Although they certainly won’t admit it, wine writers are a trendy bunch with a pack mentality. Admit you like to drink merlot, oaky chardonnay or (God forbid) white zinfandel, and you risk mockery from fellow oenophiles as an unsophisticated rube. Independent thought isn’t rewarded. Wine writers may say that the most important rule is to drink what you like, but they’re still bound by convention to drink what their peers deem acceptable.
Current conventional wisdom holds that too many California wines display high alcohol levels and an overabundance of jammy, ripe, fruit-forward flavors. The term “fruit bomb” is dropped disparagingly on wines that ought to know better and learn to restrain themselves like those well-bred French and Italian wines do. California wines, the critics seem to say, show too much cleavage and just let it all hang out. They have no dignity. Or to use a male analogy, if California wines were at a party they would be the ones wearing neon tank tops, doing beer bongs and loudly reciting Beastie Boys lyrics while the European wines would be standing quietly in the corner, dressed in ascots and expensive leather shoes as they nibbled on canapes and expressed their disapproval of the boorish Americans. But guess which group would have more fun?
I confess I’ve been guilty of the same groupthink. I recently received samples of wine from Pessagno Winery, a Monterey County winery with vineyards in San Benito and Monterey County. (I generally restrict my wine coverage to San Mateo and Santa Cruz Countys, but I figured the winery’s Hollister vineyards were close enough.) They sent me 2006 and 2007 vintages of syrah, pinot noir and zinfandel sourced from two eastern San Benito County vineyards.
The wines are poster children for the lavish, concupiscent California style—ripe, fruit-driven and boozy. At first I poo-pooed the wines’ lack of decorum. The 2007 Idyll Times Vineyard pinot noir was a case in point. With 15.1 percent alcohol and huge flavors of blackberry preserves and ripe plums, it’s a big, sloppy, lip-gloss-smeared kiss of a wine that approached Port territory. It’s nothing like its delicate and subtle Burgundian progenitors. The 2007 Spring Grove Vineyards pinot noir is similar—big, brash and loaded with ripe, concentrated fruit flavors. The same goes for the 2006 Idyll Times Vineyard syrah and 2007 Idyll Times zinfandel.
I had all but written the wines off but decided to taste them again the next day. Decanting helped blow off some of the wine’s liquor breath and revealed subtleties I hadn’t noticed before. In spite of the fruit-dominated flavors, the wines have lingering finishes and enough acidity to balance out the jammy jamboree. I found I enjoyed the wines more because I appreciated them on their own terms. They are satisfying and delicious, like chocolate sauce–topped ice cream or extracheesy enchiladas.
True, the aggressive, fruity style would overwhelm many lighter food pairings, but with grilled meats, barbecue, a spicy stew or even semisweet chocolate desserts, the wine would perform well. I tried the ’07 Idyll Times pint noir with herb-crusted grilled opah and loved it.
It may not be cool to like brash California red wines, but my experience with Pessagno has opened my mind. It is OK to like big California wines and complex, contemplative French-style wines. Both styles of wine have a place in my cellar.