Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with a friend and colleague for a discussion regarding the overall wine world, my goals and aspirations in the short and long term, and somewhere along the line our conversation slipped into American wines outside of the typical regions we have come to expect. This topic came up mainly because it's not a secret that I've been reading up on the history and relationship between the United States and wine, starting with a few states with the express interest on knowing where they are and how they rebounded after Prohibition.
"Do you think these wines stand up to the quality we find in Old World and better known New World regions?" was how the question went but more directly, could we find the same small batch, handmade, authentic and unique wines, those that we enjoyed from Europe, within our own boarders? I distinctly replied with "of course... but it's going to take some sleuthing." There are plenty of established wineries with vineyards pushing twenty or thirty years and producing quality products but there also seems to be a far larger number that exist at the peripheries, or just outside of them, not that they're not making wine, holding events and such, but for the most part a vast majority go unnoticed. The very question posed to anyone who drinks wine or not simply doesn't seem to be all that acquainted with wines within ten miles of their place of habitation let alone having had them; they might know upstate New York or have a passing knowledge of up-and-coming trends, but for the most part they're not on the radar. I've had a few from North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut but I haven't had enough from any one state to say one way or the other. It wasn't until now that I've set my impulsive attention to address this gap in a fairly large part of viticultural history. I could probably assume that I've tasted around sixty wines from the states listed but it wasn't until now that I actively approached this topic of local American wine with the same interest that European wines got by default
Plus he made two good points: European wines have a long history and lots of practice with regards to the relationships between the grapes, processes, and climates that it could be argued American wines don't yet have -thinking back upon it now, I'm not sure I would agree with this supposition. This didn't mean wines made in America aren't good but that perhaps with more time (and by the way, how much time is required for vines to produce aesthetically pleasing wine beyond the 3-5 year maturation of the vines to produce a consistently good fruit?) any rough qualities can be ironed out, though I see his point. I had to fill him in on a little bit of our collective history.
Within this fascinating and mysterious history of American winemaking, from the get go, from the first steps made into the New World, every country's colonists endeavored to recreate their homelands' wines in this new world. They were astonished to find such an abundance of grape varietals growing in every direction they looked, determining that this native hardiness meant that all vinifera could flourish here. The colonial times were fraught with tribulations in not only settling a new world but setting up economies based for the most part in localized communities not all founded upon the same principals or with the same goals in mind -Puritans vs Protestants anyone? The monarchies as well as the settlers and then the local governments that evolved, enamored by the idea of creating whole industries of wine, oil, and silk, tried many times over to create some part of these industries in almost every colony. The purpose was to get their dependence off of France and Spain, whom England was often at war with, and produce a competitive industry for the motherland to prosper off of. In fits and spurts vinifera vines were planted, cared for by imported vignerons or horticulturalists and hobbyists, and because of one thing or another -war, weather, disease, embargoes, the list really does go on and on- they all withered away while the native varieties flaunted their grapes. But the proponents of founding a European industry in the Americas never waivered and pushed on, meanwhile instances of native grapes being used to make wine surfaced in quick ebbs and flows into and out of the colonist's attentions. Wine was being made, shitty wine no doubt, but not at length or at all from the grapes the settlers knew and little of it was being produced enough it seems to really make an impression onto the colonial economic market or the world stage. It became simply easier to make ciders, beers, alcohols and tobacco than to grow and cultivate grape vines. It's really fascinating to learn the troubles so many lovers of the vine had between 1500 and 1800 in trying to remake their homelands in what they expected would be a very simple way: the prevailing thought of the time was that if the climate and temperatures were right, if the latitude and longitude were correct then they should grow. Ultimately what really worked against them was not only the climate and the grapes they desperately wanted to use, but unseen forces that they were too ill equipped to hinder. This is not to say that the wine industry never took off, it very much did.
In reading further into the history of American wines, it's surprising to learn that Ohio and Missouri were once the backbone of the winemaking industry well into the mid-to-late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, producing millions of gallons of wine that included sparkling wine said to rival those of Champagne. Like so many other pioneers in our history, there were many viticultural tinkerers trying to decode the differences of each varietal and finesse the wine making process in order to make age worthy and palatable wines from these "foxy" grapes. Many of these wines showed promise to rival their European counterparts, winning international awards for years, showcasing the Norton and Catawba, as well as a host of French-American hybrids that came about by both accident and experimentation, as a way to combine the resilience of these New World varietals (vitis labrusca and vitis aestivalis) with the flavors of their homeland. Because of their dedicated efforts these varietals spread all across the country, maintaining a strong presence and have even been further altered to adapt to colder and colder climates as winemaking moved geographically northward.
