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A Rielsing Rant continues

Can U.S. wine growing areas produce great Rieslings? Of course they can. And they do.

America (Country Appellation)

A Ranting Riesling Reaction
Requires a Response

To those who claim there are no good U.S. Rieslings, Editor-at-Large Dan Berger says you are wrong. Big time.

by Dan Berger
May 23, 2007

Dan Berger’s November 8, 2006 article on Riesling Rebirth was – and remains – one of the singularly most popular stories APPELLATION AMERICA has ever published. But some readers were upset by what Dan Berger had to say. The particular feedback below pushed Dan’s Riesling button and he had to respond. And so here is the Riesling Rebirth Reaction.
I find your article Riesling Rebirth: a new beginning in North America for a noble grape insulting to the intelligence of a Riesling drinker. (US Riesling is underrated, $8-$10 US Riesling is really good, etc., etc.) Except in NY State, US Riesling is very mediocre and to suggest additional plantings in California is, well, idiotic. The climate in US wine-growing regions isn't cool enough ...and, er, dude, it's not going to be getting any cooler here. But if you feel so strongly, why not start your own Riesling winery? Seriously. You can do that other grape that the US so fails at, Gewurztraminer, too.

Name one great US Riesling. Yeah, exactly. And they've been doing it for how long? Yeah, exactly. Even the best ones are made in such small quantities that, well, forget about trying to find them by 99% of US wine consumers. We practically never see a NY State Riesling in Northern Cal, for example. Perhaps there are hundreds of other varietals they should try planting instead, like Ribolla Gialla or that Tocai grape they can't call Tocai in Friuli anymore? If you drink several domestic mediocre Rieslings, why would you ever explore the Zind Humbrechts, the Nigls or the Bründlmayers? Dan, what is the obsession with planting a grape that doesn't do well here? Why MUST you buy domestic? Why NOT buy the grape where it does really, really well -- Alsace, Germany, Austria? If you have to go outside the box, why not go to Italy with Kuenhof? And finally, why, why, why must we read another damn article on US Riesling?!
~Jack, Fork & Bottle, Santa Rosa, CA

The wine was utterly delicious, a Riesling from Fallbrook in San Diego County, and it was startling on many levels.

The brand name was Olive Hill, the fruit was off very young vines, and it was a wine that the experts said simply couldn’t exist. That’s because wine scientists were then almost unanimously agreed that fine quality table wine couldn’t be made south of the Tehachapi Mountains, that the place was a virtual desert (just look at a map of the place, with its barren, open spaces and no connection to a major waterway, which then was deemed essential for table wines).

Trefethen Riesling Sure, Callaway had already proven that Temecula, just 20 minutes north, could make some nice white wines, but this was Fallbrook, warm enough to become an avocado paradise. Riesling? Some one had to be kidding.

Yet a farmer by the name of Tony Godfrey had planted some Riesling in Fallbrook, tended it the way you would any fine wine grape, and then did the right thing: he harvested it when it seemed ripe, with proper flavors, acids, pH and so forth. And when I tried the wine some 25 years ago, I was amazed that it had clearly definable Riesling character, but with a twist.

The wine was not Germanic in any way. Not in the slightest. Yet it was so obvious that the wine was a Riesling, and one that displayed most distinctive aromas and flavors. It had a wild apple and Asian pear aroma, and a succulent but perfectly balanced taste that prompted me to buy a number of bottles and pour them for wine lovers who also were convinced that Fallbrook simply couldn’t do what they were tasting.

Olive Hill no longer grows wine grapes. Riesling was ahead of its time, and Godfrey, a talented farmer, had many other crops he could sell. Grapes became expendable, and the Olive Hill Riesling became just a memory.

