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What are the varieties of tomorrow?

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I should think the hardest thing for a winery business manager is to figure out what’s going to be selling years down the road.

I mean, you can look at almost any wine variety or type in America and quickly find a time when it wasn’t popular. Or when it was popular, and then wasn’t. Nobody cared about Pinot Noir twenty years ago because nobody ever thought it would be enjoyed by so many millions of consumers. Consequently, when Pinot started becoming huge, after Sideways, vintners couldn’t plant it fast enough. That was an example of sin by omission: wineries didn’t do something they should have.

Then there are sins of commission, such as planting stuff you think will be popular down the road, then finding out it’s not. That’s what happened with Moscato. We had the hip-hop-fueled Moscato craze, so a lot of people, from a lot of famous wineries, put it in as fast as they could. Today? Consumers are dropping Moscato faster than Kim Davis sheds husbands, so if you were stuck with hundreds of acres of it, you’re up the river.

What’s a winemaker to do?

One wine that’s really fallen out of style is Port. I mean authentic, Portuguese Port, not the domestic stuff. It’s too bad, really, because a good Port is a fabulous wine. I have some in my cellar, and am always looking for an opportunity to pop the corks. I love a good LBV, which doesn’t cost very much and is so delicious. But to tell you the truth, I haven’t had much Port for a long time. Nothing personal, but it just doesn’t fit in with the way I eat, drink and live.

And apparently I’m not the only one who’s drinking less Port. This article from The Guardian, in Merrie Olde England, describes how some Port companies are so upset about how seldom Millennials drink Port that they’re trying to figure out ways to convince them to do it: pop-up bars, winemaker dinners; Fladgate has even invented a “rosé Port” that’s all about about attracting new consumers and also bringing down the price.” And then, of course, there’s the inevitable “Port cocktail,” something that would have blown great-grandpa’s mind.

I wish them well, but what is this idea that anything “pop-up” is automatically going to be of interest to Millennials? Or that all you have to do to convince a twenty-something to drink something is to put it into a cocktail? Or that calling something “pink” will make Mary Millennial love it? Aren’t all three of those concepts a little condescending to Millennials, who—we would hope—are about much more than pink pop-up cocktails?

I doubt that there’s any way to resuscitate Port’s reputation. It’s not that it has a bad one—it doesn’t. It’s just that Port hasn’t figured out a way to become relevant, and indeed, there may not be a way. Port was a product of post-Elizabethan England. Oxford dons drank it, and Lords with vast cellars underneath their castles who had forever to age it. Our own Founding Fathers liked it, along with other wines whose time has gone, such as Madeira. Not much of that sold in America these days.

And yet, what was possibly Thomas Jefferson’s favorite wine remains one of the top sellers in the world today: Claret or, as we know it, Bordeaux, and by extension, Cabernet Sauvignon. If Port and Maderia had been stocks on the market, you would have gotten slaughtered investing in them. If you’d put your money into a modest little Haut Médoc chateau 250 years ago, you’d have made a really good investment.

Which brings us back to those poor, beleaguered winery managers. What should they put their money on? Are Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay still safe bets? Will today’s 26-year old Millennial be drinking them when she’s 70? Probably. Those varieties have stood the test of time.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    I’ll play this “time capsule” game.

    I predict West Coast Pinot Gris will be more widely planted in the years ahead, and will take market share away from “boring” Sauvignon Blanc.

    I predict West Coast Cabernet Franc will be more widely planted in the years ahead, and will take market share away from ubiquitous Cabernet Sauvignon.

    I predict that “orange wines” will disappear from wine press discussion in the years ahead — because they didn’t successfully bottle age.

    I predict that dry farming and organic farming will be so common in the years ahead that there will be little wine press discussion. Everyone will just “assume” that leading vintners adhere to those practices.

    ~~ Bob

  2. Bob, sounds like Fifty Shades of Gris. Watch for our Diamond Mountain Cab Franc release later this month. I thought orange wines are what they are because they already didn’t successfully age. And dry farming/organic farming sounds like back to the future: the old-timers around here didn’t irrigate and only used sulfur.

