Sommeliers of the Year Kelli White and Scott Brenner Say California Is Cool Again

Brenner and White
Brenner and White Photo: Clay McLachlan

Parallel to the growing, trendy, underdog status of some Bordeaux labels, small California wineries are beginning to get more attention from sommeliers after a long stint in the shadows. For at least a decade, wine people have tended to default to Europe, the more obscure the grape the better, but according to newly crowned Food & Wine Sommeliers of the Year Kelli White and Scott Brenner from Press, that trend is starting to shift. California is almost cool again, like it was in the eighties, but not for the big, meaty Cabernets and butter-soaked Chardonnays that made it famous.

Would you agree that there’s a trend away from recommending California wine among sommeliers across the country, who are looking more and more toward obscurer parts of Europe or elsewhere?
Scott Brenner: We’re both from the East Coast, and that has always been our experience in the last twelve years. I think it’s sort of possibly, lately, heading the other way. California, and Napa specifically, is receiving a little more attention. It’s definitely a little cooler than it was.

Kelli White: I see stuff on Instagram and Facebook all the time recently about California small-production wine dinners in Brooklyn and elsewhere, and that never used to happen. It’s just in the last few years. Which is interesting, and a lot of it has to do with a trend toward recognizing natural wine, and little, funkier producers. Sommeliers still like the underdog, and some California wineries are definitely underdogs now.

What do you see as special or specific about certain terroirs in California, or trends happening within the local industry, that most people may not know about?
KW: We can’t beat the drum enough for the aging potential of these wines, Cabernet and otherwise. Food-focused sommeliers and wine writers who find that young Napa wines are too overwhelming, too over-extracted, would all be amazed at what ten or twenty years in the bottle can do. There are amazing subtleties that come out. We’re both very vocal about expressing our preference for lower alcohol wines, and there really are producers here who are making more balanced wines, which not enough people know about. So many people have been making these big, over-extracted wines [over the past couple decades here], and you can’t tell what the land is trying to say with those wines.

SB: That and the courage of people planting more obscure grapes, things like Ribolla Gialla and Tocai Friulano — crispy, minerally dry whites like Dan Petroski at Massican is doing, or the guys at Dirty and Rowdy. They could probably be making a lot more money from growing Cabernet, but they’re choosing to be different.

What’s an old bottle in your wine collection at Press that you’re most in love with right now?
KW: Oh, that’s hard. At first we were really focused on these older Napa wines, particularly Cabernet, but we’ve been experimenting with other grapes that were grown here historically, like Pinot Noir and old Chardonnay. We just bought a vertical of Pinot from Saintsbury in Carneros going back to ‘98, and those are so pretty. And School House Pinot — we’ve personally tried back to 1959, but we have the ‘66 and ‘79 on the wine list. They’ve aged beautifully.

SB: School House is a really small, amazing property on Spring Mountain. The same family still runs it and they planted their first Pinot there in 1953.

What do you think about Coppola reviving the Inglenook label or what you’ve tasted from there so far?
KW: It’s really cool. It’s great to see the old label and the wine is really exciting. He’s got that new winemaker from Chateau Margeaux and they’re trying to make something more age-worthy. It’s restrained Cabernet, a lot of finesse. It’s only going to get better.

Who in California is making the most food-friendly wines these days?
SB: Philip Togni on Spring Mountain, Massican, HdV Chardonnay from Carneros.

KW: And little guys like Hendry are making wines in this really accessible, honest, delicious style that’s not too expensive. We also really love Frog’s Leap wines. They have wonderful balance and restraint. Really great with food.

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Sommeliers of the Year Kelli White and Scott Brenner Say California Is Cool