Wine, American style

June 26th, 2008

Wine, American style.

Wine, American style.

In discussions elsewhere, I have stated my support for a region-based (rather than variety-based) appellation and labeling system in the US. I firmly believe that greater wine quality (and global standing of American wine) can be achieved through matching grape to site.

Dan Berger, in his recent piece on Appellation America, says that due to the “spirit of the free-enterprise system” and the lack of a “legal model that mandated which grapes could grow where and still carry the regional name, a regional-naming system was doomed“. The system was embraced by the consumer who now drives and propagates it. Worse, though, this drive to satisfy mainstream preferences and demand seems to be affecting a trend towards soulless wine.

No matter where they go, the average American wine drinkers tend to ask for the variety they like best. But they want a chardonnay, before a Carneros chardonnay. They will seek out their variety of choice whether they are in Temecula or Niagara, not caring if that variety does well or is (positively) unique in that region. The emphasis is on the variety name, not varietal typicity or the role of the region in bringing about a quality wine. What results, though, is not only what Berger calls a “me-too sameness“, but an ocean of poor quality wine which is passed off as “unique”, “distinct” and “equally good as others, but in its own way”.

If the market dictates equity, then grape variety has become the brand with its own equity which often supersedes that of the region and, at times, even of the producer. The average American consumer either does not know or does not care that there is greater brand equity (and value) in matching up region and variety than in the variety alone.

This trend is apparently spreading outside of our country: In an effort to address slipping sales, France has enacted new laws – effectively revamping their appellation system. Intended to overcome “confusion” about French wine labeling and appellations, part of the strategy to recapture more market share is allowing wine labeling that follows the varietal and not regional system.

Berry Bros. & Rudd is also acknowledging a global shift of brand equity in wine, because one of their predictions for the next 50 years in wine is that grapes of a particular variety grown in various countries will be blended into global cuvées. This generic varietal wine is expected to satisfy a growing market demand for volume wine. But in the long run, it is going to make for homogenized wine.

There are those who say that the market intuitively knows what’s best and the wine industry is responding to consumer demands. I cannot argue that this trend is not sustainable, because popular acceptance and demand suggest that it will be. However, meeting consumer demand is not always the path to long term market success. When it comes to luxury goods, like wine, the equity lies in standards and qualities which persist and transcend the fashion of the times.

A palatable but indistinct wine will not stir my memory of the place where I drank it first, the people with whom I shared it, nor will it evoke images of the land of its origins. A lousy wine may be memorable to me in a different way, because I can identify the flaws and components that made it unappealing. That will not be make me want to buy it again and it will not make me want to return to the region which produced it.

Maybe it’s my epicurean nature, but when I travel – in this country or abroad – I eat at chain restaurants only out of necessity and I make McDonald’s my last resort. I want the local stuff. It always has some local flair, character or nuance. While the situation and setting may make the wine special and memorable to some, I look for something more. I want something real, distinct and identifiable about that wine that defines it as possessing both quality and identity. I want the wine itself to bear a hallmark of its birthplace.

The only way to make quality wines of character and distinction is to pair the grape variety with a site which brings out its beauty, grace, sophistication and complexity. The varietal character if these wines is elevated and made more intricate and appealing by something unique to the place where the grapes were grown. The caveats are that not every region will be able to produce every conceivable varietal wine and not everyone will accept these wines, so some customers will be lost.

I am told that wine makers are artistes driven by deeply held philosophies and seek out high standards in their wines, but they have to make a living. Are they willing to make wines which speak of the grapes and their place of origin in a beautiful and unique voice if that means taking a smaller profit?


Email & Share


6 Responses to “Wine, American style”

  1. tom merle Says:

    As we have come to expect from you, Arthur: a pithy, well argued piece describing your point of view. Right or wrong, however, your perspective, as you note, will never sell out in the marketplace. Few wine drinkers will ask for a particular variety by appellation. But you know this. Wine enthusiasts as distinct from geeks will seek out a variety of wines from different parts of the world, knowing that some producers excel while others don’t (but still make very tasty vino). Consumers of this sort will pursue QPR plus diversity. They’ll want to taste a current release from a small producer that could be a giant killer in a given region (for the giants have gotten to expensive to dally with). The hunt and all that. They simply won’t just request or buy wines from Carneros or NZ or Walla Walla. Site only really determines whether you grow Pinot instead of Cabernet. Beyond that it is the artistes who make the real difference. And the occasion when you consumed their artistry.

    Anyway, your fine writing deserve a comment.

    Best regards,


  2. CTL Says:

    you are a lean, mean, writin’ machine!

  3. John Kelly Says:

    Arthur – you’re preachin’ to the choir – can I get an “amen!” brother? But I will switch metaphors to state – I think that horse left the barn a long time ago. Global blends represent the natural continuation of a trend that began long before Gallo and so many others started bottling cheap, over-processed “California” wines.

    I see these products as gateway drugs for some people, who will drink them for a while, realize how much they suck, and decide it is worth the extra ghelt to seek out wines that have the sense of place those of us in the choir so revere. The optimist in me sees a potential billion or so new wine consumers in China and India starting out on global blends, leading to such a huge cohort of new epicures looking for sense of place that artisanal wine production will experience an explosion of growth like never before in history.

  4. Linda Outterson Says:

    At our little winery, there is a place for artistry, one for the money wines, one for commonality and one for experimentation. Artistry does OK but the money wine does better. Were our wines to be made with a computer, as they truly are at the wine factories, our problems would be fewer. You see, grapes don’t get intermingled with other region’s grapes at the wine factories. Oh no – powders, extracts, concentrates, adjuncts of every form and shape get added by computer that adjust to the most recent consumer polls. Romance and fact collide in the business of wine. Between our 2-person, sanscomputer winery and the monoliths of marketing there is a great divide that most drinkers will never swim across. I foresee a time we don’t even have to bother with growing the grapes – we can just break out the test tubes and write convincing sell copy.

  5. Morton Leslie Says:

    I have been a wine drinker, collector, and maker since learning how to taste wine from Maynard Amerine in Vit 126 in the early 60′s. The wine world has changed and it has been entirely for the better. I made over 26 varietals at my first winemaking job and they were mostly crap. Not because I was that bad, but because the grapes were bad. Wrong variety on the wrong soil, wrongly grown, harvested at the wrong time on a date wrongly chosen by the grower, not the winemaker. Furthermore Chianti was universally crap. Chilean whites tasted like bad sherry. Bordeaux averaged 11.2 alcohol, dominated by Brett, and you had to age it at least a decade for the tannins to soften. Except for a rare vintage and the best sites Burgundy was thin, watery crap. If you asked a wine drinker what the liked it was a nice sweet “Chablis” made in Fresno. Oregon and Washington made berry wine. Virginia was experimenting with hybrids, New York was just the Fingerlakes, and few other states even had a winery. Canada grew wheat.
    Today there are thousands upon thousands of new winemakers, new growing regions, and improvement everywhere. There is even a wine revolution going on Greece and in Eastern Europe for god sakes. This has happened in just four decades. Given how far we have come, I don’t see a few high profile wines made to please a couple fatigued palates who assign numbers to wines to be purchased by unsure status seeking men to be a threat to the soul of wine whatsoever. There have always been soulless wines made for soulless label drinkers. It takes decades for people to appreciate regionality. All this wouldn’t have happened if they couldn’t tell the difference. They just need varied experience. They need time to travel and experiment. It is all happening, it just takes time and, meanwhile, wine remains safe in the customer’s hands.

  6. Kary Kowalkowski Says:

    Thanks for your article. It has given me a lot to consider. Thanks again!