The “New California” is what all the cool kids are into. The “New California” is California, which is always new, plus New, so it’s doubly new! And California! Drinking “New California Wine” is kind of what one does these days if one is into wine; if one likes to rub against certain grains and with certain others; if one likes to be part of movements; if one wishes to align with the youthfulness, the experimentation, the game-on spirit of generational shift.

That’s me, I think. I want in. But the new California is bringing me down.

This shouldn’t be. A passionate new generation of people with similar tastes to mine is rediscovering a sense of place in the most prestigious wine country in the United States, and reinvigorating the entire wine culture there in the bargain.

But it’s not working for me. Most of my experiences have been disappointments, because of price, availability and hype. There are few prospects more thrilling in wine today than the promises offered by NCW, and few trends more unsatisfying.

The New California Wine – a title coined by San Francisco Chronicle wine editor Jon Bonné in a well-regarded Saveur magazine article and then a 2013 book of the same name – refers to many Russian-doll subcultures within America’s most illustrious wine-producing state.

There is no formal membership, and the majority of those who are placed in the category probably share a general distaste for categories. I acknowledge here the risk of painting with too broad a brush. But it’s safe to say that the grouping generally attempts to encompass winemakers with a more European approach to wine than was produced, promoted and adored in California through the 1990s and 2000s.


NCW’s spectrum is vast. It includes Steve Matthiasson’s exquisite reinventions of classic Napa; Rajat Parr’s out-Burgundying-Burgundy Sandhi wines; Kenny Likitprakong’s skater-fancy Make Work; Angela Osborne’s gorgeous A Tribute to Grace; Abe Schoener’s liberal-arts experiment Scholium Project; the Southern-fried good-times low-alc wines of Dirty and Rowdy; Jared and Tracey Brandt’s minimalist Donkey & Goat; and many, many more.

Some of these, due to the hard work and high risk-taking of just a few Maine distributors – most notably Crush and Mariner – are available in small quantities here. Dense, potent, fruity wines, super concentrated and high in alcohol – the whole Robert Parker thing – are out. 95-point whizbangers are out. Mimicry of Bordeaux and Châteauneuf-du-Pape is out.

In: more improvisational, porous wines, the emphasis on soil and savory spice characteristics rather than one-note fruit blasts. A light touch. Beaujolais, Burgundy, and Friuli are the reference points.

There’s also a dramatic retreat from over-reliance on cellar technique (new oak chips and unlisted ingredients to manipulate flavor, reverse osmosis to reduce alcohol after harvesting grapes too late, adding tartaric acid to fake textural balance, etc.). There’s a predilection for using only native yeasts, for refraining from fining and filtering, for reducing or even eliminating additional sulfur.

Further, NCWs often seem to come with entire philosophical systems and mission statements built up around them by their hyper-literate leaders. The blog posts are fervid. The first-person backstories to each vintage, each wine, each parcel within each vineyard, each grape bunch, come as fast and referential and macroscopic as a David Foster Wallace essay.

These are all trends I’m excited about, whether in Amadour County or the Loire Valley, Santa Cruz or Sicily. I want that personal connection, that sense that someone is ready to die to make the wine he wants to make. I ask a lot of any wine I drink, sometimes too much, leading to an overload of ambition, an optimistic tendency to read too much into the experience. I know all about piling up a wine with a surfeit of consideration.


So let’s just hold out the possibility that the problems I encounter with NCW might be related to the problems I encounter with myself.

But I’m desperate in these hypermarketed, safety-conscious, big-box times to pierce the veil of advertising, to touch something of substance, to feel a more direct nudge from reality. I want to drink wine that communicates straight from the earth. Light my fires, trouble my dreams, concoct mille-feuilles of alternating flavors and textures, stay nimble, fail in order to succeed.

