I was reading this article from New Zealand in which this “pioneer of Marlborough wine says that the corporate-dominated New Zealand industry is making it harder for family-owned wine businesses like his to survive.” It immediately brought to mind the comment, which you hear frequently, that the largest wine companies also are crowding out smaller, family-owned wineries in America, including here in California.
This plaint (not complaint: a very different word) has long roiled California’s waters. I heard it nearly 25 years ago when I started writing about wine. It still makes the rounds today, when giant companies like Constellation, The Wine Group, Bronco, Gallo, Treasury, Trinchero, Diageo and Ste. Michelle account for the lion’s share of every bottle of wine sold in America.
I know for a fact that it’s hard for the small family winery to compete. They have trouble getting into the distribution system, that most conservative bastion of the industry. Government, both state and Federal, continues to block the free interstate direct shipping of wine. Their mom-and-pop staffs are over-burdened and barely able to keep their heads above water. They depend on those two most undependable factors, word-of-mouth and customer loyalty, either or both of which may disappear at any moment. And they are frequently overlooked by the critical media, in a way that’s unfair, but inevitable.
Still, for all their travails, the small family winery never has gone away in California, and as far as I can tell, is nowhere near being an endangered species. I continue to be impressed all the time by the number of new brands I discover almost everyday, and by the passion and tenacity with which these often-young proprietors tackle the challenges.
I’m thinking of such producers as Ian Brand (Le P’tit Paysan, La Marea), Sabrine Rodems (Scratch), Matt Villard (MCV), Brian Brown (ONX), Eric Lauman (Cambiata), David Galzignato (Jada), Daniel Daou (Daou), Aaron Jackson (Aaron) and so many others. All have stared the marketplace straight in the eye and decided they can do something different, and better, than anyone else. If you think about it, that’s an insane attitude. Almost everything that can be done in California wine is being done, and even if you can find a niche no one else is exploring, there’s no guarantee you can sell the resulting product. In fact, there’s every indication you can’t. (See paragraph 3, above.) Yet despite the odds, these young winemakers are giving it a go.
You notice that all them are from the Central Coast. That’s no coincidence, in my opinion. It’s too expensive to start up a business in Napa and Sonoma, but from Monterey down through Paso Robles, the price of admission isn’t as high. (Who needs another 94 point Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon anyway? There’s already too much.) The exciting thing is that these winemakers are ready to take risks and try new things. The template in Napa-Sonoma is largely closed. In the Central Coast, it’s wide open, and these adventurous winemakers know it. They have the spirit of experimentalism that Napa Valley had 40 years ago. The Central Coast is the new frontier in California, and I can’t wait to see the fantastic wines from the small family wineries that will be coming out from there.
I’m off to Monterey this Friday for the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association’s big annual consumer event, where I, as California Editor of Wine Enthusiast, host/moderate a couple tastings. In the past this event has been known as The Great Wine Escape and Best of Blue, but this year they’re calling it Party in the Hangar, because it’s in an airplane hangar at the Monterey airport.
I’ve long had a soft spot for Monterey. Most of the grapes traditionally have gone out of the county, to disappear into the blending vats of wineries far afield, so that Monterey has struggled to achieve recognition in its own right. Santa Barbara County went through the same growing pains, and look what a great job they’ve done in promoting their appellations. The Montereyans [word ?] are working hard to do the same. There are some great terroirs there for wine, more than merely the Santa Lucia Highlands, which is probably the most famous AVA. The climate can be warmish, like Carmel Valley where most of the Cabernet houses are clustered, and the southerly appellations towards Paso Robles; but mostly Monterey is cool, especially the Salinas Valley including the Arroyo Seco, where white wines and Pinot Noir star. The sprawling Gavilan Mountains, wealthy in vineyards, form the east wall of the Salinas Valley. I don’t have a good feel for what the climate is like up there. It’s such a big area, with so few wineries, while altitude and exposition play havoc with generalizations. Coolish to warmish is the best I can do, depending on exactly where in those hills you’re talking about. But the Gavilans are promising.
