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Tuesday Tributes
Too Many Varieties in California?

By Charles Olken

Question: Why does the list of varieties and wine styles made in California keep expanding? Aren’t the two dozen grapes already here, many of which are not yet perfected, enough for every would-be vintner?

The simple answers: Because we are not Europe with its hidebound rules and because we can.

One of the ugly arguments in this year’s Presidential sweepstakes goes like this” “He does not understand what makes America unique”. It’s an easy and loaded argument in a political context, and I am about to bring it into the wine arena.

Why is it, I asked a winemaker recently, that you want to make strange and different wines that have no following here and occupy tiny niches in the world of wine. His answer: Because I can. Because here in California we can try anything that our imaginations let us imagine.

Now, I for one, do not really care if we make the several thousand varieties that exist in the world. I, for one, do not care if we grow every Sicilian and Greek and Romanian cultivar that we can find. I hope I am not becoming some kind of Luddite, but I wish we would get a few more of the noble and near noble varieties right before we run off and try to make everything else.

Please do not get me wrong. Anyone who wants to make those little known varieties should. That is where I and almost all Americans agree. We do try many things here because we can. I do belong to the “Let a thousand flowers bloom” league. If you are not harming the planet or your neighbors, go ahead.

Still, I do wish that more people would work on Grenache, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, Marsanne and Roussanne before they attempted to make Assyrtiko, Dornfelder and Touriga Nacional.

California can. I love those words. It is why I moved here several decades ago from New England. Nothing wrong with my home counties, but in California I found a spirit that transcended the known and was intrigued with the possible. I would find myself on the horns of the dilemma if I really wanted to climb up on my soap box and argue against new directions.

Instead, I will quietly say: Please don’t forget some of the old favorites in your rush to be new and different. Great wines from Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Tempranillo can be made in California. How do I know? Because we can.

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by TomHill
Posted on:8/27/2012 7:02:56 PM

Hmmmmmmm, Charlie. It was not the rant ragging on Ribolla or orange wines I was expecting from a semi-Luddite like you. In fact...gasp....there's much to agree with in what you say. Some of these variieties like Riesling/GWT/CheninBlanc/Nebbiolo/Charbono/etc have, and can, make absolutely delicious wines here in Calif. And I wish there were more wineries who would pick up on those varieties.

   OTOH, Calif's interest in more obscure/esoteric varieties is something that also (obviously) excites me as well. Much of this movement comes from young-turk winemakers he try something from Italy/Greece/Georgia/etc and wonder what that variety could do in Calif. They thrive on the intellectual challenge of trying these things (and do it in such small quantities that marketing them is mostly to the nut-cases like myself).

   One of my favorite winemakers is MattRorick, whom I trust you met a FriuliFest. ForlornHope...because the varieties he likes to make are such a "forlorn hope". Common stuff... like Semillon/PetiteSirah/CheninBlanc/PetiteVerdot/GWT. He takes a new approach to some of them and makes some pretty interesting/exciting wines. And some may be a little weird for you. But he's also interested in a lot of obscure stuff as well. Ribolla, Greco de Tufo, StLaurent....his StLaurent (only planting in Calif I believe from a friend in Carneros) is easily the best StLaurent I've ever tasted. He's dying to track down some....gack....GreenHungarian....just to see what he can do with it. These are the people who really excite me.

   Anyway...nicely done rant..if that's what it is, Charlie.



Rant or No Rant
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:8/27/2012 7:42:16 PM

Ah, Mr. Hill, that is the question. I guess it was half-rant, half-attaboy. I mean, who would really be against someone trying to make Amerone-like wines here?

I hope that Matt Rorick is not swimming upstream against the ebbtide because we know that many of the grapes with which he is working do make fine wines both here and elsewhere. As for St. Laurent, well, good on him for giving it a go. There have got to be grapes in Europe that have great potential here. I suspect that many of the varieties grown in Eastern Europe would be a lot more popular worldwide if they had a dedicated home in France.

But, there is that otherside of the rant/no rant. I keep hoping for the prosperous return of Riesling and Chenin Blanc, Gewerztraminer and some unlocking of the potential of Grenache (which might happen), Tempranillo and Nebbiolo.


For Argument's Sake...
by Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Posted on:8/28/2012 12:19:03 PM


Let's say I made what I thought was a great Tempranillo, or a great Gewurztraminer, or Nebbiolo (made a couple of halfway decent ones).  All varieties you mention in your blog.  When would you reveiw them?  I've gone back over past issues and don't really see these mentioned.  And, as a producer, I'd be reluctant to send samples to you because I don't know that they'd ever see the light of day.