  3. I’m putting my money on some of the 10,000 varietals Randall Grahm is creating, many of which will be named after his project’s backers.

    I’m looking forward to a nice 70% Lenny Squiggleman / 30% Lashaniqua Sh’naynay blend.

  4. Bill, old-timers didn’t irrigate because it used to rain in California.

  5. Bill Stephenson says:

    When I worked a tasting room in the Sierra Foothills the house *Port was a hard sell by itself. For some people it brings to mind old men in overstuffed chairs and overpriced cigars.

    Once you placed some dark chocolate nibs on the counter the Ladie’s, young and old, were much more enthusiastic and willing to buy since the bitterness of the chocolate brought out the fruity sweetness of the wine.

    Another trick was mixing 2 parts house Brut with 1 ounce Port to make a red sparkler.

    *This winery was aware of the law regarding the use of the name “port” but was Grandfathered in.

    * * *

    Sangiovese and Barbera could see a resurgence as Cab and good Zin are getting more expensive all the time, but I don’t see anything that could match the mass appeal of PN, Chard, or Cab Sauv.

  6. Michael Brill, there’s actually a variety called Pinot Squiggleniqua, although I don’t think it’s one of Randall’s 10,000.

  7. Speaking as a millennial I believe many people in my generation appreciate new experiences but feel so overwhelmed with onslaught of information we often just seize up in the process of deciding what to do. When we find a place we like and trust, such as a restaurant or winery, we can be fiercely loyal to it which gives the proprietor the freedom to experiment a bit hopefully to mutual benefit. We then have the trust to attend a “pop-up” or buy a wine sight-unseen and the restaurant or winery can feel safe to experiment in a way they couldn’t easily otherwise.

    That being said, at least the people I surround myself with aren’t senseless and our taste and enjoyment are the final arbiter of good and bad. If these experiments fail or it is clear that the restaurant is taking advantage of this loyalty to pass of something bad we move on in a heartbeat.

    Again, this is not to be confused with the hipster segment that consistently attends pop-ups or buys wine for it’s social cachet or just because a young sommelier says it is the next great thing. I have tried orange wine once and never will again and I just don’t get sub 12% pinot and feel I never will. While I try new things I always gravitate back to food friendly but also great tasting wines. My favorite reds that are affordable enough for special occasions are 10-15 year old properly structured mountain Cabernet around 14% or a Littorai-style Sonoma Coast or Anderson Valley Pinot Noir around the same age.

  8. Teroldego.

  9. Steve, yup. That varietal was all the rage a few years ago with the brown wine movement. Alas it’s just another ‘next big thing’ resigned to the bargain bit at winesgonewrong.com.

  10. Bob Henry says:

    I would also nominate Grüner Veltliner — planted in cold climate regions of California.

    Aside: I attended a private screening of the movie “Mondovino” in Beverly Hills when it debuted. Coincidentally sat next to Manfred Krankl.

    I asked him why, as an Austrian-American, he wasn’t making Gruner.

    His answer (paraphrased): “Because regrettably no one is growing it on the West Coast.”

    They are now, such as at Paragon Vineyard in Edna Valley:

    http://www.zockerwinery.com/

  11. There is no question in my mind that the significant varieties of the future for California will come from southern Mediterranean climes. These are grapes that can be grown in warmer, dryer (hello!) areas, and produce good crops, esp. if there is even a modicum of water available. Important ones include: Uva di Troia, Vermentino, Aglianico, Nero d’Avola. It’s a marketing question of how to introduce these largely unknown grapes, but there are a lot of clever marketers out there who have cut their teeth, flogging essentially generic wines at sometimes exorbitant prices. Selling fairly priced, tasty wine should not be as challenging.

  12. Following on Randall’s comment, note the balance and quality coming out of Lodi and Paso with Grenache Blanc and Verdelho.

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