What are the varieties of tomorrow?

 

I should think the hardest thing for a winery business manager is to figure out what’s going to be selling years down the road.

I mean, you can look at almost any wine variety or type in America and quickly find a time when it wasn’t popular. Or when it was popular, and then wasn’t. Nobody cared about Pinot Noir twenty years ago because nobody ever thought it would be enjoyed by so many millions of consumers. Consequently, when Pinot started becoming huge, after Sideways, vintners couldn’t plant it fast enough. That was an example of sin by omission: wineries didn’t do something they should have.

Then there are sins of commission, such as planting stuff you think will be popular down the road, then finding out it’s not. That’s what happened with Moscato. We had the hip-hop-fueled Moscato craze, so a lot of people, from a lot of famous wineries, put it in as fast as they could. Today? Consumers are dropping Moscato faster than Kim Davis sheds husbands, so if you were stuck with hundreds of acres of it, you’re up the river.

What’s a winemaker to do?

One wine that’s really fallen out of style is Port. I mean authentic, Portuguese Port, not the domestic stuff. It’s too bad, really, because a good Port is a fabulous wine. I have some in my cellar, and am always looking for an opportunity to pop the corks. I love a good LBV, which doesn’t cost very much and is so delicious. But to tell you the truth, I haven’t had much Port for a long time. Nothing personal, but it just doesn’t fit in with the way I eat, drink and live.

And apparently I’m not the only one who’s drinking less Port. This article from The Guardian, in Merrie Olde England, describes how some Port companies are so upset about how seldom Millennials drink Port that they’re trying to figure out ways to convince them to do it: pop-up bars, winemaker dinners; Fladgate has even invented a “rosé Port” that’s all about about attracting new consumers and also bringing down the price.” And then, of course, there’s the inevitable “Port cocktail,” something that would have blown great-grandpa’s mind.

I wish them well, but what is this idea that anything “pop-up” is automatically going to be of interest to Millennials? Or that all you have to do to convince a twenty-something to drink something is to put it into a cocktail? Or that calling something “pink” will make Mary Millennial love it? Aren’t all three of those concepts a little condescending to Millennials, who—we would hope—are about much more than pink pop-up cocktails?

I doubt that there’s any way to resuscitate Port’s reputation. It’s not that it has a bad one—it doesn’t. It’s just that Port hasn’t figured out a way to become relevant, and indeed, there may not be a way. Port was a product of post-Elizabethan England. Oxford dons drank it, and Lords with vast cellars underneath their castles who had forever to age it. Our own Founding Fathers liked it, along with other wines whose time has gone, such as Madeira. Not much of that sold in America these days.

And yet, what was possibly Thomas Jefferson’s favorite wine remains one of the top sellers in the world today: Claret or, as we know it, Bordeaux, and by extension, Cabernet Sauvignon. If Port and Maderia had been stocks on the market, you would have gotten slaughtered investing in them. If you’d put your money into a modest little Haut Médoc chateau 250 years ago, you’d have made a really good investment.

Which brings us back to those poor, beleaguered winery managers. What should they put their money on? Are Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay still safe bets? Will today’s 26-year old Millennial be drinking them when she’s 70? Probably. Those varieties have stood the test of time.

The classics win out over the obscure. Always have, always will

 

You want wisdom in wine words? Consider these: “In many centers of wine hipness these days, what matters is not how a wine tastes and how the associated sensory memories make you feel, but instead the social source of pleasure derived from tasting—and professing to like—a much ballyhooed wine that is made in a style that is currently in vogue.”

That’s from Andy Peay, in his Peay Vineards Fall newsletter. Now, Andy was being diplomatic in his choice of words. Let me put the case more bluntly: There is an insidious tendency today for some sommeliers and insecure critics to praise obscure varieties and temporary styles that, when all is said and done, don’t actually taste very good. That a winemaker, like Andy Peay, has to come out and fulminate against “wine fads” is almost unprecedented—but then, so is the emergence of a maven class that seems hellbent on revolution for its own sake.

