What a wine lover really wants

Author as a burgeoning sommelier (1982)

Is there a new American wine?

In an 2014 piece published in The Washington Post, longtime industry observer Dave McIntyre projected the evolution of what he calls “the new American wine,” strongly influenced by steadily growing consumer interest in wines grown and produced in states other than California (i.e. the “drink local” mantra), where the sun so easily engenders such rich, full bodied wines.  Writes McIntyre:

What does the new American wine taste like?  Because so much of it is coming from outside California (although the Golden State still dominates every statistical analysis of U.S. wine production), the wines are less ripe and alcoholic, combining a European sense of balance with American flair.  They might use unusual grape varieties, such as Petit Manseng or Chardonel, as vintners discover which vines grow best where.  Grape varieties could become less important as winemakers focus more on expressing the voice of their vineyards, often with blends that don’t follow traditional wine paradigms.  The new American wine is a wine of place, proud of where it comes from and proud of its diversity.

As for California wines, McIntyre adds:

These trends are happening inside California as well... we will hear more about moderating alcohol levels as winemakers, such as those in In Pursuit of Balance and other groups, redefine ripeness.  The sledgehammer wines with 15% alcohol might not be extinct, but their heyday has passed.

Artist Kathy Womack's depiction of today's wine lovers

Is the heyday of big alcohol wines – like big hair, or big fins on cars – coming to pass, or is this simply another case of a journalist closing his eyes and tapping his heels three times to wish something along?

When I started in the business in 1978, almost all wines were finished at about 12% alcohol (or 13%, if you really wanted to go wild).  Anything near 14% was considered weird, a freak of nature.  Most California red wines were aged in tree-sized redwood vats until their varietal fruit qualities were smoothed (or dried) out, and virtually no white wines saw aging in small “center of France” oak barrels.  Yet this was just the thing for grandpa and grandma, happily consuming these low-key wines by the gallon-jug from stubby glasses, or that restaurants served by the 1-liter “carafe” day and night.

The reason why Californians, in particular, were producing less ripe, lower alcohol style wines prior to the 1980s was because in those days they didn’t have better ways of doing it:   trellising and viticultural practices of the past made it difficult to grow grapes beyond 22° or 22.5° Brix (sugar levels that convert to just 12% to 13% alcohol and, thus, diminished fruit expression).  It wasn’t so much a style choice as an only choice.

Yet McIntyre makes a good point about the increased exposure to European wines influencing contemporary Americans’ taste in wine.  The European model is generally lighter and leaner – closer to the 12% alcohol and low emphasis on fruit that suited grandma and grandpa just fine – which is why it’s always such a shock when you find the occasional European imports made in softer, heavier, fruitier, woodier styles just to please us dumb Americans.

Optimal consumer segment:  female, early to mid-30s.

But let’s face it:  the reason why 14% alcohol wines are considered light by today’s standards, and why ultra-ripe, oaky styles have became so popular in recent years, was not only because viticultural and winemaking improvements made it possible, but also because consumers (not to mention 100-point critics) have liked them that way. Wine drinkers are like voters:  we like our big mouthed, obnoxious, even dim witted politicians, and continuously complain once we put them in office.

Still, today’s producers are always feeling the pressure to produce wines that fit the 100-point media’s criteria for what constitutes “good wine,” since media response is very much a part of the sales process.  But this does not keep consumer tastes from forever being in a state of flux.  Consumer tastes are constantly evolving, with or without media input.

Change is inevitable – it’s just that it’s never overnight, and there is always segments of the  wine consuming public that have to be dragged along kicking and screaming.  For years now, much of the public has been deriding the fat, fruity styles of California Chardonnay, but it’s not as if the cougars enjoying these wines will suddenly go extinct.  Many of them will continue to demand their butterball Chardonnays the same way that Aunt Gladys clings to her White Zinfandel, or the way Uncle Bob is perpetually suckered into his over-priced, over-hyped Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that he does more looking at in his cellar rather than actually drinking.

