It’s funny to watch wine people deal with California. In public discussions (you never know what people drink in private), there seem to be only naysayers and defender-evangelists, as though merely enjoying the occasional West Coast wine marks you as insufficiently geeky. There are two columns from which to choose; you’re to tick one box, then double down.
Before I fell in with this sort of folk, or read their columns or joined their tastings, I lived in California and drank plenty of its wine. It never seemed to me to be monolithic (it’s not), singularly dedicated to powerhouse fruit or sweetness (it’s not that, either), or universally concerned with commerce. I lived in LA, so my wine country of choice was the Central Coast, first because of its proximity and then, after seeing it — Santa Ynez, San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles — because I’d fallen in love. Take the ride north from the city and by the time you emerge from Santa Barbara, not loving the gold and marine hues means not having eyes. In which case, you probably shouldn’t have driven up.
I previously lived in the Bay Area, so the tasting rooms of the Central Coast were a bit of a revelation. There are big ones here, too, but on the way to Paso Robles you’ll find tons that feel like homes or sheds, with the pouring done by a daughter or a worker who’s just come in from the field. Better yet, that person may pour you something thoughtful and engaging and so delicious that, if you knew how the outside world discussed the region, you’d want to remind them of California’s rap. Don’t you know you’re supposed to be pouring un-sellable black pepper Syrah? That’s what they think of you. That’s what they think of us.
I left California several years back, and more or less assume the defender-evangelist role when it comes up. I love Zinfandel and have had enough restrained and interesting Pinot to want to fight the power, but in a recent wander around my favorite wine store, I realized one part of my brain had been co-opted by the haters: I have a knee-jerk response to California Chardonnay.
Brainwashing? Too many straw-yellow Chards served in shallow plastic cups? Why, even after reading tons of indications that California Chardonnay has stopped with the super-oak-super-butter treatment, do I still ignore it?
I expressed this concern (not quite so meanderingly) to the kid behind the counter; he perked up and pointed out the one California Chardonnay on the rack, a 2010 bottling from Broc Cellars. Labelled only as Vine Starr, a “Paso Robles White Wine,” it turns out to be 75% Chard, 12.5% Roussanne, and 12.5% Picpoul.
It’s only the second vintage, so it wasn’t around when I was, but man, I wish it had been. Then again, it’s useful for recalling a landscape I can no longer visit in an afternoon. Medium-high acid with a creamy, feathery texture, this is a white that punctures any illusion that California (and the Central Coast, in particular) lacks elegance or a certain regional wit. Here you’ll find ripe red apples, warm, broad sunshine, fresh field dairy and terrific salinity. It wears its complex of flavors like a basket of fruit collected on a long walk: California’s actual bounty, not a billboard selling the myth of it.
Broc Cellars “Vine Starr,” Paso Robles White Wine, 2010 ~ $20