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“Obscure” varieties a hard sell

23 comments

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?

  1. Steve,

    As someone who works with some obscure varieties, I think you’ve hit on a few important points. And there are a couple of other points as well.

    Dianna and I make some the obscure wines because it is a release, and it helps us make better Pinots and Syrahs. That seems odd, that making wine is a release from making wine — but it gives you a chance to think outside the box, take some chances (if it doesn’t work out big deal), and keeps you fresh during harvest.

    Of course, the smart way economically to make some of these odd varietals is to make them in small quantities. Then they can be more “bonus” income rather than something your business is dependent upon. The question, then, is how much sense does it make to send samples in to a wine writer, such as yourself? Some publications are reluctant to review wines with only 100 cases produced because they think the wine would be too difficult for consumers to find. — How do you view things like that, Steve?

    Thanks,

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines & Novy Family Winery

  2. Hi Adam, well, I just tell people to send me something if they want to, and don’t send me something if they don’t want to! I can’t make those personal business decisions for them.

  3. Peter Turrone says:

    Steve,

    I think the average wine consumer might be more adventurous than one might think. Certainly not in the grocery store or big box store, but when someone goes wine tasting they are already on an adventure. This is the perfect time for them to branch out and try something that they would be uncomfortable purchasing “taste untasted.” (like “sight unseen”)

    Therefore I think the best place for these wines, until they become a household name, is value-priced in the tasting room. Like Adam says, keep the production small so you are not dependent on the result. Even if you just recoup overhead costs, you are lending something exciting and refreshing to a tasting room experience that can too often be a carbon copy of your neighbors next door and down the road. Who knows, someone might even tweet about it and get a buzz going about the unique experience they had at your tasting room.

    On the other hand, Steve, you are right on to point out the years of research and trial and error it takes to nail down a method for a new variety. Hats off to folks like Ken Volk who have been working with obscure varieties for many years to bring diversity to California.

    In the end, I just don’t think it makes sense to start with a new variety strictly from a business perspective. You have to love the hard work and the sense of exploration in order to succeed.

  4. Pretty much matches my consumer experience. Usually the “odd” varietals are not especially good values, especially in comparison with the old world regions that they come from. As you said, it takes experience to get it right and that’s hard to get when making a barrel or two sporadically from vineyards that may or may not be in a good location.

    Kinda makes me wish a producer could focus on making one or several oddball varietals. But that would not be a good business model. Even for the adventurous consumer, there’s only a limited attention span if the quality is still being worked out.

    I have really enjoyed the Kenneth Volk Negrette, though. When vintners get ‘em right, they are worth it. But it’s usually hit or miss. I kind of felt that way about Volk’s lineup as a whole. I respect the intellectual curiosity and daring. It’s just much harder to do a dozen things really, really well than one or two things.

  5. There are a LOT of wine consumers out there who enjoy discovering the “obscure” varieties. “I don’t have Merlot, but would you like to try a Tempranillo?” almost always gets a positive response. Also, at the Tempranillo Advocates Producers and Amigos Society tasting a couple weeks ago, we tripled attendance at the event from last year. There is clearly a lot of interest in these “cult” varieties!

  6. Steve,
    I guess one way to overcome this “obscure variety” hurdle, would be if wine critics would periodically review, as a category of its own, Californian wines made from these outlandish, eccentric, bizarre, unfamiliar, allochthonous, extraordinary, uncommon, distinctive, unusual, peculiar, singular, rare, less known varieties.
    Why not be the first to fill the niche?

  7. Hey Peter, I review everything that’s sent to me, including the uncommon ones.

  8. Jefe, could TAPAS ever set me up with a statewide Temp tasting?

  9. I would switch the “obscure” label and replace it with “rare”. Use that label as an introduction to create a story and interest in the grapes.

    Stai is right about the TAPAS attendance. The place was full and everyone was saying that numbers were up.

  10. One of the reasons that I visit wineries and poke about in the obscure corners of wine country is to have an experience beyond what everyone else is “doing.” I did a winery tasting tour here in southern Oregon three weeks ago that featured 8 wineries around the Rogue Valley opening their tasting rooms for the day.

    I’m never more thrilled than when a winemaker is in the tasting room and gets that conspiratorial look when he finds a true wine geek on the other side of the table, reaches below the table and pulls out the “back pocket” wine. I had the first effort of a new red blend that was quite tasty and affordable, considering the amount of mourvedre it contained. Also had a dessert wine later that day that was a blend of riesling and huxelruebe –when was the last time you even heard of that German cross-breed, let alone drank some?

