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?
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