How else to explain the cult-like hosannas for low-alcohol Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in California? Andy Peay found a similar phenomenon for the offbeat in Copenhagen, where “all I could drink was wine esoterica” because the “tastemakers” are addicted to the strange and unfamiliar: Trusseau, Jura whites, Biodynamic wines “and other wine styles/regions currently in vogue” most of which Andy found “flawed and, mostly, downright unpalatable.” (Orange wine, anyone?) This is why Andy entitled his opinion piece “Yes, but be delicious”: It’s fine to be esoteric, but please, at least taste good! The first duty of wine, after all, is and always has been—not to satisfy the eclectic taste of bored gatekeepers—but to taste good and give pleasure.

Nor is this drumbeat for the “new” showing any signs of slowing down. Yestrrday’s San Francisco Chronicle, in the wine section, headlined the lead article “The next new wine thing,” a header that editors who have nothing else to say routinely trot out, offering timely proof of Andy Peay’s argument that “Wine writers need something new to write about.” Actually, they—we—do not; there is plenty to say about tradition. But wine writers’ editors and publishers, driven by more commercial motives than merely good writing, tell them to find something new—and so they dutifully do.

Go back to Andy’s phrase, “a social source of pleasure.” That is a compound noun containing a vast trove of implications. ”Social pleasure” is the opposite of “sensual pleasure.” It means, in essence, that when one of these wine faddists tastes something he or she believes to be “currently in vogue” among his peers, he actually is tasting—not the wine itself—but the idea of the wine in his mind! This is a form of idealism that is disconnected from reality and that, under different circumstances, could be described as hallucinatory.

Now, we don’t want our wine gatekeepers to be hallucinating, do we, but there is truth when Andy Peay continues: “Instead of highlighting the classic wines of the world, many tastemakers—including sommeliers, writers, and wine organizations—are focusing on what is novel in wine…”. There’s nothing inherently wrong with such a focus. Indeed, one could argue that somms and writers owe it to themselves and to their professions to seek out “what is novel in wine.” But all things in balance. There’s a huge difference between seeking out what is novel, and ignoring or, even worse, trashing everything that is traditional. But this latter approach marks too many modern tastemakers, who seem to believe that, if their father or grandfather liked it, then it is not worth considering.

One wonders if some modern tastemakers, and here I include bloggers, have even tasted the classics. Do they understand them? Do they know that there is a reason why some wines have been classic, and why some never have been–say, orange wine or Jura wine? Do they understand that, long after their careers have ended, the classics will remain the classics—and the obscure will be just as obscure as ever?

You know, sixteen years ago I went to a workshop at U.C. Davis entitled “Emerging Varietals.” Lots of important people were there: from Robert Mondavi, Silver Oak, Kendall-Jackson, Gallo, and the ubiquitous Randall Grahm. The purpose of the event: To discover “the next big things” in varietals. We tasted everything from Graciano and dry Touriga Nacional to Trinkadeira, Greco di Tufo and Gaglioppo—in order to, as one of the organizers explained, “take [winemaking in California] to the next level.”

Well, none of those varieties worked out particularly well, and I doubt, rather sadly, if any of Randall’s plans to breed 10,000 new varieties on his San Juan Bautista ranch will work out, either. (Randall was the subject of the Chronicle’s Sunday article, the one I referred to.) With all due respect to Randall, who has been interested in “emerging varieties” for a long time, the public has not been clamoring for them; and the gatekeeper somms and writers who get so worked up over obscure varieties seem to be a fickle bunch. They get bored easily; they do want some shiny new thing every five minutes. That does not seem to be a good audience to cultivate, unless you’re making, say, Gaglioppo, and if you are, good luck! I mean, seriously, does anyone think that in fifty years people are going to look back and say, “Gee, California really screwed up with Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc”? I don’t think so.