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The Central Valley’s silver bullet doesn’t exist


I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there is no “breakthrough variety” of wine that’s going to suddenly make the Central Valley of California the new, umm, hot place to grow grapes.

The Western Farm Press reported yesterday that San Joaquin Valley growers “gathered in Fresno recently” to brainstorm “what the future could hold in terms of new varieties that could be used for blends or could even rival other accepted varietals that include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Sauvignon Blanc.”

(For non-Californians, the term “Central Valley” refers to both the San Joaquin Valley, in the south, and the Sacramento Valley, in the north. Both are the hottest winegrowing regions in California, with temperatures routinely topping 100 degrees in the summer.)

The Press article quoted a Constellation winemaker, Oren Kaye: “We haven’t found that shining star yet,” but winemakers are looking at everything from Durif, Tannat and Fiano to Sagrantino and Marselan Noir, as potential “breakthrough” wines with their “own signature style.”

Central Valley winemakers and business interests have been looking for that “shining star” wine for decades. Twenty years ago I went to a seminar on this very topic at U.C. Davis. They had some pretty good wines, as I recall: the Port varieties, vinified dry, were quite appealing, and there were some Sicilian varieties I liked. But Touriga Nacional or Nero d’Avola haven’t exactly become household names in America.

There are solid reasons why consumers won’t budge beyond the current dozen or so varieties that dominate the market. (The Press article states that “Fewer than 10 wine grape varieties account for 80 percent of the varietal wine grapes grown in the United States.”)

1. Consumers are conservative about the things they buy. Once they come to trust a brand (or service provider or wine type), they tend to stick to it. The nervous uncertainty caused by the economy further exacerbates this cautiousness.

2. The wine industry has proved exceptionally incoherent when it comes to marketing. The article glides over this difficult by merely pointing out that “The challenges for new varieties include difficulty in mass marketing.” That’s putting it mildly. Proctor & Gamble and Apple know how to mass market a new product. The wine industry does not.

3. Consumers are happy with the choices they already have. They’re not looking for anything else (except, maybe, less expensive wines). You can’t sell somebody something she’s not looking for.

I know, I know, you’re asking “What about Moscato?” Yes, it’s true that Moscato came out of nowhere, and I think researchers are going to be studying that phenomenon for a long time. Putting aside the theory (highly debatable) that hip-hop can create a trend (maybe it happened once, but lightning isn’t going to strike twice), I think Moscato’s popularity is because the variations of that variety have long been some of the most popular wines in Europe, providing clean, crisp, refreshing and slightly sweet alternatives to dry white wines. That niche hadn’t been filled in the U.S. Moscato just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

The Central Valley has a role to play in American wine. It can provide inexpensive, high-quality everyday versions of the popular varieties, with California appellations. No shame or guilt in that! Central Valley growers should be proud of the role they play in helping tens of millions of consumers drink good wine everyday.

As for all those researchers looking for “the breakthrough variety,” there’s certainly no harm in what they’re doing, and if they manage to make some pretty good wines along the way, great. The fact that they’re unsellable is unfortunate, but it’s part and parcel of the marketplace. If you ask me, they should get over the concept of a “variety” and experiment with blends, red or white. Give them an appealing name, great packaging, an affordable price and a bit of a story line, and then put the marketing muscle of, say, a Constellation behind them. And when I say an appealing name, I don’t mean something pandering and trendy, like anything with the word “bitch” in it. I mean something tasteful, that’s meant to last.

  1. Steve, just a few questions from the assumption (right or wrong) that “blends, red or white” wines are more expensive to make and to sell precludes exceptions to “The nervous uncertainty caused by the economy further exacerbates [ing] this cautiousness.” What % of the 80% of varietals sold does blends make-up? And, maybe small plots of “new” varietals as tests, marketed, and networked, might be workable!
    Just musing with you,

  2. Steve,
    You are probably right at this point in time but I bet history will prove you wrong. Just as Europeans laughed 50 years ago if you told them to watch out for California, one day folk in our neck of the woods are going to ask: “How did that happen?”

    There is a lot of young talent moving to that area because of good job opportunities and affordable housing. Evolution just happens, and if there’s a drive coupled with the willingness to take risks, something will eventually emerge in one of the Central Valley microclimates that will make a splash.

  3. Dennis, I don’t know the answer to your question.

  4. I hear Nicki Minaj buys Fiano by the truckloads….

  5. ….and the Drake-Chris Brown fight was over the last bottle of Sagrantino….

