These Wines Are Making America Great These Days
California wines get a bad rap for being “easy to drink.” Blame it on the torturously lovely weather, we suppose. That temperate sunshine paired with the delicately blowing Pacific breeze makes for happy, plump fruit, and its wines, as a result, end up telling a similar story. Flavors represent ripe berries, with typically high residual sugar (that’s “sweet” in wine speak), and high alcohol—there’s no holding back here. Naturally, fans of the more refined and restrained old world style wines are appalled.
Not Wine Club’s Mike Reyes, who is quick to come to California wine’s defense. “It’s easy to like,” he explains. “For wine drinkers who are just starting out, it’s the perfect entry point.”
For dinner at the brand new Wolfgang’s Steakhouse in BGC, we got to try four wines from the new world wine region that proved this point. With the shrimp cocktail and slab bacon appetizer, we tasted the Decoy Chardonnay 2015. The entry-level label of the Duckhorn brand from Sonoma County, Reyes shares the interesting story behind its name. “As much as possible, the winemakers want the flavor profile of the Decoy line to mimic the higher-end Duckhorn,” the distributor explains. “So when you’re drinking this Decoy Chardonnay, it’s almost like you’re tasting the Chardonnay of the pricier Duckhorn bottling.”
True to form, the elegant lines of the 2015 Decoy—with subtle buttery mouthfeel and abundant layers of citrus, peach, and honeysuckle—exhibit a petulant yet graceful character. Beautiful pairing with the shrimp.
We opine that Napa Valley wines have become ridiculously expensive, something Reyes himself admits to be a result of basic economics. Which is why winemakers in the region have been working on blends, creating greater depth and complexity in their wines in the process.
Take for instance, the Cultivation 2013 of Chapellet—a heady blend of mostly Petite Syrah (47%), and almost equal parts Malbec, Zinfandel, and Syrah. Bold fruity aromas of plum and figs are there at the onset, with notes of sage and peppercorn telling the tale of Napa’s terroir. The layers of exotic flavors and aromas satisfy those seeking complexity.
We swirl and sniff its elegant nose, and we wonder if this will benefit from a little more time in the cellar. “Wines are meant to be consumed once they are bottled,” Reyes says. While a lot of the old world winemakers—particularly in Bordeaux—produce bottles that they themselves admit need a decade or two more before reaching optimal drinking age, Reyes feels most California wines are ready at the starting gate.
Don’t mind the porn star name, but we feel Cline Cellar’s Cashmere Black Magic 2016 has the bones of a good red Rhone and, yes, you may open that bottle right now. This blend (Petite Syrah, Zinfandel, Mourvedre, Carignane, Alicante Bouschet) from Sonoma County is, as the name suggests, smooth and velvety on the palate. The earthiness of the barnyard brings substance to what could have been another fruit bomb. Of all the reds that evening, this paired best with Wolfgang’s world class porterhouse and lobster mac and cheese.
While it is typical to end with the biggest, most complex wine, Reyes decides to serve the Conundrum Red 2016 last. What it lacks in heft it does make up for in prettiness. There are fresh plum, mocha, floral blossoms on the nose, and it continues to engage with a delicate mouthfeel and ripe fruit on the palate. The residual sugar makes us glad we’re done with our steaks, but happy to have this wine keeping us company. “It really is just perfect on its own,” confirms Reyes.
California wine makers have come a long way from the white zinfandels at college parties and overtly voluptuous reds. While there will always be a demand for those—and for their ridiculously expensive Cabernet Sauvignons—these wine makers are demonstrating that they can also show refinement and restraint. And for those, there is definitely a market.