Jon Bonne: “New California Wine” | Food at Google

By Brian Lemay 1 comment


LIV WU: Hi, everyone. Welcome. Thanks for showing up in such
a nice numbers on a Friday afternoon before Easter. Did you know we were
going to pour wine? You did? I thought I kept it a secret. It was a test to see how
many of you would come. So thank you for coming. And I didn’t have
to know the numbers because I had to figure
out how many wines to get, because these wines
are not easy to get. Trust my friend, Jon, to
write about rarer wines. Anyway, welcome. My name is Liv Wu. I’m on the Mountain
View food team. I was hired six years
ago as an executive chef. But now I’m a program manager. And very happy that
we have Kitchen Sink, the download on food. That’s the official
name of this glass cube. It’s a mouthful, and it
still doesn’t tell you that it’s a teaching
kitchen, which is what it is. The food team believes
passionately in not just giving you the fish, but
teaching you how to fish. And so we have created this
place– this lab, this studio, if you want– for you
to play in and to learn, as much as you want
to, about food. Including that very
essential ingredient, wine. And so we do want to
learn a lot about wine. And I am absolutely
thrilled to have as my first guest this expert
and my dear friend, Jon Bonne, wine editor for the
San Francisco Chronicle and my former colleague. Welcome. JON BONNE: Great to be here. Thank you guys for coming. LIV WU: So John came to
the Chronicle in 4006? 4006. OK. JON BONNE: Glad I got
in the time machine. 2006. LIV WU: 2006. And I left in 2008. But was an amazing colleague. Just the depth and breadth
of knowledge about wine. Spoken sometimes in
a lovely geeky way– this is what I loved about him–
just endeared himself to me. I put myself at
his feet and tried to learn about tasting wine. Wednesday mornings,
50 to 80 wines that we poured and tasted. And we spit. On Wednesday morning. JON BONNE: In two
and a half hours. LIV WU: In two and a half hours. To go through all the wines that
come through the Chronicle wine selection. So Jon was in Seattle before
he came to San Francisco. He was with MSNBC, writing
about lifestyles and wine. He’s also been published
in the New York Times, and various
food magazines and tabloid magazines. So he is really knowledgeable. And we did many a
series of stories, together, that we
loved doing, which was finding wines to
pair with Asian flavors. And that was just a lot of fun. A lot of fun cooking and– JON BONNE: I’m going to get
you back for one more of those. LIV WU: OK. It’s a deal. Thank you for coming. So I get to do something
with him I’ve never done, which is– we each
interview a lot of people and did a lot of reporting, but
I get to interview him, now. So tell me what was
the genesis of the book and why you decided to
say yes even though you had this label that kind of
sat on top of you that said, he hates California wine. That was what was
said about him. And even though I
knew it was not true. JON BONNE: This
specific genesis of it was this piece I did for
“Saveur” magazine, in 2010, called “The New
California Wine,” which made it seemed like it
was a very smart thing to then turn into a book. But you probably know
better than anyone else what it was like for
me when I came out here. I didn’t inherently have
anything against California wine but I had
grown up with wine from California and
elsewhere, in New York. And had started
writing about wine when I moved to the
West coast, in Seattle. And had this amazing explosion
to witness of Northwest wines, that I absolutely
fell in love with. And would continually
taste California, because when you
write about wine, you have to taste from all over. And was really
persistently disappointed, and wondered what happened from
this time, when I was a kid, and my father was
teaching me about wine. And we would taste wines
from Mondavi and whoever, and they were
certainly very good. And this was, at that point,
sort of, early ’80s, I’d say. And jumping forward
20 years or so, really why there was no
real interest for me. And then, of course, I got hired
by the San Francisco Chronicle to write about wine. Notably California wine, which
was a bold move on their part. And what became
clear, I started out looking for any signs of hope. And, actually, kept finding
them here and there. The first really significant
one was not far from here. I had chose the
winemaker of the year two weeks after I got there. And chose Paul Draper at Ridge. And so, actually, didn’t even
make the trek to Cupertino, because he was in
London and had to spend three hours on the
phone with him, when he was in London
after slightly tipsy lunch, getting my winemaker
interview done. But found him. Found Josh Jensen at Calera,
down in San Benito County the next year, who really
pioneered terroir-driven Pinot Noir in this country. Kept finding more
and more people. And realized, especially,
that there was this younger generation of
winemakers who were, at first, it seemed, just
making interesting side projects and working around the edges. And then, by about 2010,
it became really clear that what they were
doing– and I don’t even think they knew
it, particularly– was changing the dialogue
about California wine and what it represented, and
how the world would perceive it. And that really, ultimately,
