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A short history of why Cabernet is King in America, and why that could be changing

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Whenever people of similarity spend most of their time together they tend to develop the same esthetic tastes. This is known as class identification and has been developed through evolution to keep tribes cohesive.

When it comes to wine one singular and rather insulated tribe defined for centuries what was good and bad. This tribe was Caucasian, Western European, male and wealthy, and thus deeply conservative in its social and political outlook. It consisted mainly of the British upper classes, an amalgam of landed gentry, aristocracy, academics and clergy. What they favored was Bordeaux. Without this group of what, today, we call tastemakers or gatekeepers, Bordeaux likely would not have reached the pinnacle of wine fame it  still enjoys today.

The tastemakers eventually branched out, a little bit, to appreciate a few others wines: Burgundy, Port and Champagne, but Bordeaux remained their obsession and exclusive province. When our own country, America, was formed, it was mainly by the descendents of those Britishers, which is why we saw the founding fathers similarly obsessed with Bordeaux . (Madeira too appealed to them, but there were other economic reasons for that.)

As long as America remained a fairly tight little country, with poor internal communications, the tastes of these original British (and some German) founders dominated the country’s esthetic. (We might credit the Germans with establishing the beer culture that has always gone hand-in-hand with the wine culture, and more than occasionally dominated it.)

Even as late as the 1960s, the country’s internal communication was fairly dismal. The large newspaper chains tended to speak with one voice; wine writing and criticism remained in its infancy, with a “preaching to the choir” mentality in which, yet again, Bordeaux was extolled, now joined by its California cousin, Cabernet Sauvignon. Some insiders understood that it would take a revolution to shatter this template, but what would the revolution be?

We know now: The internet. More specifically, the proliferation of social media. All the old institutions in this country are being fractured and disrupted. We see this in politics first and foremost, with the rise of movements as disparate as greens/environmentalists, on the one hand, and the Tea Party on the other. We see it in the wild fractionalization of popular music. No longer do we simply have rock and roll, jazz and classical music; nowadays the most particularist genres appeal to their tribes. Ditto with the multitude of televised broadcast sources we have to choose from: hundreds on my cable system alone. We see it in the very diversity of the American people: California is no longer a white-majority state, but is the first truly rainbow state in the nation.

How long will it be before this stranglehold of a handful of wine varieties is loosened? Just today, a local wine writer and restaurateur writes in the San Francisco Examiner of the world “beyond the 93 percent prime grape varieties” that are “opening the eyes” of sommeliers, leading one to remark that “The potential [for new varieties and wine types] is something we haven’t even scratched the surface on.”

I’m seeing this up close and personal. If you go into a wine bar, nobody is ordering Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. Visit Uva Enoteca, in the Haight, and you’ll find lagrein, schiava, refosco, gattinara, nero d’avola among reds by the glass. Head over to Hotel Biron, in hot-hot-hot Hayes Valley, and you have your choice of Mendoza Torrontes (a variety that’s quickly grabbing my attention), South Portuguese whites, South African Pinotage, plenty of German Rieslings, and a nice range of a California wine that deserves to be consumed in restaurants more than it is: Zinfandel.

This is encouraging news. It means that a new generation of wine drinkers is willing and able to expand their experience well beyond where their parents and grandparents went. It doesn’t mean that Cabernet, Chardonnay and the rest of the 93% “prime grape varieties” are going away anytime soon. But it does bring a welcome diversity to our wine (and restaurant) scene, and it seems particularly strong here in the Bay Area, where so many cultural trends begin.

  1. redmond barry says:

    Social hsitory and class considerations notwithstanding, it may also be that younger and more hip, enthusiasts are sick of same -tasting sweetish cabs and chards, especially at places which encourage experimentation. I wonder what the margin is on refesco by the glass?

  2. Here in CA, I think winemakers also get some credit for making interesting wines out of new varieties, esp. Rhone-native grapes.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    Regarding this statement . . .

