WHEN JOEL PETERSON INVITED ME out to eastern Contra Costa County back in January to visit the vineyard he makes wine from for his artisan label, Once & Future, I did what I usually do when headed someplace for the first time and mapped it on my computer.
Finding the approximate location Joel had given me for the addressless vineyard—a Bible Fellowship church—I switched Google screens from “map” to “satellite” to search for some patch of green terrain nearby lined with rows of vegetation I could identify as vines. What I found instead, in an open rectangle of land just over a road from the church, were beige columns dotted with evenly spaced black shapes, alternating with mossy-looking strips of green. From above, the small, dark shapes looked like trees. “That’s a weird place for an orchard,” I thought to myself.
Staring at the satellite image on my laptop screen, I noticed a few more of these beige-green plots interspersed among the neighborhood’s residential and mixed industrial blocks, some larger than Joel’s site and some smaller.
OVER THE YEARS, I’VE WALKED, trudged, and even climbed through my share of vineyards, but I can’t recall bringing as much of one home on the bottoms of my shoes as I did in late January, when I met up with Joel Peterson in Oakley.
In an unassuming place near the edge of the Delta, it’s all about the sand.
The morning after an atmospheric river flowed across the Bay Area, I headed out to eastern Contra Costa County and followed Highway 4 along an actual river—the San Joaquin—to get to my destination, an eight-acre vineyard near the Oakley-Antioch border. This unlikely viticultural spot on the suburban map doesn’t have a formal name, but Joel has designated it Oakley Road Vineyard for the wine he produces from its old-vine mataro grapes.
While his relatively new Sonoma-based label, Once & Future, isn’t nearly a household wine brand in the tradition of Gallo, Kendall-Jackson, or Mondavi, the wine company he founded in the mid-70’s certainly is. Joel launched Ravenswood in 1976 with the intention, in his own words, of creating “a small, personal project, where I was going to make just fine, single vineyard-designated wines and nothing else” from sites around Northern California.
TASTING IN OAKVILLE AT MINER FAMILY WINERY BACK IN JULY, it was my French wine importer friend Jack Edward’s comparison of Miner’s 2011 La Diligence marsanne to the Rhône Valley that triggered a flashback to some of the marsanne-based wines I’d tried in the past, especially from the Crozes Hermitage and Saint-Joseph appellations and, when I was lucky enough, from Hermitage. Though they aren’t as widely available in California or the rest of the U.S. as their red counterparts, northern Rhône white wines from producers like Alain Graillot (Crozes-Hermitage) and Domaine Faury (Saint-Joseph) epitomize the particular charms of marsanne-roussanne blends, while the great Jean-Louis Chave’s description-defying Hermitage blanc exists in another universe altogether. Unlike white Hermitage these days, the price of which would inflict feelings of inadequacy on even the most aggressive Napa Valley business manager, Graillot’s and Faury’s bottlings represent some of France’s great white wine values, as do those of their equally accomplished fellow producers.
I remember a couple of road trips to Napa and Sonoma while in college in the late 80s. The white wines on offer in winery tasting rooms (free of charge, no ID checks, lots of pretzels and local mustard) were as much about the two “blancs”—chenin and fumé—as they were about chardonnay. But before I began to develop a sense of what California white wine was supposed to taste like, I was serving and drinking blancs from Saint-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage (and even Chave’s Hermitage) in Paris in 1991 and ’92, working as a garçon and barman at the iconic first arrondissment restaurant, Willi’s Wine Bar. It was a formative period in my wine career. As much as anything else I recall drinking back then, the distinctive aromas and flavors of northern Rhône white wines etched an indelible impression on my rookie palate. When, years later, I tasted the ’11 La Diligence marsanne at a San Francisco trade show, I experienced a rush of memory to that time.
ON A HILLSIDE ABOVE OAKVILLE, Dave Miner and company sit in cabernet’s catbird seat.
