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Review: New California Wine by Jon Bonné

You can enjoy wine in an informational vacuum. Soak in its aromas. Delight in the texture and flavors. But you can’t fully understand a wine without context.

Jon Bonne 1200With his soon-to-be-published book, Jon Bonné fashions a rich tapestry of context for California wine. He weaves history, science and his own extensive visits with producers into essays that are tremendously informative yet energetic and absorbing. It all begins with a brilliantly selected epigraph which speaks directly to the type of California winemaker Bonné is featuring.

I mention the epigraph not so much because its words are particularly revealing, but because of who said it and when. Wine production, here and elsewhere, is in a constant state of evolution. Even if you keep winemaking techniques the same from year to year the wines will change. Vines get older, sometimes sicker and eventually need to be replaced with young ones. We talk about climate change with urgency now because our awareness is high, but California’s growing season had grown already longer and warmer by the 1980’s than it had been in the 1950’s, allowing later harvests and riper fruit.

Of course winemaking techniques have not stayed the same either. They altered due to scientific advancements, influences from overseas producers, better understanding of our own lands, the growing strength of university-based wine programs, changing tastes, economic circumstances and dozens of other factors. Yet, somehow, old is new again and there’s a strong shift away from manufactured wine and also from wines that sacrifice nuance for palate impact. Bonné suggests today’s most interesting and site-expressive California wines are being made by small, passionate (obsessive?) producers who are creating new sites, resurrecting old ones and practicing transparent, vineyard-centric winemaking that eschews chemicals, transformative techniques and aggressive oak—people like those Arpad Haraszthy described in 1891.

New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste does more than chronicle the evolution to revolution though. And, unlike many books, it doesn’t focus solely on elite wineries nor dwell on personalities, family squabbles, a small handful of controversial topics or wineries with photogenic facades. It paints a complete picture—up and down the state, from true coast to the Central Valley’s heart—of the scope of California wine, why it came to be that way and how a swelling wave of neo-traditionalists are taking it to heights that many, including Bonné himself, may have once thought impossible.

The book and its author have a clear point of view, but the writing isn’t polemical. On the contrary, the case is built quietly but progressively through the words and endeavors of the producers themselves. For that matter, the object of the book isn’t so much to convince as to inform.

This winemaking movement is happening and growing, whether he or I or you like it or not. Reading the book will give you a clear understanding of who these winemakers are, what they are—and are not—doing, why they make these choices and how it affects the character of the wine. You’ll come away with hundreds of examples of wines to try so that you can taste the difference for yourself. Then you can be the judge.

I’ve been focused on California wine for quite some time now, have read and tasted widely, and spent a good deal of time at wineries and with winemakers. Yet there are many pages in New California Wine which taught me something new in every single paragraph. I’m pleased that, by design, the book reads well from front to back but is organized such that it can be also easily used for topical reference afterward.

There are three main sections to the book. Searching for the New California sets the stage. It takes us through the history, examines issues related to viticulture, dispels some stereotypes and introduces us to many of the new winemakers. The New Terroir: A California Road Trip dives into the most significant growing regions, from Napa to Santa Barbara, Sonoma Coast to Lodi. We learn what’s unique about each area, who the main players are, what challenges they face and the styles of wine made. For each region there's a short sidebar, Three Bottle Tour, suggesting three wines that can serve as Cliff's Notes to the region for your palate. Wines of the New California highlights exemplary producers by varietal. Each of these sections consist of flowing narrative that builds on the previous sections. This is not a typical compendium. At the end of the book is a small collection of useful maps showing the wine regions and producer locations.

Jon Bonné is a transplant to California. Originally from the East Coast, he came here in 2006, by way of Seattle, full of perspectives based on a rich knowledge of wine from around the world and with a suitcase of concerns about those from California. But, in a short time, he’s thoroughly grasped the state, this new movement and become one of its most influential chroniclers. I can’t think of a better way to close out this year’s California Wine Month than to pre-order New California Wine which will be released on November 5.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

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