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What Does the Future of California Wine Look Like?

The sale of one of alt-California wine’s pioneers signals an end of an era. Jon Bonné on why the next chapter may be a lot messier.

In the quiet stretches of August came a jolt of news: Calera Wine Co. had been sold to the very prominent Duckhorn Vineyards. Wineries are sold all the time, but this was different. Calera, based in the hills outside the town of Hollister, wasn’t simply legendary. It was one of the first real examples of an alternative view of California wine—a forebear to the New California decades before that era came along.

Calera’s story is really the story of Josh Jensen, a dentist’s son from the suburban town of Orinda. In the early 1970s, he was inspired by Burgundy enough to wander California for two years, locating what would be his pinot noir paradise in the wilds of the Central Coast. Jensen toiled for years to plant vineyards 2,000 feet up a remote mountain he’d located on old mining maps, and was often portrayed as a perennial loner, although he had plenty of friends in San Francisco. He made his home in the back of beyond, and his wines became famous decades before “Hollister” graced sweatshirts around the globe.

Duckhorn, the successful suitor, was seemingly everything Calera was not: It grew in tandem with Napa’s prestige, its merlot one of modern California’s early successes. The company kept expanding after a 2007 sale to equity firm GI Partners, producing hundreds of thousands of cases of wine and moving into places like Washington State. The establishment was buying the rebel, or so the narrative went, which left a lot of longtime Calera fans long-faced.

The reality, of course, is more complicated. For one thing, Jensen is one of the most financially savvy winery owners I’ve met; he can discuss stock futures as easily as malolactic fermentation. And it became evident a couple of years ago that the succession plans he’d described to me nearly a decade earlier weren’t going to gel. While his three children owned most of Calera’s vineyard land, Jensen told me recently, “all of them looked into their souls and decided they’d rather do their chosen careers, and not something Dad decided.”

At the same time, it was hard not to view the sale as the end of an era—the most poignant moment in a changing of the guard that has been predicted for a while. Santa Barbara’s popular Brewer-Clifton was sold in May, 2017, to Jackson Family Wines, parent company of Kendall-Jackson (just one part of K-J’s buying spree, which has added wineries like Sonoma’s Copaín and Oregon’s WillaKenzie to a stable of once-famous legacy brands like Matanzas Creek). In April, Silver Oak bought Napa’s prestigious Ovid label. And Schrader Cellars, poster child for Napa’s over-the-topness, sold in June to none other than Constellation Brands, the world’s second-largest wine company, for a reported $60 million—a gob-stopping sum for a wine brand with no vineyards.

“There’s something that’s definitely driving it,” Jensen replied, when I asked him about this trend, and then noted his age: 73. In other words, the time had come for a previous generation of California stars to find closure.

Still, the news was unsettling. While the financial motives all make sense, it felt like a final signpost for an important generation of pioneers, much like last year’s retirement of Ridge’s Paul Draper. And it resurfaced an uncertainty that I’ve been feeling for a while: that the initial rush of energy that defined the New California has passed. For the first time in a long time, I’m struggling to see how California wine’s next chapter will take shape.

Most of the wines I’ve championed over the past decade are still around, and are being made as well as ever. But even five years ago, a path forward was more evident; wines being derided at the time as fringe were about to go mainstream. What I described as the New California wasn’t simply a new generation arriving—it was also a firm rebuttal to the previous generation’s louche and often misguided styles of wine. (Jensen, like Draper, was enough of a traditionalist to suffer during the years of so-called Big Flavor, and thus is philosophically aligned with the new guard.) Those once-fringe wines found an audience more quickly than anyone imagined. Today, they thrive on wine lists and shelves around the country and no one—or no one conversant with wine in this century—questions Lodi chenin blanc or Lake County trousseau anymore.

But the next wave of progress seems to have been trickier. What I’d expected to be a flood of new names has turned out to be a trickle. And it’s becoming clear that pursuing wine in California is damn hard work—especially, as any avocado toast-eating millennial will tell you, because the financial deck today is stacked against the young. To compound these worries, winemaker Dan Petroski tells me when I call him, “No one’s talking about it. We’re all putting our heads down and trying to sell wine.”

If anyone is positioned to see a bright way forward, it’s Petroski, who, in addition to making impressive white wines under his Friuli-inspired Massican label, also makes successful Napa cabernet at Larkmead—wines that appease both hedonists and intellectuals. But as Massican approaches a decade in existence, Petroski finds himself thinking less about wine and ever more about business, including his Band of Vintners project, which he and fellow Napa winemakers started to produce affordable cabernet in larger quantities. Growth, it turns out, is both the key to survival, and difficult to achieve.

It seems the landed story of California wine has effectively returned to its 1990s form: a tale told by the rich, signifying their own self-satisfaction.