It’s carved into a rocky slope that faces west down to the Silverado Trail, where the Napa Valley floor displays hardly a patch of green canopy that isn’t planted to the traditional varieties of Bordeaux. The neatly divided blocks of Oakville are verdant with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc, the vines that tie Napa Valley and California to France’s most famous wine region.
Miner Family Winery is perched in the Oakville AVA with a view across a section of the valley that a friend of mine, the wine merchant Rhett Gadke, once called “the Rodeo Drive of Napa Valley.” The analogy fits, since so many of the cabernet-based wines produced here command Beverly Hills prices. Although Dave Miner’s Oakville cabernet sauvignon isn’t exactly cheap, compared to most of his neighbors’ price tags, it’s more Silver Lake bottle shop than Beverly Hills boutique.
On the shelves of said boutiques, or at winery cellar doors, many Oakville cabernets and red blends cost as much as the top wines from Left and Right Bank Bordeaux. Dave Miner doesn’t shy away from the comparison—just the $200-per-bottle prices.
IF THIS HAD BEEN AN ARTICLE about, say, San Francisco bartenders in the 1970s and 80s, chances are pretty good that a couple of Irishmen would have made an appearance by now. But two Scottish winemakers in the same story on Sonoma County syrah? Not bloody likely, you might think. Yet it happens, anyway: Steve Law, who was mentored by zinfandel specialist Michael Talty and inspired by a pair of Rhône vignerons, found another important career influencer when he introduced himself to Edinburgh native Andy Smith, the winemaker and proprietor of DuMol Winery in Windsor.
“I met Andy in ’08 down on the Central Coast at one of the Hospices du Rhone events,” Steve told me last year. “I was initially drawn to him because of his accent. It was like, ‘Who the hell are you?’ I found out he was actually the winemaker at DuMol, and the friendship has grown between the two of us.” He described Smith, 48, as a brilliant advisor, especially when it comes to analyzing different microclimates of Sonoma County for their syrah potential.
Andy Smith has made wine at his Windsor facility since 1999 and started producing DuMol’s Russian River Valley syrah a year later. I called him there recently to chat about the MacLaren wines. He echoed his friend’s comments about his own winemaking mindset, telling me that Steve “knows what he likes, and that’s his target. That’s his vision.”
“HAVE YOU HEARD THE JOKE?” the wine retailer standing at our table asked with a stupid grin. He was trying to laugh it up with my winemaker boss and me. “What’s the difference between a case of syphilis and a case of syrah…?”
“The case of syrah is harder to get rid of! Get it?!”
My winemaker boss happens to make syrah—cases of it, in fact—so only one person was laughing. He looked stone-faced, saying nothing as his eyes narrowed. I’d seen that look before. The guy turned to me, but I just shook my head. “That’s hysterical, man,” I said flatly. He moved on to find a friendlier audience.
This little episode took place several years ago at a trade tasting in San Francisco. The boss and I were pouring his Mendocino County syrah for Bay Area restaurateurs and retailers. Venereal jokes aside, California syrah had free-fallen into the damn-near-impossible-to-sell wine category, thanks in no small part to an industry trope that put this noble wine grape variety in the same containership-sized box as a purplish, fermented grape beverage commodity from Australia called Yellow Tail Shiraz. The reason? Back in the 1950s, a Sicilian winemaking couple, Filippo and Maria Casella, immigrated to New South Wales. A few decades later, Casella and his sons launched an export shiraz brand. They named it after Australia’s cute Yellow Tail wallaby, adorned the bottle with a quasi-Aboriginal art label and a $6.99 price tag, and unleashed upon the world the phenomenon of “critter wine.” The family duly made a fortune. Here in the U.S., the imaginations of Costco members from coast to coast were forever captured, and shoppers doing wine arithmetic in supermarket aisles summed up that premium domestic syrah was equal to, but not necessarily greater than, cheap-ass Aussie critter shiraz. California syrah went into a marsupial death dive.