California is in the midst of the biggest wine revolution since the arrival of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Winemakers across the state are producing wines from unusual grapes and forgotten vineyards in an effort to reimagine the identity of Californian wine. Producing small quantities of well crafted, sophisticated and unique wines, the pioneers of the movement are catching the attention of wine drinkers around the world.
I arrived in California two months ago to work the harvest with Matthew Rorick, of Forlorn Hope Wines, one of the key figures in this small but growing cohort. Working the harvest is not glamorous. Fourteen-hour days picking grapes before the sun rises, trucking them for up to 10 hours at a time, pressing juice into the night, shovelling endless tons of grape skins, and cleaning drains. But it has allowed me to understand the operation from the inside out.
Projects like Rorick’s are a deliberate pushback against California’s near monoculture of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Rejecting the mainstream, he uses grapes such as Verdelho, Alvarelhao, Valdigué, Vermentino, Green Hungarian and Trousseau Gris. Working with more than 30 vineyards across the state, Rorick’s project is a commitment to revive the narratives of the small pre-existing California vineyards that, until recently, have been gradually forgotten or neglected, commercially out of vogue.
The aim is to reverse the misconception that Cabernet and Chardonnay are the only grapes that can make great wine here. Last week, we drove out to a tiny vineyard of Sangiovese in Solano county. Though the vines are three decades old, they are humble in size due to sustained water deprivation. The Sangiovese has all the cards stacked against it—a robust Italian red grape planted on high-drainage soils, with no access to water, in the cup of a small mountain inversion prone to frost damage.
Every time we visit the vineyard Rorick says the same thing: “Nobody should have ever planted Sangiovese here. But I’m so glad they did.” The vines struggle and only produce enough fruit to make a single barrel. But the wines reveal a rich focused intensity: deep concentration that exists in concert with a charming structural austerity. Over the last couple of years there has been a groundswell of small producers conducting similar experiments in an effort to expand the dialogue of what Californian wine can be. They are producing a gamut of wines as unique as they are delicious. Notable producers include Forlorn Hope, Arnot-Roberts, Ryme, Matthiasson, and La Clarine Farm.
Dealing with the unknown, these winemakers have been forced to adopt an approach based largely on experimentation, borrowing techniques from winemaking regions around the world. There are often surprises. After a week of listening to Rorick think out loud about what technique to use on his small lot of Trousseau Gris, he finally threw up his hands—“I have no idea what’s going to happen!” At any given time there are up to 30 experimental lots fermenting in his winery, from a funky-tasting barrel of Ribolla Gailla that was treated like a red wine during fermentation to a single one-gallon carboy of wine from the unusual Feher Szagos grape, procured from some of the last existing vines planted in California during the 1940s. Many of these unusual grapes are surpassing expectations and producing some of the most exceptional wines to come out of California in decades.
“The wine industry in California is so young,” says Rorick, “there is so much left to discover.” The revolution, still in its infancy, is producing an entirely new category of Californian wines that must not be overlooked.