Waiting for Godello: Bringing an Alternative Variety to Market

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.

  1. 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. []
  2. 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. []
  3. 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. []
  4. 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?) []
  5. Or perceived to be “better,” which is a discussion that is particularly fraught. Don’t get me started. []
  6. Questions of monetization will have to be bracketed. []
  7. 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. []
  8. 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. []

25 Responses to “Waiting for Godello: Bringing an Alternative Variety to Market”

  1. Carl Helrich says:

    Randall, Again you have a written a thought-provoking piece that strikes a chord with those of us striving to make distinctive wines. I will casually mention, being a grapegrower from an emerging region, that we struggle to find acceptance for standard varieties (Merlot, Chardonnay) in our marketplace. It seems that the world not only accepts traditional varieties, but also accepts them more easily from traditional places (not Pennsylvania.)

    The history in the east was also to try non-traditional varieties as well. Growing Seyval Blanc, Chambourcin, Vidal Blanc, Vignoles makes wineries out here unique. Yet we also receive push-back from the marketplace. (There is a form of racism involved here in that most consider these varieties to be of lesser quality–they seem more one-dimensional than their vinifera parents.) And even if they aren’t, I think it shows the weight of the collective consumer inertia in experimenting with things of taste, be it new varieties or new sources for old ones. I do believe that the outliers in this industry will one day add to the palette–palate?–of the broader canvas that is wine.

    Cheers! –Carl

    • Carl, You are a better man than I. Continue to fight the good fight. I honestly have very little experience tasting non-vinifera hybrids. They are at least in this part of the world like lower caste citizens – invisible to the Vinifera Brahmins. There is no question that continued experimentation with hybridization between vinifera (and non) is a supremely useful activity. I wish you the very best of luck.

  2. Clark Smith says:

    Brilliant and thorough analysis. Clearly a bad idea. Yet we will do it anyhow, won’t we? You of all people, who have earned immortality many times over in this pursuit, cannot deny its inextricable pull.

    • Don’t pull any punches, my friend. Of course it may be a bad idea – but that may well be more a question of ait being financially infeasible or largely impractical. But we are all of us inextricably drawn to our fate, as moths to the flame. I’m going in.

  3. There seems to be a sense of melancholy in your writing today. Perhaps an inkling that the current wine climate is adverse to these new varietals. “N’inquete pas”

    I seem to perceive something of a shift happening in the better retailers of what California and NY would call “Fly-Over Country.” Young retailers in states like Ohio , Michigan, and Indiana have never felt the required affinity to California. For us, CA isn’t much closer than Paris.

    Growing are seeds of doubt that California’s finest grapes are Cab, Chard, Merl, Zin, and other easily abbreviated wines. Certainly not at the prices that the “Great Recession” has forced many people to embrace. Certainly not when Midwestern housewives all falling over themselves to purchase organic vegetables, hormone-free beef, and Amish-raised chicken. You can’t sit idolizing the Food Network and for long drink a bottle of Mega-Purple or Pink Infidel.

    Despite ourselves, America is becoming a wine drinking country and the increase of sophistication I’ve seen in only 10 years is stunning.

    When BD Albarino or Contra is under-$15 and drinkable Napa Cab is $25, there can be nothing but a gradual embrace of the wild, the weird, and (dare I say) the wonderful.

    • Thanks very much for your comment, Austin. You’re right; I am a bit depressed about the state of the wine business these days, most specifically w/r/t the highly cynical marketing efforts expended to court the millennial drinkers. You’re right; we are learning as a nation to become more refined and curious in our tastes. That’s a beautiful thing. Still, there are structural blocks – mostly through the constriction of distribution channels – that impede the new non-standard products to come to market. But, it really begs the larger question, as I’ve indicated. Just producing something “new” and “unusual” no longer cuts it; it must also be distinctive and on some level offer real value. The paradox of growing something like Sagrantino or Teroldego in California, is that likely it will need to sell for more than the best Old World example for the winery to make it a sustainable proposition. If I were a wine Newbie and wanted to really grok Ribolla gialla, most likely I would want to (rightly) begin in Friuli.