I understand and largely agree with your points, but some of the situation is self-created, I think, as writers simply don't cover these varities in the same way/frequency.

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

Good Question
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:8/28/2012 1:14:04 PM

Hi Adam--

A good and fair question--and an instructive one at that.

All it takes for us to pay attention to a variety is a critical mass. There is no earthly to provide useful coverage to the non-existence of a category--such as Nebbiolo or Gewurztraminer.

We do cover virtually all the Rhone varieties because they at least add up to something together even though there is not much Grenache Blanc, Marsanne or Rousanne.

I seem to be hung up on political metaphores these days so let me use another one. Back about fifty years ago, when Lyndon Johnson became President, he was being lobbied heavily to support the first of the significant Civil Righs legislation of the day. His response to the people who were lobbying, "It's your job to make me".

The wine writer analogy is this: when the wineries get beyond playing with a few acres of this or that and decide that there is real potential in something, it will get plenty of coverage. But, short of that, the impossible to find experiments will rate only the occasional short article such as that in the Santa Rosa PD the other day for a guy who thinks he is going to become a California producer of Amarone.

You can also look at Ribolla Gialla for a look at a similar situation. Despite the fact that the head boy at the SF Chron has championed that grape as the equivalent of hte "second coming", it exists in a vinous backwater known only to the few insiders and not earning broad coverage because there is essentially none of it.

Good Question--Part 2
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:8/28/2012 1:20:48 PM

OK, so that it the bureaucratic answer.

But there is the other side. While I want to see the forgotton varieties like Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer and others worked more, it is also fun to see folks trying to make Ribolla Gialla, Amarone and St. Laurent.

Somewhere in those trials could emerge "the next big thing". All it takes is wine quality and the kind of character that has appeal. But, it is not the writers who will find the next big thing. It is the wineries. The writers will report on it when there is something to report. Find me two dozen GWZ and I will report on them. Find me five and I won't.

by TomHill
Posted on:8/28/2012 5:27:36 PM

Charlie Sez: "All it takes for us to pay attention to a variety is a critical mass."

Ahhhhh...therein lies the rub, Charlie. Deciding what is a critical mass to get your attention. Sorta like which came first....the chicken or the egg. The varietal or the review.


by TomHill
Posted on:8/28/2012 5:33:44 PM

At NEB3, we had almost 40 Calif Nebbs. Is that not enough for a "critical mass"?? I bet in your first Syrah review, you didn't have 40 Syrahs. It's a matter of which came first...the chicken or the egg? The varietals or the review?

   You do a review on Rhone varietals. Why not one on Iberian varietals? A suggestion: Every once in awhile, do a review on obscure/esoteric varietals (StLaurent/Aglianico/Refosco/Nero d'Avola/Negroamaro/Sagratino/etc). Surely you can find a "critical mass" of those varietals. I'd muuch rather read that review than yet another one on NapaVlly Cabs...but then I'm a bit weird, as you know.

And, BTW; Adam's Nebbs are much better than "halfway decent".



Egg or Chikcken
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:8/28/2012 5:54:11 PM

As you may remember, Tom,we used to report on Riesling and GWZ all the time, and Chenin Blanc was featured in our very first issue. That did not prevent those varieties from losing their standing and reporting on all five Ribolla Giallas will not change theirs given that no one can find them.

I am always flattered by the supposed power of the wine press, but it is the wineries and the consumers who make the market. The press reports on what is happening. It is very difficult to report on comparative blind tastings when there is no wine to taste.

Putting In Requests?
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:8/28/2012 6:16:30 PM

If we are putting in our requests, as a retailer the one thing I would ask, to at least consider, don't charge more for your Temranillo or Nebbiolo than we can possibly make sense selling it know, when there are tried and true offerings from the country of origin. Would a lot.

Tough Decision...
by TomHill
Posted on:8/29/2012 8:42:08 AM

Samantha Sez: "don't charge more for your Temranillo or Nebbiolo than we can possibly make sense selling it know, when there are tried and true offerings from the country of origin.".

This is a pretty tricky area, Samantha. I totally agree w/ you..but it's still tricky. Suppose you release Calif's first StLaurent (sorry to beat a dead horse here) . Most of the Austrian ones sell for in the $20's, a few in the low $30's. So a price of $27/btl seems sorta fair. Now...just think this wine is the greatest StLaurent ever made in the world. Now what do you price it at?? $40?? $50?? Now...the $27 seems like a real bargain.