But time is a bitch in that it never, ever quits.  We all need time to gravitate to lower key sensations:  to think of lightness as a quality rather than flaw; to appreciate sharpness instead of softness, earth and minerals instead of tropical fruitiness, and subtle, barely noticeable complexity rather than obvious, brutal intensity.  But eventually we come around to that because moderation and subtlety is closer to the style of more timeless classics – that is, wines consumed in countries with a far longer history of appreciating wine.

A “new American wine” is on its way.  It’s just a matter of waiting for it, and...

Ancient Lodi vines:  strong sense of place

The final step:  appreciation of wines’ sense of place

The best wines in the world have always been defined primarily by how distinctly they taste of where they come from.  This is why, after centuries of winegrowing culture, all of the official quality classification systems in Europe are based upon identification and regulation of regions, sub-regions, and vineyards – not so much grapes, brands, producers, winemakers, etc.

How far along is the American wine industry on this path?  Honestly, not very far.  Most consumers, as well as industry movers and shakers, still define the quality of American wines primarily in terms of “varietal character,” or sheer intensity of fruitiness.  Even self-described, presumably intelligent connoisseurs of wine remain suckers for "star" winemakers; big fans of what certain vintners are doing, no matter how good, bad, silly or pretentious.  And when it comes to wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, it is all too obvious that the more oak flavor in a wine the better.  Industry pundits even use the expression “200% new oak” – use of new oak barrels plus extra oak amendments during fermentation and élevage – to describe what is necessary to score 95 points or higher.

100-point score systems clearly exacerbate this misappropriation.  No matter how you slice it, assigning numbers to wine is an infantile way of looking at it.  There is no objectivity, but in this world you voluntarily suspend rational disbelief.  If wine critics were beauty pageant judges, they would be judging strictly on the size and perception of breasts.  But that’s okay, because most Americans (including media and trade) are still babies when it comes to subtlety or sophistication.  You have to start somewhere; and besides, babies are cute, aren’t they?

Still, we’ve come a long ways:  40, 50 years ago the vast majority of American wine drinkers were consuming generic wines like “Burgundy,” “Chablis,” and “Vin Rosé.”  Appreciation of varietal wines – at first, wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, then Chardonnay and White Zinfandel, progressing later to Merlot, Pinot Noir, red Zinfandel, Syrah/Shiraz, and most recently, “new” (although ancient in Europe) varietals like Tempranillo, Albariño, Verdelho, Sangiovese, and Grüner Veltliner – has really been a fairly recent development for most American consumers, but still a major step in the right direction.


Barrel topping in Halter Ranch Vineyard, Paso Robles

Appreciation of brands, winery styles, and individual winemakers has also been part of the evolution, but the next step is appreciation of wines in the way of the oldest winegrowing regions in the world:  in terms of sense of place first – how well and distinctly they express where they are grown in real, tangible sensations – and only after that, appreciation of producers, and arbitrary notions like “varietal character” or “brand” styles.  That’s the natural order of things.

The finest wines have always been, basically, agricultural products.  They may be manufactured to some degree, since humans have a direct hand in the viticulture and science of the winemaking process.  But ultimately, both quality and appreciation are determined by characteristics derived from natural conditions within given regions and vineyards, down to smaller blocks of vines and individual plants, on this particular pocket of soil, exposure or climatic corner.  This is when fine wine really gets interesting – when Nature is given the final say on what you get in the bottle.

There are already, of course, tons of American wine lovers who are into that. They are enjoying American wines the way classic European wines have always been enjoyed (not, mind you, the modern day European wines that also employ 200% new oak to kiss up to the critics).  It’s only a matter of time before significant chunks of more wine lovers go for that, too.  And when that happens, most American wine producers will feel less compelled to produce wines kowtowing to 100-point critics. And maybe, just maybe, even the critics will become more sophisticated; putting aside their childish, score keeping ways.  Praise the lord, and pass the bottle.

True-blue, crazy-about-wine consumers, after all, aren’t exactly stupid.  They’re just doing what they’re supposed to be doing – continuously learning, and expanding their horizons – along with our nation’s growers and producers.  For me – after all these years in the business of tasting, buying, selling, and writing about wine – the process is still an exciting one, and gets better by the day!

Millennials:  the face of future and present-day wine consumers

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