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For July 4th, wines with an independent streak

When it comes to wines, sometimes sticking to the trends can leave you in a rut. TODAY wine columnist Edward Deitch highlights a "maverick" California winemaker who is breaking new ground with his vines.
/ Source: TODAY

The Fourth of July is an ideal time to reflect on American wine and some notable independent streaks that have caught my attention recently, including the viewpoint of a maverick California winemaker, and why riesling — yes, riesling — is among the most exciting American wines right now.

If California remains largely under the oppression of big-fruit/high-alcohol/aggressive-oak winemaking, George Bursick might be the industry’s Thomas Jefferson, preaching and practicing a liberation theology that is, frankly, stunning to behold.

Bursick is approaching eminence grise status among California winemakers, though I’m not sure he feels ready for it himself. And yet, he could care less at this point about keeping up with trends. In fact, he’s trying to break a few of them, I quickly learned over dinner in New York.

He’s worked for a number of important California wineries, including Beringer, McDowell and, most notably, for 22 years at Ferrari-Carrano in Sonoma County. He left that gig a couple of years ago and became “vice president of winemaking” at J Vineyards, Judy Jordan’s winery in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley.

Our conversation turns quickly to Big California Wine, how Bursick is on a crusade against it and is not afraid, I discover, to buck the movement publicly. For one thing, he observes that young wine consumers in this country are very impressionable. “We’re used to big things hitting us, big flavors,” he says, “and winemakers are catering to this.” He’s not.

As we talk we sip the 2007 Pinot Gris from J Vineyards, un-oaked, lean and refreshing with a variety of small dishes that start off our dinner. At $20, it’s a food wine with refreshing acidity that won’t clash with or overpower the food. When he arrived at J Vineyards in 2006, Bursick tells me, the pinot gris (pinot grigio is the same grape) “had lost its focus, its crispness” because it was being aged in oak. So he yanked the wood. He describes the new pinot gris as “focused, fruit forward, very straightforward in approach with tight acids.” The fruit, he adds, is being picked “a lot less ripe” (though ripe enough) so that alcohol levels are lower than they used to be, now at 13 percent or so.

He notes a prevailing thought in California that, to bring intensity to a wine, “you have to have over-ripeness.” That, of course, leads to higher-alcohol wines, which is why you see so many well over 14 percent and even 15 percent or more. “The alcohol is such a distraction,” he says, citing a fatigue effect. “There’s no need for it. Your body doesn’t like alcohol. Having your receptors taste these high-alcohol wines is like tasting vodka.”

We move on to the 2006 Russian River Valley Chardonnay, well balanced, elegant and restrained, though not inexpensive at $40. Oak? Yes, but in moderation and with careful use, providing a layer of complexity without that buttery richness that’s so common. Again, a wine for food, just as a good white Burgundy, also made from chardonnay, would be. It has a delicate and expressive quality that’s achieved, Bursick explains, by a long fermentation, over five months, with indigenous yeasts that come from the vineyard and other special yeasts that permit this lengthy process to unfold.

We also sample a couple of J’s pinot noirs. The 2006 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($38) is another good example of Bursick’s philosophy. First, the color is light — transparent, in fact, as pinot noir naturally is. Then why are so many of them much darker these days? Bursick reminds me that winemakers sometimes add other varieties to their pinot noir, especially the inky syrah, to achieve the darker color they believe consumers want.

Secondly, there is a ripeness but leanness to the fruit, coupled with refreshing acidity and subtle use of oak that brings finesse to the wine and invites you to take another sip. A problem with California pinot noir, Bursick notes, is getting the seeds to ripen. His solution, simple and innovative, is to remove the green seeds during sorting of the grapes and fermentation to eliminate the possibility of bitter green tannins from the seeds.

While proud of such techniques and of “pulling out all my bags of tricks” to make the style of wine he wants, Bursick admits to being frustrated by the “showboat” mentality he sees around him and by “flashy wines getting the limelight.” He’s referring to those Big California Wines made from grapes left to hang well into the fall to attain all that sugar and resulting alcohol. Yet he predicts — hopes might be a better word — that the days of the trend are numbered. “It’s not here for a long time,” he says. “It’s on its way out.” I, for one, hope he’s right.

Now, speaking of lean wines, American riesling continues to excite me, and two examples from Washington State are worth looking for. The 2007 Riesling from Mercer Estates in the Yakima Valley is off-dry and mouth-filling with white peach, melon, orange and lime notes. It’s also a bargain at $15. I loved it with a stir-fried chicken dish I made with peppers, onions, bok choy and chopped cilantro.

Another notable new release, bearing the Columbia Valley appellation (specifically Horse Heaven Hills), is the 2007 Wallula Vineyard Riesling ($20) from Pacific Rim, which was spun off a couple of years ago by California’s Bonny Doon Vineyard and is now making excellent Washington rieslings under Nicolas Quillé. The Wallula Vineyard wine is one of several new Pacific Rim single-vineyard selections (as opposed to blends of grapes from several vineyards). This one is elegantly restrained and balanced with lively acidity and exceptional fruit that includes apple, peach, lime and a slightly spicy note. Both rieslings are enjoyable to sip on their own (not too cold, please) and will match superbly with all manner of Asian foods.

So, as we approach the Fourth, why not try something a bit different? Let’s raise a glass to Wine Independence Day.

Edward Deitch is the recipient of the 2007 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award for Best Multimedia Writing. He welcomes comments from readers. Write to him at