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Homogeneity and wines that are varietally indistinguishable.

Winemaking trends of the day seem to be leading to increased homogeneity and sameness, and wines that
are varietally indistinguishable.

America (Country Appellation)

Varietal Homogenization:
Difference Makes the Difference

Have American wineries become so enslaved to marketing formulas that the wines they make from various varietals taste indistinguishable from each other?
Our informal test points to some loss of individuality of wines.

by Roger Dial
August 7, 2007

Editor’s Note: In Editor-at-Large Dan Berger’s recent essay on “Wimpy Wines”, he observes that some “Cabernet Sauvignons are harvested so late that the resulting wines taste as much like over-ripe prune juice as they do Syrah.” Dan continues, challenging us to taste – side-by-side – a bottle of Cabernet and a bottle of Syrah, each with 15% alcohol to see if we can distinguish the varietal character differences between the two. Well, it sounded like an interesting enough challenge so our esteemed panel of experts gathered in our San Francisco office to put ourselves to the ‘Varietal Distinctiveness’ test.

Are you ready to take APPELLATION AMERICA’s VD test?

As a media platform, APPELLATION AMERICA’s avowed mission is to encourage and articulate the amazingly rich geographic diversity of the wines of North America. We believe that the “place paradigm” of wine appreciation offers the best vehicle for vitalizing and expanding the North American wine culture in the decades to come. Our motto proclaims our purpose: Building Appellation Consciousness.
Read Dan Berger’s take on varietal homogenization:
Click here.

Having said that, it must be recognized that another paradigm of wine appreciation (varietalism) holds the centre stage today in North America, and has in fact expanded outwards to much of the rest of the New World. Indeed, the varietal paradigm of wine appreciation has even made incursions into parts of the old wine world, where “place” (aka: appellation) has long been the anchor of consciousness about wine.

As it happens, I was a young winery apprentice (aka cellar rat) when the paradigmatic shift to varietalism began to take hold in California in the 1960s. It was out with the bogus Burgundy labels and in with the Pinot Noir imprint; sayonara plagiarized Chablis, welcome Chardonnay. The transformation around the notion of grape variety was really an epiphany, energized by a palpable sense of the moral superiority that comes with acts of purity. We were being liberated from the lie of phony European nomenclature. Know thy wine by its grape name.

And, as for all that so-called Claret we were producing in California in those days, henceforth it would be known as Cabernet Sauvignon. It was really in the purge of Claret that our Puritanism reached full fervor.
Cabernet Sauvignon varietal character
Meet the true Varietal Character of Cabernet Sauvignon
This was convenient, because in fact there was no Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, or Petite Verdot planted in California to make good on the Claret blend claim in the first place. Nor should grapes be mixed, we figured, at least outside the viticultural mélange of Bordeaux, with its iffy climate and irregular vintages that made it risky to depend on a single variety.

Yes, varietal purity reached its zenith in the isolation of Cabernet Sauvignon in California, and was icon-ized in our friend Joe Heitz’s uncompromising Martha’s Vineyard Cabs of the 1970s. God help the winemaker who might have been tempted to cut the tannic purity of Cabernet with a dose of flabby Carignan, as had been common practice. In the new world of varietalism, that would have been a double sin, because Carignan belonged in its own bottle, labeled properly as Carignan! Ditto for Petite Sirah, Barbera, Zinfandel, Gamay, Colombard, Semillon, Green Hungarian, Chenin Blanc, and a host of differentiated Rieslings (Grey, Franken, Johannisberg…even Emerald). For producer and consumer, alike, those were the heady days of varietal exploration, before the arrival of the 3-tier marketing reductionism into a narrow Chard-Cab consumer pipeline.

Viva La Difference – California Wines of Yesterday

The early days of varietal elaboration and exploration made for an exciting wine culture on this continent. As consumers, it was the differences between varieties that catalyzed our interest and spawned our passions. And, for the legions of aspiring new winegrowers/producers that ballooned the ranks of the American wine industry through the 70s, 80s and 90s, the chase was on to expand the differences between wines by expanding the North American viticultural catalogue to include every grape variety under the sun. After all, America has a special place under the sun.

In the development of most things (material, intellectual, even spiritual), differentiation is typically the signal of change, transformation, expansion and - dare I say it - progress. Inversely, homogenization, the drive toward sameness, bespeaks integration, consensus and stability. If differentiation inspires human interest and passion, what then does homogeneity lead to? Comfort? Boredom?

