I love California wine—but perhaps not in the way that you think.
California wines are often described with adjectives like powerful, jammy, oaky, buttery, ripe, intense and concentrated—but it’s descriptors like these that make my stomach turn and have me reaching for the nearest can of Modelo. Yes, the flavor profiles that have become synonymous with mainstream California wines are the very attributes I loathe in a wine.
In the world of wine geekdom, loving California wine—in all its over-extracted glory—is often associated with being a pedestrian wine-drinker: You needed a wine to punch you in the face with its flavors and aromas in order to appreciate it. Bigger is better, right? This is how the California wine industry defined itself and how it found unparalleled success with the cocktail-to-wine converts. But there is another wine story beginning to emerge—a story that is compelling and exciting, being written by young, innovative winemakers who are consciously choosing to break away from convention and forge a new California wine style.
This is the California that I love. These are the wines that are creating a new definition. That said, I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge that this “new” style is really not new at all.
These winemakers are embracing the way wine was crafted for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, before chemicals and flavor manipulation—before “recipe” winemaking and a desire for wines to always taste the same from year to year. Wines were supposed to be different, depending on the vintage and where the grapes were from. Wine was a time capsule that so beautifully reflected a time and place that could be revisited with the pull of a cork.
A friend of mine once used a brilliant analogy to describe this winemaking mindset. He likened these guardians of the grapes to midwives: The winemakers are simply there to guide the process along, protect the wines from harm during the various stages, and interfere only to prevent tragedy. Otherwise, you stay out of the way and let nature do its thing. The result? Wines that are wild, diverse, energetic and unapologetically honest.
Much to my delight, I’m not the only desert denizen who has a passion for the avant-garde wine styles making a splash in the Golden State. Christine Soto of Dead or Alive wine bar in Palm Springs decided in 2018 that she was going to create an entire wine festival dedicated to the “new California.” But this wasn’t going to be just any old trade tasting. No … she assembled a roster with the greatest emerging talent in the state, all under the very hip roof of the Ace Hotel and Swim Club in Palm Springs.
Anyone who’s ever been to a large-scale wine-tasting knows that, more often than not, you will hold your glass out and receive your taste from anyone but the winemaker. Sales reps, suppliers, importers, a temp from the tasting room—all are decent ambassadors of the wines they represent, but let’s be honest: There’s nothing quite like having a one-on-one conversation with the person responsible for creating what’s in your glass. This is just one of the elements of Golden Grapes, as the Palm Springs Wine Fest is also known, that make it so special.
Needless to say, the Palm Springs Wine Fest—dedicated to the fierce and determined California wine successors—is indeed a success. This December marked the second year of this gathering of talent—and for the second year, I found myself positively giddy as I wandered around the room, more than just a little bit star-struck. To my surprise, the winemakers and principals were just as happy to be here as I was to see them. Over and over again, I heard comments about how fun this tasting was, and how great the consumers were. They were so impressed with the thoughtful and genuinely curious questions that were being asked. The energy was palpable, and the vibe in the room was electric and brimming with happiness. There was zero pretense or snobbery—just a room full of passionate people, with the creators and the consumers equally appreciative of each another. Trust me when I say that this is not the norm.
Many of the winemakers hadn’t been to Palm Springs in years. Some hadn’t been here since a childhood vacation, and others had never visited our sunny paradise. One thing was for certain, though: Everyone I spoke to said they love it here and want to come back.
So, at the end of the event, we were left with happy winemakers, coming together in a stunning location, interacting with fun-loving and inquisitive patrons. Sounds like a good time to me. I have no doubt that Golden Grapes, or the Palm Springs Wine Fest, or whatever you want to call it, is going to become one of the most important wine gatherings in the country. It goes well beyond simply tasting fun, esoteric wines, and is actually setting a higher bar for future winemakers and producers—and represents a shift in consumer wine awareness.
Now, I just need to be patient and wait for next winter to roll around. It just keeps getting better and better.
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with two decades in the wine industry. She can be reached at email@example.com.