Keeping California wines top of mind after last year’s disastrous fires

Last year’s California wildfires and #DrinkCalifornia seem like distant memories now. Maybe it’s the fault of the news cycle constantly churning out new stories. But this was the most devastating natural disaster in California’s history with at least 44 people killed and more than $9.4 billion in damage. The cost of human life is incalculable and the effects on the livelihoods of many remain to be seen. So as a wine professional, I’d like to convince you to cast your eyes back on California and urge you to buy and enjoy California wine.

This has become a personal mission for me. In years past, as a young floor somm and wine buyer, I couldn’t be bothered with California wine. It was either bulk juice or expensive, overdone and under-allocated bottles I’d never have the opportunity to taste. But experience and savviness come with time. I learned about many small independent producers pushing the status quo of California wine. These were the people forced to evacuate in the middle of their harvest, trying to rescue some small portion of their crop before they lost it all to the flames.

So the question is this. How do you buy California wine that supports the people who need it most? First, buying by region. Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties were all hit, but the Santa Barbara area received an extra helping of punishment. Just a month ago, heavy rains caused a deadly mudslide on the barren hills. Santa Barbara County and its associated AVAs: Santa Maria Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Ynez Valley, Ballard Canyon, Happy Canyon and Los Olivos are still up-and-coming wine regions.

Lacking the investment of large corporations and billionaires, these are mostly passion projects and family-owned operations looking to make wine on their own terms. These smaller producers could use some love from the charitable wine drinker. Being closer to the ocean and a little cooler, Santa Maria, Santa Ynez and Sta. Rita Hills specialize in the cooler weather grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, if those suit your taste. The warmer climates farther inland allow for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah if you like a more substantial wine. You can find just about any style of red or white wine from this area that’s sure to suit your palate.

Or you could shop by grape varietal. Ninety-three percent of all wine made in California is made from eight grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. These staples grow easily (except for Pinot Noir) and sell well. So you can be reasonably sure that anyone growing Spanish grapes like Tempranillo and Albariño, or Italian grapes like Barbera and Sangiovese are the type of people to buck trends rather turn an easy buck. If you like a plush and juicy Merlot, maybe try a dark fruit-forward Charbono. Syrah lovers will probably enjoy a great old vine Carignan. There are even people growing Malbec for that Cabernet drinker that wants a wine that bites back. Take a chance of grapes that don’t enjoy the limelight, and you just may find a new favorite.

My final suggestion is the easiest. Go to your friendly local wine shop. Small independent retailers specialize in limited production and boutique producers because we just can’t compete with grocery stores and large chains with pricing on the bulk brands. We spend a lot of time and effort on finding the small guys who make great juice that over-delivers for the price. We know how the story of how they got started, where they source their fruit (if they don’t grow it themselves), and oftentimes know the winemakers. Wine like any other industry has no shortage of mediocrity or rip-offs, but your independent retailer should be able to guide you to the unexpected gems.

In the end, the California wine industry will recover. It’s too large an industry to remain down for long. But if you are interested in investing in a future for California wine that is interesting and dynamic, consider a few of these options. Cheers!

Born in bred in North Carolina, Tristan Pennell began his journey into wine working at a small vineyard and winery in Saxapahaw. After jumping into the world fine dining, he worked his way from food runner to wine director and restaurant manager in a few years, earning his sommelier certification with the Court of Master Sommeliers along the way. In that time he opened a small wine bar and restaurant consulting company with Master Sommelier Fred Dex in Durham, as well as helping to open and reopen teams at Standard Foods in Raleigh. Currently Tristan is a sommelier at the Raleigh Wine Shop on Glenwood South helping with sales, specialty sourcing, cellar management and wine education.


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