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Is California Trying To Be Like Us?

At Brengman Brothers, we pay a whole lot of attention to the other established wine regions in North America such as Oregon, Washington State, New York and Virginia…

What about California?

There’s a brand new strategy for the New California Wine Movement, such as;
- Move away from high-octane wine tendencies to a more weightless and subtle approach
- Redefining ripeness that is less about brix and more about places where phenolic ripeness is possible
- Movement to grow grapes in the cooler growing regions along the coast and higher elevations
- New focus on “wines that taste like where they come from”

Two recent books that are inspiring for our Leelanau Peninsula AVA wine region (and without any mention of us in either book) :
- Postmodern Winemaking by Clark Smith
- The New California Wine by Jon Bonne

Here’s some important facts taken from Jon Bonne’s Book “The New California Wine” that support our case:

The shift
By 2011 it was clear that a generational shift had taken place. Wines that were once considered only interesting footnotes were moving into the mainstream. A decade earlier, it was hard to drum up interest in California wines among many top wine buyers–notably in New York, the nation’s largest wine market. Even in San Francisco, many sommeliers were hesitant in the mid 2000s to buy much in the way of California wine.
California wines had become saddled with a reputation for being too simplistic and heavy-handed, too overwhelming for sommeliers to pair with food – and, frankly too expensive.

Defining Ripeness (Ted Lemon)
One of the great misconceptions of winemaking is that grapes will taste in wine as they do in the vineyard– as though the transformative process in the cellar simply passes flavor through unimpeded. Among the simplest changes: malic acid in the grape is often transformed into softer lactic acid, shifting the sugar-acid balance of the flavor. Grapes typically taste tarter than the wine they will become. As winemaker Ted Lemon puts it, “you want a tart apple for that pie, because when you bake it, then, damn, that’s good apple.

Cooler Growing Regions (Nathan Roberts and Duncan Meyers)
What seams to inspire us most is that we love wines that are grown at the edge, Meyers explains. Hence their Clary Ranch Syrah–just above 12 percent alcohol in a ripe year, barely above 11 percent in a cooler one, and sometimes not ripe enough to make at all. Clary Ranch is located in the Middle Two Rock area outside Petaluma. The vineyard is subject to persistent wind and fog to make for precipitously long ripening seasons. Rare is the year that Meyers and Roberts harvest before mid November. The austere but heady 2008 Syrah was a particular bit of sommelier catnip, with its more-Rhone-than-Rhone intensity–a wine that forced critics to rethink California. Just like the Cabernet mavericks a generation before them, two Napa boys had managed to lap the French. “We’re unabashedly aware,” Roberts says, ”that we’re working backwards from what we like to drink.”

A Sense of Place
Terroir is that most confounding of wine ideas. It is more than just a sense of place; writer Matt Kramer once described it as “somewhereness”–the belief that place not only matters, but makes all the difference. By the late 2000s, a raft of producers had emerged in fundamental opposition to Big Flavor, joining a handful of true believers like Ted Lemon, who quietly preserved through the ripeness years. Rather than offering lip service, they legitimately understood the purpose of Burgundy’s exacting drive to comprehend the specifics of place–and the inevitable torture that accompanies a true love for the grape. Californians had a long laid claim to the “Burgundian” approach, to the point of farce, but this group of new winemakers–Chanin Wines, Rhys Vineyards, Anthill Farms and so on– embraced the substance of terroir rather than just the word. Their wines tended to display lower alcohol levels and refined structure that promotes the ability to age. And yet, while they paid homage to the classic tension of top Burgundies, they also exuded California fruit. As Vanessa Wong of Peay Vineyards put it, “We can’t make Burgundy here. We’re not in Burgundy.”

As wine growers and makers from Leelanau Peninsula AVA, the new California wine movement is trying to be just like us! Our “somewhereness” is what California is moving towards - we have great terroir, we are on the edge of ripening vinifera grapes, have plenty of fresh water, clean air and we have the magical quality of the sunlight.

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