“Obscure” varieties a hard sell
It is true, as Laurie Daniel wrote in the San Jose Mercury-News, that so-called “obscure” grape varieties are on the rise in Calfornia.
Ten years ago, there were two acres of Albarino planted in the state. Last year, according to the Dept. of Food and Agriculture, there were 108 (bearing and non-bearing). The equivalent numbers for Verdelho were 12 and 94; for Teroldego they were 14 and 79. Touriga Nacional saw 65 and 220; Pinotage, 16 and 53; Lagrein was 65 and 157, Carmenere was 8 and 57, and Muscat Blanc went from 758 to 1,698.
These numbers cannot be accounted for by the simple inflation of California’s vineyard acreage, which has increased since 2000 by only 11.3%. The real reason, as Laurie writes, is that “some winemakers like to step away from the mainstream and [so] the planting of alternative varieties is on the rise.”
Well, yes…and no. Although Laurie quotes vintner Ken Volk as saying, “I like diversity,” and there’s no doubt that people who are planting these “obscure” varieties are passionate about them, I suspect there are other reasons a winemaker would plant a variety and then make a wine from it with a name that few Americans have ever heard of.
One reason that comes to mind is because there must be many winemakers who take one look at the crowded marketplace for Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel and other mainstay grapes, and realize they don’t stand a chance in that bloodbath. As the old marketing dictum goes, if you can’t compete in the niches that are, create a niche that’s not.
The problem, of course, is that the American consumer is a very cautious fellow or gal. She doesn’t like to buy things she’s unfamiliar with. It’s risky. That’s why Tide, Crest and Comet cleanser still dominate their fields. People have grown up with them; they know what to expect, and don’t want any surprises the next time they wash their clothes, brush their teeth, or clean the toilet bowl.
If I came up with a new toothpaste — let’s call it “Sparkle! by Steve” — it would take the biggest marketing campaign in history to persuade anyone to buy it, and even after a $100 million campaign, it still might fail. Remember Edsel and New Coke?
So “obscure” varieties represent a double-edged sword to the vintner. They open up potential niches, but, as with political parties, it’s hard to sell something that’s outside the mainstream.
There’s another problem, too: judging from my experience, lots of these “obscure” wines aren’t very good. Most are okay, but nothing special, and if the vintner tries to charge too much for them, they’re bad values.
It’s not surprising why quality on an “obscure” variety shouldn’t be very high. Little is known about where to plant, how to grow and how to vinify Gruner Veltliner or Aglianico in California. Even vintners who are serious about them will need years to develop their technique. Also, to the extent those vintners won’t be able to get high prices for the wines, there’s a limit to how much time and money they’re willing to invest in the vineyard and in the winery.
Still, there is hope for these “obscure” varieties. The Millennials may not be as obsessed with traditional varieties as are their parents and grandparents. (I say “may not” but there’s an equally good chance that they will be.) Then too, sommeliers and wine stewards in restaurants, who seem to be enjoying an unprecedented period of visibility and power, like discovering new things they can hand-sell to their customers. And, with the growing popularity of wine clubs and direct-to-consumer sales, club members like to be sent things that are limited in production and hard for anyone else to get.
So I welcome these “obscure” varieties and I’m supportive of winemakers who are making them. The next thing for us to do is come up with an alternative word to “obscure.”
Tomorrow I’ll have another Top Ten Wines of the Week, but I’ll also try to get something in from the Wine Bloggers Conference.
Press release first lines we never read beyond: Dear Steve, Have you ever wanted to enjoy a night out with your adoring pet?