Northwest wines’ pioneering spirit bolsters S.F. Chronicle’s top 100 list

By on December 12, 2014
Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle

Jon Bonné, wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, selected 20 wines from Oregon and Washington for his annual list of the top wines from the West Coast. (Reprinted with permission from The New California Wine by Jon Bonné, copyright (c) 2013)

SAN FRANCISCO – Wines from Washington and Oregon garnered 20 percent of the top 100 list from the influential San Francisco Chronicle.

Jon Bonné, wine editor for the Chronicle, put together his annual list of 100 great wines, and his experience writing about the Northwest wine industry showed, as he selected 13 Oregon wines and seven Washington wines.

Here they are:

Chronicle focuses on West

Jon Bonne is the wine editor at the San Francisco Chronicle.

Jon Bonné is the wine editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. (Photo via Flickr/click for credit)

Bonné said he tasted in excess of 3,000 wines this year, with a concentrated focus on about 1,500 wines during a two-month period prior to assembling his top 100 list.

“The scope of the Chronicle’s top 100 list has always been West Coast wines,” Bonné told Great Northwest Wine.

He said that in recent years, he has included wines from Arizona, Colorado and Idaho for his list. That said, 99 of the 100 wines come from California, Oregon and Washington – with a lone entry from Arizona breaking into the list.

Bonné said he looks at several aspects of a wine when considering it for his list, and price is one. He said that reader response often is that the wines selected are too expensive.

“In California, a $100 Cab is barely the price of entry,” he said. “It’s worth giving credit to someone who is working in a more affordable context.”

As such, the number of expensive wines came down, and the average price for wines on his list was $38 – “Not inexpensive, but not totally unreasonable,” he said.

Seeking emerging trends

Jon Bonne San Franciscon Chronicle New California Wine

Jon Bonné’s book on California wine looks at winemakers embracing a style that is more reliant on elegance over power.

As he wrote in his book a year ago, The New California Wine, Bonné is excited about a new breed of winemakers who eschew convention and prefer to explore wines that are more exciting and emphasize elegance over power.

“I think a number of folks acknowledge these are wines that are really succeeding in an American craft context,” he said. “That’s always what propels the industry forward. I thought this was a really good year to highlight (that trend).”

Bonné said Oregon is an excellent example of where this is happening, not only with Pinot Noir but also with Chardonnay and Riesling. Indeed, the only Northwest Riesling to make his list was from Oregon, not Washington.

“That’s consistent with where gastronomy is on the West Coast today,” Bonné said. “It could be cooking, wine, beer or spirits. This is not only a tradition, but also intrinsic to the West Coast and the belief in pioneering. I think people who take risks deserve attention.”

Bonné said large wineries have a difficult time going in this direction because, by definition, they tend to be risk-averse.

“To me, the list is a representation of the craft on this coast,” he said. “Corporate wine can’t really do that. Wines that are made in a corporate context will be reliable. But it will be really rare that they will be interesting to those who are interested in craft on a personal scale.”

One wine that bucked this trend was the To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Robert Mondavi Winery (owned by Constellation Brands), which Bonné said hearkened back to the wines that were crafted when Robert Mondavi still ran the place.

Northwest wine strengths

Marty Clubb is the owner and winemaker for L'Ecole No. 41 in the Walla Walla Valley of Washington state.

Marty Clubb’s 2011 Perigee made the San Francisco Chronicle’s list of top 100 wines of 2014.  (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Bonné said a lot of his choices from Washington are from known entities: L’Ecole No. 41, Andrew Will, Gramercy, Cadence.

“Emerging producers are not coming down here (to California),” he said. “With Washington reds, it’s largely still the same names I’ve been used to for a while. The talents that were known are still known.”

The risks, he said, are largely being taken in Oregon.

“Look at that little cluster of folks in Portland who are working with a mix of Loire and Beaujolais,” he said. “They are viewing Oregon’s wine industry through a different prism.”

He sees the same thing happening with Rhône varieties in Washington.

“Progress in wine is always kind of messy,” he said. “Washington Cab got them there because that’s what gets planted first everywhere. The Rhône varieties are the bigger achievement. What is viewed as fringe can end up very successful. If you don’t get people believing it can work, then you don’t get something like the rise of Washington Syrah.”

Ultimately, the large percentage of Washington and Oregon wines reveals the region’s abilities and ongoing pioneering spirit, he said.

“It’s simply acknowledging there’s a lot of strength in Northwest winemaking.”

About Andy Perdue

Andy Perdue is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine. He is a third-generation journalist who has worked at newspapers since the mid-1980s and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Eric Degerman and served as its editor-in-chief for 15 years. He is a frequent judge at international wine competitions. He is the author of "The Northwest Wine Guide: A Buyer's Handbook" (Sasquatch, 2003) and has contributed to four other books. He writes about wine for The Seattle Times. You can find him on Twitter and .

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