Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Why Bordeaux, for once, is evolving faster than Napa

Napa Valley is on top of the wine world. Other regions struggle to get people to spend more for wine. Napa has set consumer expectations so effectively that people think nothing of paying more than $100 for a Cabernet Sauvignon made from purchased fruit. So far, Napa seems impervious to the stormclouds over the high-end wine industry.

I've been thinking about Napa and its future in the wake of Bordeaux's decision last week to authorize seven new wine grapes, including two famous grapes from Portugal, Touriga Nacional and Alvarinho (aka Albariño).

Bordeaux is way more conservative than Napa, where wineries can try something new at any time. For Bordeaux, which is still marketing on the basis of a classification done in 1855, expanding the allowable number of wine grapes is revolutionary.

And apparently it had little to do with what's happening right now. Sales of lesser Bordeaux wines haven't kept pace with the first growths but that has been ongoing for years. Bordeaux wineries aren't looking to add Touriga Nacional because they think they can sell more wine with it.

Bordeaux is not immune to sales initiatives; that's why it recently added another category of rosé, Clairet. But the point of allowing Touriga Nacional and Alvarinho is because Bordeaux chateaux are worried about the future.

They see Merlot, their workhorse grape, ripening too fast in hot years, and there are more hot years all the time. They want to plant grapes that better handle heat. They're not going to release a varietal Touriga Nacional. They want to blend it with Cabernet and Merlot to continue making elegant, complex red wines as the world continues to get hotter.

And they can do that, seamlessly, because their wines will still be called Bordeaux. I noticed that new grapes are allowed, but most people will not.

This is very different from Napa Valley, which already grows Zinfandel as well as anywhere in the world but is cutting back on plantings of it when it could instead be expanding.



At the Premiere Napa Valley auction in February, 133 of 187 lots were Cabernet Sauvignon. Only 1 was Zinfandel
Zinfandel is more heat-tolerant than Cabernet Sauvignon and is a good hedge for the future. And there's already some there (though there used to be more). Heck, you can find just about any grape variety somewhere in Napa Valley, including some that don't seem like they belong, like Riesling and Chardonnay. (Apologies to the Trefethens, who do a nice job with both).

But nobody is talking about Zinfandel as Napa Valley's future. Cabernet is the present, and Cabernet is the future, at least as long as this generation lives.

Should it be? Should Napa growers start thinking about global warming? My guess is that they will not, and the ownership structure of California wineries vs. Bordeaux is the reason.

Most Bordeaux chateaux are multigenerational family-owned businesses. They bicker, and some sell to Chinese interests, but for the most part they manage their property not just for today, but for their grandkids.

Napa, in contrast, is like Las Vegas: the apex of capitalism in wine. It's where rich people buy land to build monuments to themselves. There's a type A competition among Napa-come-latelys that has not abated after the retirement of Robert Parker. "You got a 97? Congratulations, that's a nice score! I remember when we were happy with a 97."

Multigenerational businesses are rare enough in the United States that when we find one, we report it as an important factor, whether it's a fourth-generation printing press or a third-generation bakery. In California especially, this is because we have come to believe that all businesses are first generation. Disrupters. People with new ideas getting wealthy from them.

Do you know Mark Zuckerberg's succession plan? Or Jeff Bezos'? We don't even think about these things.

The same is now true in the California wine industry. This wasn't the case a generation ago. But it became pervasive in Napa Valley in the '90s, and it is the prevailing view today even outside Napa, and even at lower levels. We get excited about wine pioneers. Nobody asks purveyors of pet-nat what they expect the vineyard to be producing in 30 years. Californians don't think on that time scale.

My first thoughts on Bordeaux approving Touriga Nacional for the future were to wonder if the grape would find popularity in Napa. It might, a little.

But there's just too much money to be made in the next decade selling Cabernet, even as the world warms up. And the decade after that? That's somebody else's problem.

Napa Valley is better equipped than just about anywhere in the world to deal with vintages that should really be too hot for good Cabernet. The technology is top-notch, and unlike Europe they can always just add water. Believe it or not, in France they have to get special permission to irrigate! Americans laugh at that sort of restriction, while accepting even greater restrictions placed by the market.

Which is this: People still expect a wine from Napa to be Cabernet. Nothing else sells for as high a price. It's not like Bordeaux, where if the wine is mostly Cabernet Franc and Malbec, nobody outside the trade even knows.

Napa wineries are trying to push consumers into spending more money on red blends, which will allow them to hedge for the future with more heat-tolerant grapes. But while Cab is king, the label must say Cab.

The bulk wine market right now -- where wineries buy unreleased young wine from other producers who have too much of it -- is awash in cheap Cabernet Sauvignon because at lower price points, there finally is more planted than people want to drink. That's not true in Napa yet, and maybe it won't be for a generation, but if the Earth keeps warming, some day it will be, because too much heat won't be kind to Cabernet. Merlot, which ripens earlier, is the warning: Cabernet's time will come soon after.

If Napa growers were thinking about their vineyards in a timeline of decades, they'd be planting more Zinfandel now so they could leave behind old vines. Or they'd plant Touriga Nacional. But for short-term profits, nothing makes as much sense as Cabernet. In Portugal, they say people buy Port wines for their grandkids. In California, we just assume we won't have any, and if we do, they're on their own.

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