    Give me an authentic experience with someone who understands the passion that drives us fellow travelers along the wine trail –

  11. Huxelruebe! Mmmmmmm

  12. I agree that selling the “obsure” wines in Costco and Safeway is a tough job, we have found in our wine shop that the customers are often thrilled to “find” a new intersting wine. Just this month in our wine club we included several Iberian varietal California wines including a Verdelho that was one of the favorites by our customers. Have had similar experiences with Albarino and other obsure varietals. We have often found that the wine club releases that feature the “Non-Classic” varietals are some of the most loved and best remembered releases.

    I am sure you remember that it wasn’t too far back that Syrah was an obsure varietal in the USA and today, many have never heard of Marsanne, Mourvedre or even Viognier. While I might not develop a full business plan based strickly on these Non-Classic varietals, they certainly add interest to the package.

  13. we just never know…
    I’d gotten accustomed to thinking that only the millenials could expand the curve of choice and acceptance in the market but last night I had my eyes opened.
    We promoted a wine pairing dinner with a distributor we are friends with and a local landmark seasonal restaurant, known mostly for its iconic take-out window for ice cream, burgers and fried clams…but not known as fine dining nor for the wine list. New owners have been doing great things with the seafood so I thought it would be worth a try at suf, turf, and vine.
    The crowd was decidedly baby boomer and older, and the response to the Trebbiano, Torrontes, an Aglianico Spumante, and the Monastrell was overwhelmingly positive, and folks immediatelt wanted to know where they could get them…
    Go figure, let folks taste new wines, and they may actually go and buy them…no critics required.

  14. Bob Rohden says:

    “… take some chances (if it doesn’t work out big deal),…”

    Adam,
    Don’t you mean the opposite? “If it doesn’t work out, no big deal”

    I surely hope that we don’t start using the word “cult” to describe these “lesser known” varietals.

    As for the few who use “not a good business model” to describe making wines from obscure grapes; what about the wines from cold-hardy hybrid grapes that are becoming noticeable through of the work of Canadian wine makers and an ever-growing list of Midwest wineries. There are now several hundred wineries throughout the Midwest where there were a mere handful just a few years back. Illinois has over 90 wineries, up from 12 in the mid ’90s. Iowa has more than 60 and Minnesota has ±30. And that isn’t counting the growers in these states who don’t make wines.
    These hardy souls have wines to trumpet with names like Vidal blanc, Villard blanc, Marechal Foch, Elvira, St. Croix, Chambourcin, Norton, Chardonel, Traminette and the ever-popular Ravat.

    Sure does give the guy trying to sell a Tempranillo or Mourvedre in California a run for the money!

  15. Bob Rohden says:

    …and

    isn’t it “Huxelrebe” without the “u”?

  16. Todd: Thanks. Hand selling is still the best way to go, but it’s time consuming and not everybody can do it.

  17. Bob,

    Indeed, I meant no big deal. Sorry.

    Adam

  18. Larry Chandler says:

    If a winemaker is passionate about lesser known varieties he will figure out where to plant it and how to grow it and make the wine. Ken Volk is very passionate about it and he has been making small batches of these types of wines.

    I visited his tasting room today and he just added his Aglianico and Touriga to his list which already included Negrette, Malvasia, Verdelho and even something really obscure called Cabernet Pfeiffer. Not all his wines are great, but most are. And it’s always a revelation to taste a variety that is completely new to me.

  19. Steve,
    Agreed, the “hand sell” has the “upper hand”, and that’s where WE can help by spreading the word and a little information (assuming that we are not all just talking to one another), which may soften the marketplace for the folks who are willing to take the risk of the path less taken.
    I have to disclose, I am also in the camp with Bob Rohden above…have made several fine wines from cold hardy white grapes, incuding a bubbly that recently opened eyes during the after-hours following a dinner with Silvano Breschiannini of Barone Pizzini.
    Empowering the wine consumer with a sense of adventure is key to growth in the wine market as a whole, if producers respect that notion and make quality affordable products, everyone has a chance to improve.
    Thanks, Todd

  20. One of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to these ‘lesser known’ varieties is when wineries charge premium prices for them relative to ‘average’ or even ‘above average’ prices for the same varieties from countries that have been making these wines for years . . . Nothing like purchasing a $30 albarino when there are tremendous $10 efforts available . . .

    I agree that these varieties are more ‘hand sell’ and ‘mailing list only’ – and that’s how they should start until one determines whether or not there is a market for them with their core audience. If their ‘faithful’ won’t be purchasing, it doesn’t seem very wise to push forward too quickly or heavily.

    Cheers!

  21. Larry, it’s not just overpriced “obscure” varieties that turn me off, it’s overpriced everything. I don’t mind $40, $50 or more for a really great wine, but not for some overripe, sweet, over-oaked wine.

  22. Steve,

    True . . . but oftentimes wineries seem to have the feeling that since they’re only making a small amount of something, they can charge that much more for it – EVEN if it’s an ‘alternative white’ . . .

    Cheers!

  23. I don’t know who’s buying that stuff.

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