California special: Four producers to watch

Louis Villard

Louis Villard

02 August 2016

If California’s wine scene can be characterised by just one thing, it’s a vibrant creativity – albeit one that occasionally verges on the certifiable. Louis Villard picks out four of the Golden State’s most exciting producers around today

Santa Barbara native Justin Willett of Tyler was considered a maverick when he first made his low-alcohol-style Pinots in the mid-2000s. With his wines now at around the 13-13.5% abv mark, Tyler focuses on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from specially selected vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills and Bien Nacido, which (unusually for California) he tends himself. His wines are fine-tuned with a laser-point-accurate fruit profile.

Look out for Willett’s Bentrock label, where he picks the grapes along a distinct vein of shale that cuts across the rows in the vineyard, a rare find of true minerality in Santa Rita Hills. Under his Lieu Dit label – a Loire-focused project – Willet is making a stunning Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc and Pinot rosé. Also look out for his Vallin label – a project using Rhône grape varieties.

Domaine de la Côte is the shining star project of Raj Parr (below left) and Sashi Moorman (right), who are together making fine Burgundian examples of both Pinot and Chardonnay: clean wines, full of tension and sense of place, exclusively from their own-planted vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills. The pair have quickly become game changers on California’s Burgundy scene.

Moorman, who for many years always preferred making rounder fruitier wines, believes his new vision has come through his own personal investment in wine, as he started to buy and collect older wines. At first, these purchases were made in honour of the birth year of his daughter, but, more and more, they became a study of how to make wines of that age. Parr balances Moorman’s winemaking ability with his own experiences from visiting famous vineyards in Burgundy.

La Côte is one of Domaine de la Côte’s top wines, a Pinot from a 3.6 hectare parcel planted on broken shale: with berries and spice, this perfectly balanced wine will clearly stand the test of time.

Lo-Fi is Mike Roth’s label, and can also be applied to his ethos. A rare natural wine label here in California, it uses wild yeasts, little sulphur (if any) and classic techniques. Much like Roth himself, the wines are lively, vibrant and characterful. Roth’s Cabernet Franc is becoming a consistent hit but he also has a fruity Pinot/Gamay blend, a bright Chenin Blanc and a lean Riesling.

Don’t go mistaking Roth for one of those dogmatic natural winemakers, though. He openly admits that a lot of people don’t understand his wines and he maintains a very laid-back approach to his work, explaining: ‘I don’t keep notes – and if I can’t remember what I did the year before, well then it’s not worth remembering.’

Roth wants his wines to be affordable for all and to be uncorked with dinner every night, rather than being saved for special occasions only. He’s not big on entering his wines into competitions, but would rather offer an open invitation to all critics to come to his winery. Simple but hip in presentation and superb in quality, Lo-Fi will soon be a benchmark for the rest of California.

Italian for ‘the naughty one’, Birichino is made by Alex Krause and John Locke, who both spent time working for Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm. Their Cinsault label originally stood out as it’s sourced from the legendary Bechthold vineyard in Lodi; planted in 1886, it’s among the oldest Cinsault in the world. Consider this wine a Cru Beaujolais, with plenty of depth and vibrancy. And Birichino’s 100-year-old-vine Grenache, sourced from the equally historic Central Coast Besson vineyard, is another example of the pair’s quest to source grapes from some of the oldest vineyards in California.

Along the way they have come across obscure varieties by accident, such as a Malvasia Bianca, which they make in a pet-nat style, and Muscat Canelli, a grape once very popular in California that’s now a rarity. Also look out for their Zinfandel, which is a modern take on the California classic, as well as a Chenin Blanc from the famous Jurassic Park vineyard. Above all, the winery wants its wines to be vibrant, fresh, bright and unashamed.

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