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Three Views of Varietal Diversity

By Charles Olken

Happy Bastille Day. If we were in Paris today, we would be standing ten deep along the Champs Elysee watching France celebrate its equivalent of July 4, Independence Day. And we would almost certainly be drinking wine made from a well-known, widely appreciated variety. No unheard of varieties for Parisians. They aren’t drinking Ribolla Gialla or even Tannat. So, why are we in California chasing our tails trying to make everything under the sun and accepting, at least in part, the argument that our interests are limited, narrow-minded and front-running. Diversity? Who needs it? I am certainly not sure that I do, and so I offer you three views of diversity because they are at the heart of my own inner thoughts over this past weekend as I have looked at what varieties I want to drink and want CGCW to cover in the next six to twelve months.

ARGUMENT # 1: The “Same Old, Same Old” is Boring

This is the strongest argument in my kit bag for why CGCW might go in hunt of the limited supplies of Arneis, Vermentino, Verdelho, Torrontes, Nebbiolo, Trousseau Gris and Trousseau Noir (also known as Bastardo)—not to mention a whole host of other varieties that exist more or less in viticultural limbo here but which are not totally unheard of.

California long ago became a place of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Those varieties account for 45% of all wine grapes standing in California, fetch the highest prices in the marketplace and, if one looks at coastal vineyards, make up something like 70% of the total in those places best known for higher quality wines. And that is before we even begin to count Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc. I am not sure how to count sparkling wine as a category, but since the ones we like here at CGCW are primarily, if not entirely, made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, we can pass on that topic for the moment.

Long ago, the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) meme became widely heard because Chardonnay was everywhere, and its success was driving out other varieties thus effectively limiting our white wine choices to a precious few. The argument that the mass of Chardonnay was boring, too similar and stifling in its lack of choice is strong and persuasive. Yet, I will admit that I still drink more Chardonnay than any other white at home regardless of my listing Riesling as my favorite white variety. And since I tend to be a red-wine person, because I am “meat” person in restaurants, I tend most often to Cabernet Sauvignon and more recently to Pinot Noir because it offers so much more for the money these days than does Cabernet.

Increasingly, however, especially in restaurants, Mrs. Olken and I will choose something other than Chardonnay for our white, and often not something from California unless we see one of those limited edition Chenin Blancs or Gewurztraminers from favored producers. Those wines are few and far between for all of us, including yours truly, however, but their existence is at the heart of my weekend thoughts about diversity and the problem, such that it is, of California, and thus CGCW, becoming repetitive, boring and closed-minded.

ARGUMENT #2: There Are Reasons Why Chardonnay And Friends Are Winning

When so many of our good friends in the wine-drinking world are out there looking for and making limited quantities of Chenin Blanc, Torrontes, Tempranillo, Roussanne, it is not because they are necessarily looking angry at Chardonnay. They are adventurers and they like the discovery, the chase. Some of these folks even count the number of varieties they have tasted and secretly strive to reach triple digits, in part because of the thrill of the quest, but mostly because they enjoy all kinds of flavors and are happy to seek them out.

But there are reasons why the leading grapes have become the leading grapes and that is because their wines taste good. Cabernet Sauvignon would not boast 75,000 acres or Chardonnay nearly 100,000 if the wine drinkers in this country did not like them. It is not so long ago at a Ribolla Gialla tasting that two of the most broadly interested wine people I know, one a collector and the other a maker of wines so broad in scale and so out of the main stream that he has achieved iconic fame for that very trait, came up to Steve Eliot and myself and confessed that they are still Chardonnay drinkers.

I personally wish it were not so, but Chenin Blanc, Riesling and Gewurztraminer did not get chased out of vineyards because people loved them but because people loved Chardonnay more. And red wine grapes like Tannat, Grenache, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Tempranillo have barely gained footholds here because they have yet to challenge the majesty of our best Cabernets and Pinots, Zins, Merlots and Syrahs.

Diversity is a good thing, but wine quality is the thing. And as long as wine quality is the primary driver of interest in wine, the reasons why the big three are winning will keep those other varieties at bay even as all kinds of grapes hang around on the fringes. It matters not that the NY Times writes articles celebrating two acres of Bastardo as a sign of change in California or Decanter publishes articles proclaiming Grenache as the savior of California wine. The truth is that diversity is for the geeks, not for the mainstream.

