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Friday, Oct. 9, 2009

BY THE GLASS

Introducing the Californian dream

Author of 'California Winetopia,' imparts advice on visiting the state's wine country


Swilling an elegant Pinot around your glass, the landscape before you, verdant with vines, undulates in the soft evening light. The little wine you've imbibed sets your senses aglow as you contemplate the cinematic beauty of California's wine country.

News photo
Toasting California: Coauthors W. Blake Gray and his wife, Mami Ishikawa Gray, raise their glasses at Seghesio Family Vineyards. MAMI ISHIKAWA GRAY PHOTO
News photo

With the release of the Japanese version of "Sideways," set for Oct. 31, many movie-goers might find themselves rushing off Stateside for their next vacation, sold on the Californian wine country dream. But if you're not careful you might end up being transported into the living hell that is the package-tour bus trip: herded round monolith operations like the Robert Mondavi winery, where each visitor is served up an identical, costly and rather crowded experience — a sunset tour of the winery costs $45 with wine and cheese, and reservations must be made in advance.

Luckily, help is at hand for the more adventurous traveler, with the recent publication of "California Winetopia" by W. Blake Gray and Mami Ishikawa Gray. It's an in-depth guide to the more interesting wines and their wineries, straying off the beaten track to give the Japanese tourist a much more intimate experience of California's wine world.

'I t's depressing to me how little information is available in Japanese about Californian wines. To most people they think Californian wines is Woodbridge, that they are in the supermarkets and that's all there is. Having tasted the incredible variety of Californian wine and the great quality of it, I saw an opportunity for a book that introduces these great wines," says Gray over the phone from his home in San Francisco.

Gray, who wrote "California Winetopia" with his wife, is fluent in Japanese having lived in Japan in the 1990s. "I speak 1990s high school girl's Japanese," he jokes. His experience in Japan, he says, helped him to pick out the kind of places that would appeal to Japanese. "I chose these places thinking, 'what if I was a Japanese tourist and I didn't speak good English — where am I going to have a good experience?' It's not a bus tour," he emphasizes. "The places I picked tend to have something more than just good wine. Iron Horse winery, a sparkling wine specialist in Sonoma county is so beautiful. It's not generally on the tourist maps, because it's a little out of the way. Their tasting room is nothing more than a couple of barrels, but there is also 360-degree view of the vineyards. You're up on a hill, so you can see vineyards in every direction as you're tasting sparkling wine — it's magical."

Though Gray, who has been a freelance wine writer for the past 10 years, is passionate about the strengths of Californian wine, he is by no means blind to the region's weaknesses. California is famous for possessing some of the world's best terroir (a combination of soil type, climate and location) but Gray feels that in the past, the region, which is relatively new to wine making, hasn't made the best of its naturally endowed gifts with wine growers making poor choices when it came to planting grape varietals.

"In the '70s there was a lot of Chenin Blanc. Chenin Blanc was in fashion, then everyone planted Chardonnay, then everyone planted Cabernet. They would plant what would sell regardless if it was the right spot for it. Once the grapes are there, it takes four years to get a new crop if you replant. For example, Merlot is a really tricky grape to grow well, that's why so much of it sucks. Good Merlot is great, but more people started drinking Merlot and suddenly it's planted in all these areas that are bad for it. The wineries would never want to say 'well we're gonna go five years without this wine from this real estate.' "

An astute wine critic, Gray has the guts to speak out against the whims of fashion. "You have a lot of people rushing into the Pinot market because of 'Sideways,' " he says. There are a lot of fantastic Pinots at good values, though when we talk value we're talking ¥5,000 rather than ¥1,000. It's best for people who like Pinot to seek out makers who have been doing it for a while." While disparaging of the larger, fruitier style of Pinot that has recently become popular, he does have some favorites. "I really like the wines of the Sonatera vineyards. It's a really foggy place out on the coast and the wine tends to be pretty elegant and has a long finish. I like a pretty Pinot, I don't like a bruiser of a Pinot."

