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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.”

  1. It depends on what market the winemaker is after. If you’re looking at supermarket selections chances are you won’t see a Tannat or Alicante Bouchet on the shelves. This territory belongs to the aforementioned “chocolate-vanilla-strawberry straightjacket”. (Unless the varietal is mentioned in a pop song, as has worked for Muscat).
    But if a wine lover wants something a little different they don’t have to look too far. In the past 6 months I’ve been able to taste single bottlings of Touriga, Petit Verdot, Charbono, Durif, Tannat, Alicante Bouchet and Monduese (From a vineyard in Atlas peak that was recently ripped out and planted over to Cab Sauv. – Bummer!)
    The average wine buyer does not want to be challenged, that’s why their purchases occur at the supermarket and not a wine shop, but go to a Sierra Foothills tasting room and chances are the winemaker has made something exotic & fun. Even the field blends can be a pleasant surprise.

  2. Sherman says:

    Wines made from any grapes that aren’t “mainstream” will appeal to a very limited segment of the marketplace. As has been noted, the majority (I estimate it at 85%) of wine buyers don’t care about cool and geeky wines; they are looking for a known quantity at an affordable price. The remaining 15% of the wine buying public *may* experiment once in a while — but they usually need to be intrigued enough by an interesting wine article they’ve read, or have the opportunity for a retail wine salesperson to get them hooked.

    Make no mistake, it’s a long and slow process, selling such wines. It’s a protracted process that will take years to achieve any significant inroads into the territory of chocolate/vanilla/strawberry. And that applies to buyers in the business, whose job it is to try the new and interesting “cutting edge” wines. I’ve spent the last couple of days showing a fun gruner veltliner from Austria to wine buyers in restaurants, grocery stores and retail bottle shops. Two days worth of tasting appointments, 8 presentations (among other wines) and how many bottles did I sell? Not a one — to people that are the gatekeepers of the shelves.

    And vanilla is still the most widely sold flavor of ice cream in the US.

  3. Americans are actually the most willing of all wine drinkers to try something new. Just try selling Zinfandel in any European country. Europeans are far more parochial in their wine buying than Americans.

    If a wine is merely good and there are only a couple of producers and limited production it is likely the variety will remain obscure. But if it were more widely planted then the odds are better on reaching the critical mass of the agents of change.

    In getting beyond the tipping point we have the popularity of Cabernet Sauvignon to account for the planting, the growth and acceptance of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. We have the success of American sparkling wine (kudos to Chandon) to account for Pinot Gris (Grigio). (And to some extent the overproduction of sparkling wine for the explosion of cool climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.) Americans will accept something other than a “noble varietal”, take Zinfandel for example. Through luck it was widely planted and made good wine, while its name was obscure to the wine drinking public.

    The problem with getting American’s to try and buy a wine promoted as an obscure grape variety is a matter of critical mass. This would be a critical mass of individuals that Gladwell (The Law of the Few) characterizes as the “agents of change”… the “connectors”, the “mavens”, and the “salesmen.” You, Steve, represent all three so the fate of an obscure grape variety is dependent on reaching a critical mass of individuals like you.

  4. TomHill says:

    “Are Americans ready for ‘weird’ varieties”????
    My answer is: Some are, most aren’t. That’s because most Americans (whoever they are) are interested mostly just having something good w/ tonight’s porkchop or risotto…usually something that they’re familiar with..that’ll be a Cabernet or a Chardonnay. Most are reluctant to try something new…be it Tazzalenghe or Georgia.
    Randall’s article is pretty much Randall being Randall. Which is why he is always such a good read and why I try to read everything he writes. I only wish he would follow thru on many of the ideas he throws out there. Godello?? I’m not sure his Godello (if’n he actually has one) would make a compelling argument for that variety in Calif (if it’s like his Albarino, say). OTOH, his ’82 Syrah made a very compelling argument for that grape in Calif. Alas…it’s the follow-thru. He could be making one of the world’s great Syrahs in Calif….if he would’ve chosen to follow thru. But he got sidetracked along to way to Syrah’s greatness in Calif. If I were sitting across the table from Randall….I’d ask him where the heck is that Freisa. That sparkling Freisa was an absolutely delicious wine…and made a compelling case for that grape in Calif. Alas…no more I understand.
    There are actually a fair number of people/winemakers interested in some of the lesser known varieties. StLaurent, Montepulciano, Aglianico, Ribolla, Refosco, Mondeuse, SauvignonVert?? Yup…they’re all out there if you are willing to scout them out. The next big Merlot wave?? Probably not.
    There is a very interesting blog by RobTebeau out of Boston on these unusual varieties that has a ton of interesting information in it:
    Worth reading.

