By Clarissa Tan
WINEMAKERS like to refer to terroir, the elements of the soil and the surroundings, the lay of the land that influences their creations. Perhaps there is also something more nebulous that affects their art, something in the spirit of a place, the zeitgeist, the air - aerroir, if you will.
California, land of mythmaking and dreams, is like a vast, sun-kissed laboratory where winemakers can fine-tune and fiddle to their hearts' content. Its viticulture carries both a sense of flair and a no-nonsense desire to get back to basics. This, after all, is the state of Arnie and Hollywood, of cowboys and Clint - the authentic birthplace of showmanship.
If you are one of the lucky few jaded with Napa and Sonoma, you may want to head to the Central Coast and Santa Cruz Mountains to savour the fare of the vineyards there. This intriguing region does not lack in good wines, great stories and a strong cast of characters. Here, an avant-garde winemaker reaches back to cosmic farming wisdom, a famous vintner aims for pure, conventional methods almost in defiance, ranchers brand their bottles with cowboy proverbs and a Frenchman finds his winemaking freedom.
"I truly believe that wine has a consciousness that is penetrated by the consciousness of the people around it," says the pony-tailed, Lennon-bespectacled Randall Grahm, owner of Bonny Doon Vineyard in the Santa Cruz area.
Randall Grahm, owner of Bonny Doon Vineyard in the Santa Cruz area, California.
In the world of oenophilia, Mr Grahm is known variously as rebel, guru, marketing genius and jester. If his quote sounds slightly mystical, it's because his latest obsession is to take an almost spiritual approach to growing grapes.
Mr Grahm now wants a full return to the concept of terroir, making wines that express the characteristics of a specific place. He is also embracing biodynamic agriculture, a concept that not only practises organic farming, but also uses herbal and mineral preparations that are applied according to astronomy and the phases of the moon.
Needless to say, many of Bonny Doon's wines are eclectic, often consisting of unusual blends (his 2004 Le Cigare Volant is 50 per cent Grenache, 24 per cent Mourvèdre, 22 per cent Syrah, 3 per cent Carignane and one per cent Cinsault). They tend to stride onto your taste buds - the 2006 Sangiovese practically stalks - and, whatever you think of them, are thoroughly unforgettable.
Bonny Doon has also become famous for its outlandish labels depicting monkeys, exploding volcanoes, trapeze artists and felons; its Cigar series, done in medieval etching style, sports a UFO.
The spirit of the city of Santa Cruz is liberal and progressive, as a stroll through its centre will tell you. Long a seat of activism, it is also the home of the University of California. There are independent bookstores aplenty, and you would do well to stop at Lulu's at the historic Octagon building, where the baristas use a special vacuum method to brew that perfect cup of coffee. If you are hungry, dine at the romantic Gabriella Cafe on Cedar Street, which serves local organic produce with a good wine list to match.
Just over 60 km away and 760 metres in elevation, you may well think you've been transported to an alternate reality. The Ridge vineyard at Monte Bello dates back to the late 19th century - the main cellar, of limestone walls and beams of Douglas fir, was built over 120 years ago, as was the Redwood office now used by winemaker and chief executive officer Paul Draper.
Paul Draper, chief executive officer of Ridge Vineyards at Monte Bello.
Ridge, which also has vineyards in Geyserville and Lytton Springs, is historic in other ways. In the famous Judgment of Paris of 1976, its 1971 vintage Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon came in fifth among red wines, edging out many of its chi-chi French competitors. Ridge's wines today, especially those of the Monte Bello label, continue this fine tradition, being elegant, silky and perfectly balanced.
The character of a Ridge wine "comes from the vineyard, not from manipulative winemaking", says Mr Draper, who prefers to depend on the natural rather than the technological. A philosophy graduate from Stanford, he continues to refer to 19th century books, such as Raimond Boireau's Wines: Their care and treatment in cellar and store, and says Ridge's processes are now more traditional than those of many vintners in Bordeaux.
"The timing and methods of crushing, fermenting, pressing, aging and racking are identical to the best methods used in California and Bordeaux between 1860 and 1890," he says. "Bordeaux is now using more technical, modern methods. We are not."
If you travel further south toward Monterey County, to Galante Vineyards, you may be treated to another tradition altogether - that of the California rancher. Owner Jack Galante does not do anything by halves, and if you are lucky enough to be invited to his place for dinner, he will cook it himself, slapping a slab of sauce-smothered steak as large as a dinner plate in front of you with a happy growl: "This is not a château, this is a ranch."
Jack Galante, owner of Galante Vineyards at Monterey County, California.
Mr Galante, whose great-grandfather founded Carmel, the beautiful, wealthy town that once had Clint Eastwood as mayor, is keen to emphasise his cowboy roots. His bottle labels, such as those for his Blackjack Pasture Cabernet Sauvignon, all bear a saying of cowboy philosophy, such as "Always drink upstream from the herd", or "Don't squat with your spurs on". As can be expected, Galante wines, especially the reds, tend toward the opulent, lively side.
When the weather is fine, Mr Galante opens his estate to huge parties or concerts that have welcomed up to 2,000 people. A country rock player himself, his concerts have hosted Jerry Jeff Walker, Aaron Neville and The Iguanas.
Even further south, and you hit the harsher climate and scenery of the San Luis and Santa Barbara counties. This is the last frontier, in more ways than one. Visitors to this dusty Wild West region are often baffled to come across Solvang, a spruced and pastel-hued Danish-style town replete with bakeries, tea rooms and antique stores. Built in the early 20th century by educators from Denmark, the town even has a replica of the Little Mermaid statue from Copenhagen.
If fluffy pastries are not your thing, you can opt for fine but hearty dining at Artisan in the city of Paso Robles. The restaurant calls its fare "American bistrot", but this blanket term may not do justice to its inventive, seasonal menu. The restaurant is owned by the Kobayashi brothers - Chris the executive chef and Michael the general manager, who gleaned his management experience from years spent at a major music firm, working with the likes of Mick Jagger, Aerosmith and Def Leppard.
Paso Robles itself was a sleepy outpost until it received a shot in the arm from the fast-growing wine industry. Its aerroir is for the young and pioneering at heart. This is where Frenchman Stephan Asseo came, in 1996, to escape the shackles of Appellation Contrôlee in his home country.
Frenchman Stephan Asseo, owner of Stephan Vineyards in Paso Robles, Santa Cruz, California.
"I left France in search of a place where I could be free to make my dream blend, even if I was not completely sure what that was," says Mr Asseo. "I fell in love with the terroir of Paso Robles, and have developed my 'Paso blends' - Estate Cuvée and Optimus, which are cabernet sauvignon, syrah, and petit verdot.
"When you look around at the variety of wines here, many of them creative blends, you see that we shoot in every direction. You cannot find this kind of excitement in France, although I think it is beginning there."
Mr Asseo's wines are rich and full-bodied, the sort that would elicit praise from wine critic Robert Parker (as indeed they have).
Gallic Mr Asseo may be, and he probably wouldn't be caught dead in a 10-gallon hat, but he is riding the frontier in the spirit of the cowboys.
"When I moved here, I brought my wife and three children, so this adventure - hence the name L'Aventure - is not just about wine. My family has grown up in France and America, and this is special for them too.
"My wife still cannot find bread like we have in France, but nothing is perfect."
This article was first published in The Business Times.