But I had similar epiphanies with Riesling after that -- from (defunct) Ballard Canyon (Santa Barbara County), Trefethen (Napa Valley), Amity Vineyards (Oregon) Columbia (Washington), St. Chappelle (Idaho), and half a dozen properties in British Columbia. Recently, a number of Rieslings from California’s smallest appellation, Cole Ranch in Mendocino County, have startled me. Not to mention Peninsula Cellars in Michigan, properties in Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania.

Although all these wines are miles different from the classic German versions and those from Austria and Alsace, they are distinctly Riesling in character and they deliver a fascination all their own.

Steve Pitcher, a wine writer and member of the German Wine Society of San Francisco, is a purist who believes that Germany produces the greatest Rieslings of all. Yet he does not disparage Rieslings from elsewhere, nor does he compare them to those from Germany.

In numerous articles on the grape variety and its ability to adapt to various soils and climes, and man’s ability to find in it the greatness of the variety complete with terroir distinctiveness, Pitcher has focused on the genetics of the plant. And how it can deliver uniqueness in each place.

That is, though he believes firmly in the greatness of German Riesling, he sees a vitality in the same grape as it is allowed to express itself in other climes, soils, and aspects.

The German Sweetness Dilemma

What’s fascinating about this is a little-known “problem” facing German Riesling and its makers: the wine may not be all that appealing to some consumers because it is too sweet! Some wine buyers (notably British and Australian) seem to prefer bone-dry wine. The Germans have a category for that. It’s called Trocken. But under the German wine law, such a wine can have up to 0.9 percent residual sugar – 9 grams per liter. (The once-dry Halbtrocken wines may contain up to 1.8 percent residual sugar.)

Based on warmer growing conditions over the last decade (witness the high percentage of supposedly great vintages over that period), the acids in German Ste. Michelle Rieslingwines may not be as high as they have been, and the pHs probably haven’t been as low. The wines are slightly more succulent than those who prefer bone-dry wines desire.

And thus we are seeing a fascinating phenomenon: sales of German Riesling in the United Kingdom are rising, but so are sales of Australian Rieslings. And the main difference (other than price) between the two wines? The former have slight amounts of residual sugar; the latter are bone-dry. They are crisp to the point of being steely, minerally, and work well with many foods that would not take kindly to most German wines.

Curiously, the historical perspective here appears to be at play. The Australians’ partiality for bone-dry Riesling clearly came from the fact that former residents of Great Britain settled that nation, and they developed the dry style of wine mainly for themselves. And the wines of Germany, as great as they are, don’t always fill the bill when a completely dry wine is desired.

Yet not all German Riesling is Trocken or Halbtrocken. And its greatness is undisputed by wine lovers. So what’s the “need” for other Rieslings?

Pure and simply, it’s the diversity, the fact that a great grape can deliver its greatness in many forms. Is there a place for Napa and Washington Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Bordeaux? Of course. Is there is a fascination for New Zealand, Dry Creek, and South African Sauvignon Blanc in addition to those of the Loire? Clearly there is.

So why should anyone decry the absolute fascination others and I have for Rieslings from California, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, or even Indiana? Indeed, I just had my first Chilean Riesling the other day and it was, uh, fascinating.

One might ask: was it better than a German Riesling? Such comparisons have no meaning whatever. They are different things.

Okay. Name Just One Great U.S. Riesling.

Someone might complain that great American Rieslings aren’t widely available. That’s a spurious argument. Look at APPELLATION AMERICA’s website and you’ll see that you can get a lot of them via interstate shipping.

Someone could ask me to name a great U.S. Riesling. You’re right, I can’t. That’s because I could name 30 or 40 truly great U.S. Rieslings off the top of my head. If I looked back in my tasting book for the last couple of years, the number would jump to twice that.

