While the United States of America seems to be currently going through some sort of identity transformation, certain things about this massively influential nation are locked in. The endless vibrancy and diversity of its art and music cultures for one; another is its exponentially expanding wine industry, similarly endowed with a surplus of New World boldness and flair.
In this issue, we close in for an exciting taste of what's happening at both ends of the American wine industry, from the ultra-affordable players nudging and winking at the high flyers, to the zenith of American winemaking, the high flyers themselves, who throw their resources – financial and otherwise – into the crafting of wines to equal the best in the world (more often than not visualising the lofty beacon that is France, home to so many benchmarks).
So how do they tick, these US winemakers? Often, their agenda seems to be to go looking for the very finest fruit they can find, wherever it might be, then bringing it home to apply their craft. Being Americans, they're frequently masters of the sophisticated marketing strategy, perhaps second only to France at the creation of legends around their wines. With the US home to booming cellar door wine clubs, it is so successful with local sales that the top wines rarely get beyond its borders, making the ones featured here a real score.
At Dark Horse they believe that fortune favours the bold. Their outstanding achievement is delivering brilliantly good wine at a reasonable price. Leading the charge is winemaker Beth Liston who, viewing winemaking as some sort of treasure hunt, went looking for her own set of vinous gems. Having discovered some of her favourite vineyards in California, Beth focused in on select sites to secure just the right grapes, getting the first pick of fruit from over 400 growers. Dark Horse taste their wines more than 100 times before they see your glass, and have an multi-award-winning portfolio to prove the worth of their innovative approach.
As Francis Ford Coppola might tell you, there should only ever be one God-father, and when it comes to the Zinfandel grape and California, that's Joel Peterson. Established in 1976, Joel's Ravenswood winery was one of the very first to take on the production of big, bold Zinfandel wines from Sonoma County and introduce them to the world. Robust and red are the two terms that define Ravenswood; the pre-prohibition vines are old, low cropping and dry farmed. Ravenswood strive to celebrate these venerable vineyards with their soulful wines, one of the few wineries that has benefited from the philosophical and winemaking skills of one person for more than 40 years, contributing to a consistency of quality and style rarely found in California.
Dave Phinney pretty much stumbled into the wine business after taking a friend up on an offer and travelling to Florence on a whim. In Italy, of course, he was always going to collide with the joyful marriage of food and wine. Predictably, Dave fell in love, and in his words, 'the die was cast.' He returned to the United States, graduated from university and four days later had moved to the Napa Valley.
Having sent his resume to 50 wineries, he received back just the one reply. It was from Robert Mondavi. Says Dave: 'I showed up to my temporary harvest position interview wearing a suit and tie. They literally laughed at me, gave me a very basic math exam and asked if I could pass a drug test. A few weeks later I was hired.'
As much as he loved his new job, and he did, Dave Phinney decided that if he was going to work this hard, it would eventually have to be for himself. The very next year, he started Orin Swift. His winemaking philosophy is the same as it was at the beginning: find the very best fruit from the very best vineyards, 'farm it right, harvest it right, bring it into the winery and don't screw it up.'
Aptly reflecting his winery's name, Pierre Seillan crafts truly exquisite wines. Lured from Bordeaux to California's Sonoma County by the late Jess Jackson to engage in this joint venture, he has orchestrated the wines of Vérité since 1998, in the process co-opting his daughter Hélène (who has split her time between California and the family's estate in Saint-Émilion) into the role of assistant winemaker. Vérité skilfully blends Bordeaux' legendary traditions with California's fearless New World flair.
Dave Phinney (yes, the same Dave Phinney you just read about in the piece on Orin Swift), well, he gets around. He's obviously capable of multi-tasking, because l'usine is his outfit too, but he also gets around in order to hunt down vineyard locations that allow him to pursue his winemaking goal of achieving complexity through geographic diversity.
L'usine translates as 'the factory', a tip of the hat to Andy Warhol's famous studio. In Dave Phinney's words:
'Wine, like art, is raw. It requires years of hard work. It has a high likelihood to fail. It is subjective at best. It isn’t always pretty. Like art, for every good or great wine that is made there have been thousands of failures.'
Making Pinot Noir is the pursuit that created l'usine.
The resulting three wines are the culmination of a search for the best sites in the vintage. All three are barrel selections of each vineyard that added the most complexity to the final wine, with each barrel tasted completely blind and selected for their sense of place and their intricacy.