Perfect Pairings: The new wave of California wines

Kristen Schmidt, Columbus Alive

Play a word-association game with the subject of California wine, and you'll hear descriptors like big, jammy, buttery, oaky, fruit-forward and full-bodied (aka "lots of alcohol"). But a new generation of winemakers in the state-influenced by food and dining trends and their travels to Old World wine countries-are creating a whole new set of descriptors. And a handful of Columbus restaurants are taking notice.

"I would attribute a lot of the interesting things that are going on to how millennials are going about things," says Ryan Valentine, director of beverage for Cameron Mitchell Restaurants. "There's a lot of loyalty to wines and a lot of repetition, but that's changing. Tastes are changing; people are starting to get away from giant chardonnays."

Popular practice in California, and particularly in Napa Valley, for the last few decades has been to bend grapes to the will of popular taste, manipulating growing and harvesting techniques and fermentation and aging processes to result in those big-bodied, fruit-forward wines that have come to define California wine. Members of this new cadre of winemakers take a more Old World approach to wine, letting terroir-land, soil composition, precipitation, climate, topography, geography-dictate the resulting wine and, in some cases, planting little-known and appreciated varietals in unexpected places. The result: A wine with a familiar varietal might not taste or behave like the stereotype of that varietal. Or a wine might be made with grapes you've never heard of. Almost as a rule, these new-generation wines are lower in alcohol than the hulking 14 and 15 percent cabernet sauvignons for which the region has become famous.

This goes hand-in-hand with contemporary American cooking that celebrates a region, a season, heritage and history. Think chefs Sean Brock (Husk), Dan Barber (Blue Hills at Stone Barn), Hugh Acheson (Empire State South).

Kevin Crowley, who manages beverages for the Northstar family of restaurants, including Third and Hollywood, hung out with some of these winemakers when he was cooking at Cyrus in Heraldsburg.

"I started noticing the wines I was drinking were in stark contrast to the ones I'd been familiar with in Ohio. A '90s or 2000s big-style cab-that's what I thought was fine wine until I was falling in love with these," Crowley says. When he returned to Ohio, though, these wines were nearly impossible to find; many of them are side projects for their winemakers and are produced in small yields.

"Two years ago, we would not have been able to get these wines in Ohio," Crowley says. "Now, instead of me pushing the distributors to find them, we're starting to see them in wine shops."

How to persuade habit-happy diners they should try something new? Valentine keeps CMR lists diverse, but wine explorers will especially find treats and hidden gems on the lists at The Pearl and The Guild House. And he likes to list a lot of wines by the glass for a couple of reasons. First, diners don't have to invest in an entire bottle, and that might make them more apt to take a suggestion from a server on something new. And second, diners can have a different wine with each course (a great fit for a small-plates concept like The Guild House).

Recommended Reading

Interested in learning more about a new generation of California winemakers? San Francisco Chronicle wine editor John Bonne has written the authoritative guide to these wines and winemakers, "The New California Wine." In it, you'll meet the people behind these wines, learn their philosophies and techniques and find dozens of wineries to explore.