I think the answer is both: comfort and boredom, but not necessarily for the same cultural audience. In theatre, for example, there will always be an audience for Cats, precisely because the script, music and production values remain, dependably, the same. It may be an audience that never sees other plays (except perhaps Cats II), but that’s fine; they’re comfortable with it, and, to be sure, so is the theatre “industry”.

The mass-market magic is in the sauce, not in the varietal. And that’s just fine!
Like most of my contemporaries in the wine culture, over the past 40+ years I have been intermittently hopeful and depressed about prospects for the expansion of a European style “wine-as-food” segment of our North American wine culture. This would be your Cats-type audience for wine, a mass of everyday wine consumers who are simply comfortable with the sameness of their daily wine fare. They are not “interested” in wine, per se, any more than they are interested in bread or cornflakes or eggs. To them, wine is just a food group, part of their diet. Let’s not confuse these people with the new foodies, who are terribly interested in what they put in their mouths and for some reason care if the egg came from a free-range chicken or whether the cornflakes have had their genes diddled. As for wine, the new foodies are driven by a thirst for knowledge and new experiences, not just something to quench the other kind of thirst. New foodies are diversity seekers, ever looking to differentiate their experiences, including their encounters with wine.

To be sure, the traditional wine-as-food people, God love’em, do exist here as a relatively small niche and have been served extremely well for years by that affable icon of unassuming disinterest, Carlo Rossi. In my more
zinfandel varietal character
Meet the true Varietal Character of Zinfandel
hopeful moments, I think the wine-as-food segment may be finally growing significantly …really, a matter of breaking through the latent prohibitionism embedded in our political culture. On the supply side, the emerging “wine-as-food” segment is being drawn out by grocery store merchandizing, notably for Aussie and South American producers of “sweet spot” wine, manufactured out of interchangeable red varieties. And, let’s not overlook the Two-Buck-Chuckers right here in the neighborhood. The fact that Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah are indistinguishable in these prod

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Reader Feedback

Reader Comments... [11]

Wine For All, Kaotnah, NY
Very interesting exercise, Roger. Is it possible that price also played a role? My experience is that the "genericization" of varietal wines, so to speak, is far more likely to occur at lower price points, regardless of origin. I suspect you do not want to reveal the actual brands and vintages poured, but how about the prices?

Michael Sarro , Grapemaster
St. Martin's Grapeschool, Shaker Hts, OH
It doesn't scare me anymore. The threat of a Single World Wine, made like Pepsi, to insure sameness, is available now. The only thing that distinguishes one producer from another is the label. That is why Canon #3 of the 5 Canons of Wine is: Buy wine from countries whose main form of transportation is a donkey cart. Marketers don't ride in donkey carts. After a few bottles of Barolo, it is safer to ride in a donkey cart anyway.

Jerry Manzel , Amateur winemaker
Peach Street Winery, Lodi, CA
I have made amateur wine for 8 years and am always amazed by the results I get from my entries in amateur wine judging competitions. I have submitted the same three wines to four different competitions this year -- one national, one state, and two county fairs. The results are interesting, to say the least. Each has won a gold medal, a silver medal and no medal at one of the competitions. The most amusing remarks are "that it does or does not exhibit varietal characteristics" because obviously the judges have such conflicting opinions about what are the "varietal characteristics" and they’re virtually clueless about what that varietal wine should taste like. I try to make wine that has good varietal characteristics but more importantly tastes fine to my taste -- to heck with the judges!!

Arthur , Founder
redwinebuzz.com, Southern California
Roger, I'll take your cola reference one further: It seems that a lot of wines (even those from higher end producers) are starting to taste like cola that was left out, open, overnight.

Roger Dial , Publisher
Appellation America,
Hi Tish,
Thanks for your very appropriate question [see comment #1 above]. As I said in the column, I don't find anything particularly reprehensible about the homogenization of varietal taste profiles in the lower priced, mass marketed, wines. However, though our selection was intentionally random, all the wines were pretty much "mid-priced", with an average sticker of $27, covering a range from $16 to $50 per bottle. Heck, at that price it would have been nice to taste terroir...but really pathetic not to even find distinct varietal character. Well, anyway, that's my feeling.
Thanks for asking,

winemaker29 , Winemaker
Winery, NorCal
Are appellations an emperor’s new cloths story? No Napa AVA director is free to lead the growers and winemakers! AVAs need to be upgrading to avoid being relegated to the dustbin of the wine-boom. In my opinion AVAs must be given free reign to experiment in grading the grapes, farming, level of green, related quality or bottle prices produced by the land, etc. Looking for help in Napa Valley…

