Are Americans ready for “weird” varieties?
This is a very interesting read, as anything Randall Grahm writes tends to be. Randall raises multiple issues but the germ of his thesis is that we, the wine-buying public, are locked into a chocolate-vanilla-strawberry straitjacket of a few famous varieties that may, in fact, not even be the grape types best suited to our soils.
This is a very old Grahmian argument; indeed, Randall was making it more than 20 years go when I first met him. As an argument, it’s a strong one. It takes no great intellectual effort to imagine wines whose varietal names you and I have never even heard of offering pleasure, complexity and value when grown and produced in California. That’s the easy part–it’s tantamount to the thesis that there will be actors we’ve never heard of coming up in future movies to rival Angelina, Brad, Meryl, Leo and Cate. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that.
The problem, as Randall so correctly perceives, lies in the “agora,” or marketplace, which is exactly where the straitjacket has been fitted. Whether to blame consumers for “a severely Attention Deficit-afflicted” disorder, or simply to recognize that human beings generally dislike and are uncomfortable with overwhelming choice, isn’t so much the issue. Either way (and the answer is ultimately unknowable), Randall is correct that the marketplace likely will not reward someone who introduces Sagrantino or Aglianico but instead will probably punish them, in the only way the marketplace knows how to punish: with profound indifference.
Thus Randall’s dilemma: for decades he has tried to thread the needle, the thread being the wines “of terroir” he wants to make, the needle’s eye being the narrow gate of the market, to which many [varieties] are called but few [varieties] are chosen. I commiserate with Randall. I wish things were different. I wish American wine consumers were more liberal when it comes to varieties and blends, more adventurous, more willing to take “risks” that aren’t really risks at all, but just seem to be. Randall is also correct when he notes that more people would rather drink a mediocre wine whose varietal name they know, than a good wine whose varietal (or proprietary) name they don’t.
All right, that’s the reality of the implacable laws of supply and demand, but what role can wine writers play in all this? If you believe (as I do not) that wine writers no longer have significant impact on the market, then the answer is: not much. If, on the other hand (as I believe), wine writers still have enough clout to perturb markets one way or another, then what Randall (and people like him) can do is to reach out to writers with new, interesting wines–I mean compeling wines that writers will want to write about, not simply because they’re new and different–and certainly not simply because they were made by Randall (who gets a lot of mileage from the media for that very reason)–but because they really do express that terroir he speaks of.
The problem is that most of the time, when winemakers talk about their wines of terroir, the wines are not very interesting. I don’t mean high-end winemakers crafting Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs, Cabernet Sauvignons and Zinfandels from great sites. Those wines are fantastic, precisely because the winemakers have found great pieces of land in which to grow them. But that’s not what Randall’s talking about. He is, it seems to me, a bit curmudgeonly when it comes to giving credit where it’s due: namely, to the great varietal wines that the agora has embraced (rather than mourning the wines it has not). Randall may choose not to make these popular varieties, but that doesn’t mean they’re not great wines. He’s simply decided to go in a different direction.
I would welcome sitting down with Randall and having him educate me through a range of the kind of obscure wines he loves and that could or do grow well in California. I’m more than ready to recommend them, to push them, to alert the public that they should know about them and be buying them. But–and it’s a huge but–the wines have to truly be good. Like I said, they can’t simply be different and “made by Randall.”