  5. doug wilder says:

    This is a topic that is still hot on my brain. Just last weekend TAPAS held their annual tasting in San Francisco focused on domestic producers of Iberian and Portuguese varieties. The guests seemed to represent a lot more mid to late twenties than I typically see at these types of events. Combining that with the fact that many of the varieties were obscure (even to me) supports that there IS consumer interest for alternative wines, and it may be just the right demographic. Essentially these reasonably priced wines are made by small producers who are not seeking grocery store placements over DTC. One thing I noted was participation of producers in Southern Oregon, Arizona and Texas. I will be writing about them as many represent solid value.

  6. Doug — That’s interesting and I’m happy to hear it. I’ve had a sense that the younger 20-something generation is both interested in wine and very open to moving away from the classic varieties. Also, as a Texan, I’m convinced that “weird” wines are Texas’s only hope of making a consistently good wine. Aside from a couple of passable Syrahs, and reports of decent Viogner, my experience has been that Texas has produced a lot of dreck by trying to make Cabernet, Merlot, and Chardonnay. Texas needs to find a grape that fits the climate and soils and the classic French varieties aren’t it.

  7. Michael Donohue says:

    How exactly does the success of American sparkling wine account for Pinot Gris/Grigio?

  8. Ian Brand says:

    My favorite part of the article is where Randall impugns others for having a bit of ADD… I say that with the greatest love for a man that shaped my career (penchant for producing off-kilter varieties, relentless pursuit of terroir and all). He’s spot on with his thought, overly zealous in his remedies. The newest vineyard will be something to behold. The new owners of the Ca’ del Solo vineyard tore out half the vines for replanting. Some deservedly, others I wish they had saved.

    Tom – If memory serves the Freisa and Refosco are one and the same variety, but it was years ago. Pretty wine, though.

  9. I think the problem is, as it always has been, that those “weird” wines grown here are likely to cost more than the original versions grown elsewhere. I said it years ago when Havens released their Albarino, why the hell would I, as a retailer, sell that wine at $20 when I can sell my customer one, from Spain, for half that?! Makes no sense outside a tasting room or wine club to me.

  10. Michael Barry says:

    I observe that the variety’s that SELL in the US have one thing in common. Charrrdonay, Caberrrnet, Merrrrlot & Syrrrah all rrroll off the tongue, so among many others,Semillon ( a magnificent wine with 6-10 years in the bottle) has no chance of making it despite large areas being most suitable for its cultivation. (Warmer temps, poorer sandy /gravelly soils).

  11. Jeff Carroll says:

    Just this past Saturday I caught wind of the 7th anniversary of the Wine Century Club. I love promoting the ideal they espouse of sampling many varieties and expanding one’s wine horizons. So, as one of those store gatekeepers that Sherman (above) mentioned, I gladly aided their anniversary goal to open something unique and log it on their website.

    A bottle of Ruche from Italy, straight of the shelf in the store, was what I opted for. And I shared it with staff, customers, and even some family the next day. I’m not saying that one taste of an expressive, unique wine like that will change people’s cabernet buying habits, but it sure can’t hurt!

  12. Steve, I’ve been collecting a number of domestic “weird” varieties”, and the two Dolcetto wines (e.g.) were quite good and priced competitively with the Italian offering. My advice to my readers from my June 1 post: Are you interested in going outside of the box, are you exploring wines (Red), then if you’ve wanted to taste a Dolcetto, why not give this one a try?
    So, I’m encouraged to explore and I’m encouraging others to do the same thing.
    One still small voice in a vast wilderness. 🙂

  13. Michael Barry, maybe they could rename it Semmmmmmilllllon!

  14. Marlene Rossman says:

    The issue is how weird? When I was a working somm, Gruner Veltliner was all the rage. I couldn’t even get my diners to try Viognier (wha?
    Vyag knee er? Viagra?) let alone Gruner. Most folks are too intimidated by what they do not know to try anything new. As it has been pointed out already, Chard, Cab and additionally Pinot Noir are the default wines.

    Maybe I should have offered them a bottle of Pis & Love, made by Leone Conti and is 100% Longanesi (Burson)

  15. I have a small production (1000 case ) winery in inland Mendocino County and I grow and produce Nero d’Avola and Negroamaro , both Southern Italian varieties. I was the first winery to petition the TTB to have these varieties added to the official list and so became the first U.S. winery to officially get them on a label.

