by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)
Steve Heimoff penned a post last week that certainly bears reading: “The Central Valley’s silver bullet doesn’t exist” (can be found at http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2012/06/21/the-central-valleys-silver-bullet-doesnt-exist/ ).
Sadly, I must agree with much of what Heimoff has to say. Perhaps tragically is a better adverb. At any rate, the gist of Heimoff’s point of view is that it really doesn’t make much of difference whether some varieties that the average consumer has never heard of make better wine. Basically because the average consumer doesn’t care. As Randall Graham has said, most people would rather buy a mediocre wine made from a recognized grape than a good wine made from an unknown one.
I love wine, and consider it one of the things that makes life worth living. But when it comes to understanding what sells in the wine world, you’re better off looking to toothpaste or mouthwash. If someone likes Crest, they’re going to keep buying Crest. If a new toothpaste comes on the market, chances are the Crest user will simply keep using Crest. He won’t even try the new toothpaste. Pretty much the same is true of wine, at least when it comes to varieties.
I remember hearing once of a blind tasting between Coke and Pepsi. Somewhat surprisingly, most Pepsi drinkers preferred the Coke, and vice versa. Yet neither group indicated that they were likely to change their buying habits. It just goes to show that there’s a lot besides what’s in the bottle that drives the choices consumers make. And if the end result can only be characterized as dreary, repetitive, and boring, that’s simply a fact of life we need to live with. That’s not to say that nothing new ever succeeds. But it does mean that something new is going to have a hard time of it, no matter how intrinsically good it is.
When we throw a party, and put out a number of wines, my rule of thumb is that the preferred wines are those that get drunk the most. An empty bottle was enjoyed more than a half empty one. But there’s a major exception to this rule. The totally full bottle. How can you say people did or didn’t like that bottle, when no one bothered to taste it all? That’s the problem of the “magic bullet”. However, magic it might be, it’s beside the point if no one will taste it.
The truth of the matter is that finding varieties that make better wines in the Central Valley isn’t a quest after the Holy Grail. We know that some varieties that the average consumer has never heard of in fact make better wines there. Different regions of the world that experience hotter climates than Bordeaux and Burgundy have been making wine for centuries, if not millennia, and have pretty much selected varieties that perform well in their environments. If you posit that a grape from Sicily is more likely to do well in a hot climate than one from Burgundy, you won’t go far wrong. Viticulturally, planting Pinot Noir or Merlot in the Central Valley is the idea of an idiot. Marketing-wise, it’s probably the opposite. God knows, there’s way more Merlot grown in the Central Valley than any of the hot-weather varieties that we all know are better suited there.
For anyone needing more direction, try Montepulciano or Aglianico. I assume Negroamaro, Touriga Nacional, and Tinta Amarello are also good bets, though I haven’t had quite the success with them as with Montepulciano and Aglianico.
That’s not to say that there isn’t room for experimentation, and that some varieties might do better than others, even though they both hail from hotter climes. But it does mean that finding “better” varieties isn’t primarily a matter of viticultural challenge. The challenge is the consumer, and marketing these new varieties to them.
I’m not a marketing person, so I don’t knew the solution to this problem. I would guess that some alternative variety will attract a small following, and, maybe if the planets line up, will eventually turn mainstream. One can only hope.