12 California Wines That Define 2020

This is an excellent read on a very unusual year for California wines……..

These wines, which make up a case, are not only delicious — they tell the story of what happened with wine in this tumultuous year. By Esther Mobley | Dec. 15, 2020 | Updated: Dec. 16, 2020

2020 has been an earth-shattering year for the American wine world. And it would have been even without the coronavirus.

Major fires plowed through some of California’s most prestigious terroir, destroying wineries and threatening an unprecedented volume of wine grapes with the insidious malady of smoke taint. The nationwide reckoning with racial injustice forced the wine world to confront its inequities in a new, stark way — and then allegations of sexual assault within the country’s most elite sommelier organization forced a similar reexamination of its deeply ingrained sexism.

And yet between the headlines there have been glimmers of good news: creative winemaking endeavors that attempt to stake out new wine paradigms; proactive thinking about how to adapt viticulture to a changing climate. Many of the jolts that 2020 has handed California wine may prove to be generative, catalyzing some changes that have been a long time coming — whether that has to do with the renewed importance of virtual business or a woefully overdue consideration of how wine education can foster a more diverse workforce and audience.

The best way to tell the story of 2020, however, is by letting the wines do the talking themselves. We’ve assembled a case that illuminates the year’s major themes and tastes a whole lot better than a news article. Yes, each of these 12 wines is delicious. Each of them, in its own way, is also important, telling us something about where California wine, and maybe even California, stands today.

A rich, meaty Syrah from one of the few female master sommeliers

Male master sommeliers were in the spotlight this year, after several of them were accused by female colleagues of sexual misconduct, as reported in the New York Times. Some of the specifics were shocking, but to master sommelier Sara Floyd, the idea that sexual assault and harassment are rife within the sommelier community was hardly a surprise. “People have to stop thinking this is a fraternity,” Floyd said in November of the Court of Master Sommeliers. Floyd is one of just 28 women to pass the master sommelier exam in the U.S., out of 172 total. What the coverage of the sommelier scandal couldn’t encompass, while it focused on the bad behavior of several men, was just how much she and those 27 other women have accomplished. In addition to running Swirl Wine Brokers in Oakland, Floyd also has a wine label: Luli, a partnership with the Pisoni family, producing wines from Monterey’s Santa Lucia Highlands. The 2018 Luli Syrah is a textbook expression of California Syrah in a rich, meaty style. The delicate aroma of violets leads into a salty bacon note; the wine is full-bodied and assertive but also very focused, with a firm line of acid pulsing across the palate. Luli Syrah Santa Lucia Highlands 2018 ($20, 14.2%)

A deceptively complex Sauvignon Blanc made by a talented Black winemaker

As the Black Lives Matter movement took on new momentum over the summer, lists of Black-owned businesses proliferated around the internet (including in The Chronicle). For the American wine industry, the moment underscored a bitter reality: Only 0.1% of U.S. winemakers are Black, according to an estimate by the Association of African American Vintners.Among them is Christopher Christensen, winemaker and co-owner of Bodkin Wines in Healdsburg and a specialist in Sauvignon Blanc, a grape variety that isn’t always given the star treatment. One of Bodkin’s many excellent renditions is called the Victor’s Spoils, which masquerades as a light, refreshing porch pounder but then comes through with layers of flavor and texture. It brings to mind toasted almond, clean laundry and cumin, quite unlike any other Sauvignon Blanc I tasted this year.Bodkin The Victor’s Spoils Sauvignon Blanc Sonoma County 2018 ($18, 13.2%)

Winemaker, farmer and Petite Sirah lover Theodora Lee has become a leading voice for Black vintners

“I think this has to be a moment of change,” vintner Theodora Lee said during a phone call in June, as she watched protesters outside her Oakland home clamoring for justice after the killing of George Floyd. She feared that, despite the groundswell of support for Black-owned wineries in the wake of Floyd’s death, the wave of financial support could fade with the news cycle. She was determined to speak up about it. A lawyer by day, Lee is the owner of Theopolis Vineyards in the under-the-radar Yorkville Highlands area of Mendocino County, where she specializes in Petite Sirah — a bold, tannic red wine. Lee’s 2018 Petite Sirah from her estate has an aromatic profile that almost recalls an amaro: bitter, botanical, minty. The flavor of red raspberry candy pops on the palate. It’s a fruity wine with plenty of structure to balance it out. Theopolis Petite Sirah Yorkville Highlands Mendocino County 2018 ($40, 13.9%)

The winemaker of this energetic Rhone-style wine lost his home in August’s lightning fires

