Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Why aren't American cheap wines better? Blame varietals

European cheap wines are better than American. Here in the U.S., it's not so apparent because of the shipping charges tacked on to the European wines. But in France, Spain and Germany, it's amazing how many good wines you can find for less than 8 Euros (about $10 US) -- and not just generic "critter wines," but wines with some regional character.

There are some good U.S. wines under $10, but most of our country's offerings in that price range tend to be bland multi-region blends.

Why is this?

There are many reasons, but here are two main ones:

* Varietal wines sell better -- but only famous varietals
* We still haven't recovered from Prohibition

About varietal wines: Some time, roughly in the 1970s, Americans became convinced that varietal wines are better than multi-varietal blends.

The problem is that we also became convinced that some varietals are superior to others, notably Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. Lately that list has expanded to include Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio and Zinfandel, with a smaller fan base for Syrah, Petite Sirah and Riesling.

Here's the problem: Do any of those grapes grow well where agriculture is cheapest, in California's hot Central Valley?

Zinfandel and Syrah are reasonable choices there, and that's why cheap Zins and Syrahs are often good values. But there are thousands of acres devoted to Merlot and Chardonnay which would be much better suited to Barbera or Tempranillo or Carignane.

The problem is that consumers don't go looking for San Joaquin County Barbera, even though that would be a much better wine than California Merlot.

In Paris, when a cafe says their wine by the glass is Cotes du Rhone, nobody asks, "What's in that?" And don't believe for a second that average French consumers know the answer (as many as 13 varieties, led by Grenache). But an American in Michigan might ask the question, get that answer, and say, "I'll have a Merlot instead" because we have this idea that certain varieties are always superior.

So that's one problem: we're making our cheap wines out of the wrong grapes.

Then there's the continuing impact of Prohibition. A lot of the people making good cheap wines in Europe have been doing so for more than 100 years. They own their land outright and don't have to make mortgage payments. They're not ambitious newbies seeking to make a 98-point wine and get rich and famous; instead, they're content to sell the same wine steadily to the same buyers.

This is both good and bad: complacency can keep wines from reaching a higher level of quality, but it can also keep prices affordable, often for wines made from old vines rooted in the perfect location for the variety.

The U.S. doesn't have many multigenerational grapegrowing families because from 1918 to 1933 we discouraged the business. In Burgundy, I met many 7th generation grapegrowers. I have never met a 7th generation grapegrower in this country, but we might have at least a few 5th generation grapegrowers if we hadn't interrupted the industry.

Beyond the accumulated knowledge of their terroir, these families generally don't have big mortgage payments on their land, so they don't have to raise their wine prices to cover debt service -- a major factor in Napa Valley wine pricing.

There's nothing we can do, as consumers, about the impact of Prohibition. But we can start taking steps to support good American cheap wines.

How? Break your dependence on Chardonnay and Cabernet, especially at the low-cost level. March into your local wine shop and ask for some American Barbera. You might whistle "The Star Spangled Banner" while you're at it.

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Jo Diaz said...

Hey, Blake,

I've also learned from my Portuguese wine client (Enoforum Wines) that it has to do with cost of goods in other countries, versus our American economy. Things cost more here, so other countries can offer more for quality for the same American dollar. Their variety specific wines compete with our commodity wines (AKA: a Napa wine over the costs of a bulk, Central Valley wine).

This was something for me to ruminate on, and seemed pretty logical to me, once I put into that context.

My visit to Portugal and several of their winemaking facilities made it even more clear.
I'm surprised this doesn't come up more in stories, but first someone had to give me the concept, then I had to see it in practical analysis.

Pretty cool, actually

Anonymous said...

Great take on insipid San Joaquin Valley wines Blake.

I would much rather have a decent valley Barbera, Tempranillo, Syrah or Zin at a nice under $10 price point. Or, maybe, a blend of some of these i.e. the Cote du Rhone blends you mentioned.

Insipid valley Merlot is what began the varietal's decline in the early 2000's.

Jon Bjork said...

I think one reason you won't find many 5+ generation winegrape growers is simply because things didn't really get going here in California until the Gold Rush perked people's interest into the later half of the 1800's.

Also remember that prohibition was pretty lousy for California wine making, but was actually pretty profitable for California thick-skinned winegrape growers. Many - especially in Lodi - saw "exports" to other states in long trainloads increase dramatically. There are even some photos of "Instructions How NOT to Make Wine" that were including with "bricks" of dried grapes.

I definitely agree with you that certain varieties of grapes have no business growing in certain "fat and happy" areas. I think you can "blame" the marketing genius of Mondavi, who convinced Central Valley farmers to rip out Rubired and plant Bordeaux and Burgundy varieties and put varietal labels on wines. Beforehand everyone was pretty darn blissful with "Hearty Burgundy" blends. You could probably go so far as to say that Mondavi made Cab, Chard and Merlot into their own brands.

Anonymous said...

Your right.

Lisa said...


I hadn't even thought about our chauvanism for certain varietals, which might not be most well-suited for our terroir.

Great observation, but how do we get a movement going so we can mo' and better less expensive indig wines?