Surf's up for the California wine industry. After a tough ride early in the Great Recession, exports of U.S. wine – more than 90 per cent of it from California – reached a record high of $1.4-billion (U.S.) in 2012. It was the third consecutive annual gain.
Much of the growth came from Canada, propelled in part by new, easy-drinking blends popular with young consumers and by a favourable currency exchange that kept a lid on prices. In the past four years, sales of U.S. wine in Canada jumped 54 per cent by volume, while the overall wine market advanced just 15 per cent.
Seizing on the momentum, a trade group representing the California industry is staging a promotional blitz in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec this spring, with an expanded product selection, surf-themed expressway billboards and in-store displays with flashy California highway-sign logos, among other things.
Here's a selection of intriguing offerings, all but one from the road less travelled – the Central Coast districts of Monterey, Paso Robles and Santa Barbara – all located well south of higher-profile Napa and Sonoma.
Justin Syrah 2010 ($36.95; score 91)
Paso Robles, roughly half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles, is hot – literally and figuratively. With fewer than 10 wineries in 1981, it now boasts more than 200. Justin, founded in 1981, specializes in super-premium Bordeaux-style reds based on cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc, but it also makes delectable, peppery syrah. At 15.5-per-cent alcohol, this fine red lacks not for muscle, showing intense plum jam, coffee, vanilla and chocolate nicely supported by acidity. Serve it with rich meat stews or braised short ribs. Available in Ontario.
Vina Robles White 4 2010 ($18.95; score 90)
Sometimes it takes outsiders to push the envelope. That's what Swiss-born partners Hans Nef and Hans-Rudolph Michel, founders of this 20-year-old property in Paso Robles, have done with this white. It's an uncommon blend of French varieties viognier and sauvignon blanc with Portugal's verdelho and Italy's vermentino. Aromatic thanks to the first two and crisp thanks to the latter pair, it's medium-full-bodied, silky and round, with a gently musky aroma and excellent sweet-tart balance. Ideal for pan-seared freshwater fish, herb-crusted chicken or light curries. $19.95 in B.C.
Eberle Mill Road Vineyard Viognier 2011 ($29.95; score 90)
The white viognier grape tends to produce highly perfumed, floral wines with high alcohol. In this Paso Robles standout it reached a formidable 15.1 per cent. But the orange– and blossom-scented fruit is ample enough to hide all trace of heat, and it's balanced well with crisp acidity and spice. Ideal for Indian curries. Available in Ontario.
Firestone Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Ynez Valley 2010 ($19.95; score 90)
Santa Barbara County's first estate winery, well south on the coastal drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles, was founded by Leonard and Brooks Firestone, son and grandson, respectively, of tire magnate Harvey – a member of the so-called Millionaire's Club that included Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. It's now owned by Bill Foley, a winery entrepreneur with several other properties to his name. This is textbook cabernet, with flavours of cassis, black olive, spice and cedar carried on a supple texture. Harvey would have appreciated the smooth ride. Tasty for grilled steak. Available in Ontario.
Big House Cardinal Zin 2011 ($12.95; score 89)
Big House winery in Monterey County bases its playful name – and prison-themed labels – on the nearby Soledad State Correctional Facility. (I wonder if the prisoners are amused.) This full-bodied red, made from the concentrated fruit of century-old vines, delivers a burst of juicy fruit complemented by smoky, charred quality. Don't let it do time in the cellar – it's meant for current enjoyment. Perfect for sticky ribs or spicy Mexican fare. $36.99 for a three-litre box in B.C.
Hahn Pinot Noir Monterey 2011 ($18.95; score 88)
The Hahn winery overlooks the Salinas Valley in Monterey, birthplace of Pulitzer-winning novelist John Steinbeck. No grapes of wrath in this bottle, though. Rich and jammy yet fresh, it represents good value for medium-bodied pinot, even if the finish trails off a little more quickly than a Steinbeck novel.
Sterling Vintner's Merlot 2009 ($15.95; score 90)
Based in Napa, Sterling was founded in 1964 by Englishman Peter Newton, a former Financial Times writer. It carved out a reputation for merlot, and this relatively affordable red is part of a product line that sources fruit from vineyards to the south, between Monterey and Paso Robles. It's full-bodied and chewy, with firm structure offering flavours of blackberry, chocolate and vanilla. It would be a sterling choice for roast beef or lamb. $14.99 in B.C., $15.75 in Sask., $14.99 in N.S., $15.49 in Nfld., $16.49 in P.E.I.
Project Paso Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($17.90; score 88)
A new brand launched by large Sonoma-based Don Sebastiani & Sons, Project Paso stands out in stores, and not just because of the bright-red label. The bottles are sealed with a Zork, a bulbous synthetic red closure that's sort of a cross between cork and screwcap. Strip away the lower portion by pulling on a plastic tab and you're left with a synthetic stopper – similar in shape to the cork stopper used on expensive spirits – which can be reinserted into a half-finished bottle. A rich yet easy-drinking red, it's creamy, fruit-forward and subtly sweet, balanced by lively acidity and a pleasant floral perfume that might suggest talcum powder. Hearty red-meat fare is in order. $19.48 in Nfld.
Ridge Lytton Springs 2010 ($48.95; 92)
Ridge got its start in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco, though this iconic red blend is made from fruit grown in Sonoma County. An innovative blend of mostly zinfandel with petite sirah, carignan and mataro, the 2010 Lytton Springs, though technically dry, delivers a sweet essence of crushed berries lifted by juicy acidity and lively herbs. It would sing with seared duck breast or grilled lamb chops.
Next week: California wines, part 2 – A return to the well-travelled regions of Napa and Sonoma.