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The Insider’s Guide to Alt-California

The essential producers, wines and methods that define the “alt” branch of New California.

California, despite all the talk about it being the land of opportunity, has a surprisingly high resident population of whiners. There are NIMBYs and faux-progressives and those who just want things to stay as they always were. And yes, that extends to wine. One of the frequent knocks against New California, back in the day, was how much the pioneers of the late 2000s and 2010s were advancing a relatively obscure roster of grape varieties.

In a very small way, this had the tintinnabulation of truth, in that, sure, a whopping 170 acres of grüner veltliner weren’t exactly threatening the existence of 95,000 acres of chardonnay. But for the most part, it was a load of crap. 

Why? Because the state’s collection of less-obvious grapes—alt-California, if you’ll allow me—has in fact been a driving force in repopularizing the state’s wines over the past decade. It has helped bring a new generation into the fold of California wine. Efforts like Ryme Cellars’ twin vermentinos, or Arnot-Roberts’ trousseau, have an outsized psychic weight among important sommeliers and wine buyers. So it doesn’t really matter if gamay noir and grüner veltliner are planted in small quantities. They’re playing a different game than cabernet and pinot noir; they don’t have (or need) massive brands crafting fake-fancy wine that moves the market. The mere fact that there’s debate over whether California cabernet has much of a future in a world where Napa ribolla gialla is so hot is a sign of how much has changed.

So just what is alt-California? It’s not simply a question of being out of the mainstream. For one thing, there are grapes, like carignane, that have a long and interesting history in California and are enjoying a revival. The same could be said for cabernet franc, which is likewise enjoying a moment right now, but is still part of the Bordeaux tradition that California has long obsessed over. Then there’s the long and complicated history of Rhône-native grapes in California—not just syrah and grenache but mourvedre and cinsault and so on. These may be alt in their own way, but theirs is a different alt-story.

Our definition of an alt-California wine is essentially one that is based in Old World traditions, but not obviously in the big French trio: Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône. That includes most of the Iberian family of grapes, and a good portion of Italian varieties. In the Teutonic realm, there’s not just grüner veltliner but also sylvaner and the red grape blaufrankisch. Less so riesling, which has its own, under-appreciated California story. Same with chenin blanc.

In fact, many of the varieties we might consider alt-California have a history in the state that long predates the rise of cabernet and chardonnay. Look no further than the work of Eugene W. Hilgard, one of the great agricultural scientists of the 19th century, who planted and recorded dozens of grape varieties across the state prior to Prohibition: the Jurassic duo of trousseau and poulsard, mondeuse, veltliners of various sorts, vernaccia and so much more. Even after Prohibition wiped out most of the state’s vineyards, there was ample interest in working with many of these varieties. No one really knew what California wine should be, so why not plant lots of everything?

Of course, it’s clear today what California’s a-list grapes are—and no worry that alt-California is going to take away any of their thunder; there will be plenty of cabernet and pinot noir to go around—and the alt-roster isn’t going to stage a coup.

But these wines are crucial in helping to redefine what California is, and what it might be. Today we drink a rainbow of wines from all over the world, and what was obscure not long ago is common fare today. So if alt-California allows us to consider what might be, or what might have been, all the better. Progress never followed just one path.

Fast Facts

  • Lots of alt-grapes hibernated quietly during California’s more mainstream years. If anyone questions the pedigree of a wine like blaufrankisch from the Wind Gap label, it’s worth remembering the vines were planted by Ritchie Creek’s Pete Minor more than three decades ago—right next to his cabernet on Napa’s Spring Mountain.
  • While there’s lots of interest in Italian-inspired whites, many native Italian grapes have been in California for a while in part because of the Cal-Ital movement 30 years ago, which tried to make a case for things like sangiovese and barbera, even spurring big-name efforts like the La Famiglia di Robert Mondavi label.
  • The alt-California darling ribolla gialla is a recent arrival, and a rarity—smuggled in by a retired wine executive named George Vare and grafted in 2001 in a single vineyard in Napa Valley. Vare loved the grape, and turned his vines into an incubator of sorts for the who’s-who of New California: Scholium’s Abe Schoener, Steve Matthiasson, Massican’s Dan Petroski and so on. Today, a handful of other plantings exist.
  • Gamay in California has a truly bizarro history. What was known in the 1970s as “Napa gamay” was in fact valdiguié, a grape native to southern France. There was also “gamay Beaujolais,” but that grape turned out to be a low-grade pinot noir cultivar. True gamay noir à jus blanc, the grape of Beaujolais, officially got to California in 1973—although some might have arrived earlier—but was rarely planted until this decade.
  • As of 2007, federal law required valdiguié to be called by its own name, rather than gamay. That in part led to the current revival of that grape, by winemakers like Michael Cruse (Cruse Wine Co.) and Jessica Boone (Lumia). It’s delicious when made well.
  • Grüner veltliner was already well known to California scientists (if not wine drinkers) by the midcentury. The esteemed researchers Maynard Amerine and A.J. Winkler appreciated the quality of the wine it made, but couldn’t recommend it because its yields were too low.
  • Trousseau not only existed in 19th-century California but also endured in more recent times—under a different name. It is genetically identical to Portugal’s bastardo grape, a key variety for Port, and as such was planted in California to make fortified wines.

