There is hope . . .
In my estimation, California is always an extremely attractive place to spend time in, whether merely visiting or for a lifetime. It has the best of everything nature can offer, to wit: the perpetual beauty and power of the Pacific ocean, mountains, trees, foliage, and fertile land, the wondrous and special sunlight, and so much more. To balance all of that out, it also has some of the most prolific natural disasters such as epic earthquakes, wild fires, mudslides, and most recently added to that unfinished list, severe drought.
As a wine region, northern California has some of the best natural resources to grow grapes with a considerable and complex diversification of terroir-based properties. From Napa Valley with its intense summer heat spikes to the northerly cooler and higher altitude region of Diamond Mountain in Calistoga, Northern California offers up a very large cornucopia of end-product possibilities. Flat vineyards dominate Napa and even one of the most famous and 100 point wine vineyards, To Calon, is surprisingly flat, which is counterintuitive as most high-end vineyards tend to have at least gentle slopes orienting the vines for optimum growing conditions. The heat while I was in Napa was 102 degrees F; oh, how I left my heart in San Francisco at a balmy 72 degrees. Yet the rolling hills of Shafer Vineyards in Stags Leap were just roughly five miles away, in a completely different world. And Sonoma is really beautiful in its scenery and capability to produce ripe grapes that cool down due to oceanic influences during the evening hours, but allow good hang time for the grapes that can have both fruit ripeness and phenolic ripeness without becoming overripe. One could spend a lifetime understanding the terroir in Northern California, and at least a few most assuredly have.
Of course, I visited wineries that I consider to be fine wine, including Shafer and Ridge/Lytton Springs, wishing I had time to visit Ridge in Santa Cruz, which makes the marvelous and collectible Ridge Monte Bello. Fortunately I was in the region during the week as opposed to weekends, which as I understand it, becomes much more circus-like with its crush of ‘wine destination’ tourists, concerts, and hoopla. Indeed. Many wineries survive and even thrive because of this activity, which sadly has little to do with wine and more about PAR-TAY. Domestically, today’s modern tasting rooms have mostly become entertainment venues and marketing channels that just happen to serve wine. Many charge a fee for tasting (not unreasonable) and for free, add on the extra fun of being pounded on by sales people vying to sign you up for a ‘club’ membership’. There’s also a down side.
As I mentioned, most of this has little to do with wine, or people that are even interested in learning about wine. Therefore, many winemakers reduce their products to the lowest common denominator and seduce the public by offering up wine that is entirely accessible, doesn’t require any knowledge or skill to understand them because they are so often one-dimensional wines without any real interest. Forget about terroir, or honest expression of the grapes. This is a for-profit enterprise (as it should be) and the extraction of dollars is the number one goal (as it should not be).
Remarkably, there are exceptions to these somewhat dubious trade practices. Enter George Unti, a wonderfully affable gentleman, whose personal tenets and expressions translate into his very engaging and exquisitely luscious wines, all made in the Old World style with a bona fide laissez-faire approach. Having spent an entire afternoon with Mr. Unti, and then tasting through his wines, I could not have been more impressed by the quality that flowed across my palate. He is not only crafting great wine but also he’s properly taking advantage of his terroir to do it. George is also the only winemaker I know that has successfully (and I do use that word with sincerity) made really excellent wine using traditional Italian grape varieties such as Vermentino, Sangiovese, Barbera, and Montepulciano. Many have tried but until now, I have never known anyone other than George Unti to have accomplished this herculean feat. His Rhône region French varieties too, shine incredibly bright compared to so many other California producers, including the acclaimed Rhône Rangers (Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre, blended and, as a standalone bottling like his fabulous Syrah). Also outside of Provence, I have had very few rosé wines this good and definitely none from California that even come close. Not only does George know what to do when it comes to making wine, he also knows what not to do and his wines are made with the least amount of intervention possible, which accounts for why they sit at such a high caliber of quality.
Located between Healdsburg and Geyserville in the Dry Creek Valley appellation of Sonoma County, his wines can be found at http://www.untivineyards.com
In fairness, I know that there are others pursuing hands-off winemaking (including, but not limited to, Chateau Montelena and the aforementioned Ridge and Shafer wineries) using their vineyards to produce optimum varietal expression, and creating exciting wines of high quality. I only wish more of California’s wine producers would adopt such values. My journey to the region, however, gives aficionados hope for better domestic results when it comes to competing for our dollars with France, Italy, Spain, and Germany. I don’t think I’m being unreasonable; I just want the very best that California can offer.