what they were beginning to do and, I think, have
done, is as important, culturally, as what the great
pioneers of the late ’60s and early ’70s did, here, the
Robert Mondavis and the Warren Winiarskis. Which is to make
wine from California they felt was as relevant and
as site-specific and as driven by a sense of
place as great wine from anywhere else in the world. LIV WU: There were
the greats of the ’70s and the Judgment of Paris. And then was there a real fall? What happened? Why did they go off course? JON BONNE: There
was a fall but not in the way people
perceive it, necessarily. So the ’80s were this
transitional time. A lot of wineries grew
very fast and very big. And started making
what they called, at the time,
“fighting varietals,” which were valuable. This is when the notion of $10
Chardonnay or $8 Chardonnay really appeared
for the first time. Or Merlot or Cabernet. Rather than buying wine known
by a place or by something like Mountain Chablis, which
meant absolutely nothing. That you would buy a specific
type of grape and, typically, it was from California. And it wasn’t more specific
than that and, in part, that was because,
as they grew, you started making
millions of cases. You had to go out to
the Central Valley. You had to find cheaper and
more industrially farmed grapes. And find ways to
grow your business to make the numbers work. So that was one piece. And then the other
piece was that really, starting in the late ’60s
through the mid to late ’80s, the advice that UC Davis
was giving to vineyardists was to plant their vineyards
on a rootstock called AxR1. And the way that
vineyards work, really almost everywhere
in the world, is that every vine is
essentially a mutant. It’s a hybrid. The vinifera vine– that
specific genus, I think– is susceptible to
a number of things, and particularly, to a vine
louse called phylloxera. Phylloxera destroyed most
of the world’s vineyards of the 19th century. Destroyed them again
in places in the 20th. And so it’s always
been this challenge to find a way to prevent
this pest from eradicating huge, huge portions of vineyard. So what would you do is you
take a resistant rootstock. You graft the vine on top. And almost every vine planted
in the state of California is it that way. And actually almost every
vine planted in France, Italy, Spain– pretty much
everywhere in the world– is planted that way. So AxR was this great
solution to them. And it was good for yield. It was good for productivity. It was drought tolerant. It had a slight problem
with phylloxera. It wasn’t entirely resistant. But you go back and
you look at the text. And they actually say, you
know, we think it’s so good, that the lack of
resistance probably isn’t going to be an issue. So by the late ’80s, I
would say almost all, but an enormous portion
California’s vineyards had been wiped out by phylloxera. For, at the time, over a
billion dollars of replanting. So after this huge boom, there
was this replanting that came. And at the same time, there was
a ton of money that showed up. This is going in the early ’90s. And so, especially in Napa,
there were these new vineyards. And new vineyards do
one thing very well, which is to produce fruit very
fast at very high sugar levels. And you have an
influx of investors who were interested in wine. Might not have known
a lot about wine, but we’re curious and
wanted to get in there and get famous quick. And you had vineyards that
would make these big, ripe, very expressive wines, even
if they weren’t complex. And you also had critics who
suddenly decided that, rather than these much more
structured, much more classic wines that people have
been interested in before, the bigger, the better. And this is what’s,
in the book, called “The Beginning of the
Era of Big Flavor.” Where there was no upper limit. That’s how I would put it. And so, in a way, that was
a mark of great success. Because all of a sudden,
there were these wines that had no track record that
were coming out and getting 97, 98, 99, 100
points from critics. And people were going a
little crazy over them. They were big. They were flashy. They were increasingly
very expensive. And so, if you didn’t
know a lot about wine but you knew that 99
was better than 95 and you were looking for a way
to get a connoisseurship very quickly, these were
wines that would do it without having to sort of
go through the boring part of learning about terroir
and looking for wines that had a specific
track record. And so it’s hard
to say that that was a decline, because
obviously, in a way, it was a success. But it also chased a lot
of very serious people out of the industry. LIV WU: So give me a
sense of the wines that were scored 95, 96, 97, 99 by
wine enthusiasts or by somebody else we won’t
mention, quite yet. How were you scoring them? JON BONNE: Luckily,
at that point, I was– well, when that
started, I was still in college. So I was I not scoring anything. Because I was drinking cheap
Chilean wine, anything, out of a jug. But when I got to the Chronicle
and these wines would, at least some of
them, come before me. Because really, the ones who
reach that truly top pinnacle, they would get in this
thing where, typically, you would send a wine critic wine
and they would review it. But they got to this
place where they felt that the only way that
a critic would properly understand it was if
