Courtesy PhotoBroc Cellars makes a refreshingly lighter and more balanced style of zinfandel.

Age of enlightenment hits California wines

What’s happening to California wines?

Chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon are as popular as ever. Merlot has weathered the storm brought on by its haters. Pinot noir is still the ”it” grape. High-alcohol, fruity-verging-on-overripe and oaky wines are still being produced en masse. The more expensive wines are often likely to be the worst offenders. The end.

No, thank the proverbial god. Wine, like film or music, has a broad range of styles and there is quality to be found in all genres. The underground scene pushes it forward and into the mainstream. Independent films are largely responsible for the digital revolution. The Swedish House Mafia owes its success to the DJs from the raves of the late 1980s and early ’90s.

These days, there is a movement to return winemaking to a sense of balance. In the Bay Area, there have been folks who never quite bought into the “bigger is better” philosophy. Wine lists from restaurants such as Chez Panisse, the Slanted Door and Terroir have always shied away from the more ponderous selections. In 2011, Raj Parr of the Michael Mina Group and Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards started the group In Pursuit of Balance, which holds annual tastings with producers who are striving to make wines that show more restraint.

This often means less alcohol, higher acid and little or no wood treatment, yet that even is a rigid definition. A pinot noir at 14.5 percent alcohol is likely to seem out of whack — heavy and cloying on the palate — while a zinfandel at the same level might not. There are wineries such as Broc Cellars that make a 12.3 percent alcohol zinfandel, which is balanced but has a lighter style than many people are used to drinking. On the other hand, I’ve had higher-alcohol wines with finesse and subtleties.

Veteran winemakers Steve Edmunds and Mike Dashe have never strayed too far from this philosophy, even when it seemed like box-office poison. In the past five years, The Scholium Project, Donkey & Goat, Wind Gap and others have taken the ball and run with it — not only stylistically but by using myriad grape varietals, ranging from trousseau gris to aglianico.

The question now is how much of a reach will this new wave have in the mainstream market? Will it ultimately create such a far-ranging effect that it changes the stereotype?

Last week, I got together with several colleagues and tried 50 such wines to get a sense of where things stand now and might be heading.

In the next few years, you will see more variation in the market. Cabernet franc that tastes like cooler-climate cabernet franc, not another shade of cabernet sauvignon; chardonnay made with judicious oak treatment; grapes that are now not much more than a foreign language are becoming more common. I don’t see this trend ending, at least not in the Bay Area.

Giving wine drinkers a wider-angle lens benefits everyone. And while this new wave may not replace the more full-throttle approach to winemaking that typifies California wines, it is already having a positive influence.

No matter where your preferences fall, we are in one of the most exciting periods of California winemaking in decades.

Pamela S. Busch is a wine writer and educator who has owned several wine bars in San Francisco, including Hayes and Vine and CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen.


An earlier version of this story misspelled Jasmine Hirsch's name.

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