    “If you go into a wine bar, nobody is ordering Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. Visit Uva Enoteca, in the Haight, and you’ll find lagrein, schiava, refosco, gattinara, nero d’avola among reds by the glass. Head over to Hotel Biron, in hot-hot-hot Hayes Valley, and you have your choice of Mendoza Torrontes (a variety that’s quickly grabbing my attention), South Portuguese whites, South African Pinotage, plenty of German Rieslings, and a nice range of a California wine that deserves to be consumed in restaurants more than it is: Zinfandel.”

    . . . agreed: sommeliers (credentialied and aspiring) have been embracing these wines.

    Now venture out to the leading wine stores.

    Do you see these same wines on the shelves? (Hardly.)

    The disconnect: the wine bars want to be seen as au courant. Hip. Cutting edge. Not your father’s staid drinking establishment.

    And the wine stores? Hell, too many simply want to make a buck selling wines off of Parker and Laube and Suckling and (zut alors!) Heimoff reviews and the pre-printed shelf talkers comprising their “sound bites.”

    What the wine merchants don’t want to do is incessantly conduct “hand sells” for each and every obscure wine on the merchandise mix. That’s too much work being a “tastemaker” and an “opinion leader.” Too much risk getting ahead of the curve on public opinion, stocking wines that don’t “turn over.” (Read: unproductive working capital tied up in “dead wood” SKUs.)

    The upshot? A wine enthusiast discovers an out-of-the-mainstream wine (remember Gruner Veltliner years ago touted by East Coaat sommeliers?) . . . but can’t purchase it retail at her/her local wine merchant.

    Wine bars and restaurants are hospitality ventures.

    Wine stores are retailers.

    Different orientation. Different risks. Different rewards. Different metrics on success.

    ~~ Bob

  4. Bob Henry says:

    Errata,

    It’s three o’clock in the morning. The typos are self-evidence . . . so I leave it to your gentle readers to scan past them.

  5. Do you have a clever catchy umbrella name for these wines not (yet) embraced by the mainstream?

  6. NYEMs (not yet embraced by mainstream).

  7. Bob Henry says:

    Tom,

    Not really.

    Are proponents serving them solely as cocktail wines, or paired with food?

    And if the latter: does our domestic cuisine match up with these wines?

    If you wish me to embrace these wines, do some research on the indigenous culture and cuisine that spawned them. Give me some “context.”

    ~~ Bob

  8. It is always interesting to taste new and different, especially when the same old tastes like the same old.

    But, beware the Gruner effect. Just because something is gaining a bit of traction with the avant garde crowd does not mean that it has gone very far or that it will.

    The SF crowd pushing these non-93% wines have given them the name “The 7% Solution”, and if you know you Holmes from your Watson, then you get the joke.

    Two years ago, at a Ribolla Gialla tasting up in Napa, I ran into friend who has been and will remain one of the most inquisitive tasters around. He will seek out every new variety, and he has added a couple of varieties to his list of likes.

    But, he confided this to me, “Charlie, some of these new wines are dressed in the Emperor’s clothes. I am starting to drink Chardonnay again.”

    The moral here is really quite simple. The 93% varieties are popular because they are the grapes that the world has picked out because they taste good. They are not the only varieties that taste good, but, with all due respect to Mr. Heimoff, the 93% grapes are not popular today because some good old boys centuries ago liked them.

    They are popular today because they taste good.

  9. “the 93% grapes are not popular today because some good old boys centuries ago liked them.

    They are popular today because they taste good.”

    Can’t it be both?

    Would it not make sense that the 93% grapes taste good today because growers and winemakers have spent much of the last couple centuries planting those varietals in the best vineyards, and learning how to cultivate and make wines from them? And that they did so because those were the wines that some good old boys liked centuries ago?

  10. Jim–

    Sort of.

    The loss in this country and around the world of varieties like Chenin Blanc is not because no one worked to make them well over centuries but because they have been eclipsed in “taste good” by other varieties.