they came to the winery and they tasted it
with the winemaker and tasted it in context. And got to, therefore, get a
complete sense of the wine. So if you want to go
and taste, let’s say, a Screaming Eagle, or Harlan,
you would make the trip. Because otherwise you wouldn’t
get to taste the wine. And if you were a critic who
was trafficking in such things, you would look
like a chump if you didn’t have that in your roster. How did I score them? Not very well. And that was, part
of it is, I got here with some notion of a
frustration about California. And then was encountering a
lot of these wines– not all of them, some of
them were well made, but a lot these wines–
over and over again, that were just monotonous. They tasted like raisins,
and oak, and alcohol. And the thing was
that it was, and we’ll talk more sure about the
details of this a little bit, but it was people
pushing grape growing beyond the bounds of
natural chemistry. And some of it was that there
was a rise of technology in the ’90s, really,
that allowed people to go far beyond the adjustments
they had ever made, to really kind of tweak wine, to make
it taste however they wanted. So rather than think about how
you would take a grape grown to optimum ripeness,
pick it, make wine from it and, hopefully,
it would express some semblance of
where it was grown. You would just grow a
grape as ripe as you could, knowing that the things
that you were taking out of it– for instance,
acidity, natural acidity– you could just put it right back in. And that, one of the
things, for instance, that happens when you do
that, which is that– wine is a slightly delicate,
microbial environment. When you have a wine
that’s too low in acidity, it exposes itself
to bacterial taint– potential bacterial taint. But when you have all these
filtration techniques that showed up– reverse
osmosis that showed up, something called Velcorin,
which was originally used in sports drinks, which
essentially biologically neutralizes whatever it’s put
into– then you don’t have to worry about the natural
parameters of winemaking. LIV WU: Interesting. But then we can’t
place all the blame on the critics that scored high. There had to be an
audience that loved big, in-your-face, jammy
wines, and high alcohol. Is that true? Is that part of the equation? JON BONNE: There
were, absolutely. And in part, whereas
wine had always been portrayed before
as something that was on the table– to your
point about it being integrated into the program, here–
it was on the table, it was part of a meal. These wines were
really intended, and were largely
consumed, on their own. LIV WU: On their own. JON BONNE: And so you didn’t
open up a blockbuster, thinking you would have it
with a Tuesday night dinner. You opened it up because
you wanted to be impressed and you wanted your
friends to be impressed. And you would sit
in awe of this wine that simply, kind of,
turned itself up to eleven. LIV WU: One the greatest
lessons I learned from you was that lower alcohol
red wines– which are very hard to find, for
especially Asian flavors, which are so bold– are the wines
that go well with food. JON BONNE: Usually. LIV WU: Usually. Right. Anything above 13.5,
14 is going to fight with the high-flavored food. JON BONNE: Yes. And the thing is, if your life
consists of going and eating rare filet mignon,
every night, then you might have a justification
for a 15% Cabernet or a 15% Zinfandel. And legitimately, there are
gastronomic contexts for those, but on balance, they
don’t work well with food. And even, I think,
their defenders have largely given up on trying
to make the case that they’re gastronomic wines. They want to be showpieces. LIV WU: So you wrote the book
based on the Saveur articles. And then you put this winemaker,
this wine grower, on the cover. Tell us about Mr. Lemon. JON BONNE: So Ted Lemon owns
a winery called Littorai. L-I-T-T-O-R-A-I. And he was
my 2010 winemaker of the year. And Ted is really one of my
favorite people in California. Among other things, he
was the first American to run a domain in Burgundy. He was 24 years old. He had studied in Dijon, I
think– Dijon or Beaunne. And Domaine Guy Roulot, which
is really the greatest, or one of the greatest,
houses in the commune of Meursault, sort of one of
the top white wines in Burgundy. Their patriarchal had died. They needed someone to
come in and make the wines. And Ted was highly recommended. It was implied that
he wasn’t going to, despite the fact
he was an American, he wasn’t going to muck
around with things, too much. And would, more or less, keep
the winemaking style as it was. And so that was
his real tutelage. So he came back to the US. Came to California. And you would think, well,
he made wine in Burgundy. He’s going to try to
make wines like Burgundy. And very quickly he
concluded that it was ludicrous to
try and do that. And that what you should do is
to take the best of the lessons that he had learned about
respecting soils which– and he says it in the book– Burgundy
did not often do very well, despite having, really,
some of the great terroirs in the world. But learning how to
respect the soils. Learning how to farm well. And really learning
how to make wines that are appropriate to their place. And began what’s now, I guess,
about a 20-year endeavour to find these great vineyards. Littorai means, in Latin, it’s