The suitability of Monterey for premium grapegrowing is, of course, its proximity to the cold, blue-green waters and west-northwest winds of Monterey Bay. (For an excellent explanation of the terroir, check out this article.) Of all the coastal regions in California, from Santa Barbara up to the Anderson Valley, I think Monterey offers the most opportunities for site development. There are so many little-understood microclimates, so many different types of soils especially in the mountains, that vintners have barely scratched the surface in knowing what’s best, and where. Partly the challenge has been that Monterey’s grapes were sold rather cheaply, so there was little incentive for ambitious winemakers to invest, as they’ve been able to do is, say, Napa Valley and Santa Barbara County. Monterey’s modern incarnation as a winemaking region started out as an inexpensive source of grapes planted in vast plantations. That was a great success with wineries like Paul Masson, Almaden, Wente Brothers, etc. but, to some extent, that limited Monterey’s potential. The county still is trying to punch its way out of that limitation.
It would be easy to view Monterey as California’s Languedoc, the source of easy-priced, sound drinking wines, and that’s not a bad reputation to have. I think that remains a vital part of the county’s future, but I can testify from the ground that a burgeoning group of vintners is seeking to produce wines of true terroir and cru. I’ll be reporting more on this next week.
I’ll be at Best of the Blue, the big wine event down in Monterey town, this Saturday, and we’ll be tweeting live. You’re all encouraged to send me any questions or comments. It’s between 1:30 and 3:45, Pacific time.
In the morning I’ll be hosting a tasting with the following wines: Testarossa 2009 Doctor’s Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands), La Crema 2009 Chardonnay (Monterey), Cambiata 2007 Tannat (Monterey), Chateau Julien 2007 Private Reserve Merlot (Monterey County), Morgan 2010 Metallico Un-Oaked Chardonnay (Monterey) and Novy 2008 Syrah (Santa Lucia Highlands). I chose the wines to reflect various varieties and terroirs of Monterey County, and because I’d given each of them a good score. Monterey has a wide variety of soils and climates, and I believe the county’s potential is enormous. Of all wine-producing coastal counties, Monterey is actually the least understood, for a variety of reasons. That is beginning to change.
The afternoon session–the one we’ll be live online–consists of three “Ask Steve” segments of 15 minutes each. That was the Association’s idea. They say there’ll be a lot of people there, and so I’m opening myself up to anything people want to ask–or say–including your tweets and Facebook comments. I love the give-and-take of large public events that are unstructured and unrehearsed. People tend to ask the most incredible questions, things that keep me on my toes and make me think about stuff I wouldn’t otherwise.
If you want to get in on the action, you can ask or comment through the Monterey Wines Facebook page or directly via Twitter @MontereyWines.
I like Monterey County. It has a look and feel of its own, totally unique insofar as the other California wine regions are concerned, and a bit of that old Rodney Dangerfield “I don’t get no respect” attitude. The grapegrowing action used to be down on the floor of the Salinas Valley, which most of you who’ve driven on Highway 101 have seen. But a lot of the vineyards have been removed over the years, because it’s pretty cold and windy down there, which makes it unsuitable for fine wine production. The epithet “Monterey veggies” referred to wines, chiefly Cabernet Sauvignon, that grew there in the 70s. I remember an Almaden Cabernet that I liked anyway, but if I reviewed it now, I probably wouldn’t give it a good score. Nowadays, of course, the Santa Lucia Highlands have (has? it’s an appellation) become famous for Pinot Noir (not to mention Syrah and Chardonnay), while the hilly vineyards in the eastern mountains, the Gavilans, also contain many Pinot Noir vineyards; that area deserves its own appellation, but it doesn’t currently have one. Monterey also contains the Chalone AVA, Carmel Valley, and, to the south, San Bernabe, San Lucas, San Antonio Valley and Hames Valley. The climate gets progressively warmer in the south as you approach Paso Robles. The Arroyo Seco may be the most interesting emerging region in the county. It’s undergirded by rocks and boulders swept along for Millennia by the Salinas River, and is relatively sheltered from the wind. I’ve liked Arroyo Seco whites for a long time, but the reds, including Pinot Noir, are making a play.
It’s good for a writer like me to get out and meet the public, both face to face and online. We tend to get locked into a bubble, forgetting that there’s a real world out there, with real wine loving people who have real questions and concerns. I hope to hear from you this Saturday.