Richard Grant Peterson , Owner/Winemaker
Richard Grant Wine, Napa, CA
Why not do something similar with Appellations? You didn't say whether each set of varietals came from a single appellation. It seems to me that, if good tasters can't tell the difference between two varietals, how in the heck could they expect to find the more subtle differences between appellations? I say that there is no significant difference between most appellations any more, mostly for the same reasons that few differences exist between Cabernets, Merlots, Zins, etc. Everything tastes alike because winemakers copy each other in getting grapes too ripe (as if that were a plus). Many wines are too alcoholic, too low in acidity and/or too processed (as in Chardonnay). Does anybody drink those fat, flabby, over processed, low acid Chardonnays any more?

John Barford , never in the wine trade
wine writer, Devon, England
For well over 40 years my passion has been fully bottle-aged wine that I can enjoy at its peak. I hate this trend to high alcohol wines that lose their identity but how do they age? I know from personal experience that Californian Cab Sauvignon in the past aged beautifully; I don't know how these new high alcohol wines will age. I suspect they could be excellent though whether distinctiveness would emerge is an unknown. And it is somewhat immaterial because so few people cellar their wines for 15 or 20 years! I assume the wines in your VD test where all very young. Anyway, I support your efforts to correct this trend, led astray I believe by R. Parker’s team as well as market forces.

Dave Butner , Winemaker
Wynn Cellars, Washington
What a load of bunk! Blind tasting has always been difficult to tell Cab Sauv/Merlot/Syrah apart. The only real way to validate your 'VD Test' is to now perform the exact same test in the exact same way with Old World Style wines. I challenge you to get 3 French wines, Merlot, Cab Sauv, and Syrah, and taste them side by side and tell them apart. Your results will be the same.

Roger Dial , Publisher
Appellation America,
Dear Dave, [comment #9]
It's hard to know where to start in replying to you. Let me begin with a personal observation that goes to your contention that it has "always been difficult to tell the difference" between red varietals. My "always" in this business began a bit over forty years ago, and, while we didn't have much Syrah and Merlot in Northern California back then, I can assure you that the varietal character and distinctiveness between the red varieties we did have (Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Carignan, Pinot Noir, the Gamays, Petite Sirah) was pretty darn clear in those days. Indeed, it was precisely that self-apparent "distinctiveness" that engendered our enthusiasm as growers and/or winemakers to go down the varietal purity path in separating ourselves from the European tradition of appellation distinctiveness. Of course, we had the added incentive of getting past the bogus appellations (Chablis, Burgundy, etc) we inherited.

I'm sure you realize that the French have structured their paradigm of wine production and appreciation around place, rather than varietal, identity. Actually, I suppose one could distinguish between St. Emilion and Medoc by varietal proportionalization ..."tastes more like Merlot, must be from the Right Bank", etc. But, what would be the point? Appreciating French wines is a matter of identifying with the place and how the marriages of varieties and terroir make for something definable and whole in appellation terms. Personally, I've always thought it sad that so many people on this side of the Atlantic drink Burgundies with an eye on the variety, missing the crucial fact that, even with varietal purity in Burgundy, it is the place-commune that explains the seductive differences in Pinot Noir.

As regards your Old World Style challenge, I'm not sure where you would have us look for our test bottles of pure Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. (In regard to the first two, I'm not aware of any French ACs that prescribe these as single varietals) But, forgiving Petrus for only being 95% Merlot, could we distinguish between it and, say, a Cornas from the Northern Rhone, which is all Syrah. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say, yes, I think even my battered old palate would detect a difference associated, if you insist, with variety (though my soul would prefer to focus on the wine as a reflection of the totality of these two wonderful bits of geography).

Now, if we want varietal purity in Cabernet, I guess we could get our samples from the great hydroponic sea of the Pays d'Oc, along with single varieties of everything else globally in vogue. I don't drink enough of those wines to really know, but my guess is that you'd be right...to wit, I expect the Cabs and Merlots and Syrahs in this supermarket-cum-export agro-factory do all taste the same.

However, as I said in my "load of bunk" article, I don't really expect to find much of either varietal or terroir distinctiveness in cheap bulk wine. Nonetheless, the varietal labeling of such wine does a disservice to the notion of variety as a way of appreciating wine, in the same way that putting "Napa" on a label of wine made in Modesto diminishes the notion of "place of origin" as a way of appreciating wine. It's a question of integrity in the marketplace...wine is not such a strong or natural commodity in North America that it can take too much loss of integrity.
~ Roger Dial

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