a derivative of the coasts. And so, running
essentially from, approximately, Sebastopol
up through Anderson valley. This winery that’s essentially
a meditation on great vineyard sites near the Pacific coast. Which would, in and of
itself, be interesting. But Ted also is one of
the most diligent farmers I have ever met. He practices biodynamics, which
is, sort of, organics beyond. But not even Steinerien
biodynamics– although he would argue
it’s classical Steinerian biodynamics– but
he’s pushed aside the by-the-numbers
version of biodynamics and really started
working with consultants who looked at agroecology. And looked at farming your
farm as a holistic unit. Which involves figuring out
appropriate cover crops. Which involves
growing– not only using homeopathic
treatments– but growing the chamomile or the
nettles, yourself. And really, in his
case, his view of this– LIV WU: Does he have
animals on the farm? JON BONNE: He has some animals. The animals are always
a little tricky, especially when you
have grapevines. So it’s this
negotiation of manure. You have never met someone
who has been so revered, in the world, and who graduated
Brown, and has this Ivy League education, who’s spent so much
time thinking about cow manure. And his thing is that
it’s not even the grapes. He has a lot of work
with vines and with using clonal replication. So that, instead of
going to the nursery and getting what they
say you should get, that you really are
interested in coming up with a clonal diversity,
or in his case Pinot noir and Chardonnay. But more than
that, that you have to figure out a way to
sustainably farm the dirt. So that you have a biological
life in your vineyard. And that will
allow you to create wines of true distinction. So Ted ended up embodying
all of the things that the book gets into. Because a lot of it is
about farming and how the real goal of
farming, in wine, is to be able to create
these signatures of place that make a wine different
from another wine. That let you see this
vague notion of terroir, lest you understand what,
potentially, is there. And he completes the loop. Plus he did his best American
Gothic impression for us. So after 13 covers,
it became clear this was the image we really wanted. LIV WU: They’re all–
well, they’re not all– quite a few are small wineries
and probably not-so-easy-to-get wines. Are there producers and
growers in here that are bigger and that are more
accessible for us. JON BONNE: Sure. They vary. There are a fair
number small wineries. Only in that, as with any
innovation, you’re going to, inevitably, be
looking for people who are starting to
work at small scale. But a lot of them have scaled. Ridge is a perfect
example of a wine that is still very accessible. Calera actually, as well,
Calera– the estate bottlings are not that easy to get. But the Central Coast, which
are with purchased fruit, I think I see them
in most Safeways. LIV WU: This is
Calera in Hollister. JON BONNE: In Hollister, yeah. 12 miles outside of Hollister. And who else? There’s a family that I profile
in the book called the Bilbros. And they have a label
called Marietta. And Marietta, it’s interesting,
is about 35 or 37 years old now. And it’s now up to
75,000 cases of the wine called “Old Vine Red.” And it’s this classic tribute
to the old field blends, really, that the
Sonoma Italian farmers were making pre-Prohibition. And they simply wanted to
bring that back, in some cases, using the exact same vineyards. And to make, surely,
a table wine. And then, there’s a whole
chapter about table wine and this very issue
of how do you scale. There’s two brothers,
just for one more, Jim and Bob Varner,
who are twin brothers. They did a number of things. One of them studied biotech. One studied at Davis,
doing sensory science. But they found this
tiny little jewel of a vineyard in Portola
Valley, and make– LIV WU: Really. JON BONNE: Yeah and
right by the open space. And have for almost–
certainly over 30 years, now, really, some of the best
Chardonnays in California. But because they came up in
late ’70s and early ’80s, at a time when they
realized that even the great French winemakers
also made table wine. So they went farther
south on the Central Coast to look for less
expensive fruit. And they make a second
label called Foxglove that is about $14 a bottle,
$13 to $14 a bottle. And they make, all told,
with the different ones, probably about
45,000 cases of it. And in a slightly different way. It’s not as meticulous. But in a notion that
you, as a good winemaker, have a responsibility to make
a wine that people can actually find and that they can afford. LIV WU: I’m going to have
you talk about the wines but we’re going to
be tasting soon. And we’ll tell you
where they are. But I’ll just break off for
now, for the time being, to see if there
are any questions. AUDIENCE: How do you
envision this book being consumed by your readers? JON BONNE: That is,
not surprisingly, a discussion that I
had with my publisher. I think that we
want it very much to be a book that had
multiple entry points. It’s funny. A lot of people do describe
it as a coffee table book. I don’t think it is. But I think, because it has some
pretty pictures, maybe that’s where people take it to. Certainly you can put
it on a coffee table. I have one on mine for not
particularly aesthetic reasons. But it obviously needed
