The Central Valley’s silver bullet doesn’t exist
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there is no “breakthrough variety” of wine that’s going to suddenly make the Central Valley of California the new, umm, hot place to grow grapes.
The Western Farm Press reported yesterday that San Joaquin Valley growers “gathered in Fresno recently” to brainstorm “what the future could hold in terms of new varieties that could be used for blends or could even rival other accepted varietals that include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Sauvignon Blanc.”
(For non-Californians, the term “Central Valley” refers to both the San Joaquin Valley, in the south, and the Sacramento Valley, in the north. Both are the hottest winegrowing regions in California, with temperatures routinely topping 100 degrees in the summer.)
The Press article quoted a Constellation winemaker, Oren Kaye: “We haven’t found that shining star yet,” but winemakers are looking at everything from Durif, Tannat and Fiano to Sagrantino and Marselan Noir, as potential “breakthrough” wines with their “own signature style.”
Central Valley winemakers and business interests have been looking for that “shining star” wine for decades. Twenty years ago I went to a seminar on this very topic at U.C. Davis. They had some pretty good wines, as I recall: the Port varieties, vinified dry, were quite appealing, and there were some Sicilian varieties I liked. But Touriga Nacional or Nero d’Avola haven’t exactly become household names in America.
There are solid reasons why consumers won’t budge beyond the current dozen or so varieties that dominate the market. (The Press article states that “Fewer than 10 wine grape varieties account for 80 percent of the varietal wine grapes grown in the United States.”)
1. Consumers are conservative about the things they buy. Once they come to trust a brand (or service provider or wine type), they tend to stick to it. The nervous uncertainty caused by the economy further exacerbates this cautiousness.
2. The wine industry has proved exceptionally incoherent when it comes to marketing. The article glides over this difficult by merely pointing out that “The challenges for new varieties include difficulty in mass marketing.” That’s putting it mildly. Proctor & Gamble and Apple know how to mass market a new product. The wine industry does not.
3. Consumers are happy with the choices they already have. They’re not looking for anything else (except, maybe, less expensive wines). You can’t sell somebody something she’s not looking for.
I know, I know, you’re asking “What about Moscato?” Yes, it’s true that Moscato came out of nowhere, and I think researchers are going to be studying that phenomenon for a long time. Putting aside the theory (highly debatable) that hip-hop can create a trend (maybe it happened once, but lightning isn’t going to strike twice), I think Moscato’s popularity is because the variations of that variety have long been some of the most popular wines in Europe, providing clean, crisp, refreshing and slightly sweet alternatives to dry white wines. That niche hadn’t been filled in the U.S. Moscato just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
The Central Valley has a role to play in American wine. It can provide inexpensive, high-quality everyday versions of the popular varieties, with California appellations. No shame or guilt in that! Central Valley growers should be proud of the role they play in helping tens of millions of consumers drink good wine everyday.
As for all those researchers looking for “the breakthrough variety,” there’s certainly no harm in what they’re doing, and if they manage to make some pretty good wines along the way, great. The fact that they’re unsellable is unfortunate, but it’s part and parcel of the marketplace. If you ask me, they should get over the concept of a “variety” and experiment with blends, red or white. Give them an appealing name, great packaging, an affordable price and a bit of a story line, and then put the marketing muscle of, say, a Constellation behind them. And when I say an appealing name, I don’t mean something pandering and trendy, like anything with the word “bitch” in it. I mean something tasteful, that’s meant to last.