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Is wine losing its buzz to cocktails and beer?

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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.

  1. Craft beers are fun, creative cocktails are delicious but they can never replace the romance of wine. Sharing a bottle of wine ith a loved one or good friend is a connection. The beauty of vineyards cannot be replaced, and areas like Paso Robles are adventurous.. The winemakers are constantly perfecting their craft and exploring varietals and playing with blends to appease the public. When I discovered the Central Coast my palate was awakened and when visiting Paso I learned and tasted varietals I had never read about. So I think you are right, it’s the writers we rely on the educate us and share whats out there and all that is wonderful to explore, but we can luckily visit the beautiful vineyards and wineries and explore for ourselves. Much more fun for me than a beer factory.

  2. Sharon, thanks. Actually beer factories are fun places to visit, and so are small craft breweries.

  3. Part of the difficulty in being cutting edge in the wine business is related to the unassailable reality of the length of time it takes to get from the ground to the bottle for a new variety.

    Where one can experiment with additives, different hops, yeasts, etc with beer and make batch after batch in one year until the recipe is “perfected,” you’re still out several years just to get your first crop to the crush pad.

    Regarding the writer’s responsibility…until you all can acknowledge a Mediterranean varieties inherent ability to be “perfect” as you do with continental varieties, there will be a barrier to adoption for those for whom high scores are an important invitation to try something unknown.

  4. Graham assumes that traditional varieties in Continental climates make the best wine in a continental climate. A big assumption that ignores what we know today… how great these varieties do in even better climate…witness Cabernet in Italy, Australia and California. While Europe does have a wide number of grape varieties the number of really good wines is small compared to the huge volume of crap that is grown.

    I don’t think anything is to be gained by going back to the days of growing Burger, Green Hungarian, Grey Riesling, Early Burgundy, Gamay, Carignane,Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanch, French Colombard,Palamino, Grenache,Alicante,Mataro, trebbiano, ….need I go on? The majority of the worlds grape varieties make ordinary wine. Thankfully we set the mark a little higher here in the states and only tinker with the best.

  5. Morton, I know you were just making a point, but some those varietals you listed make extrordinary wine

  6. I agree with gabe that some of those “ordinary” varieties can make very pleasant, even complex wines. We don’t need to be drinking expensive Cab, Pinot and Chardonnay all the time!

  7. Thanks, Steven, for a very insightful article. Granted, I am hardly the most objective person in the world (on quite a number of fronts), but I would agree that wine is losing its luster, most especially for younger people. I would, however, make the qualification that it is mostly New World wine that is suffering, and would go so far as to say that the New World wine industry is suffering from the same malaise as the Republican party – both are perceived as being tired, boring, stuffy, with no real new ideas or élan vital. I must utterly disagree with Morton’s ill-informed comment about the putative superiority of continental grape varieties; this strikes me as cépageism at its most insidious. But I would say that the real problem in the New World is not so much that we are not growing the most appropriate grape varieties on any given site (we’re generally not). Rather, it is how vineyard sites are selected in general (usually for productivity) and how grapes are grown and wine is made in the New World that eviscerates/etiolates them and strips them of real vitality and life-force. Grapes (often over-cropped), grown with drip irrigation, over-fertilized, picked at preternatural over-maturity produce wine which is then tarted up with beaucoup corrective makeup (organoleptic tannins, enzymes, cultured yeast, MegaPurple, etc.) that takes on the aesthetic charm of say Tammy Faye Bakker. With so many wines within a given price category in the New World tasting more or less predictably alike, how can one fail to yawn? What categories of wine are growing or at least seem to be? (I can’t be bothered having to actually look this up). Do they share any characteristics in common with the the burgeoning interest in cocktails? Certainly, Riesling is alive and doing very well, and arguably, Biodynamic, sustainable and “natural” wines, are as well. Maybe it is that we have become so utterly jaded and over-saturated with information/sensation that only extreme, vivid taste experiences even register, Perhaps it is the electric jolt of the natural acidity of Riesling, maybe it is its mineral aspect. In the instance of Biodynamic wines, there’s not only the attraction of the idealistic principles its practitioners espouse, but the wines have a sort of vitality or life-force to them (and we’re not necessarily talking about Brett here). In an utterly cynical world, where we can essentially believe nothing, it is rather refreshing (and utterly necessary) to identify at least the occasional lodestar. We are all starved for expressions of creativity, and above all for authenticity. New World wines have in general been far too timid, far too cynical, and this in general is not a great recipe to win hearts and palates.