to speak to people who are expert in the field,
and to be a solid reference. But I also wanted it to tell
a specific narrative story. And so the first
third of the book is thematic, in the
sense that– some of it is talking about what we
were just talking about. What happened, what went wrong,
the evolution of history. A lot of talk about farming. A lot of talk about
grapes and varieties and this totally
arbitrary selection of the varieties that people
associate with California. When, in fact, there’s many,
many other grapes that do do well, here,
and could do well. And so it’s complex
stuff, but I don’t think it’s meant–
it’s not a textbook. It’s not meant to be
super, super nerdy. And the other piece–
so there’s that. The second part is
what we ended up calling a “road trip,”
which is looking at the evolving geography of
California through, literally, me going out and spending
time and driving around a lot. And then the third
part is reference. And that is the part where I
think people go back and look for producers they
might know, look for producers they
don’t know, and use it in some ways as a buying guide. LIV WU: The maps are great. JON BONNE: And there’s maps. LIV WU: And it’s
so very different than the tourism map you would
get when you drop into the Napa Valley or the Sonoma Valley or
the Central Coast or Mendocino. JON BONNE: And a complete
shameless plug, I will say. Those maps were almost entirely
developed, all the data, LIV WU: Google? JON BONNE: Google Earth. LIV WU: Oh, Thank you. Google Maps. OK. If you had said anything else. JON BONNE: No, Google Earth. LIV WU: OK. All right. JON BONNE: Yeah, and it was,
shipped off the data set and then had to
spend a lot of time negotiating with
our cartographer. AUDIENCE: So anecdotally, I
feel like, in the last 10 years, wine prices in California have
gone up quite tremendously. And the number of
producers has also increased dramatically,
particularly small producers. Do you feel like we’re
in a wine bubble, per se? As people– JON BONNE: The supply
and demand curves don’t quite seem to make sense? Yeah, some of it is that wine
prices almost never go down. They do when there’s
a major correction. And 2008 brought a
major correction. But even then, you
could see the pain that the cult
Cabernet makers had with having to contemplate
what it would do to their brand to drop prices. And a few of them did. I’m thinking of Dominus, which
dropped its price by about $40 and then promptly raised by $80. But it is probably
the biggest problem with California wine,
which is that it is very expensive to farm here. There’s built-in labor costs. There’s obviously
built-in land costs. If you buy new land, it
is exorbitantly expensive to first buy it and
then and then plant it. And also there’s very
little discussion within the industry
of affordability. And that, to me, is really
one of the big liabilities, for California. Because I think everyone
can make an ambitious wine and wants to make
an ambitious wine. But making an affordable
wine and, what I would say is, a sustainable
business model is something people
are struggling with. And I don’t know that the
number of wineries will shrink. I keep waiting for it
to, because it’s amazing how tolerant people’s bankers
are of a really poor cash flow. And I don’t know that we
need this constant expansion, only in that I would
rather see quality come up. AUDIENCE: Does the
book only cover Napa or the whole California? JON BONNE: It covers
all of California from– did I make
it up to Humboldt? Let’s see– northern Mendocino
down to San Diego County. And we actually do we have two
San Diego producers in there. And then also out into
the Sierra foothills. AUDIENCE: OK. And have you been to many
of those small, family-owned boutique wineries? JON BONNE: Quite a lot of them. AUDIENCE: So they’re
all covered in the book? JON BONNE: Sorry? AUDIENCE: Have you also
featured them in the book? JON BONNE: Yeah. There’s a 125 producers
who are in the book. I would say they’re all,
ultimately, family-owned, in some way. And most of them, probably
80% to 85% of them, are making 5,000 cases or less. JON BONNE: Thank you. AUDIENCE: Hi. So you mentioned
things about additives and what they’re putting
back in the wine. And so what, if anything, is
the role of modern chemistry and science in new
California wine? JON BONNE: So Ridge is
actually a good example. Because Ridge had a guy
named Leo McCloskey, who has become the
poster child for what I will call “interventionism”
in the cellar. He worked there as an intern,
actually, in the ’70s, before he went on to become a
pretty famous wine consultant. He’s the guy who
created software based around gas chromatography
that, he asserts, can predict, to the exact number, what Robert
Parker and the Wine Spectator will give a wine. I hate to think of being
that predictable as a critic, but so it is. So one of the things that
that created at Ridge was a legacy where
the lab serves as your canary, so to speak. It shows you when
things are going right. It shows you if there’s
really a microbial issue, a chemical issue that
needs to be dealt with. It gives you a constant
set of feedback. But then the other side
of Ridge is this very– I don’t want to say rudimentary,
but this very minimalist view of winemaking. Where they really do believe