    Pinot Gris, for example, may not be a noble variety, but people like it and it gets plenty of attention for that reason.

    Can lesser known varieties can significant traction over time? Of course they can. Some will. But even when they do get to be more widely known, they are not likely to eclipse the 93% unless they actually taste better to large numbers of people. That is why, despite my great interest in Chenin Blanc, Nero Mascalese, Fiano, Corvina, they remain in the vinous backwater outside of their favored, and protected, locations.

    I ask this hypothetically. What would happen to Chenin Blanc if Vouvray could suddenly grow Chardonnay? Would those chalky, cool-climate hillsides yield wines of such attractiveness that they would drive the Chenin out? I suspect that we will never know.

    But I do know this. Mont Brouilly in Beajolais has the same soils, climate, aspect of Cote Rotie which is just a stone’s throw to the south. And several northern Rhone producers have banded together to grow Syrah there. The results are more than encouraging but the wine laws will not allow those results to bear any more than the most generic name.

    Diversity is important, but the 93% exist for a reason and that reason will keep them the 93% until something comes along to change that equation. Nothing wrong with that.

  11. Bob Henry says:

    The “dean” of California wine critics has spoken, and spoken well.

    Those of us who sell wine to the public (be it wine retailers or restaurateurs) would welcome the “new experience-seeking” enthusiasts embracing lesser known, even obscure grape varieties.

    But novelty for novelty’s sake alone leads to empty pockets.

    Speaking for my “brethren,” they need to generate (1) sales revenue and (2) profits to be incented to carry avant-garde “hand sell” wines in their establishments.

    It would be a pyrrhic victory to champion such wines — and go out of business . . . for lack of business.

    The “80:20 Rule” of retailing still applies: 80 percent of your sales revenue is generated from 20 percent of your physical inventory. 80% of your sales revenue is generated from 20% of your patron base.

    Appealing to the whims of the 80% of your patron base who wish to dabble in “7%” obscure wines won’t pay the bills.

    But stocking and selling the “93% wines” will.

    (And this final observation: Italy allows the “rogue” vintners to buck tradition and sell wines under the classification “IGT.” Alsace allows the selling of wines outside the AOC guidelines as simple Vin de table de France. This includes selling Chardonnay — such as Domaine Zind-Humbrecht which sells its “cuvée Zind,” a blend of 65% Chardonnay and 35% Auxerrois.

    Picking up on Charlie’s comment, I don’t know if Loire vintners have the same “luxury” to sell Chardonnay.)

  12. Kurt Burris says:

    When I was till carrying a wine bag, I was lucky enough to have, at different times, sold everything from Pahlmeyer to Portuguese wine in a box. The reason the fun wine bars are selling non mainstream varietals is not just because they taste good. They are affordable. $400 @ case Napa Cab is downright cheap, but once you do a standard BTG markup (and most of these wine bars do) you will need to charge $25 @ glass. That’s pricing out a lot of the market.

    Then when you go into most wine shops, they don’t want to sell a $100 case of Vinho Verde when it takes more work to sell it than just loading another case of Rombauer Chardonnay into the back of a Lexus, and they make less money off of it. Maybe the difference is the cutting edge wine is being consumed out and the old school buyers are drinking at home, but that is how my commission checks saw the market.

  13. Bill Haydon says:

    What I’ve taken away from all of this is that Charlie seems to have backed himself into saying that chardonnay is best suited to chalk/lime soils and certainly needs them to achieve greatness. I concur.

  14. Bob, I believe they could bottle it as Vin de Pays. I don’t believe it could be labeled as Chardonnay and it certainly could not carry the Vouvray name.

    I wonder how a Raveneau Table Wine would sell? I suspect the word would get around that it was Chardonnay from Vouvray, and then, depending on quality, it could fetch a fair price.

    But, I would hate to see us lose all the protected places for grapes like Chenin Blanc and Gamay Noir. Those protected places may be all that is keeping them from becoming a member of the 7% club.

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