I’ve been a partisan of “alternative varieties” for a long time, partially because I am a non-conformist by nature, but also for two significant reasons: 1) I am convinced that so much of what has been planted in the New World is a result of an historical accident1 and/or a function of commercial expediency, not necessarily because it was the ideal grape to be grown on a given site. The idealist/dreamer in me imagines that somehow, with enough intuition/insight, one might be able to work out the specific varieties that might be better matched to a site (though precisely how this would be worked out is perhaps a little more problematic). 2) The pragmatic side of me also discovered that the less fashionable pre-existing varieties were (at least historically speaking) grossly undervalued, relative to the “popular” ones; at Bonny Doon, we have toiled in the obscure fields of Grenache (back in the day when it was obscure), Cinsault, Riesling, Muscat (years ago), Malvasia Bianca and, more recently, old-vine Carignane (still largely undervalued).2 (We’ve also made raspberry wine, “wines of the icebox,” and have worked diligently to seek out any real, interesting, undervalued vinous proposition.) At the time, it was my thought that it would be far easier to establish a small niche in an under-populated ecosystem rather than go head-to-head with every other winery that produced the more popular varieties. We used marketing black magic on these Ugly Duckling grape varieties and wines to add value, much like restaurateurs do to rebrand less popular (and less expensive) cuts of meat.
We’ve certainly had our innings planting “new” grapes for California and the New World – rather more than I can even remember. Trying to establish “new” or unconventional varieties de novo carries unique risks and uncertain rewards. Some of our efforts were viticulturally successful but commercially disastrous (Freisa, for example), some viticulturally and commercially disastrous (Dolcetto in the Salinas Valley is one that comes to mind), some, like Roussanne, accidentally successful on both counts (but only after some long years in the wilderness). Some varieties appear to have great potential on a variety of sites – Albariño and amazingly, Loureiro (but there is no way to divine this fact a priori) – which is exhilarating and alarming at the same time. But the point here is that, if it was risky to try these unusual varieties ten or twenty years ago, it is perhaps even more perilous to do so now.
Everything has changed. The wine business has entered hyper-competitive mode in recent years. The great bargains, at least as far as grapes are concerned, have largely been scooped up; prices this year and next are certainly strengthening. Historically “unpopular” varieties, such as Grenache and Muscat, have suddenly become fashionable – in the case of the latter one, due to supernatural causes. And, very significantly, there has been a severe constriction of distribution channels: distributors are generally not looking for new suppliers or new SKUs from existing suppliers (especially ones requiring significant explanation and exposition that need to be hand-sold). Proposing a New World Refosco, Teroldego, Schioppettino, or even Nebbiolo to one’s distributor would most likely be met with extreme incredulity.3
The problem in introducing new varieties is especially complicated by the fact that the cost of establishing vineyards in coastal areas is much higher than it’s ever been; one is competing with European vineyards that have presumably been paid for long ago.4 And European wines are far more available in the States than ever before. If you’re selling your domestic Sangiovese, not only does it need to be less expensive than great Chianti, it also must be significantly better.5 Then, you are still going to be greeted by retailers and restaurateurs who will not believe their own taste-buds and opt for the lesser, more expensive Chianti, if only from the belief (which is, in fact, reality-based) that it’s going to be a lot easier to sell than your supernal Sangiovese. Trust me, I’ve been doon this road.
It has never been a more difficult time to introduce an alternative variety into a severely Attention Deficit-afflicted marketplace, and we are faced with the equally difficult (if not more so) task of getting it absolutely right. Just how are we going to do that? (We don’t have the time – multiple generations are needed, really – to iterate and observe what precisely does best where and how.) How much Syrah was planted in the wrong location, on inappropriate soils? How much Sangiovese was planted with the wrong clone? Why would you or I imagine that we’re going to get it right? The fact is that you or I likely won’t.
The point is that simply identifying a cool new variety (and there are plenty of them – they usually end in vowels, by the way – Sagrantino, Aglianico, Nero d’Avola, Uva di Troia) is not enough, not nearly enough of a recipe for success in these times. The potential market for these wines is largely dominated by the most über-wine geeks of the planet. Yes, there may well be a certain locavorian predilection in, say, Berkeley or Portland, but that salutary trait tends to be trumped by a more dominant Italophilia; these customers are generally skeptical (with good reason) about New World renditions of the Platonic ideals. The main thing we have going for us in the New World is our ability to get things ripe most of the time. To a certain extent, we can exploit that fact, but it only gets us so far. What we don’t do so well, with our often monoclonal, drip-irrigated vineyards, is produce wines with real dimensionality, distinctive soil-ful and soulful characteristics, and (dare I say) terroir.