This brings us, inevitably, to the most complicated of topics in California wine: owning land, which is also the most important, in that any generation of winemakers ultimately needs to control their own vines if they want to do their greatest work. In California, that dream is probably farther out of reach than ever—not only in Napa, where top vineyards are now approaching $400,000 per acre, but also in places like Mendocino’s Anderson Valley, and even in Lodi, where the ratio of land value to wine prices isn’t that appealing. (“The land values here are so disheartening,” Petroski continues. “It sucks the soul out of you as a young winemaker.”)

That isn’t to say the desire for land can’t be fulfilled. There was a moral victory of sorts when winemaker Tegan Passalacqua of Turley and Sandlands bought the century-old Kirschenmann vineyard in Lodi, not only for himself but to sell fruit to winemaker friends. Same with Matthew Rorick of Forlorn Hope and his property in remote Calaveras County; with Bedrock’s Morgan Twain-Peterson, who bought the historic Evangelho property in Contra Costa earlier this year; and with Nathan Lee Roberts of Arnot-Roberts, who bought the Que Syrah vineyard. But those purchases happened well into their winemaking careers, which is actually pretty typical in California. Littorai’s Ted Lemon, for example, bought his first vineyard after nearly 20 years in the business.

The problem is that the generational passing of the baton hasn’t yielded nearly enough land that the new guard can afford. And so it seems the landed story of California wine has effectively returned to its 1990s form: a tale told by the rich, signifying their own self-satisfaction.

A relative scarcity of new talent is also troubling. I’m thrilled to see the maturing of wine brands like Mike Roth’s Lo-Fi, Cruse Wine Co. and Angela Osborne’s A Tribute to Grace (plus her work with Folded Hills). I’m similarly happy to see new names appear, like Fine Disregard, Little Frances, Reeve, Halcyon, Martha Stoumen, Etxea and Raft. But each time I go to France, not exactly a place known for rapid change, and witness the breakneck pace of new vignerons settling into the countryside, I wonder why California—font of innovation that it’s supposed to be—hasn’t matched pace.

Californians often complain that such correlations are unfair, since European families have held vineyards for generations. But many of these young French winemakers are planting vines without family land. Even in Bordeaux, while young money isn’t exactly grabbing up Pomerol, the ambitious are mining spots like Entre-Deux-Mers.

Back in California, the most visible, ambitious projects put a curious twist on the state’s modern narrative—like Ashes & Diamonds, a large new estate founded by Kashy Khaledi, son of the owner of Darioush Winery, an apotheosis of Napa’s over-the-top. Ashes & Diamonds is a curious hybrid: Khaledi tapped a distinctly New California vein of talent (Petroski, Steve Matthiasson, Diana Snowden) but also brought on investors to construct a highly visible facility on Highway 29, intended to be open to the public, of a type rarely seen anymore in Napa. The goal, I surmise, is to become a weekend destination for the same well-heeled millennials who flock to Sonoma’s Scribe Winery.

Conversely, there’s Constellation’s latest project. After buying Schrader, it announced plans to create a new brand based on its holdings in To Kalon vineyard, one of Napa’s most historic and important parcels, and hired longtime talent Andy Erickson, known for his mastery of both lavish and restrained styles of Napa wine. One has to wonder about the endgame for a company that sells 50 million cases of wine each year to produce less than 1,000 cases of something so fancy.

But outside of a few ambitious efforts like these, it feels as though the very creation stories of California wine are being downsized. In 1974, Jensen put in ridiculous sweat equity and scraped together money from family and friends to buy 320 acres, high atop Mount Harlan, for $18,500—or $57 an acre (about $292 in current dollars). Today, viable land in the area goes for around $20,000 per acre. And that’s cheap by California prices. How, you have to wonder, does anyone build the next Calera?

Even Jensen admits he should have followed the path today’s winemakers do: start by buying grapes or wine on the open bulk market, then buy land later. So perhaps there is continuity between the generations, or so Erickson reminded me. He and his wife, Annie Favia, are finally making wine in their own winery, a historic stone building from the 1880s, a feat he notes “only took us 23 years.”

Matthiasson, too, finally moved into his own winery last month after renting space for over a decade. He similarly admits that the success he and his wife, Jill, achieved was both improbable—buying a farmhouse and leasing Napa vineyards on a farmer’s income—and a glacial 15-year process.

“It takes frickin’ time,” Matthiasson tells me. “When I see people quitting their day job and trying to live on their winery before 10 years are up, then you’re fucked in terms of having capital.”

Which leads me to the only conclusion I can make: The next chapter for California will be slower, messier and less predictable. That isn’t to say there’s not lots of room for success. But, with the previous generation moving to the shoulder, its modern generation of winemakers has work to do to plot out the road ahead.

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