that, in general, properly farmed grapes can go through
spontaneous fermentations. That the various yeast strains
that you need to take a wine all the way through
should fundamentally be available to you. That’s not a universal
but it’s certainly, I think, a good
belief to have, rather than believing you have
to inevitably start out with a commercial yeast. They try not to do
acid adjustments. They do a little bit. They do add a
little bit of water. A lot of people add water,
which is technically illegal. But is just a very
weak acidification. It’s interesting,
because I think there are people who
believe that you absolutely can’t do anything. And that is difficult,
because there are just times when things don’t go right. Even for people who would
choose to not do more than an absolute bare minimum. But the thing to
always remember is that each step
that someone takes beyond 19th century winemaking
inevitably pulls the wine away. And especially when you’re
starting to adjust chemistry, pulls the wine away
from what it would taste like if it were grown
to peak ripeness, where it was grown, and pulled off
at this balance point. And it’s not something to
even pick on California about, necessarily, because the
French have been adding sugar to their wines, and
still do, for 150 years, in order to bring up the
minimum alcohol level. So they have some
issues to deal with, as do a lot of
new world regions. But I think the thing for me
that I always try to remember is where we are with
viticulture, now, with grape growing, is
so exponentially farther than we were 30 years ago. That things are not
always going to go right, but there is a lot more
knowledge in figuring out how to hit peak
ripeness, naturally. That people who are
deliberately pushing beyond that because they feel
that that’s how they’d rather
construct their wine. That, to me, is a problem. Because it’s also
those folks usually want about $150
to $200 a bottle. LIV WU: The raisin wines. JON BONNE: The raisin wines. And one of the things
that I asserted– this is something that came
up the first time, I think, last year when we were at
Charleston– is a lot of, not just the book, but a lot of
California wines are expensive. And certainly when
you’re starting to pay $45, $50, $80, $100,
$200 a bottle for a product, I want someone who has
done their job right. And when people are
either correcting things they did wrong, or
are deliberately making bad decisions
about farming so that they can go and fix it later, then
I’m paying someone to have, essentially, done
their job badly. AUDIENCE: This might be
rather obvious, but as a wine critic what do you
see as your role? LIV WU: Good question. JON BONNE: That is
a good question. I think my role is to do
what any critic does, which is to find what there is of
quality and highlight it. To find what is under-performing
and take issue with it. I don’t get to do quite as much
of that as I would like to. But, commercial
realities of newspapers. But I think, more
than anything, to be able to step back and talk
about themes and trends and what’s happening and
where things are going. And to see where the edge is
and to see where avant garde is. And not to simply
hand out scores. Because I think wine,
for whatever reason, has fallen into this place where
people expect that a critic’s job is to just hold up a
number at the end of things. And that’s given birth to a
lot of critics who, I think, don’t step back and look
for greater perspective. And look at whether a
style of wine or styles of wine or regions are emerging
and getting interesting. Or perhaps are living a
little too high on the hog or are overextending themselves. So I think my view
of how you are being a wine critic is
probably a little more aggressive than some
of my fellow critics. But the other
thing– and I think it’s important that I’ve
been talking about it more– is that there’s this somewhat
flawed notion in wine criticism and food
criticism, as well, that you can stand
back and be objective. And that you could hand down
from on high this score that will absolutely represent
the quality of wine, of a restaurant, what have
you, which is ludicrous. In my case, I can
bring my experience. I can bring what I see are
successful iterations of a wine or of a region. But ultimately, I came
to this realization that I had own my biases. And I would sort of hope
that, in the next few years, that I see more wine
critics doing the same. Because there are
a handful of folks who I’m thinking of who
very clearly have biases, which is fine. They’ve done [INAUDIBLE]
very well by them. But they do stand behind
this veil of objectivity and pretend as though what
they’re doing is gospel. And that, I have a
huge problem with. LIV WU: That leads
me to a question. So food critics, were all being
undone by yelpers and others. It’s not happening as
heavily in wine, is it? JON BONNE: It’s
happening a fair amount. Not that there was ever a great,
sustainable career as a wine– basically, I have one of the
two unicorn jobs in the country. And Eric Asimov, at
the Times is the other. And so we enjoy our good luck. But I think, going
forward, what’s going to– and to the point
about what a critic’s role is– what’s going to happen, and
probably in food, as well, is that anyone can
hand out four stars and say that the
fries were soggy. But to actually– LIV WU: Two stars. JON BONNE: Sorry. Four stars on Yelp! To actually step back and
