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Jon Bonné's The New California Wine: Worthy Effort Despite Simplistic Polemics

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Jon Bonné, wine editor for the San Francisco Chronicle since 2006, is one of my favorite wine journalists. He has a nose for intriguing stories, and possesses both a lively writing style and knack for delightful turns of phrase.

I therefore had high expectations for Jon's first book, which focuses on new trends in California wine. Overall, I was not disappointed.

The style is crisp and compelling, as is the case with Jon's Chronicle features. And the book's last of its three sections lists many of California's great artisan producers, identifying numerous wines worthy of attention.

What gets tiresome for me, primarily in the first third of the book, is Jon's attempt to heighten the drama of his story with sweeping generalizations and, I believe, simplistic and wholly misleading polemics. This begins, of course, with the book's subtitle, "A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste."

There have been significant trends toward more balanced wines among a lot of important, and newer, producers in recent years. I'm okay with characterizing that as a "revolution," although it overstates a trend that has been going on for some time. It also makes the trend sound somehow unique to California when it has been echoed by similar developments in other parts of the world. It's when Jon refers to the state's wine industry in the mid-2000s as "generally ossified" and characterizes some changes in practices by both new and long established winemakers over the past 10 years as "radicalism" that I feel he greatly overstates his case.

It's important to remember that if California were a country, it would rank as the world's fourth biggest wine producing nation, after France, Italy and Spain. There are literally thousands of wine producers in California, and an incredible array of diversity and constant improvement here.

Jon's basic thesis in the book's first third, echoed again in the last third listing his top producers, is that a relative handful of "radicals" changed the face of California wine by leading a "counterreformation." The changing styles of Pinot Noir seem, for Jon, to be have been the focus of much of this alleged "culture clash" and "culture war."

Jon Bonné, photo courtesy Ten Speed Press/Erik Castro

He also refers to different camps as "the extract overlords" and "the new Pinotists," claiming that "battle flared over the notion of balance."

I say leave the culture war nonsense to Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. For me, as fun as Jon's phrasing can be, it's simplistic hyperbole that obscures more subtle developments and the constant new learning that was going on all throughout this period, vintage after vintage.

I think the changed direction of a lot of California winemaking in recent years has much more practical and mundane roots than Jon's asserted but ill explained "revolution" or "counterreformation."

Wine has, over its long history, been a very cyclic product, changing relatively swiftly in style due to changes in culture, the influence of certain taste arbiters, and, sometimes, to factors owing more to nature than anything else. This has been demonstrably true for the last two hundred years, with a major ongoing trend throughout Europe and elsewhere from sweet to drier wines, but with frequent pendulum swings along the way due to a variety of factors, including weather. Frequently changing styles and tastes in wine are simply one of the constants of this unusual product.

A lot of high profile California wines did get to extremes with respect to ripeness and alcohol -- partly because newly planted clones and the like throughout the 1990s made that kind of ripeness possible, and also because that style was encouraged by high point scores from the two most influential critics of California wines: Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator's James Laube. I'd say the most extreme swing of the pendulum in this direction can be traced to the 2002 to 2004 vintages.

From my conversations with winemakers around the state, it's clear to me that a number of them began to question at that point whether those were the kinds of wines they personally wanted to drink, let alone be known for.

That said, I think there's still lots to commend about Jon's book. My favorite section is the second -- "The New Terroir: A California Road Trip" -- in which Jon vividly sketches some of the key regions where more balanced wines, often from previously neglected grape varieties, have been produced in recent years. Those include the Santa Cruz Mountains, west Sonoma Coast, Sierra Foothills and Santa Barbara County's Sta. Rita Hills.

My final criticism of the book is that its structure results in a great deal of seemingly unnecessary repetition. Many of the profiles in the first chapter are excerpted from stories Jon wrote for the Chronicle over the last several years. Those same winemakers and their wines, however, get repeatedly mentioned in other sections as well. And in the book's last section, where Jon's recommendations of wineries and wines are divided into six chapters loosely based on varieties or types of wines, material about a producer he likes who makes great Chardonnays and who is therefore covered in the Chardonnay section gets virtually repeated when he deals with that producer's Pinots or Rhone varieties in sections that follow.

Nonetheless, it's easy to find information in the book and I think it works well as an up-to-date reference on some of California's most interesting producers, especially newer producers.

In sum although I disagree with Jon about the reasons behind the apparent trend toward less ripeness and greater balance in many California wines, I think Jon tells the stories of individual winemakers and appellations in a very compelling way. I therefore recommend the book to those of us who love California wine and who are interested in some of the more interesting wines being made these days.