I’m sorry to have to introduce the T-word here. I was hoping I didn’t have to, but this is my point in a nutshell so please pay attention. We must think beyond, far beyond, varietal wines. If you are trying to sell wine in the premium segment of the market, a good or excellent rendition of an emerging or offbeat variety does not offer enough. Without another dimension of complexity – the sense of place, of somewhereness – the wine will just not be compelling enough to compete. If we are concerned about true sustainability, and we all are, we must think about grapes that go beyond the fashionable flavor of the week and have a real reason for being. It is great that we are thinking about unusual varieties – this is perhaps my favorite form of reverie – but instead, or in addition, we should really be thinking about strategies to create a real sense of distinctiveness about the wines we make.
Honestly, we could do worse than to take a page from the Europeans and really focus on the sites where the grapes are grown. Can we identify the soils that impart distinctive characteristics to the wine? Can these soils, if skillfully farmed, support grapes without supplemental irrigation? Are there farming techniques that amplify soil characteristics? (Hint: yes there are.) In this crazy wine market we inhabit, we must learn how to develop a very wide vision of what is needed to create real complexity and distinction in the wines we produce. We can’t, for example, think only about the “best” varieties or “best” clones, but rather about what can be done to create more complexity and depth in our wines: a mélange of clones, most likely, possibly even a mélange of different plants grown together (a polyculture, if you will). We should be thinking very seriously about the farming techniques that create life in our soils and by extension, life, qi, in our wines.
I would like to propose an extremely radical idea, in the original sense of the word. Why not dispense with the idea of varietal wines altogether? Not just an extreme field blend of different varieties, though that could also be interesting, but something even more outlandish. We are trying something in our own vineyard in San Juan Bautista that may be quite mad, and is, on its face, utterly impractical, but may be revelatory if one is thinking along a very long temporal horizon.6 My thought is to hybridize vinifera grapes, making crosses based partially on observation and reason, partially on intuition, using Mother Nature to create a fair bit of diversity within certain parameters. Varieties deemed to be interesting and/or appropriate to a given site are crossed with one another; the paternal plant selected for its growth characteristics and the maternal plant for its flavor profile. Seeds are collected and then planted out, and infertile or non-viable plants are discarded.7 The gist of the idea is two-fold: might the extreme diversity of a population of unique genotypes, all in more or less the same family, allow the possibility of qualities above and beyond varietal character to emerge in a wine?8 And, just as significantly, using the power of Nature to create subtle and not so subtle variation within a population, might one be able to identify unique individuals that are perhaps more ideally suited to a given location? (Better drought resistance, earlier or later ripening, better acid balance, greater flavor intensity, that sort of thing.)
I’ll end with this thought: I’m not convinced that (with a couple of exceptions to be sure) there are such things as good, better or best grape varieties. What is of greater salience is the degree of congruity of a given grape (or set of grapes) to the challenges posed by a particular site. As human beings using only our wits, we are probably not clever enough to work out, in a single lifetime, what it has taken generations of Europeans to do. But perhaps by allowing Mother Nature to do the heavy lifting in the creation of genetic variation, we can accelerate the process of identifying the excellence of fit of a given variety or varieties to a particular site. There may well be some flaws in this reasoning, and the practicality of the project is a bit sketchy. But I think one needs to be a bit ambitious in one’s thinking in order to rise above the rather deafening din of the agora.
On June 19th, Randall will be speaking on this topic at the Alternative Varieties Symposium for the American Society for Enology and Viticulture National Conference (ASEV.org) in Portland, Oregon.
- The Old World plantations may well be accidental as well, but they’ve had enough time to iterate and observe which selections were most suitable to their sites, to confer the retrospective illusion of historical inevitability, or telos. [↩]
- No need to go into the Carignane paradox. It is a vine that produces essentially miserable fruit for the first thirty to forty years of its existence, but when the vines are old, the grapes are brilliant. Of course, there cannot be such a thing as old-vine Carignane, unless there had been at some point some young-vine Carignane. This sort of long-term thinking is itself pretty much extinct at this point. [↩]
- Some winemakers in the New World imagine that oddball winemaking techniques might be enough to establish a sense of distinctiveness in their wines. Ageing wine in amphorae, bottling with no SO2 are techniques that definitely make one’s wine a bit different, but (in and of themselves) are stylistic fetishes. [↩]
- Establishing a relatively high production vineyard in the warm Central Valley with certain economies of scale might still be economically interesting, but is fraught with its own unique set of problems (i.e. is the casual drinker who buys his ½ gallon jugs or bag-in-the-box really ready for Uva di Troia di Fresno?) [↩]
- Or perceived to be “better,” which is a discussion that is particularly fraught. Don’t get me started. [↩]
- Questions of monetization will have to be bracketed. [↩]
- It is obvious that this sort of practice can only be attempted in areas that are free from phylloxera; maybe as a version 1.0 they will have a finite life. But the interesting varieties that are identified could be grafted onto resistant rootstock in the 2.0 version. [↩]
- This may well be a question related to the phenomenon of the perception of taste; will the diminution of the distinctiveness of varietal characteristics result in the sensation of a greater distinctiveness of soil characteristics? It could also be said that, while there is absolutely no way to predict the flavor characteristics of the projected wine at all, it would seem that the sheer complexity of the blend would likely produce a wine with a unique flavor profile. [↩]