Is wine losing its buzz to cocktails and beer?
I have to do some writing on the general topic of grape varieties in California for some upcoming articles, and find myself amazed–again–at how few we have in the state, compared to most of Europe.
In Italy, you can hardly cross a regional border without leaving an entire family of varieties and encountering another. Same in France. But in California, you can go from Temecula to Hopland, Lodi to Santa Rosa, Coombsville to Hames Valley to Placerville, and pretty much see the same grapes.
Everywhere there’s Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel. While the state Department of Food and Agriculture lists about 40 official grape varieties in California, the fact is that Chardonnay accounts for 50% of all planted white grape acreage in California, while Cab, Zin and Merlot together account for about 60% of all red [or black] varieties. That would be utterly unthinkable in Old Europe.
There are several reasons for this imbalance, historical, cultural and economic. Historically, of course, Europe’s grape regions developed indigenously, uninfluenced by events in far-off places (except in the event of wars or plagues). Thus, the Juracon could happily cultivate the two Mansengs, Petit and Gros, while, far to the northeast, Champagne could tinker with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and the Jura could develop their [somewhat bizarre] Vins Jaunes, even as Cabernet was being installed along the Médoc and, in almost alien Alsace, people were growing Riesling.
Each region’s culture and history prompted its unique internal development, in agriculture as well as in other commercial spheres. Europe, 500 years ago, was not a homogenized society, the way America (and much of the world) now is. Today, Levi’s jeans and McDonald’s hamburgers are as frequent in Beijing as in Boston; we live in a one-size-fits-all world, and the commercial interests, including wineries, understand this. If Cabernet is popular in the U.S., it can be made popular in China, and so more and more of it is planted, wherever grapes are grown.
It’s fun to play the “what if?” game. What if California had been an old society, instead of a new one? Would Clarksburg Chenin Blanc have developed into something truly interesting? (Some would say it already is.) Might Temecula have become known for, say, rich Petite Sirahs the likes of which were grown nowhere else? For that matter, there could have been entire regions specializing in Nero d’Avola, Pecorino, Cayetana, Espadeiro, Praca, Sevilhao. Regions beyond Napa would never consider trying to copy, much less compete with, its Cabernets, but would have developed their own, equally respectable varieties and varietal families.
The worst part of this homogenization of varieties is that not all parts of the state are suitable to all of them. That’s why so many of the resulting wines are predictable, bland and boring. As Randall Grahm long has pointed out, California has a Mediterranean climate, not a Continental one. This obviously doesn’t prohibit great success with Continental varieties (Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay) but it does limit the state’s potential expression of terroir. This is where the marketplace has frankly failed the consumer. The market is supposed to be innovative, entrepreneurial, risk-taking and adventurous–especially in California! (Think Silicon Valley.) Instead, it’s been cautious and risk-averse, at least, in the wine industry. Don’t get me wrong: I fully understand the economic difficulty of trying to convince the consumer to try something different, particularly if he or she has never heard of it. But whose responsibility is it to educate people?
I suppose I, and critics like me, bear partial responsibility for the imbalance. I’ve given high scores to Cabs, Chards, Pinots etc. for many years, and lesser scores to varieties you can call “alternative.” Consumers naturally respond to our recommendations with their buying behavior. If we critics had given higher scores to some of these alternatives, perhaps consumers would have responded with their credit cards. I suppose we would have, had the wines been better. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing: it takes time for a vintner to perfect a new bottling, but it also requires recouping the expenses she must invest. But perhaps this is crying over spilled wine.
This paucity of choice in California has been a detriment to the consumer. No wonder people, including me, are drinking cocktails like there’s no tomorrow–bartenders are pushing the envelope in terms of creativity, surprise and excitement. Craft beer, too, is as hot as I’ve ever seen it, with beer trails opening up and down California. Wine by contrast has become, well, a bit stuffy. It feels like it’s losing its buzz.