The Essential Producers

Massican: When not crafting cabernet for Larkmead Vineyards, Dan Petroski has helped pioneer Italifornia—the (more successful) 21st-century iteration of Cal-Ital. Massican made its name on blends inspired by the region of Friuli, although more recent efforts have expanded to use pinot grigio and greco.

Forlorn Hope: Matthew Rorick’s label was conceived, essentially, as a tribute to lost causes (verloren hoop is Dutch for an army’s sacrificial first wave), or plantings that he terms “rare creatures.” This has, over the years, included alvarelhão from Lodi, the Austrian grape St. Laurent from Carneros and one of the best examples of verdelho found anywhere, in this case from the Sierra Foothills.

Ryme Cellars: Although they still make very good pinot noir and chardonnay, Megan and Ryan Glaab are perhaps best known for their His (skin-fermented) and Hers (fresher, brighter) versions of vermentino. They’ve also expanded into ribolla gialla, aglianico and an extraordinary rendition of the Campanian grape, fiano.

Arnot-Roberts: More traditional wines, especially syrah, first brought Nathan Roberts and Duncan Meyers acclaim. But their work with trousseau, gamay and even white field blends reminiscent of old California traditions made them alt-California icons. It might be too much to say their Trousseau was the wine that changed everything, but its barely-more-than-rosé lightness marked a sea change; it was proof California could have cult-following wines that weren’t in the usual high-octane template.

Jolie-Laide: Scott Schultz makes a range of wines for his small Sebastopol label, including those made from gamay, melon (the grape of Muscadet) and valdiguié, the latter a rosé. But it was his take on trousseau gris—a mutation of the red trousseau grape, found in approximately one vineyard in Sonoma and barely anywhere else—that put Jolie-Laide on the map as a key purveyor of alt-California.

Scholium Project: Abe Schoener’s philosophical inquisition-cum-winery has defined alt-California for more than a decade. Today that includes a dizzying array of esoterica, including a dark rosé (Il Ciliegio) made from zinfandel. But there has almost always been verdelho, including his Naucratis from the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta.

Also: Broc Cellars, Arbe Garbe, Bokisch (Spanish varieties), Matthiasson, Jaimee Motley (mondeuse), Verdad (albariño), Birichino, Habit (grüner veltliner), Scribe (sylvaner), Hobo (valdiguié), Cruse (valdiguié), Edmunds St. John (gamay noir), Combe (trousseau).

The Essential Wines

Ryme Hers Vermentino: Megan Glaab’s version of vermentino shows the best of that grape’s freshness and savory, resin-like bite—an example that can compete with Italy’s best.

Massican Annia: Dan Petroski pays homage to the mind-meld of Friuli and Napa in a blend made primarily of intensely mineral ribolla gialla and floral friulano, plus a bit of ripe, fruity Napa chardonnay.

Pax Wine Cellars Gamay Noir: Pax Mahle has dabbled in many alt-California wines, under both his Wind Gap and Pax labels. This gamay is a new effort, and immediately meshes the spicy side of cru Beaujolais made with whole grape clusters to a briny aspect that calls to mind coastal Sonoma pinot noir.

Broc Cellars Valdiguié: From his Berkeley warehouse, Chris Brockway has pioneered much of alt-California, but his mission to revive valdiguié is especially noteworthy, in part because his remains the state’s defining version (with Michael Cruse’s also making a strong effort).

Lagier Meredith Mt. Veeder Mondeuse: Lest you think these alt-efforts are solely the domain of the new generation, vine geneticist Carole Meredith has for years been making an intensely tannic, floral mondeuse.

Tatomer Meeresboden Grüner Veltliner: Graham Tatomer meshed his winemaking skills in Santa Barbara County and his fascination with Austrian wine (he apprenticed there) to produce this standout varietal example, with its celery and lemon flavors, from vines planted on old seabed soils.

Sandlands Trousseau: Winemaker Tegan Passalacqua not only crafts the wine for Turley Wine Cellars, but also for his own label, focused on chenin, mataro (mourvedre) and, yes, trousseau from the far Sonoma coast, planted near the well-known Hirsch vineyard. His trousseau has a bit more edge than the Arnot-Roberts, arguably because it’s a much colder site.

The Essential Alt-Fringe

California orange wine: Well, of course Californians also make skin-fermented white wines. Early efforts include Wind Gap’s version of trousseau gris and Scholium’s Prince in His Caves (sauvignon blanc), but also include examples from Matthiasson, Forlorn Hope, Dirty & Rowdy, Scribe, Ryme and numerous others.

Valdiguié in pink: A welcome side effect of this grape’s return has been valdiguié rosé. Standouts include bottles from Lumia and Jolie-Laide.

The new-new alt-grape varieties: New alt-grape varieties are always on the horizon. Keep an eye out for mencia (native to northern Spain), assyrtiko (Greece) and pineau d’aunis (the Loire). The lengthy process to import virus-free grapevines slows the arrival of new fodder, but many winemakers take more, um, unofficial paths.

Charbono: The rugged red grape charbono, identical to the obscure French alpine variety corbeau, has a long history in California—already well known in the 19th century, and produced as a varietal wine by the legendary Inglenook winery as early as 1941. As such, it’s not quite alt-California, and its fortunes have waned (there are 75 total acres in the state) but a few loyalists remain, notably Rory Williams and his Calder label.

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