  8. You don’t have to look far to find cool projects by California winemakers – for example Arnot-Roberts’ Trousseau or Dirty & Rowdy Wines skin-fermented Semillon and whole cluster Mourvedre. Down here in Santa Barbara County we have Palmina doing cool things with Italian varietals. It’s out there, but like anything new and different you just have to dig a little deeper to find it.

  9. You don’t have to look far too find cool projects by California winemakers – for example Arnot-Roberts’ Trousseau or Dirty & Rowdy Wines skin-fermented Semillon and whole cluster Mourvedre. Down here in Santa Barbara County we have Palmina doing cool things with Italian varietals. It’s out there, but like anything new and different you just have to dig a little deeper to find it.

  10. Thank you Randall. History may be on your side.

  11. holy crap its Randall Grahm!

    Just want to say that there are a lot of young winemakers in Oregon that are experimenting with less famous varietals. Its now up to the buying public to keep us in business…

    p.s. Bonny Doon Rocks!

  12. I just read somewhere that the Argentine Malbec phenom is already 6+ years old and fading (fast). And the Moscato heat has waned as well.

    First it was Merlot from anywhere, then we moved on to Aussie Shiraz, then on to Arg. Malbec, then on to Moscato… wait wasn’t there a moment for Pinot too. Along with that we’ve had some Parkerization, some GaryV, some Merlot in Brunello yada yada.

    But what wine has that the other categories don’t is that vibe we get when tasting and talking with a passionate wine maker like Randall or walking through a vineyard somewhere that real grapes are cared for and eventually end up in a glass of wine. But those things are not scalable… so the big business that wine has become goes a different direction and we all follow like lemmings!

    I just don’t get that vibe via Parker, Yellowtail, misc. Arg. Malbec, Merlot from somewhere and Moscato (maybe) from anywhere but Asti.

    The few thousand wine people that are thinking this is a problem need to come together and create a solution. The wine industry needs to be given back to the people that love it.

  13. Just a short comment to two of your statements. 1st: Yes, I agree to you that America and much of the world is a homogenized society (so in wine) and 2nd. I agree to the statement that you as a critic is in a part responsible for that fact. But man himself is the reason why there is, like I call it, a “Coca-Cola taste”. Everyday, everytime the same preferences, whatever it is. Most of us behave like a cattle in a flock. No individuallity, no self-confidence in the own sense of taste and no courage to discover “new land”.
    An example: I offered old and re-discoverd tuscan grape varieties like Foglia Tonda, Barsaligna and Pugnitello. I offered tastings, wrote comments, published videos but only a very little number of wine lovers was ready to “accept” these excellent wines, because the are unknown. Most of them took, as always, Chianti.
    My postulation: be individual!
    Cheers

  14. Dear Blovinum, I completely agree with your analysis of humanity! It seems to be in our genes to obey the herd mentality. I’m sure there are solid reasons of survival for banding together, as opposed to each of us going our own way. If you’re out there on the edge of the crowd, it’s easier to get picked off by a hungry wolf.

  15. Alan Kinne says:

    As a winemaker who has, like Randall Grahm, spent most of my career making “alternative” varieties (awful sobriquet), I’ve found it difficult. There is something to be said for being individual and ahead of the curve, however, sometimes if you’re too far ahead of the curve you end up off the road and watching others pass you by. No matter what people say about truly exquisite varieties like Touriga Nacional, Tempranillo, Albarino, Petit Manseng, Norton, etc. most wines are still based in the Chardonnay and Cabernet flavor profiles.

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