Why You Should Give the Gift of California Wine


Instead of the usual roundup of the year’s best booze and wine books, all recommended without consideration for the delicious drops of liquid to which each tome pays homage, I’ve decided to run a series of reviews that include an appropriate pairing. Because what’s the point of reading about wine if you can’t simultaneously taste it? This is part three of your 2014 wine pairing gift guide.

Today’s topic: California.

Wines of California: A Comprehensive Guide, by Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen (Sterling Epicure, 582 pages, $24.95)

Tackling the subject of California — now the fourth largest producer of wine in the world, with over 3,700 wineries (a number which has exploded from 240 in 1970, according to Kevin Zraly in the foreword of Wines of California) — is an immense project. But so is the writing of a guide to the Wines of the Southern Hemisphere, which, if you add up the regions and wineries of the countries of Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa, and Uruguay, sounds preposterous.

Yet the “World Wine Guys” — wine, spirits, food, and travel writing duo Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen — have done an estimable job completing both volumes, while simultaneously earning the title of world’s best career (if you like to eat, travel, and get paid to write about it).

The nearly 600 pages of Wines of California commendably touch upon every grape-bearing corner of the Golden State, breaking it down into 11 geographic sections, although the descriptor “comprehensive” is a bit of a misnomer.

California’s wine industry, as mentioned, is enormous; the wineries change frequently enough that a print account can never be up to date. However, a complete audit of the industry is not the goal of the guide (it would otherwise be thousands of pages); it seeks, rather, to provide readers with an easy-to-understand foundation and overview of the regions, grapes, and notable producers.

Each regional category, starting with “Chapter 1: Mendocino and Lake County,” offers a synopsis of its geography and viticulture, with supporting facts and stats delivered in a straightforward manner. While the prose doesn’t cast a spell on those looking to be swept up by a florid detailing of California’s hypnotic beauty, it does the job of supplying essential information. Following the regional intro, the authors give short profiles of important wineries — from benchmarks to newcomers — with a tasting note of an illustrative wine or two concluding each vignette.

While it may sound ridiculous to criticize a reference book for its lack of color photos, I think a few glossies (even if wedged in the middle like a Lonely Planet travel guide) would’ve enhanced the user experience; the cover fails to stimulate my notoriously easy-to-provoke wanderlust, by depicting swirling wine instead of the rolling, golden hills of Sonoma or Santa Barbara.

A section called “In Their Own Words” gives a fascinating peek into the lives of a range of winemakers, from Austin Hope in Paso Robles to Croatian-born Miljenko “Mike” Grgich in Napa, who are given the chance to tell their stories by way of a question-and-answer format.

The book concludes with California cuisine recipes and appropriate wine pairings from restaurants and wineries, all of which leaves me longing for a glint of the warm sun and access to the state’s incredible year-round produce.

If you’ve got a California wine lover on your Christmas or Hanukkah list this season, presenting this guide with a few bottles from producers inside is an easy solution to their gift needs.

Rather than the typical Napa Cabernet, consider selecting wines from alternative regions.

Burgundy-born, Bordeaux-trained winemaker Stephan Asseo moved to Paso Robles in 1996 to start L’Aventure Winery, dedicated to impressive, elegant Rhone-style blends. Morrell’s carries the 2008 GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mouvedre) “Côte à Côte Estate” for $74.99 (750 mL).

For an introduction to one of the most exceptional Pinot Noir producers in California, track down the vibrant, earthy wines of Drew Family from the Anderson Valley. Astor Wine & Spirits stocks the 2012 Fog Eater Pinot Noir for $44.99 (750 mL).

From the cool Sonoma Coast, Peay Vineyards produces a benchmark Syrah reminiscent of a peppery, floral Northern Rhone; their Pinots are just as highly regarded. Check with Le Du’s and Zachy’s.

Finally, California Wine Merchants in the financial district specializes in, quite obviously, California. The shop carries names like Tensley and Dragonette from Santa Barbara, and Abe Schoener’s Scholium Project (not mentioned in the guide), including his unique-as-hell Sauvignon Blanc “Prince in His Caves.”

Happy gifting!