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Review: Jon Bonné's 'The New California Wine'

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While there's an accent in Jon Bonné's name, he doesn't prefer one in his wines. His new utterly-compelling book "The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Wine Revolution" (Ten Speed Press) can be read as a fight against what he calls Big Flavor: the over-ripe wines that obliterate sense of place or nuance that first came into style in the 1990s. This is the kind of book where the comment "he dialed back his style" is the ultimate compliment.

Bonné, the wine editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, knows his stuff from the land to the glass -- this is a book of on-the-ground reporting, historical breadth, and keen insight. While a good half of it is devoted to winery and wine recommendations (given their frequent appearance in this section go buy every wine by Arnot-Roberts right now, if his tastes can be trusted), you can feel Bonné chafe at writing merely a consumer guide. Each entry is packed with detail and vivid sketches of place.

But even more so "The New California Wine" could be called "The New California Wine People." More than grapes or bottles, he seems fascinated by the folks who want to buck the trend of Big Flavor, people like Tegan Passalacqua (who works for Turley Wine Cellars), who finds precious old vine sites in places like Contra Costa and says things like, "People out here are either crazy religious or meth heads." Or Abe Schoener -- once a classics prof at the Great Books curriculum St. John's College in Maryland -- who names his Scholium Project wines things like Wisdom of Theuth (it's a Verdelho, as if naming it after its obscure white grape wouldn't be enough). These portraits make clearer there is artistry afoot, or at least a serious rethinking of how to do things (and the well-designed book is good at working in sidebars on topics ranging from keg wines to how to define what ripeness means for grapes).

Bonné does see the effort to make non-standard wines in a series of dialectics, from a struggle between actually expressing location versus simply selling California as a marketing label to a much-needed shift from winemaker who is not a farmer to winemaker as grower first, making as much of their wines on the vine as possible. A not-so-subtle hint about how he sees the wine world is in part two of the book, "The New Terroir: A California Road Trip" where he visits Contra Costa County, Sonoma (focusing on the coast-iest of the coast), Sierra Foothills, Santa Cruz Mountains, Lodi, Santa Rita Hills, Paso Robles, Ventucopa, and Anderson Valley. Beyond the specificity and Napa-lessness of the list, anybody who is a fan of Anderson Valley as the epitome of one kind of lost California, and of its wine, is okay by me.

So he wages the good fight against "California's prevailing ideas about viticultural manifest destiny - that we should be able to grow what we want, were we want it, make the soil bend to our will." He makes you want to drink, and discover, a lot of good wine. In the guide section he boils things down to Three Bottle Tours (is that a Gilligan's Island allusion?) -- handy snapshots through varietals, if definitely often pricey. Turns out, as if this is a new lesson, artistry, good farming practices, and small yields don't come cheap. And on a sad sidenote, he captures one of the sad truths of California wine, the absence of women winemakers: the first picture of a woman comes on page 132. Prudy Foxx of the Santa Cruz Mountains, take a bow.

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