It's not that Californians wanted to copy anyone, or that they wanted to jump into the fast lane of trendiness, but the idea of producing a nouveau-style Beaujolais was a perfect one for the north coast of the state.
It all started a decade ago when Pinot Noir wasn't selling in the United States. French red Burgundy was still then considered king and prices for some of the better ones weren't excessive (that certainly has changed).
Since no American producer could sell much Pinot Noir in the late 1970s, they had to do something with the grapes they could get at a price. Until then, only Sebastiani Vineyards in Sonoma County had been making a Nouveau Beaujolais by using traditional fermentation methods and getting it to market quickly.
Here and there wine makers tried to make a nouveau. One was made at Souverain in northern Sonoma County, another at Creston Manor in San Luis Obispo and yet another by a joint venture that called itself Chateau Nouveau.
The method of production for traditional Nouveau Beaujolais that produces the grape-like, almost heady aroma of fruit was the difference between the Sebastiani wine and the others who experimented with the wine.
In the traditional Beaujolais Nouveau from France, the technique, called maceration carbonique, calls for the grapes to be dumped whole into a tank and the fermentation started without the addition of any yeast, but in the presence of no air.
This so-called anaerobic fermentation was well known to Californians, but it was not easy and required not only special care but special equipment.
One of the first to use that method was Robert Pecota in 1981. The Pecota winery, located in Calistoga at the north end of the Napa Valley, chose to make the wine in a style that was pale red, almost pink in color, with a violet hue (from the fact that the wine was barely out of its skin). And the aroma was intensely scented.
Pecota never made much of the wine, a few hundred cases, but it became a cult hit. It was sold out well before it was made and demand kept rising.
All the while the Charles Shaw Winery down the road was making traditional Beaujolais-style wine even though Shaw, an ex-businessman who had spent a lot of time working in Paris, owned the important equipment. And he knew the method--maceration carbonique-- well.
But Shaw, a traditionalist who felt Beaujolais should not be nouveau but should be richer and more substantial, fought making a nouveau-style wine for years.
Until 1983. Finally, after years of hearing that others were selling these things in 30 to 90 days, Shaw leaped in. His first one, in 1983, sold for $4. It sold out so quickly Shaw himself was flabbergasted.
Today, Pecota and Shaw have mastered the process like few others and are usually the best producers of nouveau. And the wines are far more widely available than other wineries' nouveau wines.
The Shaw wine, called Harvest Wine this year ($6), made by wine maker Scott McLeod, is typically light and delicate and shows more cranberry-like scents.
The Pecota ($6.50), made by wine maker Dave Gruber, is also lighter and paler than in past years (in the past the wine was a little more pugnacious and peppery, with a hint of anise). The taste is light and delicate, but with ample fruit.
Both are good choices to match with richer, spicier foods such as cassoulet or venison stew or turkey with sage dressing.
In the last couple of years, Sonoma County producer Lou Preston has entered the fray, and his Gamay Beaujolais Nouveau ($7.50) is usually one of the better ones on the market. All these wines are best served slightly chilled.
Shaw now leads the pack with 21,000 cases of the nouveau. Pecota makes 6,000 cases, Preston about 1,500. Sebastiani continues to make a nouveau. It sells for $4.75. Some of the other wineries that used to make a nouveau style of wine (such as Fetzer Vineyards) have dropped out in favor of making a traditional Gamay Beaujolais.