As for suggesting that Riesling “doesn't do well here“, well, anyone who makes that statement is completely myopic and hasn’t done any serious tasting of domestic Rieslings, which can be startlingly delightful. Moreover, there are MANY German Riesling producers who make pure garbage and since the

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Reader Feedback

Reader Comments... [11]

Mr Oak Barrel , Wine Sales Manager
Caviro, USA, Minneapolis, MN
I agree with Dan. California can make great Rieslings from easy consumable to real Beerenauslese style. The "other" critic is too germanophile to experience wine, without regard to where it was grown. Great wine is everywhere. I fondly remember some great Riesling Dick Arrowood made at St. Jean, 20 years ago. 25 years ago I was a retailer buying 2000 cases of German wines at a crack! Yet you can't find that many today in any store in Minnesota. BTW, German ancestry is claimed by the highest % of Minnesota residents! As long as the wine glass is empty, IT WAS A GOOD WINE!

Steve , Riesling Fan
Bay Area, CA
I'm one of the lucky people that can get a hold of many styles of Rieslings produced all over the world. I'm not a taster, but a true drinker of Riesling, bottles and bottles with foods of all kinds. Like Dan, I find the vast different styles of wine that Riesling is capable of being made into as one of its strong traits. But I can also understand what the Rebirth Reader is trying to get at. Riesling's greatest strength is its ability to reflect terroir. Sure a winemaker can change things up with how and when the grapes are picked for different ripeness levels and control final sweetness levels, but nothing can replace old deep rooted vines that ripen *slowly* and absorb a myriad of flavor nuances from the mineral types found in Germany's Mosel or in Alsace's Rangen, like volcanic soils (Clos St. Urbain and Clos St. Hune). Great winemakers alone do not make a great wine. They also need a great vineyard site. Among terroir, there are sites that are fine and then there are those that are truly spectacular. Isn't the whole point of Appellation America to help find and recognize the terroir here? Until those sites develop a consistent track record and an *identity*, truly great wine made from Riesling will not exist here. I love Pears, and I love the many varieties of Pears. Everyone will have their favorites, but among Pears, I can say the Comice stands out as one of the great Pears in every Pear lover's mind. Similarly, wine from a great vineyard site will stand out. When I can name the Appellations in America that produces a truly astounding Riesling, I will safely say that we can make a great wine from Riesling just like in the Mosel or Rangen.

Kathy Lovin , MCFE
The Vineyard Express, ABQ, New Mexico
Have a look at the wines of New Mexico and you may be more than surprised; register it shock for some! Gruet Winery, a world-class producer of sparkling wines in the methode champenoise, is here and all grapes are NM grown! And, Rieslings are remarkably tasty; especially those from the State's largest grower and wine producer of Rieslings: Ponderosa Valley Vineyards, who produce dry, 1.8% residual and late harvest Rieslings.
~ Chef Kathy Lovin

Nicole Wolbers , Retail
Santa Barbara/Hamburg
I agree that American Riesling can be great (eg. Finger Lake), but I strongly disagree that there is more good American Riesling than German Riesling (even in the US you get great and dry Rieslings nowadays). One should not forget that the sweet style Riesling was especially promoted according to the UK and US palate!! The author probably never visited German in the recent times to see what is going on and that German consumers prefer the dry style (almost half of the production is nowadays dry!!).

Myril Kreuder
Southern California
For a great Riesling, have you tried Stony Hill? A truly remarkable Alsatian style.

Donn Rutkoff , Wine Sales
San Francisco area, CA
I sell German wines and live near Napa. California, New York and Washington make some good Riesling and a lot of bland ones. German and Alsatian imports to the US, overall, are excellent. But the cheap ones kill the category. Most Americans are missing out by skipping over the whole category after drinking a bland cheap wine and condemning all Rieslings, and their lack of fluency in either French or German is a contributing factor. The American wine consumer can't read the label and doesn't know how to select out the bland wines.

