I flew into California with an itinerary full of winery visits and a head full of preconceptions. I hadn’t been in years and was girding my palate for bulldozer Cabernets and over-oaked, thirst-inducing Chardonnays. In that, at least, my expectations of the trip in spring went unmet.
From the broad terrace at Ridge’s Lytton Springs winery in Sonoma, gnarled dark Zinfandel trunks lead the eye towards modest hills, also striped with vines. It’s a restful place, spacious in every sense: these centenarians are planted much farther apart than their modern descendants, standing out against the bright surrounding greenery. Age does not wither them: the oldest Lytton Springs I’ve drunk, an heirloom from my father, was a 1995 that was young at a quarter-century.
There are more old vines in California than a person from across the Atlantic, accustomed to talk of the New World, might expect, although fewer than there might have been. Franciscan monks planted up the coast; by the 1850s, quality wines were being made by colourful figures such as the obscure but dashing Hungarian, Agoston Haraszthy (who died in 1869 in Nicaragua, possibly in the jaws of an alligator) and General Vallejo, born in Monterey when it was still part of Mexico and credited with founding the town of Sonoma.
It was Prohibition that truly spoiled things, not just destroying the market for good wine but creating another for grapes with skins thick enough to survive shipping across the country. And not to be eaten, either. So old vines were ripped up and replaced with the ingredients for the oenological equivalent of bathtub gin. It’s a sad story – even more so when looking at these beautiful survivors and tasting what they produce.
Ridge owns even older vines – at Geyserville, a little farther north, and most famously at Monte Bello Estate in the Santa Cruz Mountains, 130 miles south below San Francisco, where an Italian doctor first planted in the 1880s. Ridge’s Monte Bello participated in the 1976 Judgement of Paris, the tasting that exploded the idea that only Bordeaux made world-class Cabernet. It was Napa Valley, however, home to the other American participants, that reaped the glory.
Vérité has also used Bordeaux to benchmark California, if in a very different fashion. Pierre Seillan, from a tiny village in south-west France, was working in Bordelais vineyards in the mid-1990s when Barbara and Jess Jackson, owners of Jackson Family Wines, challenged him to create a Californian wine that could rival top Bordeaux. He made three. La Muse, in a Pomerol style; Le Désir, a homage to St Émilion that’s mainly Cabernet Franc, and La Joie, a Californian interpretation of the Médoc that would surely have caused even more trouble at the Judgement of Paris if it had existed then (the first vintage was 1998). Pierre, when I met him in Paris two years ago, was entertainingly forthright: ‘wine’, he said firmly, ‘is nutritious and intellectually nourishing’. His wife Monique and their daughter Hélène, Pierre’s co-winemaker, showed me around the new premises, designed to reflect as well as showcase these elegant and expensive wines that nonetheless spring from a rural Frenchman’s obsession with the amazing variety of Sonoma’s soils.
The airy space resembled a luxurious living room, with beams, vineyard views and an in-house chef, but beneath are cellars and a vast barrel room. There was a manifesto of sorts for Pierre’s ’micro cru’ creed on one wall, lauding the dramatic variations in soils and microclimates that create vineyards within vineyards, while on another, an arrangement of different types of earth hung where I’d have expected to see a painting. The exceptional soil diversity, Hélène explained, is a result of volcanic activity, which was interesting if a little worrying. My understanding is that California is overdue for a major tectonic event. But it seemed impolite to mention it.
All that vineyard variation makes for a classification system of AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) and sub-AVAs so complex and mutable that I quickly gave up trying to understand the subtleties and concentrated on finding my intellectual nourishment in the glass. It’s confusing that Alexander Mountain falls under Alexander Valley AVA (for now, at least), but it was perfectly straightforward to stand on the mountaintop (which is owned by the Jacksons) and taste the differences – 200ft of altitude, three years – between two Stonestreet Winery Cabernets that grew here: Rockfall 2010 (gorgeous, mineral, moreish) and Christopher’s Vineyard 2013 (lovely red fruit, but still young).
We were staying at The Madrona, a boutique hotel newly fashioned from a 19th-century farmhouse just outside Healdsburg, a town where, said Jon McCarthy, Wine Director of The Matheson restaurant, there’s not much going on but Michelin stars. (Five, at the last count, which works out as one per 1,000 residents.) The Madrona had no star but I’d rather have had their wine list, anyway. David Ramey’s gamey Russian River Valley Pinot Noir was a lovely match for dry-aged duck.
Like Sonoma Valley, Napa is cooler in the south, endowed with an exceptional variety of soils and vulnerable to frost and excessive heat, which can be a problem for anywhere not reached by marine fogs or the Pacific breezes that sigh through the Chalk Hill Gap. But Sonoma is much bigger. At Carneros Resort, we were 50 miles from Healdsburg but as close to LaRue, the last Sonoma winery on my list, as we were to Napa town.
The Resort, formerly a trailer park, is now a 27-acre sprawl of luxury cottages grouped village-style around squares of grass; the tasting room used to be the post office, although the restaurant, FARM, was a very modern effort, with produce crackling fresh from their kitchen garden and an amazing list of Napa reds to match with meltingly tender aged beef. The whole place felt very Californian in its outlandishness, its distance – metaphorical as well as literal – from the places I spend most of my time.
The exceptional single-vineyard Pinot Noirs Katy Wilson makes with her husband David Meneses felt more familiar, to a part-time Burgundian, although LaRue is entirely boutique – grapes on contract, no staff (‘unless you count the dog’, said David wryly). Still, their Pinot is all from Sonoma which, when set alongside Vérité’s elegant new building and Ridge’s centenarian vines, seemed to round out my picture of the place. I was again reminded of the importance of an open mind: geography and soil types are all well and good but, as those Paris judges learned a half-century ago, every wine must be judged on its own merits and history, like an ocean breeze or a lava flow, allowed to take its course.