look at themes and patterns, and to see what’s
happening, and to be able to place restaurants, but
also chefs, trends, cities, into context, it’s
still something that really does require
professional skill. And, honestly, a lot of
writers don’t have that skill. So the way I just started
describing it with wine is that I think
where we’re going to evolve to is something
a little bit more like a Pro-Am model. Where there’s no reason
not to have input from people who are
tasting the wines. Because– I don’t know
if anyone’s encountered– there’s a website
called “Cellar Tracker” which, it’s technical
issues aside, is actually a very,
very good database of consumer and pro
reviews of wines. And it’s astonishing
to me how often the median of the
consumer reviews comes to where
professional reviews land. So my takeaway from that
is that when you get people who are interested in the wines
and who are interested enough to actually want to go and
share their views of them, you get a pretty
accurate view of quality. And there’s no reason
not to have that and not to appreciate
that same thing. There’s a technology
called “Delectable” that’s doing something similar,
although it’s all iPhone-based. I’ve nagged them
incessantly that– they said they had trouble
finding an Android developer. I– But same thing. It’s sort of Facebook
for wine, basically. It lets you see what everyone
you know is drinking. And the great thing
with it is that it has optical recognition,
so all you have to do is take a picture of a bottle. And within 10 or 15
minutes it will tell you, with about 99% accuracy,
what you’re drinking. So there’s these models that
are out there that, I think, are very effective for doing a
lot of what criticism has done in the past, which is just
throw numbers out on something. Which for me, gives
me the latitude to go and do things
like write books. AUDIENCE: What if there’s
no water in California? JON BONNE: Really good question. Water gets a good bit of
discussion in the book. The thing with grapevines
that most winemakers don’t want to admit is that
they’re basically weeds. They’re not really hard to grow. When you look at crops that
are actually difficult to grow, vines are extraordinarily
easy to grow. And they actually don’t
require a lot of water. They’re a drought-tolerant crop
when they’re farmed correctly. The problem is that,
mostly after the advent of drip irrigation, which
was better, admittedly, than furrow and
sprinkler irrigation, viticulturists in
California came to believe that they had to
water their vines in a very regular pattern. So the first thing
is you see vineyards that have been established as
dry-farmed tend to be much more drought-tolerant, because
they’ve developed deeper root systems. There’s not as much
variability based on seasonal weather
patterns and rainfall. But also there’s
a company that I talk about in the book,
called Fruition Sciences. And these are guys who came up
with a very good model of using various sensor probes to
measure the potential water access of vineyards. And their assertion is that
even vineyards that are using, relatively, water could
probably drop their water usage by 80% to 90%,
and still farm well. So I think that the
folks who are either deciding that they’re going to
take the time to let vineyards establish themselves
without added water, or the folks who are
really willing to use the technology that’s
available to them to drop their water use,
they’re going to be fine. The folks who want to
keep using standard drip so that they can
bump their yields up and they keep, essentially,
overcharging people for wine, they are going to face a
rather significant crisis is this keeps going. AUDIENCE: There’s a
current trend right now about pairing Cabernet
Francs with Szechuan cuisine. I just want to know what
your opinion is on that. JON BONNE: I love it. I’ve taken– well,
you know Old Mandarin. It’s not, specifically, that
Szechuan’s more Beijing-style. But there’s a restaurant
in the Outer Sunset, near me, that uses a fair
amount of those flavors. And I bring some
form of Cabernet- based Franc wine–
Cabernet Franc-based wine, everywhere I can,
or every time I can. Some of it is that it is
one of the few wines that has both the aromatics
and also, what I’ll say, sort of the capsicum-like
aspects, in its, aromas. As well as this
very bright fruit, that actually goes with the
range of Szechuan flavors. So you’ve just
revealed my secret. LIV WU: It’s in
print, somewhere. JON BONNE: Yeah. LIV WU: So if you have
no more questions, I’m going to have you
describe the three wines that we have for tasting. JON BONNE: Sure. LIV WU: And then
we’ll pour some wine. And then you can ask John more
questions while you’re sipping. So talk about the
Chenin Blanc, first? JON BONNE: Yeah, it’s in order. LIV WU: It’ll be in here? Is it in there? Yes. JON BONNE: The Chenin Blanc. So we actually have two wines
from the same wine maker and then one from
another duo of guys. So the Chenin Blanc is the
Leo Steen Chenin Blanc. It’s made by a guy named Leo
Hansen, who’s actually Danish. Was a sommelier, a very famous
sommelier in Copenhagen. And wanted to make wine,
so he came to California. Makes wine actually for
a vineyard in Sonoma called Stuhlmuller. But also has his own