   We can do the same exercise for Sagrantino. 'Cept now...most of the Italian ones are priced at $60-$100/btl. Now Pietro's/Rosa d'Oro price of $24 looks like a steal. Or sweet Alice's $80/btl price seems pretty fair.

   Or you can look at the price of the first Calif Gruner (vonStrasser). Priced at $60/btl. It was not nearly as good as some Austrian ones at $20/btl. The free market as a way of working its magic (sometimes..anyway) and so it's now priced at $35...still not as good as most $20 Austrian's NapaVlly Gruner..high-rent district...that's gotta count for something!!

   But, I'm with you, Samantha. Price that first Zelen or Tazzalenghe reasonably until you find what price the market will support.


How Good Are Those Eggs
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:8/29/2012 10:05:20 AM

Tom, you raise a good point about quality. New entries to the market have no track record so it becomes a question of whether retailers like Samantha's store can hand sell the wine in question.

While I reject the notion that retailers "speak" for consumers, they are the critical link. Making "another" OK wine is not going to earn wide fame and fortune. It mgiht land the wine on the "no one recognizes the wines" types of list the new somms use to pat themselves on the back and into a few way-out retailers.

And that might just be enough to start. Either the wine works at that level or it does not. If it does, then more will get made and the ball will get rolling.

I recently ran into a NY Riesling on a wine list here in San Francisco. Not sure what it was doing there in what was essentially an up-scale pub grub restaurant, but there it was and it fit the occasion. It was lovely, and, of course, I dream of a day when Riesling becomes a popular variety here. Sadly, the wine sat on the list for months and waa not reordered.

That is the hurdle for all the grapes to traverse--including classic varieties. The "too many varieties" argument suggests that very few lesser known grapes will make it into the broader consciousness.

The other side of the argument has to be " so what?". Let whomever is interested in Arneis or Vermentino, Touriga or Torrontes make them. If they gain recognition, well, that is just fine. But if they do not, that is also just fine. No one owes Nebbiolo a living in CA just because a bunch of folks are having fun with it.

And, there is a nutshell, is why the original column was half-rant and half-wishful thinking.

by Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Posted on:8/29/2012 11:26:10 AM

I do think it is somewhat self-fulfilling.  Most of these other varieties, classic or otherwise, are often first made in tiny quantities and wineries can sell what they make.  So they have little need to send in samples to anyone.

As a very real example, I make a Pinot Meunier....would love to send it to you, Charlie, as I think it is something I'd like to hear your opinion on (we sell it all so I don't really need the review).  But I wouldn't send it because you wouldn't review it.  

What about doing a miscellaneous reds and miscellaneous whites tasting once a year?  Or do you think you need peer groups to taste?


Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

Standards Of A Sort
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:8/29/2012 11:52:22 AM

Adam, we are stongly biased towards the notion of peer-to-peer blind tastings. That is why we pretty much shy away from most tastings where there can be only a few bottles--aside from the Rhones were there is a related category and two (now maybe one) strong support groups who are also pushing the idea.

I am beginning to come around to a related view and will try to test it out with Tom Hill. If we can get his friends in the Nebbiolo biz to accumulate enough samples, or if someone can help with Chenin Blanc or anything else, I think we would go there.

I would point to our just completed (see the Sept Issue when it debuts in a couple of days) review of Sangiovese. We got a lot of help from a couple of producers who pointed us in the right direction.

I don't think it would need twenty examples of P. Meunier to do a look at it, but it might take half a dozen or more. Tempranillo comes to mind as a variety that we would look at if there were a way to put enough wine together.

Typically, we buy wine that we see at retail and combine it with what comes in from producers who are kind enough to supply it.  We don't do much heavy chasing simply because we need to keep as much of an arm's length relationship with the producers as we can.

For example, we did chase some of the Sangiovese rather than having someone chase it for us. Would we let someone chase down all the Tempranillo? Yes, I am beginning to think that there is no other alternative. And I guess we would be OK with that as long as we tasted the wines blind at our table, not theirs.

Food for thought, certainly.

by TomHill
Posted on:8/29/2012 12:10:05 PM

Charlie Sez:"I am beginning to come around to a related view and will try to test it out with Tom Hill. If we can get his friends in the Nebbiolo biz to accumulate enough samples, or if someone can help with Chenin Blanc or anything else, I think we would go there."

AhhhHaaa, Adam...the barriers are beginning to crumble here methinks!!

   How about if, during the organization of NEB4, we request an additional btl for CGCW, to be delivered as a set to Alameda. That work for you, Charlie???



Standards Of A Sort
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:8/29/2012 12:17:55 PM

Yes, Tom. That would work.

Now, find me a champion of Chenin Blanc. :-}

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