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Good wine, like life, can be from anywhere

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When I was a kid, there were lots of scientific articles that purported to explain how lucky we were here on Earth to exist–how many miracles had to occur for us to be here. They explained how, if our planet weren’t exactly “x” miles from the Sun, and if it didn’t have just the right magnetic poles, and if the elements weren’t distributed in exactly the precise way, if pi didn’t exactly equal 3.14 and the laws of physics weren’t the way they were, and if the Earth’s atmosphere didn’t shield us from cosmic rays, etc. etc., then Life wouldn’t exist. It made it seem as if Earth was, after all, a pretty privileged place.

But even at the age of seven or eight, I would think, “Wait a minute. Who’s to say that Life can’t be based on an entirely different set of circumstances than our carbon-based life form is?” It seemed to me that Life–whatever it ultimately was or is–is sufficiently ingenious to figure out how to arise and exist in any environment it cares to, even one that would be noxious to us and every other form of life we know.

Well, now comes this fantastic NASA report that “life” can arise under circumstances scientists previously thought were impossible. “Arsenic-eating bacteria suggests extraterrestrial life possible” is how one newspaper headlined it. If “life” in the form of bacteria can “grow entirely off this deadly chemical,” then maybe life can exist anywhere and everywhere–on deadly cold Pluto, on the sunny side of deadly-hot Venus, or on some methane-cloaked rock circling some far distant star millions of light years from home. Maybe even in the vast, intergalactic spaces of the Universe.

My childhood fantasies were stirred by the NASA report, but so were my hopes for California wine. The connection? Simple. We think that great wines can exist only in certain areas along the coast. Too many of us tend to shuck off inland as some inhospitably hostile environment for great wine.

I will admit to occasionally succumbing to this opinion myself. The wines from places like Lodi, Temecula, Livermore Valley, the Sierra Foothills and much of interior California are California’s vin de pays, I have thought in the past. When Wine Enthusiast split the state between me, on the coast, and Virginie Boone, inland, I was not entirely unhappy. I tended to break California into east-west divisions much as France is divided into north-south divisions, with Bordeaux, Burgundy and the northern Rhône as “superior,” and the vast Midi being viewed as of lesser quality.

But I’m beginning to think this view was over-simplistic, for several reasons. There’s a new generation of inland vintners who are starting to work hard and figure out what varieties, clones and rootstocks do best in their soils. Also, how to train and manage the vines’ canopies to maximum advantage, and keep crop yields modest. This has been a far greater problem inland than it has been on the coast, for various reasons, and has been, in my judgment, the single biggest impediment to quality. But it’s fast changing.

If you think about it, there’s just no reason why fine wine shouldn’t be able to be made inland, just as there’s no reason (we now are learning) why life can’t exist pretty much anywhere. We think of inland as hotter than the coast, and it is; and while Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay (to name a few) may not be suitable inland, there are other varieties that thrive in hot climates. Their names may be strange to most Americans–Nero d’Avolo, Gaglioppo, Greco di Tufo, the various Tourigas, Tinta Amarela, Trincadeiro, Corvina, Coda de Vole, Graciano, Mando–but this need not always be the case. Meanwhile, heat-loving varieties such as Nebbiolo, Verdelho and Vermentino are gaining traction, especially among sommeliers, while more recognizable names, like Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, thrive in these warmer climates.

I do think it’s going to be necessary for inland vintners to eventually turn away from Continental varieties (the aforementioned Cabernet, Pinot, etc.), unless they’re content to compete with the Coast, and that’s a fight they cannot win. Their solution lies in these Mediterranean varieties that have had centuries to adapt to a warm, dry climate. But the new generation I earlier referred to is doing precisely that, and in a way I envy Virginie for being able to experience this exciting transition.

Meanwhile, the next time you’re tempted to diss inland, remember those bacterium that love arsenic. Anything, it appears, can be made to adapt to anything else, including wine to an inland climate.

* * *

I’ll be at Rusty Eddy’s “Public Relations for Small Wineries” class Friday, Dec. 10, at U.C. Davis. My fellow guest lecturers will be Jose and Jo Diaz, of Diaz Communications. It’s a fun, instructive session. For more info, call U.C. Davis at (530) 757-8608, or email Julie Brinley at jbrinley@ucdavis.edu. Hope to see you there!

  1. We’re lucky in our Anglophile ignorance. To us, it’s all just “Californian”, so we drink, taste and judge without the minutiae of inland/coastal prejudice.

    Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.

  2. And yet, those inland Californian wine regions are often considered superior to truly inland wine regions (i.e., not California, Oregon or Washington) due geographic prejudices. Just as many Napaphiles think of wine from the Sierra Foothills as being inherently inferior, many people also disparage wine from the other 47 states. This mindset is further perpetuated by wine media turning a deaf ear on non-West Coast regional wine.

    However, all is not lost for regional wine. The Jefferson Cup is a great example of promoting great wine from ALL of America’s wine regions. Wines from California (including from inland regions), Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, New York and Ohio all were deemed to be among the best of the best by a panel of wine experts that hold the MS and MW credentials.

    While the American wine world is definitely centered on coastal California, we must not discount wines from less prestigious wine regions purely based on geography.

  3. Colorado Wine, you’re right. The problem is, most of us never get to taste those wines, so we can’t come to any conclusion, one way or the other.