Mark Bunter , Consultant
Bunterwine, Monterey, CA
Dan, well said, er, written.
Jack [Fork & Bottle commenter] – I love a good rant! You really know how to foam at the mouth online, dude. You sure know a lot about obscure grapes in strange places. Maybe you should work in one of them. Maybe you could get a job in Germany, with the Riesling Gestapo. ha ha ha ha. Seriously, foam away, it makes for good entertainment. I do it myself sometimes. Alone, late at night, mostly, after too much Schloss Danberger.
~ Mark

Kellen Moore , Owner
Bon Boniere Partners, Northern California
Good grief. The only thing lacking in Riesling from the States is availability. Germany produces "some" good Rieslings, but there sure are some expensive turkeys in the mix! Our local ace off-the-shelf provider just quadrupled his section of domestic Rieslings and found - to his surprise - THEY SOLD OUT QUICKLY. Of course they did. Some were fruity, some icewines and others so tart I was kissing my own cheeks. All of them from the States and each much fun. However, I did not go back for the bone dry Rieslings, I found I prefer a little fruit from time to time, as do my guests. Anyone who cannot find a decent stateside Riesling (except New York, please!) has not been to Washington State or Oregon, let alone California, then there are so many southwestern boutique vintners I can't count them. We're just starting to see market space open up again now that the Chardonnay train is slowing. But it may be a personality thing. Some people taste one good wine and then want all the rest to duplicate that one experience. I enjoy wines like people, some are pips, some characters, some boring and some atrocious. But surprisingly, they all seem to have someone to love them. I just wish some of them wouldn't take up so much shelf space.

Carmine Indindoli , president
Indindli Family Vineyards, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, CA
The "fork and bottle" guy from Santa Rosa and his Riesling comments. I need to say that he is way out of his league to write what he did. A "fork and bottle guy" doesn't sound like a grapegrower or a winemaker guy. Maybe he should talk about great forks and great bottles, then, I might read and respect his input on those items because I grow grapes and make wine, but know very little about "forks and bottles".

Alf and Mary Bertleson and I tried our hand at growing "White Riesling" in Russian River Valley back in 1976. We were not successful. We did not have any experience with "cool climate viticulture"… we were "fork and bottle guys" trying to grow wine grapes. Today I grow "White Riesling", albeit a very small amount of it, on our home ranch. We grow very, very good Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and after many trips to the Mosel, to the Alsace and the Rhein, we now understand the "Riesling". We make a world class Auslese style, and in the right vintage, a Beerenauslese style wine. It can be done here, it is very difficult and not likely that the consumer would pay the price required to achieve that wine in the vineyard. But to say it is not possible would clearly have to be the comment from a "fork or a bottle", not from a grapegrower or a winemaker.

RJoneikies , Consultant
It's consistently amusing to read articles and responses by people such as Mr. Dan Berger. It's equally entertaining to read other readers responses of support for such grand statements as his (paraphrasing a bit) "There is a higher percentage of great American Riesling, than there is of great German Riesling". A statement like that points out a couple of things: Mr. Berger has not tasted enough American Riesling and he's never traveled through the wine regions of Germany. It also points out that this is a man not serious about wine.

Who with any experience or training, could possibly claim that a country with more than 800 years of wine making experience does not make wines that are as "great" as those of a country only a fraction as old? It clearly also needs to be pointed out that the bulk of the lab analysis protocols, now used world wide to help better understand viti/viniculture and to improve the quality of wine, were developed in Germany. On what would the Germans have possibly developed these, now global, standards if not Riesling? The contributions of German wine history and research run deep throughout every wine region in the world and if America is producing "great" Riesling, the reasons why will be as obvious as THEY'RE USING CLONES DEVELOPED IN GERMANY.

America does produce fine Riesling. One only needs to think of Washington State and two wines come to mind: Eroica (Chateau Ste. Michelle) and Poets Leap (Long Shadows project). But again, both these wines were developed through co-operation with German wine houses and wine makers.

I keep saying this, in the wine world there is just too much bombast and posturing and not enough experience. Please Mr. Berger, you know something about wine but for your own peace of mind, travel to Germany and learn a little humility.

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