  4. If the problem with lesser (or un) known varieties is a marketing issue, what about just leaving it off the label entirely? Perhaps put the vineyard and region on the label, with or without a brand (e.g., Lot 46, White Blend #2, Randall’s Rouge).

    Could you experiment with this in a new wine club (Club Don’t Ask) to see if people enjoyed the wine without being afraid of drinking and even liking Loureiro?

    It’s only recently that people started to demand to know the variety (and only because wineries insisted on telling them). Maybe the trend can reverse itself and become more European in approach.

    I just picked up a Spanish white that the label says is 45% Parallada, 34% Macabeu, and 21% Xarel.lo. The wine is delicious. Who the fuck cares what’s in it?

    • Thanks so much for your note. To some extent, everything in life is a marketing issue. As I’ve suggested in the post, highlighting the terroir of an interesting site (both in the grape-growing methodology as well as in the marketing of same) rather than focusing on varietal qualities is a far more sustainable proposition. As marketers (we are always marketers), we really need to create context. By highlighting “varieties,” we make the wine about varietal character (boring, and ultimately banal). If it’s about the site, it is the beginning of a much deeper conversation.

  5. Michelle Baker says:

    I read this article through repost by Ampelography. I just want to say how much I appreciate your thoughtful analysis of these lesser known (in the U.S.) varietals. Beautifully written. I’m glad I’ve discovered your blog.
    Michelle
    P.S. Missed you at TAPAS!

    • Thank you so much. In Santa Cruz, you can find bumper stickers that say, “KEEP SANTA CRUZ WEIRD.” I think that keeping it weird is a good first step, but only the first step. Weird, but at least as far as wine, delivering on some sort of value proposition.

  6. Alana Gentry says:

    Great article, covers a lot of ground and I look forward to more on this subject. I’m a fan of all of the above. It is intriguing and I agree with you on most points, especially that terroir is key. Currently in a marketing role, I am getting ready to launch an educational campaign about Pinotage (meets many of the points in your article). My message is that 1) if folks outside of SA think they know Pinotage, they are probably merely repeating vague rumors that are outdated; 2) they haven’t tasted much of it; 3) they know little or nothing about where it grows well and what it takes to make a great one. It will be a challenge to get the word out, but I find it more interesting than promoting another Napa cab. :)

    • Thanks so much for your note. You’ve got a tough road to hoe; pinotage is really totally unknown outside of SA and I’m not sure if the greatest examples come our way. I confess to being slightly phobic of the grape as a winemaker. (I’ve heard horror stories of its tendency to form sulfide-containing compounds). I’m told that at long last winemakers in SA have learned how to coax real beauty ouf what is clearly a real challenging grape. I am very keen to have my mind/palate blown.

  7. Wayne says:

    I am of the belief that California is on the right path to produce unique wines that speak of place and terroir, but they might not be made for 20 to 50 years, and they might not be made in the places we expect. Perhaps they will be made in San Juan Bautista or some other curious location.

    There are those venturing to discover what works best on their land, instead of just accepting the conventional wisdom of a region. I think of Tablas Creek. While they are following traditions of the Rhone in ways that are not so ground breaking, they have planted such a great multitude of grapes that I suspect many will be thinned out in favor of those who most reflect their terroir. Tablas twenty years from now may be one of the World’s leading Tannat and Vermentino producers, crafting their own vision of place. There are others engaged in similar (and very costly) experiments. Generally, these are the wineries who have the funding and time to invest in these long term goals. At Tablas, they make wine not for Bob or Jason Haas, but rather Jason’s kinds, the next generation.

    If, and this is still a big if, the American palate is shifting to wines of more nuance and less oak and monster fruit, I suspect this will also effect what is produced in California. If we strip away that concealing qualities of jammy fruit and excessive oak, maybe we will find that that Cabernet is not so brilliant, that that Chardonnay has little voice. Maybe then, people will look to find grapes that will speak clearly in that terroir.

    I imagine all of these statements will be true in at least small ways. The path you have chosen Randall is the right one, for good or bad. Before there was an Alsace, before there was CdP, there were those who said, “what if we tried this?”

