Are we diluting domestic wine?
This morning I heard a story on NPR about how the Internet and online media has created a cultural gap and changed how we collectively relate to one another. In the not too distant past, television brought people together. Shows like Seinfeld created some of the most memorable moments in television history that even people who didn’t actually see those episodes, still know what you’re talking about when you mention the Outing, Manzere or Soup Nazi episodes. But how many of us know who won American Idol last season? Chris…something-or-another. In 1998, nearly 40% of all Americans watched the final Seinfeld episode compared to a meager 16% who saw last season’s American Idol finale. Why? Because our viewing choices have increased to the point that there’s a show on cable, YouTube or Hulu to appeal to every taste or whim.
In the past, we all received our news from one of the big three networks and we had to come to our conclusions based on facts that Dan Rather or Walter Cronkite told us. Today, we can get our news in many ways; with a conservative spin from the Fox Network to the other extreme from Jon Stewart. We’ve become a group of collective individuals when it comes to media. So maybe you’re asking, “Why is this bad? Isn’t it good to have a choice?” Sure, it’s great to have a choice, but the cost of our individualism is our lack of consensus, shared experiences and community. Why can’t we as a country make a decision on the issue of health care reform? Because everyone has their own opinion on the subject and they’re all different. This got me thinking that perhaps we’re doing the same to our domestic wine market.
European wine still has their great wine regions like Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany and Porto. For wine lovers, these names are synonymous with the wine produced in these regions. These regions are so well-known in fact, that non-drinkers are familiar with them. Even Napa Valley has a reputation for big bold Cabs, and Oregon for its Pinot Noir. But as AVAs start to diversify their plantings, are they also diluting their reputations and fragmenting the region as a whole? If growers start planting Rhône varietals in Napa Valley, will that affect their reputation for Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay? Is the Russian River Valley or Alexander Valley known for any one style or varietal of wine? Can you tell me what dominant type of wine comes from Columbia Valley, Walla Walla or Yakima?
While there’s no denying the quality of the wine produced in these regions, it’s hard to come together as a wine community and promote such diversity. It’s like trying to have a convention of Red Dwarf fans and Star Trek fans in the same place at once. Sure, they’re both sci-fi shows but entirely different audiences. While it’s informative to go to wine events such as Taste Washington or Vigneron Indépendant, it’s the varietal specific events such as Dark & Delicious (celebrating Petite Sirah) and Rhône Rangers that bring out the real wine fans.
Can diversification really be a talking point when in the past we named our wines after some famous regions such as Champagne and Port? Some domestic red wines are still referred to as Bordeaux blends. In 2006, the town of Champagne, Switzerland was ordered by the WTO to stop using their town’s name for the beverage they produce and their sales dropped from 110,000 bottles to 32,000 bottles. Imagine the opposite. What if the Alexander Valley suddenly became famous for their Zinfandel, or if Yakima became best-known for their Riesling? Would that improve the marketability of these regions or would we lose micro-markets of boutique wines to homogenization and increase risks by putting all our grapes in one basket, so to speak? (Think of the horrible 1991 vintage for Bordeaux.) What about at the brand level? Would Harlan and Screaming Eagle have reached cult status if they also produced a Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Zinfandel? I think not.
What do you think? Are we diluting and fragmenting domestic wine?