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Are we diluting domestic wine?

2009 December 29

the_soup_nazi0041No, I’m not talking about adding water to the must and juice, but rather metaphorically, are domestic producers diversifying too much and producing too many varietals?

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.

20094002European 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?

Copyright © 2009, Eric Hwang and Bricks of Wine. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Eric Hwang and Bricks of Wine with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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7 Responses leave one →
  1. December 29, 2009

    Certain grapes have been planted in the European regions for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Is it possible that we are not diluting, but rather still experimenting with what really works the best in U.S. wine regions? Our wine growing history is pretty short compared to France, Italy, Germany, etc…especially with Prohibition thrown into the mix.

  2. Eric Hwang permalink*
    December 29, 2009

    Good point, Joe. Some of the benefit of having that long history is the reputation that goes with it. Countries like France have recognized that and made it a legal requirement that wine from certain appellations can only use specific varietals and be made in a specific way. Yet, AVAs such as the Willamette Valley and Napa Valley have already developed a reputation for specific varietals from these areas. I guess the question is, will introducing other varietals in these AVAs diminish or “dilute” the region’s reputation much like video on demand has diluted the impact of broadcast television?

  3. December 29, 2009

    It may depend on the broader wine consumer mass market, vs the aficionado, but my personal belief is a resounding no. If anything I’d prefer to see more diversification in planting and production of interesting varietals; more mourvedre, grenache, rousanne, chenin blanc, charbono. And lets see stuff like torrontes planted here.

    I would hate to see Dry Creek Valley only produce zin and sauvignon blanc, and don’t see any benefit to doing so.

    This may not be viable for the mass market and mongo wineries, but for the hundreds of small ones, who already make small lots, why not be more like Eric Ross winery (and others) and branch out with something interesting.

  4. Eric Hwang permalink*
    December 30, 2009

    I love seeing these kind of comments because it give us more food for thought. True, many European appellations have a couple dozen different varietals planted and it hasn’t had an adverse effect on their reputation. But as Joe pointed out, they’ve had hundreds of years to experiment before the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée system existed. Who knows? We may find that Dry Creek Valley is better suited to Rhône varietals than zin, but creating a demand for wines from the “interesting” stuff may be a matter of educating consumers. Thanks, William, for your input.

  5. Rachel permalink
    December 31, 2009

    I really enjoyed reading this post from the VOD/popular television/media comparison…it helped better communicate your ideas across to a reader like myself (a wine newbie). As mentioned, diversification is good – with varietals, as it is with writing, and it’s refreshing to read a blog like yours that isn’t overly wrapped up with technical, wine snobesque bit. It’s accessible – like wine should be!

  6. January 3, 2010

    Eric,

    Just as Napa and the Willamette Valley have become synonymous with Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir respectively; I can’t think of the Dry Creek Valley without thinking of the many wonderful Zinfandels that come from there. That said, I would mourn the loss of all of the unique wines made by Lou Preston if somehow all wineries within an appellation were forced to grow specific varietals that the appellation became best known for.

    The Willamette Valley was the nation’s premier Pinot Noir area, until the growers of the Russian River Valley had their success with the varietal. I celebrate the iconoclastic spirit that would inspire a grape grower and wine maker to try to create a world class Pinot from Napa or Cab from the Russian River Valley.

    Trying to stop experimentation is like trying to straightjacket Randall Grahm, Lou Preston, or David Coleman.

    Some look for the comfort of the predictable, while others seek the excitement of the unexpected. I like both tastes of an area, barrel tasting, passport weekends, as well as varietally specific tastings like ZAP – and Dark and Delicious which I get to go to this year!

    Perhaps we can take up this topic again at D&D in February.

    Cheers.

    John Cesano

  7. Eric Hwang permalink*
    January 4, 2010

    Hi John,

    Thanks for visiting. I recognize that many of these regions that we’re discussing are relatively new when compared to European appellations and that we will continue to keep experimenting. I’m not suggesting that we try and stop experimentation with different varietals, but one has to wonder: did French wine suffer when the AOC specified which varietals could only be used to receive classification from that appellation?

    If you ask up-and-coming wine consuming countries, such as China, or even up-and-coming generations of wine drinkers here in the U.S. to name a great red blend, they’ll most likely say Bordeaux. As a matter of fact, when it comes to prestigious wine, the Chinese automatically think of France, not the rest of Europe, not California and not Australia. I think that’s due in part to successful branding. When I was in Egypt last year, guess where premium apples (with a premium price tag) came from? Washington State. Yes, some places are just synonymous with certain products and that, I believe, makes it easier to market those products, be it apples or wine.

    I guess the point I was trying to make is that just like cable TV, YouTube and other video sources have fragmented media viewing, wine regions that haven’t found their niche will continue to have diverse fragmented markets. So, how can these regions successfully represent themselves to worldwide consumers?

    This is certainly a topic I’d love to discuss more at D&D.

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