A gentle revolution is sweeping California, with wine producers ditching the bombastic style that's prevailed in the state since the 1990s in favor of leaner, subtler wines. Small producers like Copain, Wind Gap, Kutch, Tyler, Sandhi, and Arnot-Roberts are reversing the trend in Napa and Sonoma of making overripe, over-oaked, high-alcohol fruit bombs and are instead crafting restrained wines that reflect a European sensibility. "Palates are clearly evolving away from the big-style wines and toward greater elegance," says Daniel Johnnes, wine director for chef Daniel Boulud's restaurants. It's little surprise that this new crop of California wines is generating huge excitement.
When Wells Guthrie launched Copain winery in 1999, he knew how to make wines that sell: His relatively bold, high-octane pinot noirs and syrahs earned him stellar ratings and a loyal following. But they lacked the Old World refinement and finesse found in the Burgundies and Rhônes that Guthrie loved, so he chose to take his wines in another direction, picking grapes earlier and keeping alcohol levels in check. Some weren't pleased ("We lost customers and a few distributors," Guthrie says), but he preferred these wines, and people have come around to his point of view.
While unquestionably influenced by Europe, this new generation of winemakers is seeking to produce small-batch, handcrafted wines that reflect the attributes of their vineyards. Instead of the quintessential sun-baked California hillsides, though, they're gravitating to cooler-climate sites. These yield ripe but impeccably balanced wines that reflect a very different aesthetic than the bigger-is-better approach – the instinct to "turn up the volume," says Wind Gap's Pax Mahle. "I don't think it can be solely blamed on chasing points or kowtowing to any particular critic. It's just the desire to increase the wow factor." Still, "too many California wines just make lots of noise," he says.
Pax and Pam Mahle are proving that it is possible to make incredible syrahs in California.
Recommended: Griffin's Lair Syrah, Sonoma Coast Syrah
Credit: Photograph by Michael Pirrocco