For several days in August, winemaker Bradley Brown had no idea whether his Santa Cruz Mountains home and winery were still standing. The CZU August Lightning Complex fires had forced Brown, owner of Big Basin Vineyards, to evacuate, and he knew that the flames were in the immediate vicinity of his property in Boulder Creek. Eventually, Brown learned that his winery had been spared, but his home was in ruins, and he was certain that the thick smoke had compromised all of the grapes still hanging there. His story was not an anomaly: Many Northern California residents faced similar horrors during the fires this year, and winemakers in nearly every region have seen some of their grapes damaged by smoke. Four months later, Brown has found a new place to live while he rebuilds his home. He is back to hosting tastings at the winery and is working on building out another tasting room in downtown Santa Cruz. To get a sense of the Big Basin wines, start with a bottling that Brown calls Homestead. It’s a blend of Grenache, Carignan, Syrah and Mourvedre from several special Central Coast vineyards, including the Big Basin estate where the lightning fire hit. More affordable than Big Basin’s other (excellent) Rhone-style wines, the Homestead shows how energetic Grenache can be, with notes of lavender, blackberry and prosciutto, with a delightfully silky texture.Big Basin Homestead California 2017 ($28, 14%)

A quintessential Napa Cab from a winery burned by the Glass Fire

The August fires turned out to be just the beginning for Wine Country. In late September, the Glass Fire ignited in Napa County, ultimately consuming more than 67,000 acres and destroying more than 1,500 buildings, including nearly 30 vineyard and winery properties in Napa. The intimate winegrowing community of Spring Mountain was especially hard hit, and the small, family-owned Behrens Family Winery was among its more severe casualties, with two of its buildings — including the winery itself — scorched to the ground, along with hundreds of barrels of wine.It’s strangely fitting that owners Les Behrens and Lisa Drinkward call one of their wines the Anchor, an expression of their lasting bond to their Spring Mountain property, which will transcend this fire’s destruction. The 2016 Anchor is a beautiful expression of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, impressively holding its balance at 15.6% ABV, with chalky tannins and suggestions of boysenberry, black licorice, pencil shavings and roasted figs.Behrens The Anchor Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2016 ($65, 15.6%)

From another winery destroyed in the fire, this is one of Napa’s most savory, anti-establishment reds

I heard few reactions to the Glass Fire as poignant as that of Chris Howell, winemaker at Cain Vineyard & Winery, another Spring Mountain estate devastated by the blaze. As at Behrens, the Cain winery was destroyed, and with it went the entirety of Howell’s 2019 and 2020 vintages. It was a heartbreaking loss, but Howell found a reason for hope. “The winery may be gone, but Cain remains,” he said on the morning he learned of the destruction, referring to the fact that the specific, idiosyncratic nature of the grapevines, soil and microclimate will continue to produce the distinctive profile of the Cain wines, regardless of the status of the buildings. The Cain Cuvee, a blend of two different years’ wine, provides a view into that distinctive Cain profile. The NV15 — NV being a convenient acronym for both “Napa Valley” and “non-vintage” — is composed of wine from both 2014 and 2015; it’s 45% Merlot, the rest a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The NV15 Cuvee is restrained and light as Napa Cabs go, and bears the typical Cain hallmarks of savory, earthy, woodsy flavors, recalling wet moss and black plum. It’s the kind of wine that feels as pleasurable to smell as to taste, so unbelievably fragrant that you’ll be sorry when your glass is empty.Cain Cuvee NV15 Napa Valley ($36, 14.1%)

A refreshing natural wine in a year when “clean wine” became a buzzword

Natural wine continued its ascent in popularity this year, and there was no better validation of its success than the proliferation of the made-up marketing term “clean wine,” which has attempted to capitalize on natural wine’s rhetoric for wines that are very much not natural. When the actor Cameron Diaz introduced her new brand, Avaline, over the summer, it met impassioned criticism from the natural wine community, which could see that Diaz was invoking the ideas of low-intervention winemaking when her wine was clearly an industrial product.Don’t buy the Avaline snake oil. Instead, if clean wine is what you’re after, consider something like the Margins Measure Zero, from Santa Cruz winemaker Megan Bell. A blend of Chenin Blanc, Grenache Blanc and Muscat, it’s as clean as they come, free of any additions (including sulfur). The wine is a petillant naturel, a sparkling wine that gets its fizziness from simply being bottled mid-fermentation and trapping carbon dioxide inside the bottle, and in this case it’s really only barely fizzy — just a light, refreshing spritz. As with many truly “clean” wines, it tastes a little funky, with notes of applesauce and sour tangerine.Margins Measure Zero Sparkling Wine 2019 ($30, 12%)

Cool-climate Merlot from a winemaker who’s leading the conversation on climate change

It’s impossible to think about California wine in 2020 and not think about climate change, which stands to significantly alter the way wines taste within our lifetimes. One of the most interesting conversations I had this year about climate change was with Laura Brennan Bissell, the winemaker behind the Inconnu label. Because of California’s warming patterns, Bissell is downsizing her California output and will be focusing most of her future efforts on wines from Washington’s Columbia River Gorge, where she has purchased land.While her Washington vineyard matures, however, Bissell is still turning out gorgeous California wines, including a Carneros Merlot that may have its own story to tell about climate change. Bordering the San Pablo Bay in both Napa and Sonoma counties, Carneros has long been considered a cool-climate region, suitable mainly for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But with time, we may come to view Carneros as a better home for grapes like Merlot that tend to like a little bit more heat. Inconnu’s Carneros Merlot is quiet, with tannins that feel like they flutter across the gums. Its tightly wound flavors of cedar, plums and leather seem to crescendo from the first sip to the finish.Inconnu Merlot Los Carneros Sonoma County 2018 ($42, 13.5%)

