Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc Strikes Back!

Vinted on August 3, 2009 binned in California wine, wine bloggers conference

If you want to understand the changing palates of the California wine consumer (that’s consumers of CA wine, not wine consumers from CA… although those two populations can certainly overlap… ok, whatever), you need to understand peaches.

That’s right.  Peaches.

Jill & Steve, the owners and winemakers at Matthiasson in Napa, are also growers and sellers of peaches.  And they can explain how tastes have changed by observing the people that buy different varieties of their peaches.

“It seems to be generational,” noted Steve when I visited the Matthiasson farm in Napa last week. “Older consumers prefer a more mild, balanced, pure peach flavor. You can eat those peaches all day long and feel refreshed every time. Younger people buy peaches that are like an explosion of fruit.  They’re high in flavor, high in acid, high in sugar, high everything – it’s tough to eat more than one of those.”

I’d argue that the same thing could be said of Napa, CA Sauvignon Blanc wines – and I basically have said that, on numerous occasions.   The majority of SB wines (in my experience, that is) being produced out of Napa are too big, too oaky, to overblown, and lack the pure SB characteristics that are the hallmark of SB fruit (grass, citrus, high acidity, minerals…).

What I learned last week in Napa was that not all Napa SB is trying to be Chardonnay in disguise.  There is some SB being produced that is excellent, well-balanced, and surprisingly refreshing.  It just happens to be a big pain in the ass to make it that way, because according to the Napa winemakers that seem to be getting SB right, by and large Napa growers are habitually picking SB way too late…

At a dinner with Opus One winemaker Michael Silacci, I was introduced to Christine Barbe, a Bordelais transplant to Napa who has previously worked for the Gallo and Mondavi wine companies.  Christine, being true to herself, is attempting to make SB wine in Napa that has the soul of France. She is succeeding, and her small-production 2008 Toquade SB is a lovely, balanced, and refreshing wine. Best of all, you can tell by smelling it that it’s SB and not some kind of Frankenstein monstrosity constructed from overripe SB grapes.

What Christine will tell you is that it’s a struggle to get her grapes picked early enough, as most growers think she’s nuts for wanting the grapes off the vine at a lower than “normal” brix reading.  What she knows, better than most Napa SB winemakers, is that picking SB grapes at fuller phenolic ripeness in Napa mutes some of the pure SB flavors in the resulting wine.

The traditional compensation for this in Napa is to oak the living shit out of the wines, which Christine deftly (and blessedly) avoids.  Some readers will recall Michael Silacci’s challenge to me to try Toquadeit’s not exactly going to be mistaken for a wine from New Zealand, and that’s okay by me, because it’s a unique SB expression that’s well worth seeking out.  Oh, yeah – Mike, you’ve earned an “I told you so.”

Speaking of unique wines, let’s get back to Matthiasson.  During last week’s Wine Bloggers Conference in Sonoma, I’d made it a bit of special weekend project to get more people exposed to their excellent and insanely interesting white wine, which is a blend that contains a healthy proportion of SB.  I was really pleased to hear from Jill that they’d be pouring during the “speed tasting” portion of the conference, and when asked what they should pour I advised that they pour that white (which is to say, I emphatically insisted that they pour it).

Anyway, by all accounts their white wine opened up a barrique of whoop-ass on the tasting.  I’ve seen their white listed by several conference attendees as one of the best (if not, the best) wines poured during the tasting.  Check out some of the comments by bloggers who tweeted their tasting notes during the speed-tasting (see inset pics throughout this post) and you’ll see that Matthiasson has a pleasing and inspiring SB-based wine. 

And yes, Virginia, it’s really coming from Napa.







  • Arthur

    Millenials preferring "extreme" taste profiles in wine? Get outta here! No way! Dude!

  • Steve Matthiasson

    The interesting thing with the peaches is that its not so much the Millenials that prefer the high flavor impact peaches–its the baby boomers. The generation that prefers the more subtle and aromatic older varieties are in their sixties and seventies. The Millenials actually go both ways, and are more open-minded about the heirloom varieties than many of the baby boomers. Lets hope this trend is paralleled with wine.

    • 1WineDude

      Let's hope!

      Enough about peaches, let's talk about how you guys rocked the casbah at the WBC 09 speed tasting…

  • 1WineDude

    the question I have is… does the peach harvest involve the use of lightsabers?

    because that would totally rock…

  • MsDrinkwell

    Great post! It's wonderful to see someone advocating good Napa white wine instead of banging the Cab Sauv drum all day everyday. In addition to the wine you mention here, Long Meadow Ranch does a lovely, lean, grassy, minerally SB too. One of the best I've found coming out of Napa.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Ms. I'll have to check out Long Meadow… assuming you can't convince them to send me samples…



    Green flavor equal acid additions. Please know the dirty secret is that most of these green, grassy flavors you are seeking in your S.B. are more the result of tartaric acid additions than anything that is done in the vineyard. These flavors do not occur naturally in California. Even worse the more we sing the praises of this "green style" (really artificial flavor) of S.B. the more acid additions companies will simply add to their wine just like in New Zealand. Sing the paises of low Alcohol and companies simple add more water to the wine to reduce alcohol levels. Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it. When was the last time you had a great terrior driven, single vineyard New Zealand Sauv. Blanc? The answer is never because its doesn't exsist. The flavors you are seeking don't exsist in nature and are man(or woman) made. Please don't kill the messenger. There aren't many of us Sommeliers who are also Winemakers. Best wishes.