  6. From a technical/agricultural/economic perspective, it seems a good opportunity for Mission to show its true potential: there are some very interesting wines from the Cauquenes (Maule) area in Chile made with the País/Mission grape; mostly from head trained, dry farmed, old-vines. In fact, it is pretty embarrassing that, to this day, there is not one single decent wine in California made from Mission grapes…
    Negroamaro, Malvasia Nera, Gaglioppo, Carignan, Grenache and Mourvèdre also seem fit for the job.
    In any case, from a marketing perspective, it seems clear that to “sell” and consolidate a variety, someone has to (consistently) produce good-to-very good wine with it first.

  7. @Oded ” something will eventually emerge in one of the Central Valley microclimates that will make a splash.”
    To me a micro-climate = small lot wine. We taste regularly in the Central Valley and attend Lodi’s “First Sip” event every year. The region makes some good Zinfandels (if you like em hot), but otherwise I have yet to find another varietal made between Sacramento and Modesto that will qualify as the next big thing. Peirano Estate makes a good little blend with their “Other” wine and Macchia has some nice Barberas.
    I don’t see where the soils or the climate of the Central Valley will ever yield an elegant wine.

    To me, Central Valley wines are likes cars from Korea. Not too long ago they were cheap and inferior but in the past few years have made significant gains in quality, enough to gain market share. Still, there are the little things that remind you that a Hyundai or Kia are not on the same level as a Ford or Toyota, just as a zin from Gnarly Head will never equal one from Brown Estate.

  8. Peter

    I’ve made Mission. I help some historical organizations grow it.

    “Interesting wine” is a phrase I’d accept in the same sentence as “Mission grape”.

    It can be tricky to grow and vinify into something of broader appeal and I am constantly going back and forth between thinking that either the dry, table wine verison or the fortified, “Angelica” style is better.

  9. A couple points from the article are interesting, but otherwise miss some of the realities, as unsexy as they may seem, of the California wine business.

    A. Since over 60% of the crush (and thus the gallonage) of California wine comes from the Valley, and much of it sold to the coasts as bulk, the vast majority of California wine consumers are drinking, and enjoying wines made from the Valley – the Valley just doesn’t get any credit for it.

    B. The number of small wineries in a region directly correlates to the perceived quality of the wines from that region. The Valley has fewer than 50 wineries spanning 60% of all California production. Southern Italy, SW Australia, South of France, MOST of Spain, east Paso Robles and Lodi all have numerically far more wineries, with climates that could at best be described as slightly more temperate, and usually as hot if not hotter – without the sophisticated irrigation systems that make a Valley vineyard a veritable oasis in the sun. Each of those areas has a much higher perceived quality and value level than the Valley, due to the numerous marketing departments saying how great their products are.

    C. There really is no coherent marketing program for California Wine. As America’s last readily accessible home-owned beverage, this is a shame in our domestic market begging to buy products made in America and owned by Americans.

    D. Moscato is not a phenomenon – people have been enjoying said wines as a sweet, dry, and off sweet wine by it, and many other names for decades. Unfortunately, wine writers decided many years ago that any such wine just wasn’t sexy enough or sophisticated enough and consumption dropped off (White Zin). Someone, obviously in need of something after a long day, found one bottle at a liquor store, and liked it – gave it to a friend to rap about it, and boom, back to the shelves it went.

    E. The breakthrough varietal. Only in America does the name of the grape make a bit of difference in how the wine is sold. Unfortunately, the adherence to varietal homogeny in the conservative marketplace renders any grape with a strange, or difficult to pronounce name as something that shouldn’t be fermented, let alone planted. There are countless varieties that do very well in the Valley, if farmed properly for the climate. The thought that all grapes should be grown the same way in all locations is nonsense – just as people need different abodes in different climates, vines need to be tended differently in different soils, climates, and elevations.

    Remember, Vitis vinifera is native to the interior of the Anatolian peninsula – and all European varieties are members of this same species. If a plant evolved and was domesticated in an area that makes Bakersfield look temperate, then there is no reason, other than lack of respect, demand, and perceived value, that keeps Valley growers from being paid enough to grow a grape equal to, or better than anywhere else in the world.

  10. There might be a red variety that would make a nice drinking red wine and would thrive in the Big Valley. And two of my favorite wines, Sherry and Port could possibly be made with quality. It’s not just the difficult market for the dessert wine types or promoting a new red varietal, but if you want to be “hot” you have to compete and compare with the traditional growing regions. The problem comes down to marketing and image. For a wine region to become “hot” you need a lot of people going there, trying the wines, and forming an image of a unique growing region.

    Compare weeks stay at Hotel Villa Jerez or a week at the motel 6 in Turlock? A boat ride up the Douro or a walk up the dry ditch that used to be the San Joaquin River? Hey, how about a little picnic downwind from the Harris Ranch feed lot? All of the top growing regions are enjoyable places to visit. Sorry, but aside from many nice people who reside in and tolerate the place, the Big Valley isn’t. I know I am exaggerating a bit, but the only way it will be “hot is between May and October in the literal sense.

