephen Vincent and Sea Monster, says that “the awareness of upcoming AVAs always creates excitement at the distributor and trade levels. This makes telling your story easier to a receptive audience.”

One caveat he warns of, however: “As popularity increases, wine becomes harder to source and typically more expensive. Keeping your cost and quality consistent becomes a challenge.”

DiDomizio says her customers are increasingly growing familiar with these different AVAs, especially cool-climate ones like Sta. Rita Hills and Anderson Valley. These areas, along with Sonoma Mountain and Sonoma Coast, are also popular at Redwood City, CA-based K&L Wine Merchants.

“Customers are definitely seeking out wines which are not of the old norm,” explains K&L’s proprietor, Eric Story. “They are looking for varietals that come from growing zones, which benefit and produce wines with better balance and character. Customers have become very savvy and are very interested in terroir and microclimates. There is a shift away from the ‘corporate’ style to more of a demand for wines of individuality.”

“Pinot Noir, I think, is the leader of this movement with Chardonnay right behind,” Story adds. “But varietals like Semillon, Mouverdre, Carignan and even Sauvignon Blanc are being produced with this same mindset, and some really fun wines are out there.”

Interest in wines from the Anderson Valley AVA — the northernmost and coolest-climate winegrowing region in the state — has significantly spiked, as in the case of FEL Wines’ Savoy Vineyard.

“It is a new frontier for California Pinot Noir winemaking. People who grow Pinot Noir are attracted to planting vines on the edge of where you can farm successfully, and the Anderson Valley is pushing that to the limit,” says FEL’s winemaker, Ryan Hodgins. “With the risk of early harvest and lots of rain comes the benefit of being able to produce Pinot Noir that is reflective of its climate in an elegant style.”

“My goal as a winemaker is to make wines that are reflective of a place and vintage,” Hodgins adds. “In more recent years, people have embraced elegance and subtlety in winemaking, which is well-suited to the Anderson Valley, and is one of the reasons the AVA is considered to be on the rise.”

With an SRP of $38, it’s clear that FEL Anderson Valley Pinot Noir is not intended as an everyday table wine. Instead, it connotes a certain quality attached to special occasions, in turn adding value to the AVA’s overall burgeoning reputation.

Obscure No More

Hodgins’ dedication to capturing locality bodes well for even-more obscure AVAs, like Coombsville, which was first established in 2011. It is home to the Nathan Coombs Estate, the former Tourmaline Vineyard that has since been 
acquired by Sebastopol’s Paul Hobbs Winery, which is known for both its widely distributed Napa Valley and wine-collector-worthy Nathan Coombs Estate vineyard designate blends.

“The most exciting thing about having a winery in an on-the-rise AVA is the sense of community and pioneering discovery that come along with it,” says Megan Baccitich, Paul Hobbs Winery’s director of winemaking. “Additionally, I find it rewarding to have the opportunity to be instrumental in the creation of the AVA’s reputation.”

Baccitich notes that California wines are finally becoming better understood among customers, that it is “a multifaceted region, meaning it has variable climates, soils, varietals, vintages and wine styles. Specific to the Coombsville AVA, we’ve seen it perform very well in both hot and cool vintages. We understand it to have a strong diurnal shift, which makes for intense color and concentration in the wine. This challenge of shifting weather patterns has turned out to be a positive for us.”

Likewise, Laura Barrett, winemaker of Casey Flat Ranch in the Capay Valley AVA, enjoys surprising people with the likes of Estate Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and a Syrah/Cabernet Sauvignon blend made “from a place they have never heard of. I love educating them on the Capay Valley — where it is located, the history of the valley, the climate and soil. The challenges are that we have no coattails to follow, so we are creating our own path to success from the ground up. This began with figuring out which grape varieties to plant, originally an experiment in 2003.”

Malibu Wine

One of the most exciting AVAs to recently emerge is Malibu Coast. In 2014, after three years of applying for AVA status, more than 50 local vintners were granted the power to grace their bottles with the Malibu Coast AVA designation.

“Unbeknownst to most people, there is documented history of the existence of vineyards in Malibu close to 200 years ago,” explains Elliott Dolin of Dolin Malibu Estate Vineyards. “Over the course of time — between diseases, Prohibition and increased development — vineyards disappeared from the scene until the mid-1980s, when restaurateur Michael McCarty planted what we consider the first ‘modern-day’ vineyard in Malibu.”

“Excellent growing conditions led others to follow, and the Saddle Rock and Rosenthal Vineyards appeared several years later, each obtaining their own unique AVAs (Saddlerock-Malibu and Malibu-Newton Canyon),” Dolin adds. “Throughout the years of late 1990 and early 2000, a number of other vineyards sprung up and the movement gained momentum. During this time, Malibu wines were gaining recognition and winning awards in major wine competitions. However, other than the Saddlerock and Newton Canyon wines, the wines originating from Malibu grapes could only be designated as ‘Los Angeles County’ or ‘California.’ Neither offered the ‘sense of place’ or origin that we felt our wines deserved.”

Now that the group’s efforts have led to the establishment of a proper AVA, Dolin is reveling in the attention it’s received for, say, its Chardonnay. However, marketing, he says, remains a significant challenge.

“We have proven that we can produce award-winning wines, but we must raise public awareness of the quality and unique character of the wines coming out of our region,” he explains. “Our most convenient target is the local audience, and Malibu wines are featured in most every wine shop in the area. But we hope to expand our audience throughout the state and nationwide, perhaps internationally.”

“Malibu is a recognized name for many reasons, but wine is not yet at the forefront of that recognition,” he adds. “While the mystique of ‘Malibu’ can work to our advantage and entice consumers to try our wines, we want them to be viewed and appreciated as serious efforts worthy of recognition, not just for the novelty of originating from Malibu.”

This is when the power of social media to engage audiences and build interest is an especially poignant tool to encourage action among buyers.

“I like seeing these like-minded producers working together in order to promote the wines as a whole,” says Story. “Having these wines placed in local wine shops, which are well thought out and mindful, is a major boost as well. But, bottom line, it all starts by getting a filled glass into the consumer’s hand.”

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