In the past year, I have spent more time in California than I have since my early youth (a memorable family vacation from Seattle to Disneyland in which my brother and I fought so much in the back seat that my exasperated parents parked the car at the Oakland airport and we flew the rest of the way).
Three wine judgings in the past 12 months have considerably broadened my experience tasting California wine. It even spurred me to read a number of books about California wine, especially Robert Mondavi's autobiography and American Vintage, a history of the U.S. wine industry.
I'm not sure I should admit this to my fellow Northwesterners, but I have friends in California. I even buy a small amount of California wine.
And I have to admit this: I see the allure of California.
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Part of it is the natural beauty of Northern California (I'm sure Southern California is pretty, too, when you can see through the smog). Part of it is the quality of the wine.
But what I find most appealing about the California wine industry is it's so ... American. No stodgy rules. No waiting hundreds of years to figure out what grows best where. No silly distribution systems (oh, wait, we have those, too, I guess). The French wine industry is evolution, the California wine industry revolution.
When Americans want to do something, we just do it - and we do it well. Back in the '60s, Mondavi had a vision for what the California wine industry could achieve. He figured the Napa Valley had the goods to beat France at the wine game. Since he was already in his 50s, he didn't have time to fool around, so he just went out and did it.
California wine didn't just build an industry. It spawned an attitude, a lifestyle, a culture. It changed the way the West Coast acts. Tourism, leisure time, even cuisine have been radically altered because Mondavi and his fellow Californians kicked down the doors of the wine industry and changed the rules.
It must really have been something to be a part of that. Sure, the country had other distractions (a little conflict in Vietnam, etc.), but days spent inventing an industry must have been a real kick.
Which made me think: We are a part of that right now. We are in the midst of the next wine revolution. Sure, the country has some distractions (a little conflict in Iraq, etc.), but the Northwest is the new California.
That's right. The Northwest is taking all the research and innovation that the California wine industry built over the past four decades and we're mixing in our own attitudes and passions and leading the next revolution.
I think California might be starting to tap out on its wine innovation. For certain, there are some interesting areas still being explored in the Golden State, but the Northwest is the wild west of winemaking.
A couple of my buddies, Bob Woehler and Coke Roth, have some 60 years of Northwest wine industry experience between them. I have to admit that I'm occasionally jealous when they talk about "the good old days" up here, back when Washington had six wineries and you could taste through the entire industry in a half-hour. To make up for my youth, I've done my best to taste as much history as I can, be it legendary wines such as the '75 Chateau Ste. Michelle Cab, the '76 Erath Pinot Noir, the '79 Columbia Winery Millennium or the '83 Woodward Canyon Dedication Series Cab. A couple of years ago, I even got to taste a '67 Associated Vintners Gewürztraminer.
But here's a little secret: The Northwest's good old days weren't that good. Generally speaking, the wines were lousy. Sure, there were occasional gems, but the Northwest simply wasn't mature enough then to make consistently good wines. It sure is now, though.
You can take a Washington Syrah, an Oregon Pinot Noir or a British Columbia ice wine, put them up against the world's best and not be embarrassed in the least. And what's amazing about this is the Northwest wine industry is just a baby, barely three decades old. That's hardly enough time to figure out good places to grow great grapes, much less give those vines enough years to mature.
But we're able to do this because of California. We've taken the hard work that's been done in the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma and the classrooms at UC-Davis and Santa Rosa Junior College and applied them here. We've attracted talented winemakers from the Old World who don't want to be distracted by silly rules.
We're Napa in the '70s and Sonoma in the '80s. We're breaking rules, making great wine and reinventing the American wine industry once again.
We're the new California, and now is the perfect time to be in the Pacific Northwest.