label called Leo Steen. Steen is his middle name. Steen is also the South African
name, the historical South African name, for
Chenin Blanc, which is the other place in the
world where it grows well. And this is his Chenin Blanc. It’s from Dry Creek Valley,
from a vineyard called Saini, S-A-I-N-I. About 30-year-old
vines, dry farmed. And in fact, I think
all of the wines, today, are from dry-farmed vineyards. In fact, from dry-farmed
organic vineyards. So about 30 years old. Kind of a parcel that the farmer
forgot or was selling off. Because Chenin Blanc used to
be a very significant grape in California in
the ’70s and ’80s. And then got this reputation
for being kind of trashy and not that interesting. And people stopped drinking it. And so Leo and a
handful of other folks have started to
bring it back really as this great, sort of
aromatic, slightly spicy table wine, that is great. I don’t tend to age
this wine very long, but I have friends who
do age it and insist, among other things, that
the 2006 bottling of this is one of the best Chenin
Blancs they’ve had. And this is someone, by the way,
who makes, what I would argue, is the best Chenin
Blanc in California. So if he thinks Leo is beating
him, I’ll give him that. LIV WU: And it’s $16, $17? How much is that? JON BONNE: About
that. $17, yeah. Directly behind you– and
I’m going in the order that I would
probably taste them– is the– there we go– the
Birichino 2012 Sinsault. So Birichino is a project
from two guys, John Locke and Alex Kraus. Both of them worked for
Randal Graham at Bonny Doon and survived. And John actually
still runs a wine shop in Santa Cruz called “Swap.” So they make wine
together under this label. And this is from one of
my favorite vineyards in the state. It’s from a vineyard
called Bechthold, which is in western Lodi. And it was planted
in 1886 to Sinsault, which is a not terribly
noteworthy grape from southern France. And somehow Bechthold has become
the darling of all California. Everyone wants to get into
Bechthold and make Sinsault. Turley, actually, was the
first big name to get in there and make this very
Beaujolais style. They now are in there. Randall used to use
it for Cigare Volante. And a handful of other folks,
Scholium Project, et cetera. Like I said, it’s sort of
organically farmed, by neglect. Nobody ever bothered
to put chemicals on it. So and again, sort of
sandy soils, dry-farmed. And it’s this completely
improbable vineyard. No one’s entirely sure how
it survived, because nobody made any money in
Lodi selling grapes. And certainly not
low-yielding grapes– from low–yielding dry-farmed
vines that were getting, I don’t know, $400 a ton and
are now getting like, maybe, three times that. So to me, this is this
quintessence one of, really, the longitivity of
California, and how, for all of the
newness, there really is a great lineage
back to the past. And to these grapes that were
once really important, here, before market forces dictated
that Cabernet and Chardonnay would take over. And it’s just pretty,
it’s fragrant. It is– to your
point, before– it is a wine that I think would
go with quite a lot of food, because it’s subtle. The tannins are very, very soft. It’s not a tannic grape. And I think, more
than anything, it preserves this really
significant vineyard that is very much a
historical artifact. On similar lines, right around
the corner, back to Leo, is the– here we go–
the Leo Steen Calpella. And this is–
unfortunately, I think he’s going to move on
to a different vineyard. But so he also wanted
to make a red wine. Oh, and the Bechtold
is, I think, $19. $19 or $20. And so the Leo Steen Calpella
is a blend going back, again, to historically important
grapes in California. It’s a blend of Carignan
and Petit Syrah. The vineyard’s about
60, 65 years old. It’s called the Testa Vineyard. It’s in Calpella, which
is a tiny little hamlet in Mendocino, right off the 101. And again, this is
one of those vineyards that just survived by neglect. It’s dry-farmed,
organically farmed. Again, just old
Mendocino farming family, didn’t really know
what to do with it. But didn’t want to take
it out, so they’ve now found buyers who are interested
in paying them fair market value. So Carignan was the
great workhorse grape of the late 19th and
early 20th century. Planted all over a very big
part of the old field blends. Can make an
interesting wine when it’s from old vines,
which this is. Got again a reputation
for being sort of lowly and uninteresting, which it can
be, if it’s not farmed well. But makes this very savory,
spicy, complex wine. There’s usually kind of a
celery seed component to it. Petit Syrah being the
other piece of the blending component, historically. Used for color. Used for tannin. Very tannic, very kind of blue. It’s like blueberries
and sandpaper. It’s not a huge
component in here. I think this is a very
appropriate use of it. But again, this notion, this
is obviously more structured. But if you think about what
a really good, somewhat savory table wine
should be, I think this is a perfect,
perfect example. And again, it’s $18, maybe. LIV WU: Great. So look forward to tasting it. Thank you so much. And.

1 Comment

Brian Mack

May 5, 2014, 2:58 am Reply

The background audio noise is distracting. The quality of the info is pleasing, informative & worth watching.

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