    Sonoma CA

    • Randy

      I disagree. Grapes coming to the crushpad with much lower sugar contect have more intense compilations of tartaric and citric based acids offering those super intense grassy, citrus profiles. When you pick SB or Gewurzt at 22 brix, you're going to capture those citrus and grass flavors. I have proof. Come taste my Dry Gewurzt. No granular form of acid anywhere near the crushpad when I'm making my GW.


    We have confused the average wine consumer beyond belief about ripeness, brix and alcohol levels in the last few years. It's as if in our quest to counter James Laube's sweet tooth red wine palette we have caused an equally bad if not even worse result in current vogue winemaking. As educators we must stop over generalized conversations or statements about Alcohol, Oak management, and ripeness because it seems so far to only be working against the average wine consumer as our wine is increasingly containing more water, grape concentrate and acid additions. Hopefully one day we will give up these silly passing fades of trying to be this or that and just let each vineyards natural balance dictate ripeness, oak management and support, PH, acid and brix/Alc. Harvesting less ripe is as wrong as harvesting overripe. The focus should be on a single vineyards unique qualities not on our style of winemaking. This is where we get it wrong again and again.
    Certified Sommelier of Wine
    Sonoma CA
    [email protected]

  • 1WineDude

    Thanks, RWR!

    I certainly agree that focusing more on single vineyard's unique qualities is a good thing. I also recognize that it's possible only on smaller scales. Not sure I understand how rallying against "Parkerized" wines is directly causing wineries to take more artificial means towards changing flavors. Isn't that like saying I want the roads to be safer so my state starts to physically disable cars from going faster than 35 MPH? If a winery is going that route, then it's a gross misreading of the intentions we have, and I don't blame anyone but the winemakers for that.


  • Randy Pitts

    Wow, I must be in a parrallel universe over here int he Russian River. I pick Gurwuzt at 22.2-22.5 brix with lots of acid and low sugar (future low alc) and I get looks by other growers as they drive by with dissapproving looks. My Pinot Noir leaves the vineyards with not more than 23 brix and my growers think I'm the crazy kid down the street "jumping the gun". My zin? Off at 22.5! Yep, cuz I know by the time the fruit is crushed, in tank and experiencing sugar up, it'll be 23.8-24 brix after heat has broken down all the small raisens thus bringing about a 14.2-14.6% alc. Pefect! BTW, I'm a young guy, so it's not all the young kids looking for the big bumbastic aromas and flavors, in fact it's my FATHER GENERATION of winemaker who are picking laaaaaate with high sugars, ph's in the 3.8 range, etc . Maybe they're just more used to shrivel;)

  • steve

    I’m curious as to why the conversation has been hijacked and pushed into a discussion of single vineyard terroir driven wines (SVTD wines). While SVTD wines are always interesting the discussion of generational palate preferences is much more interesting to me. It seems as though the boomers preference for forced quick hit overpowering flavor has driven wine styles rather than a balanced approach that considers how varietaly correct wine actually tastes. While I can agree that reductive winemaking techniques have helped confuse palates, mallolactic treatment and over-ripeness would be even more guilty of this charge. If California SB is not supposed to be green, it is certainly not supposed to be flabby, buttery and creamy with vanilla and clove overtones dominated by baked pear and mealy apple flavors.

    Perhaps the discussion would be better centered around how the wines should taste rather than how they shouldn’t.

    However; I am still very intrigued by the whole generational palate gap, and even more intrigued with the idea that the younger generation is more open to a variety of styles. Maybe this means the wine industry will finally be able to focus on SVTD wines or even TD wines for more than just big spenders and industry insiders.

    • 1WineDude

      I hope you're right about the next gen driving that change!

  • steve

    The next gen will drive change, but which sectors of the wine industry will get it in time to take part? The ones that do will be rewarded with our business. The next gen is fortunately less concerned with the name on the label and more concerned with the juice. The next gen finds the majority of their information on the web, which means they are exposed to much more than the few styles of wines that the Speculator and Parker prefer. The next gen will drink something, it is up to each winery along with the wine industry as to whether it is going to be:
    A). wine
    B). Their wine
    C). something else

  • Dylan

    Steve brings up another interesting point, though. For winemakers, do you create wine for your vision and hope that overlaps with the people who enjoy that same style, or do you create wine to appeal to a specific style that will become popular. What I think we will find is that no one will have to lose their vision or passion. Some will make the shift, but I have a good feeling there will be new entrants whose tastes appeal to the millennial style, whatever that may be.

    • 1WineDude

      Personally, I hope it's the former – life is just so much more interesting that way!

  • Check

    Just a note – In a recent trip to Napa/Sonoma, the overwhelming winner of 'best of week' wine was a Sonoma single vineyard small production SB from Macleod Family Vineyards. Pure pineapple, absolutely delicious.

    • 1WineDude

      Sonoma in the hizzy!

  • the fruit lady

    I thought I should jump in as the one who brought the whole idea up in the first place.
    First of all Joe, I'm sorry I didn't share our collection of light sabers with you when you were here….you'll definitely have to come back now….
    I was trying to make a point about the degradation of the American palate in general. We are used to eating very highly flavored foods that have been developed by food scientists, which are often full of salt and umami (the "yummy" flavor). I think this is why people like fruity, oaky, extracted wines. The ability to detect different flavors is both genetic and learned. It seems, from the reaction of people tasting peaches, that we are no longer learning to detect subtlety; flavors are all up front.

  • 1WineDude

    Thanks, Jill!

    The logical next step of course is for you to send me more of your white wine for my own, uhm, *clinical research* into the matter!

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