American wine is actually good

Chris Coffey
By Chris Coffey
3 months ago
10 min read

American wine, in Australia? Lay aside your preconceptions, mofo. It's not just beer and skittles, burgers and terrifyingly unclear tipping conventions in the US. America has geography – and subsequently, terroir – that is unique to its shores, and we recently hired an American buyer, Ben, who sang the country's praises. We made him win us over the best way we know how – with our taste buds. And from Willamette pinot noir to Californian zinfandel and Washington cabernet, we're starting to waver...

"Back in 2008, I first arrived in Australia fresh off nearly a decade entrenched in the Californian wine scene," says Mofo Wine Buyer, Ben Goodman.

"In those days, American wine styles revolved around powerful reds and buttery whites. These brash US wines were nowhere to be found in Australia. As I dug deeper into Aussie wines, I began to understand why. 

"If someone wanted a big, bold red, then they could simply look to the Barossa Valley. And no one wanted a buttery white, since the days of sunshine in a bottle."

Through it all though, there was a growing contingent of winemakers in California, Oregon and Washington crafting wines of nuance, subtlety and structure. 

"These visionaries were going down the same path as the young producers here in Australia, trying to take lessons from the Old World and apply them to their cool climate wines. Unfortunately their voices weren’t heard outside the West Coast of America," laments Ben.

Having long toyed with the idea of bringing these wines to Aussie shores, Ben finally had the platform to do so at Vinomofo. Since he'd been out of the American wine scene for a few years, he reached out to some old wine industry mates back home. After countless emails, video chats and phone calls, he arranged a vast array of samples. 

"With the help of the entire buying team (and many other curious mofo staffers), we whittled the selection down to around a dozen wines spread across five producers.

"I’m so excited for the chance to introduce these wines to our mofos. At Vinomofo, we constantly talk about why we love this wine or that wine. As the American Mofo Buyer, I’ve never felt more of a connection to anything I’ve sourced before. These wines speak of my home, my past, my formative years and my embrace of the potential of American wines in Australia."

No pressure, then.

Get excited, mofos. Ben's got a lot to prove, so there were no half-measures, and as always, no filler. Let's dive into what's here, and what's imminent. 

Which American wines are coming to the 'fo?

The strategy was clear: start with wines that wow. So sourcing from the states of California, Washington and Oregon, mofos can taste their way up the US West Coast and either side of the Cascade Mountain Ranges. Having taken a road trip up the historic Route 101 highway and stopped off at these regions myself, I can vouch that they're not just worth a taste, but well worth a trip. Meanwhile, wine...

California, here we come.

Califor-ni-yay! More than just the glitz of the Napa Valley strip, California (aka CA) has a lot to offer the world of wine. From cowboys like Sean Thackrey through industry greats like Robert Mondavi and crowd faves like Goldeneye, diversity is an understatement.

Marietta Cellars – Sonoma County, California

"Marietta cellars are a multi-generational family sourcing fruit from long-standing relationships with growers," says Ben. "They specialise in wines of structure, brightness and generosity, all qualities that emanate from the best Australian reds."

Scot Bilbro (pictured above, left, with brother Sam) has more recently taken the reigns from dad Chris. Both were featured in Wine Enthusiast's Top 40 Under 40 Tastemakers (Sam for his project, Idlewines, that he runs on the same property).

Scot’s devotes the winery's success to his entire team. Every member of his vineyard crew is featured on the winery website and he labours to explain how none of it would be possible without them. Scot and the team at Marietta Cellars look after almost 400 acres of vines, mainly zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon, the leading red varietals of California.

  • Start here: pre-order Marietta's inimitable Old Vine Red. It's a fun, rich and frisky zinfandel-predominant blend, and it's non-vintage. Bucking what we know as the norm here is a good thing, and the result is a wine that beckons with label, aromas and mouthfeel from start to finish.

Kutch Wines – Sonoma County, California

"We’ve got pinot noir and chardonnay coming from Kutch Wines out of Sonoma County," says Ben. "Jamie Kutch was recently profiled by Decanter as one of the leaders of a new wave of American cool climate winemakers obsessed with utilising the lessons learned over centuries in Burgundy.

"Jamie Kutch’s journey into wine epitomises the term ‘sea change’. Born and raised on Long Island just outside of New York City, Jamie began his post-uni career as a stock trader in Manhattan. While living the rat race lifestyle, he developed a fascination with wine grounded in his devotion to Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. Once the inevitable burnout settled in from his fast-paced job, Jamie took the plunge and moved west to California. His first few vintages of pinot noir were high-octane beasts and he knew he had to master nuance. 

"He obsessed over Burgundy and applied the lessons learned to his own winemaking. Nothing is done by the half-measure. He constantly experiments and works slowly to exacting standards. He hand-sorts, foot-stomps and ages his wines on lees.

