A little over a decade ago, there were whisperings of a California wine revolution. Small producers, hidden in abandoned warehouses and sourcing grapes from obscure plots across the state, were united by the idea of making fresh, European-inspired wines that could break up the monotony of California Cab. At the time, America’s obsession with 100-point Napa Valley wines had reached a fever pitch. The state seemed to have selling wine down to an exact science: Take a conventionally made wine, put it in a heavy bottle that portrays luxury, slap on a label boasting an elite vineyard pedigree, get a healthy helping of praise from one-note critics, and you have a hit.
Alternatively, a small group of up-and-coming winemakers were focused on easy-drinking low-alcohol, high-acid wines, made for everyday consumption. They were thoughtfully made from grapes sourced from small organic farms, often showcasing the underappreciated varieties and areas of California’s North Coast — Vermentino from Lodi, Charbono from Lake County, Aglianico from El Dorado. This was the underground of California wine. There were no lavish tasting rooms or corporate investors, just scrappy winemakers finding any way to make wines they believed in.
The discreet rumblings of change were highlighted in wine writer Jon Bonné’s 2013 book, “The New California Wine,” which focused on the producers behind this movement. It told stories of the rebels who dared to challenge the state’s formula for making “fine wines” and were forging a new path. It was a guide to California’s most exciting bottles, introducing the world to winemakers like Steve Matthiasson, Pax Mahle, Abe Schoener, and Angela Osborne.
Now, a decade after the book’s release, these producers aren’t so unfamiliar. Any visitor can pull up a seat at the Jolie-Laide or Idlewild tasting rooms, and bottles from Arnot-Roberts and Massican are standard on any well-balanced wine list. So if this wave of producers was characterized as the “New California” in 2013, then what we have now is the next generation. The leadership, mentorship, and collaboration that acted as the foundation of the movement had a major snowball effect, and the result is a sea of new small producers who are hungry to emulate the success of the class of 2013.
Back to the Beginning
The winemakers who went against the grain of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon were often inspired by the everyday drinking wines of Europe. William Allen was intrigued by the varieties of France’s Rhône Valley when he founded Two Shepherds, Megan and Ryan Glaab started Ryme Cellars with inspiration from southern Italy, and Pax Mahle wanted to perfect Californian Syrah with his eponymous label, Pax. More than just the esoteric grapes and vineyard sites, these winemakers wanted to make fresh, balanced wines that were meant to be enjoyed young.
“I cut my teeth drinking wines from Europe as a wine buyer many years before I made wines,” Mahle says. “I was very new to the California wine scene, where magazines and critics were normalizing $100 bottles of Napa Cab and $80 bottles of Chardonnay made with 100 percent new oak. I thought that was very strange, because in most of the world what’s normal is a $20 bottle of Vermentino or a $30 bottle of Pelaverga or Cinsault.”
Most worldwide regions are built on a strong foundation of affordable, everyday wines, but California never really found its footing in this category, instead prioritizing big, luxurious bottles. Realizing the major gap in the region’s offerings, Mahle set out to make easy-drinking, affordable wines from the state’s forgotten varieties and vineyard sites. Yet, sourcing grapes like Carignan and Trousseau Gris wasn’t easy — such vines were rapidly being torn out and replaced with more “noble” grapes.
“There was a time in California when if you tried to buy a piece of property, the bank would only loan you money to plant a vineyard if you planted it to Pinot Noir,” Mahle says. “Even if you were buying an existing vineyard that had Vermentino or Chenin Blanc, the bank would say you have to tear it out and replant it to Pinot. So unless you can bankroll the entire operation yourself, you couldn’t even work with any of these grapes.”
This system made it nearly impossible for small producers to break through the Pinot barrier. But as several like-minded winemakers found a way to make it work, the community of new California wines started to grow.
Since small winemakers were up against the restrictive infrastructure of the California wine industry, support from others was essential for start-ups looking to do something different. Ryan Glaab was working as the assistant winemaker at Pax when he and his wife Megan decided they wanted to make their own wines. In 2007, they started Ryme Cellars under the wing of Pax, as Mahle allowed Ryan to use their facilities to make wine while maintaining his full-time job.
“My favorite thing about this side of the wine industry is that it’s very communal. If someone finds a new or exciting vineyard they tell everyone about it instead of playing it close to the vest like other places I’ve worked.”
“Being a young couple that just got married, we didn’t have the means to pay for custom crush — it’s such an expensive endeavor,” Megan says. “Pax providing that space for us was really critical. He supported us along the way.”
Ryme wasn’t the only winery that got its start at Pax. Several top “new California” producers that now have cult-like followings, including Arnot-Roberts, Jolie-Laide, and Martha Stoumen, all started in the Pax facilities. This support gave winemakers the freedom to make whatever they were interested in. They didn’t have the pressure to only make Pinot Noir or sell $100 bottles out of the gate to pay for a winemaking space. Instead, they were encouraged to experiment with new styles with assistance and advice from seasoned vets.
Creating an all-star-level family tree of winemakers wasn’t necessarily Mahle’s goal, it was just the result of seeking out good talent. Giving people the opportunity to create their own wines attracted passionate and driven winemakers to the brand. It just so happened that Pax’s symbiotic system started off a series of unique small-batch wines that further propelled their movement.
Other producers took a cue from Pax and implemented a similar tactic. Now an established winery, Ryme lets assistant winemaker Matt Crutchfield craft wines under his own label using its facilities. Megan Glaab actually insists that having the assistant winemaker make wine is essential to the learning process, providing much more experience than just following directions. “It also helps keep the energy and thirst to learn more and try new things alive within our cellar,” Megan says. “And that’s really stimulating.”