    • Thanks so much, Wayne. Let’s hoist a glass to those who are thinking far beyond the immediate time horizon. No one will remember who they were hundreds of years from now when a chance Vermentino/Furmint cross has becomes the dominant grape of the Central Coast. You know that I so appreciate all of your encouragement.

  8. Izzy says:

    It’s a fascinating idea, and you make a sound argument! All new ideas sound crazy at first. Before the first man got on the moon, the historical evidence and stats said no man could get on the moon. So I say, go for it!

  9. [...] expediency, not necessarily because it was the ideal grape to be grown on a given site.” Randall Grahm, explaining his possibly “mad” effort to hybridize vinifera grapes at a vineyard [...]

  10. [...] This is a very interesting read, as anything Randall Grahm writes tends to be. Randall raises multiple issues but the germ of his thesis is that we, the wine-buying public, are locked into a chocolate-vanilla-strawberry straitjacket of a few famous varieties that may, in fact, not even be the grape types best suited to our soils. [...]

  11. John Dawson says:

    Lovely piece, Randall; reading your work is like following a trail of well posited bread crumbs to reach a delicious sourdough boule of conclusion. You’re absolutely right; it’s not good enough to make wines that are not merely “different”; a banal Nerello Mascalese from Lodi is hardly worth praise, other than for the fact that someone was clever enough to get it here and gutsy enough to plant it. (But that says more about the winegrower than it does about the wine.) I recently gave you props in an essay I wrote entitled “The Culture of Wine in the Age of the Kardashians,” where I mentioned your inspired pursuit to to “chisel an original, living college of grapes and grape-friendly organisms out of a bowl” in the hills of SJB. In retrospect, I realize I forgot to mention the other half of your pursuit, which you so eloquently described above! Best, John

    • John Dawson says:

      Sorry, rushed my prior comment, resulting in mistaken double negatives. Here’s what I meant to write:

      Lovely piece, Randall; reading your work is like following a trail of well posited bread crumbs to reach a delicious sourdough boule of conclusion. You’re absolutely right; it’s not good enough to make wines that are merely “different”; a banal Nerello Mascalese from Lodi is hardly worth praise, other than for the fact that someone was clever enough to get it here and gutsy enough to plant it. (But that says more about the winegrower than it does about the wine.) I recently gave you props in an essay I wrote entitled “The Culture of Wine in the Age of the Kardashians,” where I mentioned your inspired pursuit to “chisel an original, living college of grapes and grape-friendly organisms out of a bowl” in the hills of SJB. In retrospect, I realize I forgot to mention the other half of your pursuit, which you so eloquently described above! Best, John

  12. [...] Heimoff offers some interesting commentary on Randall Grahm’s “possibly mad” effort to hybridize vinifera grapes at a vineyard in San Juan [...]

  13. David says:

    Krapp’s last grape?
    Sorry, couldn’t resist

  14. Mratito says:

    Thanks, Randall, for another enjoyable read. I’d like to think that there is a parallel between wines made with this uncommon grape varieties, and craft beer. 15 years ago few could have imagined there could be a significant market for beers with such bold and complex flavors. Yet the craft beer market has taken off like a rocket, much to the chagrin of the major producers. The craft beer revolution, though, has its roots in home brewing. I can’t imagine that growing and making wine from esoteric grapes at home is going to become a popular hobby, so the revolution needs to begin in another way that somehow makes a similar intimate connection to the product. I’m not sure what that looks like, I think the work you are doing is a good start.

  15. Dominique says:

    Randall thanks for your thoughts I completely embrace! Your piece reflects what we’ve been doing at Fattoria La Maliosa in Maremma-Tuscany (www.fattorialamaliosa.it). We’ve classified the grape varieties found in a small abandoned vineyard (ca 12 of them in 1/2 hectar!), brought them back into production with biodynamic agriculture, cherished them and picked the most interesting ones to plant new vineyards. From the wonderful small vineyard we got 2 natural, Demeter certified wines, mirror of the unspoild territory the grapes come from. What a satisfaction!

  16. Pretty amazing article and especially that it was recommended in our Texas Tech Viticulture Certificate Program. Thanks Randall for the insights!

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