    There is a place for these varieties here in inland Mendocino County. They make wonderful wines.

  16. Michael Barry says:

    More chance with something like Cimmarrrrron.
    It is that rollled rrrrr that resonates in Tarrrrget with the grab a bottle for dinner on the way home end of the market.
    But hey, lets hope they keep doing it.
    As for Ve on yah or Grew na velt lean ah, good luck with the marketing.

  17. My favourite spring seafood wine that is underrated and generally unavailable, but may do well in cooler coastal sites is Muscadet (or the grape is Melon de Bourgogne), the best wines of Nantes are wonderful and very inexpensive, opps that’s probably not a recommendation for a grape for California, the French competition may bury the upstart. This is a major issue, will the New World plantings be competitive, would Zinfandel be where it is if the Italians had cranked up quality and kept a low price on Primitivo 40 years ago?

    The concept of hybridization is interesting, but will be a multi generational uphill battle both for the vines and the recognition of the wines and I really hope it’s not a new Pinotage that is created.

  18. Stan Thompsen says:

    I agree with the earlier comments that only a small fraction of wine drinkers care to try obscure varietals. However, while this article is about varietals, I think Randall’s biggest interest is in terroir-driven wines, whether common or obscure varietals.

    The only domestic example I’m aware of that Randall cites as a good example of this is Cayuse, whose reputation is built on syrah.

  19. Steve, Thanks so much for the read and the comment. Agreed that I could probably be a bit more gracious in my remarks about conventional varieties (we all have our shadow sides with which we struggle), but my point is simply this: Whether it be conventional or unconventional varieties, we winemakers in the New World have largely been missing the boat in our focus on varietal character to the exclusion of the much more interesting aspect of a wine, relating to site specificity. I would argue that in some sense, the choice of variety is really not what is interesting about a wine, but rather much more the choice of site (and how that is farmed). A grand cru site in Piemonte will produce a brilliant barbera, dolcetto or nebbiolo (and probably scores of other varieties as well). In the New World, we generally don’t farm the right way – drip irrigation, clonal selection, overripe wine styles, too much oak, etc. to allow terroir to express itself (assuming that it is there to express.) It’s a bit like the difference between natural beauty and Tammy Faye Bakker, if I may be so crude.

  20. I think there is absolutely a market in something different. I own a small wine store in Saint Louis and every day I have people coming in looking for something different. we still obviously will keep the safer bets around but also make sure that those options are small production and great value to the dollar but it is always really fun to show people something different and have them come back to tell you they loved it.

  21. From my position as a Chicago retailer, I see that it is possible to develop a clientele for “weird” varieties, even those produced in the United States. A certain domestic Arneis has a following among my customers. It helps that it is a better value than ones from Piemonte. As Randall points out in his original post, that cheaper but better phenomenon is elusive in California.

    I think Sherman made the right point when he wrote that people “are looking for a known quantity at an affordable price.” I’ve been in my position long enough to become that known quantity. When I recommend a $5.99 Malbec-Syrah blend that blows away the competition in that price point, people are willing to take the risk. I point out a grower Beaujolais that’s only a $1 more than the big negociant, people will give it a try (although I still have that big negociant on my shelf). Customers take small risks before they come back to me for big-ticket recommendations. A $35 biodynamic small-production Viognier from Russian River Valley? “I’ll give it a try Andrew; you’ve never steered me wrong.” That kind of trust is a precious thing.

    What’s a somewhat eccentric champion of weird varieties to do? First, give me the tools to help. Once upon a time I could say, “Remember that $9.99 wine you loved? This unique $20 wine is from the same guy. You’ve got to try it!” Those sold-off brands helped make Bonny Doon a known quantity. They earned a customer’s trust.

    Second, everyone in this business needs a bit of diversity. I carry corporate megapurple brands. They keep me in business, and let me sell the fun stuff. Most wineries need somewhat popular wines to keep them in business and enable them to make wines that stoke their passions. I know a funky California winery that makes Aglianico and Nebbiolo who also makes Cabernet, Merlot, and Zinfandel. The Arneis I mentioned earlier comes from a winery that does Pinot Noir and Zin.

    The customers for “weird” varieties are out there. They’re ready with a spirit of adventure, but they need a few adventure guides to help them along the path of discovery. If the wines are good (a key point Steve makes–the wines have to be good), a few tentatively chosen adventurous bottles can make all the difference. I’ll do my part. One hundred one different grape varieties on sale and still counting.

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