Food & Drink: There's life beyond Napa: Californian winemakers are starting to break new ground, says Anthony Rose

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Indy Lifestyle Online
'Wine in California is in the experimental stage. One corner of land after another is tried with one kind of grape after another. This is a failure; that is better; a third best. So, bit by bit, they grope around for their Clos Vougeot and Lafite.'

Spot-on, Robert Louis Stevenson, writing in 1883. Except that in the past 20 years they have found their Bordeaux styles with cabernet sauvignon in the Napa Valley. Here Rutherford and Oakville are now spoken of in the same reverential tones as Pauillac and Margaux in Bordeaux itself.

With the 1994 vintage now gathered in, the wineries of the Napa Valley are full of the simmering of fermenting grapes. For the teams of migrant Hispanic workers who have 'busted their butts' picking California's grape harvest at dollars 100 a day, the post-vintage taco and tortilla parties are over. Bags packed and pockets bulging with the equivalent of an annual wage, they are slowly drifting back to Mexico.

After an even growing season, which looks like favouring reds in 1994, California's vineyards have delivered their mellow fruit, leaving trees on the valley floors and hillsides ablaze with sunset yellows and fiery reds.

The Golden State appears on American television's Fall Index as one of the best places to capture the rich autumnal shades of russet and gold.

Tourists need little encouragement. The Napa Valley, the heart of California's wine industry, is the second most visited spot in the US after Disneyland. From 20 wineries in 1965, it has expanded to more than 200 today.

It is not only because of overcrowding or high prices in Napa that producers are turning elsewhere to locate fresh sources of premium-quality grapes. And nor is it solely because vineyards planted on roots not resistant to the vine-slaying phylloxera bug have had to be replanted at vast expense.

Bug or no bug, the California map was destined to change as soon as the consumption of 'jug' table wines began falling 10 years ago in favour of premium-quality wines, and consumers started to look for alternatives to the duopoly of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay.

From Sonoma, Paso Robles and the Sierra foothills, California's near-native zinfandel, reprieved by the craze for off-dry rose, or blush wines, has become a source of some of the state's most pleasurable red wines. They may never become mainstream, but Italian varieties were given a significant boost when Piero Antinori bought Atlas Peak in the Napa Valley. The Perrin brothers, from one of Chateauneuf du Pape's top properties, Chateau de Beaucastel, have added credibility to the Rhone boom by planting 120 acres near Paso Robles with six rhone varieties from their vineyards.

The popularity of the new styles has much to do with the charisma of risk-takers such as Bonny Doon's Randall Grahm, Qupe's Bob Linquist and Au Bon Climat's Jim Clendenen. Viognier, the rare grape of Condrieu in the northern Rhone and the favoured rhone variety, 'offers another choice', according to John Alban, who claims the largest plantings of the grape in his Edna Valley vineyard. He says he does not believe it is a fad, 'or at least I'm praying it isn't'.

Price and quality, however, will in the long run determine the success or failure of the new styles.

As for groping for Clos Vougeot: the holy grail of pinot noir was until recently thought to reside in Carneros, the cool maritime region which straddles the southern end of Napa and Sonoma counties on the way to San Francisco. Now that Carneros has made Napa's reputation as a source of premium pinot noir and chardonnay, Los Angeles has discovered a little Burgundy of its own in the Central Coastal region of Santa Barbara, an exposed chin of land jutting into the Pacific just north of Los Angeles.

Here the moderating influence of morning mists and westerly winds blowing up the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valleys from the Pacific contributes to a long, dry growing season.

Chardonnay, which accounts for almost two-thirds of the region's 10,000 acres, remains the locomotive, while pinot noir, according to Ken Brown of Byron, 'is the thing that will glue it together in the long term'. Using burgundian techniques, producers such as Sanford, Au Bon Climat and Foxen have managed to coax incredible intensity of flavour from their pinot noir and chardonnay vines. So much so that three giants, Mondavi, Kendall Jackson and Beringer, have moved in and snapped up almost the entire remaining vineyard holding of the county.

According to Richard Dore of Foxen Vineyards, 'it's like a galloping horse and we don't know where it's going'.

It would be hard to disagree with Mike Michaud, the winemaker at Chalone, further up the Central Coast towards Monterey, when he says that 'the best Californian wines are not yet better than the best burgundies, but there are a lot of Californian wines that are better than a lot of burgundies'.

Chalone, Calera, Edna Valley, Talley Vineyards in the Arroyo Grande Valley and Morgan in Monterey are just a handful of Central Coast names to watch out for. Mike Michaud also says that 'it's hard to evaluate a wine unless you've drunk it a lot'. The evaluation of the wines beyond Napa is just beginning.

(Photograph omitted)

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