This kind of inside knowledge is invaluable when it comes to seeking out a bargain. "California is famous for Cabernet and there's a reason that it's very good, don't get me wrong. But there are a lot of underappreciated wines, like Syrah. I think Californian Syrah is stellar. As good as Australian Shiraz is, as good as Syrah from France's Rhone is, I'm not sure that Californian Syrah isn't as good as both of them — particularly for price performance, because you don't have the cult value that the other wines have. You can spend $50 or $60 (on a California Syrah) and get maybe the winery's best wine."

W hile Gray can be a strict taskmaster when it comes to assessing the region's wines, he does it out of genuine love for the area and a strong belief that Californian wines can be held to a higher standard. "The main strength (of California) is the tremendous diversity of climate. People who are not here will often try to say that Californian wines have a certain taste profile. They are riper and more alcoholic, but you cannot generalize about Californian wines very easily when the climate goes from very extreme foggy cold areas to hot central valleys.

"Most areas of the world that do wine well, do one or two things well. California probably does more things well than any other wine region," he says.

As we round things up, Gray explains why he particularly recommends California to the Japanese tourist. "One thing about California that is hands-down better than any other wine region is that it's very good fun to visit. To visit France as a private citizen and go and taste wine there is awful. If you don't have appointments weeks ahead of time, they often won't let you in. It's a different way of thinking about guests. California is much better to visit. Most wineries are set up with tasting rooms and are attractive places to sample the wines. It's a very friendly place to come and taste wine. Europe is more closed to outsiders."

So there you have it, watch the movie and then seek out the book — it's a package that will allow you to step outside the box of your typical stifling wine tour.

"California Winetopia," ¥1,365, is published by SHC.


Wine country recommendations from connoisseur W. Blake Gray

Cabernet Ridge , a Japanese-owned vineyard, was developed by a Japanese immigrant in the first half of the 20th century. "Their Cabernet won the re-enactment of the Judgment of Paris tasting a couple of years ago," says Gray referring to a tasting that pits Californian wines against fine French wines.

Gray also recommends Cathy Corison 's wines; she has been running a small winery in Napa Valley and making great Cabernet for the past 20 years despite being "surrounded by big business."

Dominus is owned by Christian Moueix who also owns the renowned Petrus in France. "It's a very French style. That's a wine that takes some years, when you taste it on release, it's not ready, which is also unusual for Napa Valley."

For a more powerful Cabernet try Shaffer's Hillside Select : "It is a hill, it's not a mountain but the difference in quality that comes from this hill as opposed to the flatlands is tremendous."

Pinot Black Kite make Pinot from three plots on a 4.8-hectare site. "It's three different soils there and it's amazing how different the Pinots are. I like their highest elevation, the coldest Pinot. Whenever I ask a Pinot maker about their wines I always ask, which one is in the coldest area."

Winemaker Adam Lee of Siduri produces around five different Pinots a year that are very expressive of the different terroirs on the property. "What you need to do is find the vineyard you like and stick with it. I really like the wines of their Sonatera vineyards; it's a really foggy place out on the coast and the wine tends to be pretty elegant and has a long finish," says Gray.

Another Pinot to try is Josh Jensen's Calera , which is already famous in Japan, having been recommended in "Sommelier" manga. Jensen gained valuable experience working the 1970 harvest at Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, so if you're a fan of the French wine, you really ought to seek out Jensen's Pinot.

Syrah Landmark from Sonoma county is a cold-climate Syrah and is "peppery, earthy and meaty." Peay winery makes different wines from separate lots that show the expression of the terroir well. "Their wines are always extremely full of character," says Gray.

Zinfandel "If you want to taste wines from old vines in the United States, it needs to be Zinfandel, there are 130-year-old vines here." Again Gray recommends Ridge , "It's widely available in Japan because of the Japanese connection (the vineyard is owned by pharmaceutical magnate Akihiko Otsuka). Also recommended but harder to get hold of is Carlisle 's Zinfandel.




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