  4. Steve, so what is the best way to fix that problem? Should small wineries/regions seek out media or should media seek out the obscure? Obviously, there needs to be a middle ground, but how can you/WE best support non-coastal wines? On whom does the onus of action lie? Linda Murphy had a nice piece on Wine Review Online last month but core wine consumers won’t take notice until the “big” wine media also takes note (and even then will the true “core” notice?).

  5. It’s not so much that extremophiles can ingest arsenic and thrive — it’s that these particular critters had NO potassium in their makeup; and (up until now), it was generally posited that potassium was *essential* for life (as we know it) to exist. Well, things just got a lot more interesting, as it’s been pointed out to us that we don’t know as much as we thought we knew –

    And I think that’s the point you’re making re: the “undiscovered country” of the wine world — we think we have a handle on a region and then along comes a bottle of something truly spectacular and completely unexpected. Yes, there’s a lot of sifting and sorting that has to be done; and if we’re lucky, maybe a small percentage of the chaff becomes wheat.

    But that’s part of the fun, isn’t it? “I saw that band back in the day, when it was a small venue” kind of syndrome applies to wine, as well as music. I’m kind of curious to see what kind of wine we might be able to raise on Mars ;)

    As far as Colorado Wine Press’ points go, it’s the same as it ever was — it’s a long-term process of education and experience. Tastings, reviews, enticing people to go out of their way for the experience of something new and different (stressing the unique and authentic) — emerging wine regions have faced this challenge for quite some time and the process remains the same. Assuredly, the technology changes and things might be a bit different (twitter tastings anyone?), but the basic process remains the same — making converts one person at a time.

    Bourdeaux, Napa, Piedmont, etc., wasn’t built in a day –

  6. I too have the fantasy of drinking wine from other parts of America that the Left Coast. And there’s no doubt that much of America is suitable for growing and making wine with the same diversity and quality as Europe. Problem is getting someone to buy it. Wine pioneers have to compete with the overproduction of the rest of the world and that means over delivering on quality and undercutting on price. A tough nut to crack for an unknown region and a lesser known varietal in a business with huge up front capital investment. A grizzled wine veteran once quipped to me when I proposed doing something untried, “You don’t want to be a pioneer. Pioneers end up with arrows in their back.”

  7. Sherman you are so right. Nothing happens fast in wine.

  8. Colorado, there is no best way that will satisfy you, unfortunately. The system is what it is. To some extent the squeaky wheel gets greased. I wish it were otherwise, but it’s not.

  9. Oh, I realize that the system is what it is. It just sad that with diversity of wine in America very few people champion the local wines and instead keep the blinders adjusted on only California. It took California until 1976 to get the French monkey off of its back (or at least pry a hand off of one shoulder) and it will take time for the rest of America to do the same. Though now we have even more international simians and a domestic gorilla to deal with!

  10. The term Steved used is ‘great wine’. Many areas make good wine.

    I think some of us want to look at the term ‘great’ and what it means.

    It does not mean rare, for there are wines that are rare and that is good they are also overpriced for their quality and legend. There are wines that are rare because of limited acreage.

    It does not mean popular because not all great wines are available to the mass of the market.

    In one generation a wine can be acclaimed to be great by the consensus of the wine trade and and wine press (press as in media). But then what if that generation passes on and a new generation has a new paridigm? Haven’t there been great wines that have gone too long on reputation and slid in quality till some one bought and rebuilt the property and the legend?

    Most/many of us have tasted great wine. What are these attributes that leave us no choice but to humbly aknowlege the epitome of the winemakers alchemy.

  11. Steve, arsenic eating bacteria or not, thank you for the kind recognition and irrefutable logic in your statement,

    “There’s a new generation of inland vintners who are starting to work hard and figure out what varieties, clones and rootstocks do best in their soils. Also, how to train and manage the vines’ canopies to maximum advantage, and keep crop yields modest.”

    We look forward to watching from our vineyard here on the Yosemite Coast as Virginie substantiates this fact.

    Have a wide-eyed and wonderful Christmas holiday.

  12. It is exciting to see great wines being made in less-trafficked, less well-known areas than Napa and Sonoma. Much in the way of the perception of wine-world quality comes about by force of repetition, received “wisdom,” and lack of curiosity. And being a fashion business, what is “great” in one era may be less so in the next.

    Notwithstanding the ridiculous notion that the Livermore Valley is an inland appellation (I know, the line had to be drawn somewhere), when it has fewer degree days than St. Helena and is closer to the coast than Calistoga; we are willing (if not content) to labor in the shadow of the Napa Valley as we succeed in making ever-better Cabernet.

    I don’t think one can ever have too much great wine…no matter how far off the beaten track one might be.

  13. Some of the most fun experiences we have in our tasting room are watching the facial expressions of people who live in or hail from Napa/Sonoma when they first taste our wines. There is a transitional look of puzzlement turning to amazement turning to bliss when they sample our line up and consider the flavor to price value relationship. Despite being located in a poorly-marketed backwater region, we are selling all the wine we can make with no media coverage or disti support. What our situation shows is that – like in most European appellations – the good stuff is consumed locally. Remember how fun Napa was 20 years ago? Go out and go find that feeling again somewhere other than off Hwy 29.

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