  11. SUAMW,
    Good to know that Mission’s heritage is not lost or forgotten.
    By “very interesting” País/Mission wines from Chile, I mean very good, dark, concentrated wines, if a bit rustic (e.g., Clos Ouvert-Huasa de Pilen Alto/El País de Quenehuao; Lomas de Cauquenes); that could become sleek, sophisticated wines with more restricted yields, subtler extraction and a longer maturation in small barrels.

    The eastern Anatolian plateau is a rather cold place (Continental climate; Avg. Regions II-III; cold winters and short summers [GS: 170-200 days] with warm to hot days and cold nights) due to the predominant high-altitude.

  12. Thank you Peterangelo, your message is a good one and there are now more than a few winegrowers proving it true.

    Morton, the mighty San Joaquin now has water in it year around . You may wish come to visit the S J River Parkway Conservancy one day?

    Steve, good read and more objective than, say, your take on Lodi or Livermoore. When it’s 105 here off the Coast of Yosemite, it’s 101 in Calistoga and our seven Bordeaux varieties do very well (by international standards)in both places. Now, if we could just get that damned wax off the top of our bottles!

  13. Ray – I knew about the ongoing river restoration and water fight with ag, just couldn’t resist making the outdated comparison. So, should I try to bring my boat up from the Delta? I was also shameless with the Turlock thing. My favorite thing is in Turlock. It’s about a foot in diameter and its made with a lot of cream cheese, pineapple, and butter. Yes, the Pinapple Danish at the Olde Tyme bakery, spoken of in hushed tones of reverance in my household.

    But regarding hot, on the half dozen days it gets to 101 in Calistoga, you still need a sweater if you plan on going out at night in town. That hasn’t quite been my experience in Madera where I have a bit of wine experience. But the real point is that Calistoga is a destination, not an area you have to drive thru to get where you want to go. This is important in building the rep of a winegrowing region. I think there are very few people living in the Bay Area who say, “Hey, let’s get away this weekend and splurge on a little stay in Fresno.”

  14. Point taken, Morton.
    Glad we are located within spittin’ distance from Bass Lake and a net effective marketing area of over one million souls. I do have a sassy early bottled Madiera that I could share with you over that Pinapple Danish……..

  15. I agree that there are good opportunities for young talent in the Central Valley, but at some point quality of life has to be a factor. I spent two miserable years at an excellent job in that area. Throw all the money you want at me; I won’t go back.

    Morton is absolutely right. For most people the central valley is not a destination, and that matters.

  16. Why do we need a magic grape variety…!?!

    …a little better marketing would help…besides good luck with the little known varieties that no one can pronounce..It’s just gonna be blended in a cabernet any way…

    Maybe we should focus on farming quality to improve varietal character…

    Am I missing something…What about Malbec

    Yawn we need to keep resarching!! 😉

  17. Morton: Harsh words, but true.

  18. Brian Cheeseborough says:

    Would be very easy to make a blend, say Durif & Tempranillo & call it Madera, much like we call it a Bordeaux blend. Steve is fallen off the wagon on this & is way off base. More than half of the California wine industry (by volume) is produced from grapes grown between Bakersfield & Sacramento in the SJV. A new style of wine would raise the standards expected from SJV fruit.

    Steve, you need to take the blinders off

  19. Peter: How do you make “dark, concentrated” wines from Mission?
    It’s a very light variety. It IS possible that what is grown in chile is a different clone or maybe more genetically removed from what we know as Mission here. I suspect the Chilean stuff may not be 100% varietal.
    Pectinase helps with the color but unless you put in tannat, petit verdot, petit sirah, or some other teintourier, you will have something that looks like a light Burgundy. This is not just my experience, but that of others who make the variety.
    I’ll have to track down the brands you mention

  20. The only decent Mission wine I ever had from California was sweet.

  21. Brian, what blinders? Are you saying the Central Valley has the cachet of the Coast?

  22. Michael, agreed we need to keep researching. All I’m saying is that the Central Valley is not going to become the next Cotes du Rhone or Languedoc anytime soon, meaning that consumers will seek out wines from there. Maybe the Central Valley interests should band together and file for a Central Valley (or SJV) AVA. That would be interesting!

