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California Whites: Viva Variety!
By Linda Murphy
Apr 16, 2013
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A British wine journalist once asked me why Californians felt so compelled to grow and vinify every wine grape known to man.  My answer was simple: “Because they can.”

This journalist was accustomed to going to Bordeaux for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cab Franc, to Burgundy for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and to the Rhône Valley for Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre, and was flummoxed by the myriad wines produced in California.  “Can’t you people just focus?” was the plea.

When I mentioned this to Bonny Doon Vineyard’s Randall Grahm, his response was that California didn’t make wine from enough different varieties.

I’m with Grahm.  Without the appellation regulations in Europe that dictate which wine grapes can be grown in specific regions, California winemakers can do whatever they darn please -- and that’s a boon to variety-seeking consumers.  The more choice there is in the U.S.  market for domestic wines, the better the chances are of experienced wine drinkers finding new and interesting wines, and for newcomers to discover the varietals they enjoy most.

In no category is this truer than white wines.  As good and varied in style as are California’s Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Gris, a wave of intriguing whites has hit Golden State shores in recent years, offering new tastes for those thirsting for brisk, refreshing white wines not only for spring and summer, but also for year-round enjoyment with seafood, salads, vegetable-based dishes and pork.

Northern Italy is the inspiration for many a California maker of white wines.  Grape varieties such as Tocai Fruilano and Vermentino are now producing nervy, sophisticated wines for producers including Palmina in Santa Barbara County for Tocai Friulano, and Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles and Uvaggio from Lodi, for Vermentino.

Under his Massican label, Napa Valley winemaker Dan Petroski produces a lovely white wine called Annia, a crisp, minerally blend of Italian varieties Tocai Friulano and Ribolla Gialla; the wine gains some depth from a splash of Chardonnay.  Larkmead Vineyards in Calistoga, where Petroski works, makes a florally perfumed, grassy Tocai Friulano that spends time in neutral oak barrels, which rounds out the edges.  It’s crisp and supremely refreshing.

Spain’s Rías Baixas region in Galicia is the influence for a growing number of California vintners who produce Albariño.  If ever there were a super summer/seafood wine, Albariño is it, with its fresh grapefruit and white peach flavors, bracing acidity, and sometimes a savory, salty nuance.

Markus and Elizabeth Bokisch’s Bokisch Terra Alta Vineyard Albariño from Lodi manages to show the seashell-mineral quality of a Rias Baixas Albariño, despite the fact that Lodi is influenced not by close location to the ocean, but rather the cooling effects of the Delta.  Tangent, the exceptional white-wine brand of the Niven family in San Luis Obispo County’s Edna Valley, offers a juicy, racy Albariño -- and is likely the first producer in California to bottle this variety. 

I recently enjoyed a glass of Sonoma County Russian River Valley Albariño from Gordian Knot Winery -- a new producer to me.  I had it at Café Lucia, a Portuguese restaurant in Healdsburg, and the wine went swimmingly well with my fish, despite the country cultural crossover.

And then there is Grüner Veltliner, the Austrian white wine that captured the interest of big-city sommeliers nearly a decade ago.  Rudy von Strasser, a Cabernet  Sauvignon superstar on Napa Valley’s Diamond Mountain, also grows Grüner Veltliner, as a tribute to his Austrian-born father, and his wine delivers bright citrus and pear flavors, with a grind of white pepper – an Austrian Grüner Veltliner signature note.

The same Niven family of Tangent created the Zocker label for its Grüner Veltliner and Riesling wines.  The former, from the Paragon Vineyard, is a dead ringer for a full-bodied, juicy Austrian Grüner, and has, yes, the classic white pepper note. 
French Colombard, a widely planted grape in California that fell out of favor in the 1980s, when the Chardonnay bombshell hit America, remains the backbone of cheap boxed wines from the Golden State.  Yet a few adventurous makers of higher-end wines, among them Yannick Rousseau and Nikolai Stez, have found high-quality Russian River Valley French Colombard grapes and are producing exceptional wines from them. 

Rousseau, a native of France’s Gascony region, where French Colombard winemaking is a way of life, ended up in Napa Valley as a barrel broker.  He unearthed an old French Colombard vineyard in Russian River Valley, Saini Vineyard, and from it bottles an aromatic, refreshing white wine under the Y Rousseau label.

Stez, an assistant winemaker at Williams & Selyem for two decades before founding Woodenhead Vintners, sources the Wes Cameron Ranch in Russian River Valley for French Colombard grapes.  His wine, Woodenhead Halfshell White French Colombard, does fresh oysters proper justice, and also has enough palate weight to pair beautifully with grilled seafood as well as the raw.
It’s a beautiful thing that New World California winemakers are increasingly embracing Old World white-wine grapes, and giving them their own stylistic spins.  Anyone who says Californians are producing too many varietals is suffering from a classic case of sour grapes.  Consumers know better.