Fred Peterson’s vineyard in Healdsburg, California
On Drink

California dreaming

The delight of discovering an affordable California blend

This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

My wife and I spent our honeymoon in California wine country. In December 2009 we got married at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood then drove up the Pacific Coast Highway through Santa Barbara, Paso Robles and up to Napa and Sonoma. At one point we thought we were lost until we found ourselves driving across the Golden Gate Bridge.

We approached our wine tasting in a similarly whimsical way. This was before I had begun to write on the subject professionally so we would often find ourselves in a tasting room in St. Helena, Napa’s main town, swilling plush expensive cabernets that all tasted the same.

We did find some wines we liked such as Tablas Creek, Château de Beaucastel’s outpost in Paso Robles, or Unti in Sonoma. But the prices! $40 and upwards was normal. Exchange rates were a little happier then, but this was still about double what I would normally pay for a good bottle in London.

Back in LA there was very little below $20 in wine merchants so I’d take pot luck on $15 local wines at Ralph’s, but usually they weren’t a patch on the equivalent from Chile or Argentina.

Despite the prices, however, on my various trips to visit the in-laws, I have picked up a love for California (not “Californian”, nobody says that according to my wife) wine especially from Rhône varieties like Grenache, Syrah or blends which the state does so well. Whilst not cheap, they don’t command the same insane prices as Cabernet or Pinot Noir. Sadly, by the time they arrive in England they are usually prohibitively expensive.

So I was delighted to discover a California blend that I could afford called Zero Manipulation red from Peterson winery. It’s mainly Carignan or “Carignane” as the Americans spell it (with some Grenache and Syrah).

California winemaker Fred Peterson

This can be an awkward variety, but Peterson has produced a thing of great beauty and freshness. It has that classic Rhône spiciness but with a brightness of fruit that strikes me as typically Californian. Best of all you can pick up the 2017 for about £18, roughly the same price as a wine of equivalent quality from Australia or France.

The grapes come from a vineyard owned by descendants of Italian immigrants, the Tollinis, who have farmed there for generations. The old vines are unirrigated, a practice rarely used with newer vineyards.

The wine is fermented using native yeasts and (other than a little sulphur dioxide added prior to bottling the wine) there is nothing added including acidity, unlike most California wines. In addition to the Rhône-type wines, Peterson also makes some magnificently sturdy Zinfandels from his own land that reminds me a little of old school Barossa Shiraz.

The man behind the operation is the charmingly curmudgeonly Fred Peterson. He worked for big producers such as Charles Krug and Paul Masson — not a good fit apparently — with stints in Australia and New Zealand before setting up on his own in 1987. Initially he made wine for family and friends but started selling to the public in 1993. His son Jamie now makes the wines, and Fred looks after the vines.

Whereas wine is often treated as a branch of showbiz in California, Peterson takes a more down-to-earth approach. He laments the fact that most producers have given up the middle ground and that it’s either “jug wines” or “icon wines”, the latter of which he has no interest in making: “Every vintage you have to convince people to take out a second mortgage to buy your wines and that’s not a position I enjoy. I want to sell our wines to people who actually like them.” Instead, he aims to make good affordable wines like mid-range producers do elsewhere.

He is a rarity in California, but he’s not the only one. Joey Tensley in Santa Barbara makes some great Syrah-based blends, which Berry Bros stocks, and Tablas Creek’s CÔtes-du-Rhône-style Patelin de Tablas is around £25. Good value … for California. The Wine Society has managed to put together a range of California wines at sub-£20 prices, I’m not quite sure how.

When I asked Peterson why so few people do what he does, I thought I was going to get a spiel about the price of land and labour or about it being a young industry that’s still paying off its debts unlike the well-established vine growing elsewhere.

But, he explained, “It’s more psychological. Rich people [who are behind most wine estates] hate to be considered losers and generally have big egos; they put a lot of money in, so they charge a lot more.”

“[American] consumers do still tend to believe that the more you pay for a wine, the better it is, and the winemakers in California are happy to oblige!” explained Peterson’s British importer Steve Daniel.

Whilst I baulked at the prices on our honeymoon, something that became a theme in our marriage, my wife paid without raising an eyebrow. In LA especially, nobody seemed to think twice about spending $50 on wine. A good bottle of wine might be a once-a-week splurge rather than a daily staple.

With Americans happy to pay top dollar, most of us won’t get to try many great California wines, which is a real shame. I’d buy all you can of Peterson’s Zero Manipulation before he realises his mistake and puts the price up.

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