  23. It seems to me that Miner Family Winery has no problem selling their wonderful Simpson Vineyard Viognier, a vineyard-designated wine from Madera!, being sold right there on the Silverado Trail in Napa. I bet they wouldn’t label it so proudly Simpson Vineyard, or Madera, for that matter, if they weren’t thrilled with the quality fruit John grows right here in the Central Valley. Rhone varieties do well, thick skins handle the heat and retain natural acidities…What more can a winemaker ask for?
    Plus, the last three years, California’s lower temperatures were not a problem in the CV…just sayin’…
    Nice, ripe, not overripe, balanced fruit…means more elegant, aromatic wines.
    And thankfully, we have Yosemite as our destination Morton! Only 13 miles to the Southern park entrance from my doorstep! Millions of people drive here every year!

  24. SUAMW,
    The wines I mentioned are 100% País, and typically (i.e., in warmer, drier vintages) dark, concentrated and tannic; and that is the norm (for País/Mission) in the Maule Valley’s Secano (a dry farming area closer to the Pacific Ocean). Louis Antoine Luyt, from Clos Ouvert, often employs carbonic maceration (which I don’t endorse) to tame the excessive phenolics and attain a lighter, softer wine.
    I believe there must be different clones; which might have also evolved distinctively in the last few centuries (?). But then, I know that País/Mission (like Carignan) is a very vigorous variety and particularly susceptible to farming practices, especially irrigation. Therefore, quality and yields can vary enormously depending on soils and whether it is grown on free-draining hillsides (lomas) or on the water clogged valley floor (vegas).

  25. I never thought Ruby Cabernet was given a fair trial. It was developed to make balanced red wines in the very warm, region 5 climate of the central valley and what did the industry do? Planted it in 2,3 and 4 where it was unbalanced and excessively acidic and tannic. I remember trying some Ruby Cab from the big valley in a “handle” that was very nice drinking, but by then the varietal had a bad rep.

  26. Jarel Parker says:

    I am constantly amazed at the bold snobbery exhibited by people who otherwise pass for educated, knowledgable people, but who demonstrate (repeatedly) how little they know of the natural world. The Bay Area and the Napa and Sonoma region is full of confident, smug people who really just are uncomfortable with the world outside of their vision. You really need to get out of the flat homoginous valleys of Northern California and go up into the Sierra foothills. The wines can be stunning. I still remember my shock at visiting one winery outside of Yosemite’s southern entrance. Stunned and stunning! Who knew? Well, you clearly do not. Personally, I prefer a wine that is truly hand crafted. Wineries that produce for the World’s consumers just cannot match the complexities of a hand crafted varietal.

  27. Peter, we should trade some bottles some time.
    Morton: Ruby Cabernet is alive and well in Gallo’s Heary Burgundy. That is from the horse’s mouth.

  28. Jarel… why do you assume that wines from Sonoma or Napa are not “hand crafted?” As vague as that term is, I think I know what you mean by it, and believe me there are plenty of well made “hand crafted” wines in the North Coast, or in every wine growing region in the world for that matter. Your post reads as if the Central Valley is the only place that makes “hand crafted” wines; quite an assumption on your part.

  29. I agree with @Eric.

  30. Anna Marie dos Remedios says:

    I think unfortunately the Central Valley is known, not for handcrafted wines, but for the mass-produced industrial wines that the vast majority of gallons produced here are…Gallo, Bronco etc. I think that consumers are focusing on finding handcrafted wines, on having a more intimate experience with smaller producers wherever they travel.

  31. My first encounter with Ruby Cabernet was from Joe Heitz from 1962, the year he left his position Fresno State (I think).
    There must be some reason (besides Martha’s) that he did not continue the variety. It certainly did not lack complexity.
    About the same time, David Ficklin crafted one, too. Great color, good grip, long lived stuff. It would be a hoot, if not a revelation, to have a few of today’s artisans give it a fair shot. At this point, Steve may be thinking…”why bother?
    You can put a dress on a pig …….”

  32. Jarel Parker says:

    Hand crafting cannot happen when the case drop is inthe hundreds of cases. Then it is chemistry. People equate Gallo with the Central Valley and that really is a polite way to dismiss the great majority of Central Valley wine makers who treat their craft as an art form and not as a product to pack in rail cars. Volume by its very nature reduces the content and quality. If you want a wine that is close to the vinyard, think small.

  33. I’ve always wondered how Verdelho would do in hot regions of California (maybe someone is going to tell me it already has been done). It retains acidity in hot climates (e.g. Western Australia has done well with it). With origins on the island of Madeira, there would be a nice symmetry to grow some in Madera, CA.

  34. Sin City says:

    Rather than a new varietal, it is more likely that in the next 20 – 50 years, a high temperature clone of Cabernet will emerge. GMO, like it or not, (not much different from hybrid trials, cross breeding, etc.) might create hot weather clones or strains of the good tasting wine grapes we all love.

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