Grapes versus place

Why Americans are so concerned with grape varieties

Fall 2012 harvest at LaRocca Vineyards.

Fall 2012 harvest at LaRocca Vineyards.

photo courtesy of larocca vineyards

There are few things that so concern American consumers as ingredients. We want to know precisely what we’re eating and drinking—whether it’s preservatives in packaged goods, pesticide residues on produce, or monosodium glutamate in cheap Chinese food.

When it comes time to drink wine, many American drinkers likewise want to know exactly what types of grapes are in a bottle. Thus, we drink zinfandels and cabernet sauvignons, gewürztraminers and viogniers. Retail wine aisles are usually arranged by grape variety, and tasting events tend to be marketed the same way. In the film Sideways, oenophile Miles did not wax poetically on Burgundy, but he grew almost teary eyed over pinot noir.

“People expect to see the grape variety on the bottle in America,” said Phil LaRocca, winemaker at LaRocca Vineyards in Forest Ranch. “They want to know what grapes are in the wine.”

This is a different approach than that taken in Europe, where wine drinkers recognize and pursue wines by their regional names. Champagne is a region in France. It is also synonymous with the bubbly wines made there. Ditto for Porto, Burgundy, Bordeaux and Chianti—just without the bubbles.

Moreover, because most European wines are made by standard regional guidelines, consumers don’t need to be reminded that Champagne is composed, mostly, of pinot noir and chardonnay—or that a red Bordeaux is probably made mostly of cabernet sauvignon, or that a Rhône Valley red is likely syrah-based.

Pedro Carvalho, a Portuguese importer with Aidil Wines and Liquors, explains that in his country, red wines are commonly a blend of touriga national, tinta roriz and alfrocheiro grapes.

“But a wine with the same approximate blend will vary greatly [in flavor] depending on the region, as the microclimates have a clear effect on the vineyards,” Carvalho said. Thus, he explains, smart consumers must have knowledge of wine regions, which tend to dictate how different wines will taste and smell.

But in California, any grape can be used anywhere, and the tradition of relying on regional names for wines has never taken.

“Right after Prohibition, you could probably find every variety of grape growing in the Napa Valley,” said Janet Myers, winemaker at Franciscan Estate near Napa. “The place name ‘Napa Valley’ wouldn’t have been an indicator for what kind of wine it was, since we had so many grapes here.”

LaRocca says California’s pioneering winemakers were compelled to use varietal grape names as a means of impressing upon skeptical outsiders that California was capable of producing French wine types—and producing them well.

“When Robert Mondavi was promoting the Napa Valley, he wanted to show the world that the Napa Valley could grow cabernet sauvignon as well as the French,” LaRocca explains. “[Mondavi] couldn’t just sell a red Napa blend. He had to show that Napa could grow the great ones, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, so the wines were marketed by variety.”

This varietally oriented approach to marketing and consuming wine in California stuck, and today most California winemakers tend to make single-variety wines. Most consumers, too, shop, think and drink in terms of grape names.

In spite of Americans’ focus on grape varieties, Californian blends are now becoming more popular. Myers believes that wine drinkers, as they grow more educated and sophisticated, often seek out blended wines, which may represent the subtler skills of a winemaker. Franciscan Estate’s Bordeaux-style blend called Magnificat—composed mostly of cabernet sauvignon and marked by the tannic, heavy qualities of the style—has gained followers in recent years, Myers says.

Shannon McGahan, manager of Monks Wine Lounge & Bistro, also says she has seen demand for blends increase as consumers begin to look for wines more complex than single varietal wines.

To LaRocca, it makes sense that California’s wine drinkers and winemakers are looking beyond single varietal wines. California’s grape-growing regions are gaining their own repute, he explains. The Russian River is known as a hotbed of excellent pinot noir, Lodi as a source of first-rate zinfandel, and the Central Coast as a premiere syrah-growing zone—and perhaps with greater frequency every year, it’s these and other regional names that draw consumers’ attention, not just the grape name.

“[Californians] don’t have to worry anymore about convincing the world that we can grow good cabernet and other varieties,” LaRocca said. “We’re out there. Now we can talk about regions, not just grapes.”