Hand-sorting, foot-stomping, wild yeast and neutral oak only at Kutch.

"Adding chardonnay to his range completed his homage to Burgundy and he is now known as one of the leaders in the pursuit of balance and purity in Californian wines. Decanter Magazine recently profiled Jamie and put him in the same company with Ted Lemon of Littorai, the king of elegance for Burgundian varietals in California."

If you're planning a trip to Sonoma County any time soon, let us be your guide, at least for food and wine. Be sure to let us know any hot tips we should know about.

But don't stop too long in Sonoma. More excitement from Cali is on the water, making a beeline for Mofo HQ. While we wait, let's head north.

Washington, by George!

No, not the city. Washington State is, I can testify, a stunningly beautiful place. Think the moodiness of Twilight matched to the incredible vistas from high up the mountain ranges, or exploring the giants of the rainforests below. With the region starting its claim to international vinous fame as a Bordeaux homoclime (similar climate), it's really starting to flex its fourteen – yes, fourteen – separate American Viticultural Areas (AVAs, the equivalent of an Australian GI, or a French appellation). Srsly, Washington's biggest AVA, the Columbia Valley, covers off eleven million acres. Of course, these are all east of the Cascades, in the mountain range's rain shadow. I didn't get there, but Ben tells me it's a place full of wonder – and more to the point, wonderful wine.

Gramercy Cellars – Walla Walla Valley, Washinton

Wines aren't the only pretty thing at Gramercy Cellars.

Gramercy Cellars is the brainchild of Greg Harrington, a Master Sommelier, his partner Pam and winemaker Brandon Ross. Greg cut his teeth working in some of the best restaurants in America before having his epiphany moment at a Washington State wine tasting in 2004. The next year, he formed Gramercy Cellars with his partners in the Walla Walla Valley of Southeastern Washington, quickly becoming a rising star in the state’s wine scene. 

"Gramercy burst onto the national scene despite its tiny production, when it was named ‘Best New Winery in America 2010’ by on of America's top culinary publications, Food & Wine Magazine," says Ben. "Gramercy Cellars focuses primarily on Rhone varietals and Cabernet Sauvignon, the main red grape of Washington. Their syrah is earthy, structured, juicy, meaty and medium-bodied. So versatile, so delicious and such a stereotype-shattering example of the serious wines that Washington State can produce.

Oregon-na branch out?

Ah, Oregon. We love you for all things Portlandia, beer and for just feeling like a home-away-from-home for Aussies. More snow, maybe. But who has the better microbrews? Doughnuts? More to the point, who has the better pinot noir? Let's find out. 

Maison Noir – Willamette Valley, Oregon

The man behind the Masion Noir label, André Mack, doesn’t sit still. Entrepreneur and innovator, Mack effortlessly blends winemaking, design and promotion to expose the world to world-class wines from the Pacific Northwest. 

This is André Mack not sitting still.

"He started as a desk jockey in finance, got bored, tapped into his fascination with wine and became a sommelier," says Ben. "A few years later he was named Best Young Sommelier in America and used this honour as the launchpad for starting Mouton Noir, his groundbreaking wine brand based out of the Willamette Valley in Oregon. All of the wines feature labels designed by Mack and he even has a range of clothing that play off well-known bands, corporations and iconic images. While his approach to marketing himself and his wines is whimsical, what’s in the bottle certainly isn’t. He's an immensely talented and detail-oriented winemaker. And we've been lucky enough to get our hands on his wine."

Goodness cometh, mofos, so we'll Mack good on all this teasing soon enough. 

Lingua Franca – Willamette Valley, Oregon

"When discussing the new breed of iconic American wine producers, Lingua Franca immediately springs to mind."

Ben should know. Founded by master sommelier Larry Stone, Lingua Franca quickly rose in status due to the influence and consultation of David Honig and Dominique Lafon, heavyweights of wine in Napa and Burgundy, respectively. Lingua Franca is located in Eola-Amity, the subregion of the Willamette Valley considered best for producing elegant and concentrated wines of structure that can rival Burgundy in the best vintages. 

"The vineyards are farmed using organic and biodynamic principles, resulting in incredibly complex wines of beauty and grace that have earned the acclaim of the industry’s top critics," says Ben. "It’s plainly obvious that Lingua Franca is something special as all of this attention has been paid to a producer that only released its first wine in the 2015 vintage. 

Start here: Wrap your tongue around one of the most interesting US chardonnays around and pre-order your very own Lingua Franca Bunker Hill Chardonnay 2016

Making American wine great again

For too long, in Australia, has US wine been relegated to the rare and obscure, or the American equivalent of Yellowtail. We're on a mission to reset the expectations of American wine, by bringing in the US wines we want to drink, direct from producer. When we have some available, you'll find those American wines here.