An Ideal Wine: One Generation's Pursuit of Perfection - and Profit - in CaliforniaAn Ideal Wine: One Generation’s Pursuit of Perfection – and Profit – in California by David Darlington

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Once upon a time, in the fabled Land of Milk and Honey (1970’s California), the Knights (and a few Maidens) of Vitis Vinifera vowed to champion beautiful wines that would express the true nature of the golden slopes and coastal valleys they called home. They armed themselves with degrees from the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology, they pulled stints in wine shops and wineries, they met to taste the great wines of the world, sharpening their palates on Bordeaux and Burgundies, Rieslings and Champagnes. They shared and stumbled together, battling the dragons of weather, pestilence, fungus, financial woes and burnout to create a stunning array of wines that would be celebrated across the world (I write of the legendary Judgment of Paris, at which a host of California wines bested French labels in a blind tasting in 1976).

Then one day a great shadow fell over the land. A cunning sorcerer – bearing the benign moniker of Robert Parker – and his sipping sycophants – sidled on to the scene. Slinging arrows in the shape of 100-point scale scores these sorcerers cast a spell, causing the people to believe that quality wine was plush, plummy, velvety, overripe, oak-laden, high-alcohol jam that bore no distinguishing characteristics of the terroir from whence it came. The people were deceived and began to shell out premium coin for ripe and fruity plonk. The Knights of Vitis Vinifera fell to their knees, proclaiming allegiance to the Dark Lords of High Scores. They were rewarded with riches beyond imagination.

The Court Jester, Randall Grahm, and the Court Wizard, Leo McCloskey are the central characters in this tale. The former, the iconic proprietor of Bonny Doon Vineyard and erstwhile owner of Pacific Rim, Cardinal Zin and Big House wines, took a tangled route through the California wine industry. He baffled and beguiled his counterparts, critics and devotees by reaching for the sun with his wings barely glued to his back. He grew everything, everywhere, experimenting with grape varities, sites and techniques in an astonishing display of fearlessness. His odd pockets of vineyards grew into an empire of brands and Grahm — through his prolific newsletters and showboat style — became the tail that wagged the dog. A master of marketing which grossly overshadowed the quality of his wine in the heady days the 90’s, Grahm at last returned to his original, earnest goal of creating artisanal wines that speak of the true terroir of California. He is now a champion of biodynamic processes, committed to restoring winemaking to a craft of nature respectfully managed — not manipulated — by man.

Leo McCloskey, a contemporary of Grahm’s, was a young, gifted scientist and winemaker who guided storied Ridge Vineyards to worthy acclaim. He pursued a doctorate in chemical ecology at UC Davis and Santa Cruz, and earned his reputation as a skilled winemaker and consultant. McCloskey recognized early that the rapid and massive growth of the California wine industry needed savvy businesspeople to manage the aspirations of idealistic entrepreneurs. He studied the ascending importance of Robert Parker, editor of The Wine Advocate and the world’s most renowned wine critic, and of the luxury magazine Wine Spectator, which copied Parker’s 100-point rating scale. McCloskey’s genius revealed itself in the creation of a service that winemakers had no idea they needed: Enologix. Enologix is founded on the principle that wine quality can be measured empirically, therefore crafted chemically. He has created a metric which takes into account the tastes of Robert Parker and critics from Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and other noted wine and spirits publications. The algorithms analyze a wine’s flavor components at every stage of production, from growing, harvesting, and fermentation to aging and bottling. Used in conjunction with a market analysis, the Enologix metric is designed to ensure a wine will reach a target price, volume and critic score.

In An Ideal Wine, David Darlington pours out a sweeping history of the modern California wine industry, the one that began with idealists in blue jeans in the late 60’s, through today’s corporate megalopolises. Dozens of winemaking and kingmaking scions are introduced, though the two principals — Grahm and McCloskey — are featured as the Yin and Yang of the vast and complicated pursuit of the “Ideal Wine.”

Darlington is comprehensive and fair, respectful of the access McCloskey and Grahm provided to their businesses and personal lives. He does not spare us Grahm’s cringe-worthy self-absorbed silliness nor does he underplay McCloskey’s appreciation of fine wine. But despite his journalist’s quest for balance, it is clear which approach he favors: the artisan’s, over the industrialist’s.

And it is not hard to determine why. To the industrialist, the vine and its fruit are commodities. Remedial techniques, such as micro-oxygenation, spinning cone, reverse osmosis, and oak chips are regularly employed to correct what nature has wrought. The artisan has a “less is more” approach, adapting viticultural and oenological processes to the prevailing climate and terrain.

Of course, nothing is so black and white- there are no true villains or heroes. If one hopes to make a living making wine, business principles that recognize the consumer must be respected. The wine artisan’s quixotic mission is to refine the consumer’s palate; the wine industrialist admits that an American populace raised on high-sugar treats that are silky with fat will clamor for a wine that offers these qualities, year in-year out. Many will pay top-dollar if popular critics tell them so; otherwise bulk juice bottled by discount retailers or mammoth wineries will suit just fine.

An Ideal Wine is a ripe blend of anecdotal, wizard-revealing dish-outs and technical information, which will satisfy the wine geek without overwhelming with jargon.

I toast Darlington for revealing the reality behind the romance of winemaking, for underscoring the idea that winemaking is an incredible marriage of art and science, perhaps the greatest collaboration of man and nature that we know. It is also a partnership still in its infancy in the United States. Winegrowers and winemakers are yet in the early days of exploring, defining and working compatibly within the micro-climates and micro-terrains of California and the Pacific Northwest. Exciting, beautiful wines are being crafted throughout the region and there is a slight but growing shift away from the mammoth mouthfuls advocated by popular critics.

During a trip to the Languedoc region of southern France last spring, my husband and I spent a couple of days with biodynamic farmer and winemaker, Jean-Pierre Vanel (Domaine LaCroix-Vanel). We visited two vineyards that he had just purchased. The vineyards had been conventionally farmed and resembled moonscapes: the soil was brittle and dead, the vines were tired, flat and gray. Jean-Pierre caressed the vines, lamenting over their poor state like a nursemaid with a cherished charge. We then visited vineyards he has tended biodynamically for several years. They were green and lush in the early days of their ripening. Grasses grew underfoot, the soil was thick and richly-colored, flora and fauna abounded in harmony. Vanel’s wines — blends of the region’s signature grenache, mourvedre, syrah, cinsault, carignan (reds) and grenache blanc, roussanne, terret (whites) — are fine and pure, with angles and tannins, acids and structure: wines that fully express their terroir. Vanel’s vision is to be a steward of his land, to allow the vines to create the wine. Not unlike the vision of that long ago, once upon a time, California.

View all my reviews