SAN FRANCISCO – Jon Bonné’s experience writing about wine in Washington state led directly to many of the conclusions he drew while writing his popular and controversial book, The New California Wine.
“The ethos of the new California wine industry is an echo of the ethos that was there 40 years ago,” he told Great Northwest Wine. “Washington preserved that ethos, and California got it back.”
Bonné, who will be in Seattle this week for a book event and Taste Washington, describes what he calls “new California” as wines using grapes that are naturally ripe, rather than overripe – “balanced, interesting wines that are made in a transparent style.”
On Friday, Bonné and his new book will be the focal point of an event at Book Larder in Seattle’s Fremont District. The 5 p.m. event will include appetizers by Picnic and a few wines selected by Bonné, who will offer a presentation and reading.
On Saturday, Bonné will be featured on a Taste Washington seminar about old vine wines.
The wine editor for the San Francisco Chronicle – the most important newspaper covering the American wine industry – said response to his book has been almost universally positive, with great reviews from The New York Times’ Eric Asimov and the Los Angeles Times’ Irene Virbila.
He’s also caught the (mild) wrath of Wine Spectator’s Jim Laube and Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker – distinctions that he expected and perhaps embraces, considering the trees his book’s theme is shaking.
California wine conversation shift
Bonné doesn’t seem to mind because he is witnessing a distinct change in the debate about the styles of California wine in the wake of his tome.
“When the book came out, I thought (the conversation) would unfold over six months or a year and talk about the diversity of California wine,” he said. “But almost instantly, the conversation seemed to shift. There is a critical mass of wines that are interesting and represent what I think makes people like California so much – wines that are compelling and fun and complex and nuanced and have a place on the table. They aren’t necessarily high or low in alcohol but avoid big flavors and go beyond the shock and awe of taste in California.
“I’ve heard people talk more about California wine in the past four or five months than they have in years. All of a sudden, it’s cool to talk about California wine.”
Bonné said he will be heading to London and Stockholm in a couple of weeks and is astonished at how interested the normally European-centric U.K market is to explore California wine.
Bonné’s path to California went through Washington
The New York City native moved to Seattle in 2000 to cover the wine industry for MSNBC. During his time in the Northwest, he wrote a wine column for Seattle Magazine. Those years – and his return to the West Coast a year later as wine editor and columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle – gave him important insights of the Washington wine industry that served him well while evaluating California wine and seeking out what he defines as its “new” industry.
“My view of what is interesting in California was 100 percent informed by my time in Washington,” he said. “I was used to seeing people in warehouses, people who didn’t have anything more than barebones equipment. And yet they were chasing a wine dream without having a million dollars to throw at it.
“With a couple of major exceptions, the Washington wine industry is built on small producers – quite literally warehouse wineries. It was an industry that had to learn to grow up. If you are in Napa Valley, you have a very different leverage of the wine industry than if you are in Walla Walla or Prosser.”
Now, he said, California finally is discovering Washington in a big way, with Gallo, Cakebread and Duckhorn gaining a toehold in the past two years.
“Some of it is they realize just how great the quality is in Washington,” he said. “There’s only a certain amount of $80 Merlot you can sell in California before you need another product.”
He added that the next generation of wine consumers isn’t necessarily willing to pay that much for wine, so California wineries inevitably are turning to Washington, where premium wine grapes can be grown for a third to half as much as Napa and Sonoma with zero drop in quality.
“It’s not just Washingtonians who are fond of the fact that there is affordable land (in the Columbia Valley),” he said. “If you’re in California, it’s a whole different mindset.”
Ron Shackelford says
Thanks for the article, Andy. I wonder how the drought in CA will affect the future sale of WA land to CA wineries? I’m sure it will only increase. Thanks again!
Andy Perdue says
Ron, thanks for the comment.
The drought is an interesting dilemma for California. For the most part, the California drought seems to be centered in the Central Valley and the southern part of the state. With some notable exceptions (Lodi, for example), the areas that will be hit the most produce higher-tonnage, lower-quality grapes. Meanwhile, Northern California appears to be in OK shape.
From the Washington perspective, winemakers compete at the upper end, primarily Napa and Sonoma. Thus, I don’t see a lot of competitive opportunities as a result.
That said, this would make an interesting article, which I am putting on my list right now.
David Vergari says
Hi Andy. Here’s a thought: given that Mr. Bonné is visiting the NW to promote his book, methinks the timing of his comments comes off as pandering to the local audience.
Andy Perdue says
David, he answered my questions on the subject, and he wrote as much in the book, so I don’t necessarily see it as pandering rather than being relevant.