“It’s a real ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ type of community, with room for success across the board. I think we all know this life is easier together than apart.”
William Allen and Karen Daenen of Two Shepherds also felt a sense of camaraderie among small producers in the Sonoma area. The partners recall that organizations like “The Seven Percent Solution,” which celebrated the 7 percent of grapes planted in California that don’t fit within the major categories, provided great support for them and other small wineries looking to do something different. Allen and Daenen continue to spread the love, helping friends and former employees start their own labels, including the new Catch & Release Wines and Social Creatures.
The New-New California Wine
In a region that was previously unwelcoming and out of reach to small producers looking to defy California convention, there’s now an established network of winemakers keeping the spirit of collaboration alive.
When Matt Crutchfield started his career as a winemaker, he first took a job at a large Pinot Noir producer in Sonoma County. The company had strict rules about not letting employees make their own wine, and he recalls that there was a lot of secret-keeping when it came to vineyard availability and opportunities.
Crutchfield’s experience since he started at Ryme has been completely different, with Megan Glaab pushing him to buy some Chenin Blanc grapes and start his own label. “My favorite thing about this side of the wine industry is that it’s very communal,” he says. “If someone finds a new or exciting vineyard they tell everyone about it instead of playing it close to the vest like other places I’ve worked.”
Other newer producers like Jennifer Reichardt and Sara Morgenstern of Little Trouble Wine Co. also cite the area’s young, up-and-coming winemaker community as a great resource. “I used to joke that all the wines were ‘crafted by community,’” Reichardt says. “As we’re telling you this, our group winery thread is sharing information about fruit that’s still available for sale in Mendocino,” Morgenstern adds. “It’s a real ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ type of community, with room for success across the board. I think we all know this life is easier together than apart. It’s a beautiful unspoken understanding.”
Morgenstern works full time at Ruth Lewandowski wines, another leader in the original movement toward unconventional varieties. But she’s encouraged to also make wines of her own and takes inspiration from mentor Evan Lewandowski.
“You see the trickle-down effect of producers like Pax and Arnot-Roberts who have dug into grapes other than Pinot, Cab, or Chardonnay.”
Reichardt and Morgenstern aim to bring new-wave winemaking philosophies to classic California grapes with wines like the Little Trouble Wine Co. Carbonic Zinfandel. “It’s been great to give wines that maybe haven’t been seen much through the low-intervention wine lens a new life,” Morganstern says.
Rosalind Reynolds, the latest winemaker to apprentice with Pax, makes her own wines under the label Emme, where she aims to highlight grapes that were integral to the California wine industry before Pinot Noir and Chardonnay took over, like Carignan and Colombard.
Working in the Pax facilities has given Reynolds the financial freedom to seek out organically farmed grapes from small family farmers. Reynolds mentions a couple she works with in their 70s who used to sell their grapes to a behemoth wine producer in the area. They never got to see what their grapes amounted to as they were forgotten in big blends. Now, the farmers are elated to see where their grapes end up: in single-vineyard designated wines.
Just as sommeliers and journalists sung the praises of Arnot-Roberts and Pax in 2013, industry pros are now excited for the new wave of wines coming out of the area. Alexandria Sarovich, the sommelier at Healdsburg’s popular plant-based restaurant Little Saint, has noticed the next generation of star winemakers afoot. Sarovich features Matt Crutchfield Wines, Emme wines, and Little Trouble wines on the restaurant’s list, and even had a summer-long residency program with Martha Stoumen, showing the support in the community extends throughout the hospitality industry.
As the original wineries of the movement continue to grow and gain popularity, one might question if they are now part of the California wine establishment. Though they were once rebels, these producers are now pillars of the community. Do they control the industry that they once set out to disrupt?
Before this revolution of small producers, farmers were being told to rip out obscure grapes. Now, Megan and Ryan Glaab get calls from vineyard managers asking for advice on what new grape(s) they should grow to replace their Cab plantings. Megan is noticing a lot more Vermentino and Fiano in the Sonoma area, with even larger producers like Kendall-Jackson planting Vermentino.
The first wave of new California wines drummed up a lot of excitement for off-the-beaten-path grapes and styles, and now more and more producers are gravitating toward lesser-known varieties as a reaction to consumer demand.
“You see the trickle-down effect of producers like Pax and Arnot-Roberts who have dug into grapes other than Pinot, Cab, or Chardonnay,” Reynolds says. “People are going to start seeing grapes like Trousseau take more market share, and they might not know what the history is, but it was because of producers like them.”
A recent example of this is Gallo’s acquisition of Massican winery. Winemaker Dan Petroski started Massican in 2009, when the idea of making Italian-inspired white wines in the heart of Cab country was truly revolutionary. Now that Massican falls under the wing of wine giant E. & J. Gallo, does that make wines like his flagship Ribolla Gialla blend mainstream?
Some might be concerned that the original movement was just converted into a new formula for big producers to copy. Could “source obscure grapes from unique vineyards, call it a low-intervention wine, and put a fun, not-too-serious label on it” be the new recipe for a hit California wine?
While it’s easy to be skeptical, there’s no denying that the community of thoughtful producers driven by balance and expression of terroir is growing. Neither can anyone deny that this new wave of producers will continue to value organic viticulture, small family farmers, and making great wines with intention — even if they make it big.