In some ways this speaks more to the crux that his first question implied and those that I've been wondering: why aren't these wines better represented in the metropolitan marketplace, particularly in that of New York City now that they've had the rebound time from prohibition; could there be such a niche market, the making of a fad perhaps; how long would it take to develop -five, ten, twenty years- and most importantly... is there interest?
We both knew well enough that the American palate and market is conditioned towards European varietals and name/place associations, and that Prohibition essentially wiped out the viticultural tradition in this country for a solid decade with lots of residual effects. What seems to instigate scoff and derision when one suggests more locally made wines is first the unlikeliness that good wine can come of plots basically in their own backyard, then to mention all the funky non-sexy sounding varietals and the sweeter styles many of them are made into, just makes the whole idea of having to chance an evening or a visit to one of these wineries that much more unlikely. Now we're not talking about upending one's favorite Cabernet Sauvignon for a Marechal Foch, but to at least treat a well made product with the same appreciation. It's true that many of the wineries I've been to so far have an array of wines covering all palate bases, but they also have what I would consider "experimental libations:" these are any combination of grape wine with other fruit juices, or honey, or spices to turn out a more unique fermented drink, or even making wine from other fruits entirely -most of these being apart of American wine making tradition, others due to curiosity. The sheer variety speaks to their ingenuity to apply wine making methods to almost any medium for every palate type, but it got again to the heart of our discussion: not only can we determine if these wines are quality products able to, after all this time, hold their own against equal comparisons abroad, but could there be any traction in the broader market, can interest be developed? I'm not so naïve to think that there is absolutely no interest, there is but I think I've made it explicitly clear that there seems to be a breakage between this interest that remains very local and the broader market.
In my recent experience the wines that the two of us prefer are those off the beaten track, more funky than classic, more often naturally made with low intervention techniques where you can feel the story and soul within the wine without having to read the back label for cues. This is not to say we don't enjoy a classic styled wines but we enjoy one made to it's own truth, not molded into a pre-prescribed palate where we complacently acquiesce as that is the way it should be. More often than not these come from small growers with their hands in the dirt producing these unique products that speaks of the of the terroir and climate...and essentially I think there are parallels in the thousands of wineries sprinkled throughout American Viticultural Areas. It's a relatively untouched resource, sure they're out there making and selling their products, utilizing the internet no doubt to get their products out to broader markets, but I can't get past the thought that these wineries exist as the old cliché: those in Burgundy drink Burgundy, those in Bordeaux drink Bordeaux; they're essentially not known much outside a few miles from their vineyards, maybe a few surrounding towns and those that hunt down wineries and enjoy going on the wine trails but that's it. Perhaps this says more about my urban biases than it does about the reality of this part of the industry -I concede I need to explore more- where if it's not accessible here in our major urban center then it probably needs help getting it's due recognition; there is something to be said about that but it also holds true that metropolitan areas are a concentration of wealth and can bring greater attention to something that was once relatively unknown (think wines from Jura and petillant naturel wines...) to the forefront.
In wondering if traction could be made with them, I suggested playfully a blind tasting of samples, testing them on a few whose palates we trust -our co-workers- and really focusing on them like we do with the wines we work with and love, then I think within five years there could be the awakenings of a new market and within ten years lets say, a full on niche market. In an effort to balance my enthusiasm for these kinds of wines I had to plainly state that these other fruit based wines and experimental concoctions, being generally on the sweeter side, may not be all that popular or even palatable. The other deciding factor here was pricing: is a Barbera drinker going to want to spend, let alone consider, a Barbera from North Carolina if the prices are the same; if someone can get what they want with what they know at the price point that they're used to, then they may not consider spending a bit more or even a bit less. But also there is the problem of purchasing local wines being a bit more expensive than their European competition. In visiting winery websites to make purchases I'm at times surprised at the higher prices (also taxes and shipping) that one has to swallow in order to acquire a bottle or two when I could just as easily go to the store and buy something of equal value -this may be the more challenging hurtle, but then I'm not all that intimate with this side of the industry to say one way or another; it's just an observation. Perhaps I'm being a bit pessimistic but I don't think for one moment that this new generation of wine drinkers, whose attention spans are fluid and have more adventurous tastes, who covet obscurity and revel in anything vintage, are going to pass up a good tasting wine from Ohio or Massachusetts if it's presented to them.
So it really makes me wonder where this adventure is going. The few wines I can remember, that I think could hold up to broader markets, remain largely out of reach due to shipping restrictions across state lines or might even come under other technical hazards.
Recently I've gathered a few wines from Missouri, Virginia, and Connecticut to start off this adventure and you can find their names in the TBT (To Be Tasted) section which shows the wines currently in my library.
I'm either behind or buying to much...