I discern such motives in New California Wine. My desire to participate is what drew me, for the first and so far only time a few months back, to pay full retail price on a mail-order-exclusive package of wines from the Scholium Project. Abe Schoener’s eloquent, impassioned, bare-it-all writing made it irresistible. I felt as if I could spend enthralled hours in this man’s presence, so I chose the next best thing: I put $200 on my credit card for five wines that seemed to hold infinite promise.

Dashed, my hopes are. I’ve drunk four and enjoyed one (Prince in His Caves, a 30-day-skin-fermented sauvignon blanc “orange wine,” probably Scholium’s best known product, extraordinarily complex and savory).

Then, I recently had the chance to buy a couple of bottles from Dirty and Rowdy Family Wines, whose Maine distributor, Crush, was able to finagle a few cases of the two highly sought-after wines due to a personal connection. They promptly sold out of the red and have a scarce handful of white left. Though the wines’ personalities are very different from Scholium’s, I was similarly nonplussed. They were interesting, but quite obviously incomplete.

My displeasure with these is not so much with “the wine itself.” The wines are altogether pretty tasty. The problem is that “the wine itself” is a fictitious category. The wine itself is connected to the way it’s sold and the price I pay.


Especially the price I pay. The Scholiums cost me $40 a bottle. The Dirty and Rowdy cost more than $30 each. For significantly lower prices, I can drink much, much better wine from Europe. That wine, just like the NCWs, will be made by a few people in a family, who tend their vines by hand with little or no pesticide use.

Just like the NCWs, the wines I’m talking about – from Beaujolais, Vouvray, Friuli, the Mosel, Sicily, Chinon, Jerez, the Wachau, Piemonte – are low in alcohol, delightful with food, complex, not out to impress critics. Those wines are of course the chief inspirations for the NCW makers themselves!

The wines from classic regions of Europe are … well, they’re classic. They’re not often “new” anything (despite Andrew Jefford’s great book, “The New France,” which showed a younger generation returning to something basic, and trying out new technique within the context of traditions established over successive generations). “Classic” doesn’t mean fusty or extended-pinky or cobwebs. It means established, primary, worthy.

Some are much more expensive than a NCW experiment, but many cost much less.

The economics in this country are almost impossibly inhospitable. In Europe, the family winery’s mortgage was paid off 293 years ago. In California (and not just Napa), land prices are high, property taxes are high, fruit prices are high (very few NCW vintners grow their own grapes). And the cost of transportation from California to the East Coast is higher than from the West Coast of France.

It is infinitely easier for a California winery to sell directly out of the winery and via their mail-order wine club. Don’t fool around with arcane distribution logistics. Just open the tasting room, write up a compelling spiel, cultivate the blog and the Instagram, and the wines sell out. I pant to participate.


But I feel tricked, even though the winemakers are without doubt honest and hardworking. Hardy Wallace, a partner at the five-year-old Dirty and Rowdy, told Levi Dalton in a podcast interview that despite the winery’s renown and regard, “we’re still not breaking even.” He also acknowledged that for the first few years of producing the skin-and-concrete-egg-fermented semillon (the white I drank), “We didn’t know what the hell we were doing.”

A cult of cabernet sauvignons produced in painstakingly small amounts, priced to make dot-com billionaires feel like art collectors in 1999, has been replaced by a cult of trousseau gris, skin-fermented semillon or mourvèdre fermented whole-cluster like Beaujolais, to make geeky sommeliers feel like they got the single available album of Wu-Tang Clan’s “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.”

Everything is a bit too limited, a bit too knowing and a bit unimpressive. The prices are nowhere near the four-digit abominations of Opus One or Screaming Eagle. But they’re still too much for me.

NCW is still working on things. And I’m grateful for it. Still, I think I’m going to let Bay Area oligarchs subsidize the process, for now.

The spirit of adventure is a joy to behold. The desire to establish something real and exciting in our homeland is admirable. But I’ll try it all again in five or eight years, to see what’s been sorted out. I usually prefer reading books by dead people.

Joe Appel is the wine buyer at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.