ARGUMENT #3: Hurray For The Geeks And The Adventurers

I guess it all comes down to this. There is no denying that there is a part of us, all of us, who find fascination in difference. Yes, not all of us in all things. My father-in-law grew up on a farm in Kansas and never ate fish as a kid and rarely ate fish as an adult even though he later lived in England and Scotland for years. But, he did build his own experimental airplane.

It would be a boring world if we were all cut from the same mold, and it would be a boring wine world if we get stuck drinking half a dozen wine varieties at the expense of the next most interesting dozen or two dozen—or ten dozen if you are one of those in search of the 250 different varieties identified in Italian vineyards.

Perhaps I am not geeky enough to really care about orange wines or varieties in Greece I have never heard of, but that does not mean that they are to be dismissed out of hand. My new favorite grapes are Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, blended together on the slopes of Mount Etna in the form of Etna Rosso. Go search out one from Benanti or Biondi Santi. But, my conclusion is that diversity for diversity’s sake is not the be all and end all in my wine world. Hurray for those who search, strive, bring us the next big thing and the next big thing and the next big thing after that. They do things like invent polio vaccines and bring us grape varieties to consider.

Along the way, however, I would appreciate it if they would help me find more top-quality Chenin Blanc, Sangiovese, Riesling and Grenache here in California. I am not against diversity. I just want it to start with a few of my old friends that have been forgotten or never quite reached the same levels of quality here that they have achieved in the old country.


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by TomHill
Posted on:7/14/2014 10:57:27 AM

Wow, Charlie....that was definitely NOT the article I was expecting to read....railing against the interest winemakers are showing for some of these alternate varieties. In your past posts, I felt like you were just giving lip service to the increasing diversity in Calif wines. But, from this post, not only can you talk the talk, you can walk the walk. Well done, Charlie.

   Like I mentioned at RibollaFest several yrs ago, I'm not a member of the ABC coterie and I'm finding more & more to like in the current crop of Chards. I would say that I've probably had more Calif Chards in the last yr than I'd had over the previous 4-5 yrs. There's plenty out there to attract my interest.

   Not sure I would view Cabernet/Chard/Pinot (and Zin/Syrah as well) as "winning" out over these alternate varieties. As you point out, it's because they can, consistently & reliably, make good/great wines throughout Calif. In the past, that capabliity as driven some grapes to disappear from the Calif wine scene.

   As you well know, Charlie, I'm a big fan of these alternative varieties and delighting w/ the interest they're starting to attract in Calif. At the end of the day, when I go home to make dinner and cast about my house (you don't wanta know!!) for what to drink, it'll be a Ryme  skin-contact Vermentino that I sieze, not the SequoiaGrove Cabernet. I know that the SequoiaGrove will be a better wine..but it's not (always) quality I'm seeking. I want something that will engage my mind. That's the burden I must carry for being a wine geek, I guess.

   Both of us remember well the GreenHungarian of Sebastiani and Weibel. They were, quite frankly, not particularly good wines. GH is, for all intents & purposes, extinct in Calif. Driven out by the tons of good Chard produced back then.

   But not all is lost. A single vine of GH from LibraryVnyd has been propagated into a planting over in the SuisunVlly and, in a few yrs, will once again be being produced in Calif. And my expectation is that it'll be a much more interesting GH than Gus or Fred ever made. You will get a btl.

   It'll be the talk of the blogosphere by these young/hip bloggers. Two ole geezers, trippin' down memory lane, sittin' there in the nursing home, over a glass of GreenHungarian and their bowl of oatmeal!!!

   Hat's off to your great post today, Charlie.



by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/14/2014 11:36:55 AM

I love it when the new breed of drinkers chases after all the obscure varieties and places but swears off Chardonnay. It is reverse snobbism borne out of prejudice against the past.

I remember well when I was young enough to say "Don't trust anyone over thirty". Then I turned thirty.

Their thirst for diversity will moderate and they will accept the currently popular varieties. Ultimately they will move us all forward. For the moment, though, they could do worse than to listen to a couple of dinosaurs who are a longway from the retirement home.





No Subject
by Sean Mitchell
Posted on:7/18/2014 10:00:46 PM

I have been very impressed by Napa cabernet over here in Australia, but then it is seldomnly seen, and so perversely, probably would be fairly regarded as a bit of a novelty.  One person's diversity is another's routine, I guess.

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