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I Have Lost My Next Big Thing and Don’t Know Where to Find It

By Charles Olken

A winemaker sitting in on our round of Barbera tastings wondered why I thought Barbera might be the next big thing. “I can’t think of any grape these days that will give us the next big thing”.

He may well be right. Of course, his thesis is that even Barbera is not going to the next big thing because it has already been a big thing, and its halo did not last any more here any more than did that of Chenin Blanc or Sangiovese. These comings and goings notwithstanding, California’s vinous history is littered with successful and not successful “next big things”. But there are fewer of them these days, and many of the next big things are styles and techniques—lower alcohol, organic, natural, etc.

This blog will have a lot more to say about Barbera when we have completed tasting our way through as many bottlings as we can get our hands on. Suffice it to add that many new Barberas showed remarkably well and turned out to be perfect mates to the grilled pork chop with a mustard-sage sauce that capped the evening’s festivities.

For many years, California’s volume growth was fueled by one big thing after another. The uptick in Cabernet Sauvignon that had its start in the mid- to late sixties was almost immediately accompanied by emergence here of Chardonnay after so many years of sheer neglect. The early sixties reports on grape acreage here in California does not even record Chardonnay acreage (mistakenly identified as Pinot Chardonnay even though it is not part of the Pinot family). Indeed, at one point, Pinot (sic) Chardonnay was listed under “other red grapes”.

Well, Chardonnay came center stage just a few years after the revival and expansion of Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot was also a “next big thing” in the seventies, but its emergence was almost an accident. The Cabernet Sauvignons of the day may have been blends of some kind, at least for some wines, but the top bottles were virtually 100% Cabernet because there was no Merlot, no Cabernet Franc, no Malbec, no Petit Verdot to blend with it. Stories of Gamay in the popular inexpensive bottles were probably more true than not.

And then Merlot came along as a blending and softening agent for the tannic Cabernets. But the funny thing is that the Cabs also became a little rounder on their own when it was discovered that some extra ripeness took away some of the grape’s inherent coarseness. You will notice that the Bordelais also made the same discovery about ripeness and the old, hard-edged Cabs were changed forever.

That allowed Merlot to stand on its own, and stand it did. When planted in the top Cabernet vineyards, Merlot made wonderfully succulent, reasonably well-structured wines on its own. And the next big thing was born.

It is not true, as is so often mistakenly said, that the movie, Sideways, was responsible for Pinot Noir blossoming into the next big thing. From our point of view, it was first a renewed interest in understanding how Pinot needed to be grown and then made into wine that led to the success of the grape in the Carneros region and then quickly in the Russian River Valley.

It is said that Merlot died, and my winemaker friend last night said that it never recovered its luster. That may be true for wine collectors, but Merlot continues to sell, and Syrah, one of the grapes that was said to have buried Merlot, also came and went, and never threatened to upstage Merlot as a favored drink of the wine-buying public at large.

I view these “revelations” as part of the maturation of our industry. We are today far more complex in what we grow and how we make it into wine. Almost all of the world’s great grapes are grown here, and whether they have become wildly successful or failed abysmally, the things left to try are few and far between. And so too are the “next big things”. That is why I can’t find them.


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