by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)
I’ve always held a special place in my heart for Sicily, which has to be one of my favorite places. So I read with interest this article that appeared in Palate Press:
The Grapes of What?
While the article was about Sicily, and Sicilian wines, the point of the article is one that applies worldwide. It is simply difficult bordering on impossible to make a dent with wine varieties no one has ever heard of in a world awash with Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Merlot.
Having played around with different wine varieties from the south of Italy, I have to admit I have my own thoughts about them. It is no doubt true that Nero d’Avola is a dominant grape in the region, but I simply cannot get very excited about it.
On the other hand, Aglianico and Negroamaro both make stunning wines. Of course, as far as most wine buyers are concerned in the United States, I may as well be speaking Klingon. Because the vast majority of those buyers have never heard any of those three grapes. And if they have heard of them, they have never tasted them, and if they have tasted them, they’ve certainly not tasted enough of them to gain any real insight into what they are capable of doing.
To some extent, it is an insoluble problem. Between a day at the office and picking up the children at day care, a parent makes a quick stop at the local grocery store. There is simply no room in that person’s life for a sophisticated comparison of grapes obscure if not unknown. Why would that person ever consider pulling a bottle of Aglianico off the shelf even in the unlikely event that there were one there that could be pulled off?
Of course, they wouldn’t. And so it doesn’t matter how good a wine Aglianico makes if nobody tries it.
So I guess that is where the tasting room can really make all the difference. I experimented with a number of varieties some years ago and one of the most successful was Montepulciano. Good luck selling that in to national distribution. But in our tasting room it is a big hit. If you can sweep away all the hype, all the branding, all the association with the big-name grapes (Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay) and strip the process down to its bare essentials (i.e., just tasting the wine), the “mano a mano” square off where the only thing that counts is how they taste, then all of a sudden Montepulciano has a fighting chance. And that’s all it needs, because everybody who tastes it (or at least almost everybody) loves it.
Of course, you should not expect to see a Gallo Montepulciano on a grocery store shelf in a market near you anytime soon, since the chances of our quasi-prohibitionist nation allowing that type of tasting on a broad basis is remote at best. And even if it were to happen, the marketing machine that supports the status quo is an immense force that is not easily overcome.
So, at best, I think we will see a few “obscure” varieties transition from “obscure” to “niche”, in somewhat the way Zinfandel and Petite Sirah have done. They may still be drops in an ocean of wine, but at least most wine consumers when they hear “Zinfandel” can identify it as a wine grape, which puts it way ahead of Aglianico.