Today's fashionable Californian organic wine can be dated back to the flower power era of the '60s. PATRICK MATTHEWS traces its lineage.
Fashion can make or break any consumer industry, including that of Californian organic wine. French wine producers faced both with global competition, and with a tendency among their own youth to desert the stuff in favour of beer or spirits, know this well, but it’s not only winemakers who can be affected by the image problem.
Take William Goldman, who won Oscars for his screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men. Nemesis came with a ‘personal project’ – a caper movie about ‘the world’s most expensive bottle of wine’. The test screenings were disastrous. As Goldman wrote in his memoirs Which Lie Did I Tell?: ‘This was a movie about red wine and the movie-going audience today has zero interest in red wine. They felt ignorant and they hated us.’ And TV scriptwriters aren’t helping. In Frasier, as in other shows, wine serves as a convenient shorthand for elitism. In a recent episode, Frasier Crane and his brother Niles, TV’s prissiest psychiatrists, were seen battling to be ‘corkmaster’ of their Seattle wine club, with a blind-tasting duel involving plenty of ludicrous winespeak.
Organic Wine Trends
But not all the news from America’s west coast is bad. One of today’s biggest growth areas is organic wine. Wine has also started to enjoy positive associations with natural foods from named individual producers – a reaction against the over-processed offerings of the multinationals.
This trend has its roots in California and the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. You don’t have to be particularly observant to spot the connection. One glance at the shaggy profiles of Bonny Doon Winery’s Randall Grahm or Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat and their trademark retro hair fashions (pony tail and mullet respectively) is enough to tell you where these guys’ roots lie.We’re not talking about the Napa Valley, whose aspirationally named estates (Clos this and Château that), and its preoccupation with Cabernet, reveal its itch to emulate Bordeaux. But there are strong links between the counterculture and the regions now making the running: Sonoma, Mendocino and the Santa Cruz mountains, the home of Ridge and Bonny Doon. In the mid-1960s, Santa Cruz was the scene of novelist Ken Kesey’s notorious ‘Acid Tests’, where his followers, the Merry Pranksters, gulped down LSD and danced to their house band, the Grateful Dead. The same spirit held sway at Ridge Vineyards.
In Zin: the history and mystery of Zinfandel, a history of Californian Zinfandel, David Darlington reports: ‘On spectacular Monte Bello Ridge, psychoactive drugs proved quite popular; one Ridge acolyte – a full-bearded, red-haired individual named Jerry – reportedly ate LSD 64 days in a row, and bottling was frequently performed by someone who held a 750ml glass vessel in one hand and a joint of primo sinsemilla in the other.’
Marijuana and wine weren’t necessarily alternatives. Forty miles from Ridge, one estate made a celebrated cuvée of THC Zinfandel. Marijuana plants were grown between the rows of vines, and the drug was later infused in the wine, which dissolved out the chemical, THC, and the other psychoactive constituents of cannabis.At the same time there was a ‘back to nature’ exodus from San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district to the nearby countryside. Sonoma County was a popular destination for urban refugees, including Jed Steele, who later became the winemaker of the hugely successful Kendall-Jackson brand.
For some, winemaking was a second choice after the drugs clampdown of the 1980s ended the police’s de facto tolerance of marijuana farming, but further north, in Mendocino and Humboldt Counties, the two crops persist cheek by jowl. Steele went to wine school at Davis in 1973. His training there gave him a mainstream approach to his craft: he is not opposed to filtering and he uses cultivated yeast strains, as he was taught. But the same period also saw a reaction against technical winemaking. One of the leaders of natural winemaking was the late Dave Bennion, a former missile scientist who became Ridge Vineyards’ first winemaker. Bennion’s friend David Noyes, quoted in the David Darlington book, summarised the Ridge philosophy of that era as: ‘If the grapes can do it, let them do it. We want everything they have to offer.’Many now consider Ridge to be the state’s greatest wine estate. Its style has since been refined and somewhat tamed by Bennion’s successor, Paul Draper (Decanter Man of the Year 2000), though Draper has maintained the commitment to wild yeast fermentation and avoids filtration.
Winemaker Joel Peterson, who champions Zinfandel at his Ravenswood Winery in Sonoma, remains close to the old Ridge ethos with his slogan ‘No wimpy wines’, which he achieves with low-yielding old vines and artisanal techniques. Peterson knew the pioneers of the 1960s through the San Francisco Wine Sampling Club, which his father founded. ‘Dave Bennion was a brilliant man who was certainly open to many kinds of ideas from that period.’Along with these prophets of LSD-based enlightenment, into the intellectual melting pot went the fathers of British wine writing: colourful characters André Simon, Harry Waugh and George Saintsbury. The resulting blend was a reaction against the notion of wine as an extension of food processing, as practised by the big wineries and as taught at wine school.Instead this circle looked towards France, importing French oak barrels and insisting wines should mirror the qualities of specific growing sites. This was a major reason for Ridge and Ravenswood’s commitment to Zin – the idea that California should be represented by a uniquely Californian grape variety.
The home of this idea of local character was France, according to Bennion’s neighbour, David Bruce. ‘People had this concept, right or wrong, that there was a “true” way to make wine, and it was what they perceived the French to be doing,’ recalls Peterson. But as both he and Randall Grahm freely admit, they had no more than a hazy understanding of what the French actually did. Peterson says that they all ‘talked a lot about terroir though they didn’t really understand it’.Meanwhile, David Darlington records that the ecologically minded hippies who gathered at Ridge would raise hell over the estate’s limited use of chemical herbicides. They would point to Santa Cruz University, 20 miles to the south, where between 1968 and 1973 an elderly Englishman, a former Shakespearean actor named Alan Chadwick, was developing organic gardening along what he was calling ‘biodynamic-French-intensive’ principles.
Thirty years later the fringe has become mainstream. In Mendocino, Fetzer Vineyards, the USA’s sixth largest wine producer, has made a commitment to organic wines with its Bonterra range. Meanwhile, the Mondavi Winery has for years run a programme of research aimed at taking techniques from small-scale winemaking and applying them to large-scale production.
The effects have even been felt in France. Aubert de Villaine, proprietor of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, felt the distant ripples of the Summer of Love as far away as Vosne-Romanée. He describes his friend and importer, the Berkeley-based Kermit Lynch, as having been ‘a flower child’. This description causes Lynch some irritation, but Lynch did bring with him the idea of a ‘true way to make wine’, and he has communicated this to his French suppliers, insisting, for example, that they supply unfiltered cuvées for the American market.
It’s been a long trip for people like Joel Peterson and Jed Steele – from bohemianism to making wines that have succeeded both as supermarket brands and as high-priced luxuries. ‘I don’t think anyone thought of wine as a luxury product,’ says Joel. ‘It was an unusual product for an American to be drinking, but it wasn’t a luxury. I remember having a 1947 Cheval Blanc for $12.99.’
Even today, the same outlaws-turned-entrepreneurs still feel they have a battle to fight. For Joel Peterson the enemy is ‘world wine’ – a global commodity made to the same formula from Bordeaux to the Barossa. And, now that so many consumers are in search of alternatives to the products of industrialised farming, such a crusade – maintaining the ideals of California’s pioneers of the 1960s – could hardly be more timely.
Patrick Matthews is a freelance wine writer and author of Real Wine: the Rediscovery of Natural Winemaking
Written by PATRICK MATTHEWS