A honeyed, floral white that suggests the potential of warmer-climate grape varieties in California

As California’s wine industry plans for a shifting climate in the years to come, some of the most promising grape varieties are those that thrive in warm parts of Italy, Spain and other Mediterranean nations. Grapes that don’t currently get a lot of bandwidth in California, like Vermentino and Aglianico, may become increasingly popular. “As we get warmer, to me these varieties make sense because they maintain great natural acidity and moderate sugar,” says Megan Glaab, who co-owns Ryme Cellars with her husband, Ryan. One largely overlooked — and amazingly delicious — grape variety that could make sense for a warmer California is Fiano, a white grape most closely associated with Italy’s Campania that can maintain crisp acidity and lively flavors when grown in heat. There’s not much of it planted here, but what little there is tastes great, such as Ryme Cellars’ version from the Bowland Vineyard in Russian River Valley. The Glaabs make a true-to-type Fiano, with aromas of beeswax, wildflower honey and jasmine. Drinking it tastes like biting into a perfectly ripe, skin-on, yellow pear. Ryme Fiano Bowland Vineyard Russian River Valley 2019 ($28, 12.2%)

A light, spicy, unconventional red that looks to European mountains for inspiration

There’s a small but mighty movement afoot to explore the potential of Alpine-style wines in certain pockets of California. Wines grown in or near the European Alps, marked by cool temperatures and high altitudes, have become enormously popular with wine geeks and sommeliers in recent years. But here, the grape varieties that comprise them — like Trousseau Noir, Poulsard, Jacquere, Timorasso — exist in minuscule quantities. Scott Schultz of Jolie-Laide Wines has carved out a niche by vinifying grape varieties “that no one’s heard of,” as he jokingly puts it. With so much Cabernet, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay made in California, he’s often wondered: “What happened to the rest of the world of wine?” That has led to his tinkerings with Alps-inspired wines, mainly Trousseau Noir (not to be confused with Trousseau Gris, which Schultz also makes). The 2019 vintage of it also has small amounts of Poulsard, Gamay and Valdiguie, all light-bodied red grapes that together express a completely new voice of California. They form a harmonious chorus of crunchy, zippy red fruits like cranberry and tart raspberry, with spicy, foresty, resinous tones. Drink it with a slight chill.Jolie-Laide Trousseau Noir California 2019 ($32, 12.3%)

In a litigious year for buttery Chardonnay, this steely, citrusy white shows California Chardonnay’s stylistic breadth

It got eclipsed by coronavirus news, but one of my favorite wine stories of 2020 occurred when the producer of a wine called Butter Chardonnay sued the makers of Franzia for using the term “Rich and Buttery” to describe its own Chardonnay, claiming trademark infringement. The legal argument struck me as ridiculous to the point of being amusing. No one should be able to monopolize the use of the term “butter” in conjunction with Chardonnay; it’s an inherent quality of that wine and should be in the public domain. The saga got me thinking about how derided Chardonnay has become in certain circles over the years, and how unfair that derision is. Chardonnay is California’s most versatile grape and can produce beautiful wines at every point on the stylistic spectrum, from lean and steely to, yes, rich and buttery. The Ernest Chardonnay from the Fallenleaf Vineyard in Sonoma is a prime example of a wine that splits the difference, riding a balanced line between generosity and austerity. It’s tense, vibrating with mouth-puckering acidity and expressive flavors of honeydew melon, Key lime and mandarin orange. Ernest The Jester Chardonnay Fallenleaf Vineyard Sonoma Coast 2018 ($38, 13.5%)

A wine-like beverage that creatively repurposed smoke-tainted fruit during a season of unprecedented damage to California grapevines

OK, this last one isn’t really wine, at least in the traditional sense — it’s piquette, a beverage made from the skins of already-fermented grapes once they’ve been through a wine press. Essentially it’s the same concept as using a tea bag a second time. Piquette has a history in Europe, where winemakers would get one last squeeze out of those grape skins, which would otherwise be thrown away, to make something light and low in alcohol. What’s distinctive about the Une Femme piquette is that it was made from smoke-tainted grapes. Winemaker Samantha Sheehan had picked Pinot Meunier grapes from the Van der Kamp Vineyard on Sonoma Mountain for sparkling wine for her label, Poe, but found that the fruit showed high levels of smoke compounds. She used a small fraction of the fruit for her wines, ensuring that the juice had very little contact with the smoky grape skins, but didn’t know what to do with the rest of the haul. So she teamed up with Une Femme, a project led by San Francisco restaurant publicist Jen Pelka (who lost her Healdsburg home in this year’s fires, too). Those recycled Pinot Meunier skins have in this case made a spritzy, translucent, ruby-colored liquid that smells like Bazooka Joe bubblegum and tastes a little bit like a vinous, non-fizzy answer to Spindrift or La Croix: mostly watery but still juicy, tangy and quite chuggable.Une Femme The Piquette Pinot Meunier Sonoma Mountain 2020 ($25, 10%)
Buy it from Prologue.


Wine Critic – Esther Mobley • emobley@sfchronicle.com  • @esther_mobley

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