Trends come and go in the modern wine industry. As the United States becomes the largest wine consuming country (in both absolute and per capita terms) both domestic and international producers are going to seek a way to access this large and growing market of wine consumers. Domestically though, this is leading to a trend most wine consumers find disconcerting.
Historically, wine has always been based on a “sense of place.” This tying of wine to where it comes from and which varietals do best in any given terroir goes back to the very beginning of wine production in the “old world.” While I am all for innovation and having new wines to choose from, this is one of those traditions that I hold dear and one that I think most wine consumers would like to see endure.
Sadly the links between the land, the origin, the wine and the winemaker are starting to be severed. We see it with the most recent trend of winemakers in California moving into Oregon and Washington to expand their offerings. In the case of the largest wine companies, they are making the move to develop “brands.” In the case of smaller wineries, they are simply reaching geographically to expand their offerings under their existing labels. But why?
While neither trend is one that wine consumers generally want to see, in the case of small boutique wineries it is more perplexing. Failla is a lovely winery located near St. Helena in the Napa Valley. Owner-winemaker, Ehren Jordan crafts some of my absolute favorites, including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and Zinfandel. His grapes come from Napa and Sonoma counties and the wines are simply stunning. The winery has recently made the move to expand into making wine from grapes sourced in Oregon. None of the varietals the winery is pursuing, like Gamay and Albarino, are unique to Oregon vineyards. They are readily available in the appellations of Northern California. They are also not remarkably better when grown in Oregon rather than Northern California, and they are not significantly less expensive. So again, why the geographic creep north?
What it does do in the case of Failla is disconnect a superstar winemaker like Ehren from his sense of place. The wines from Failla have always been identifiable, even in a blind tasting, as being from Napa or Sonoma. It is what wine consumers have loved about the wines. We will still buy these gems from Northern California and would encourage Ehren to seek out Alabrino and Gamay from his home turf; it will likely be a better bottle of wine.
Larger wine companies are making this expansion north in their endless quest to become larger and larger. While most of our wines here at the dinner party are selected from smaller unique producers, we still taste wines from the large wine companies and from time to time they will make it into our collection. We are well aware of the expansion of Napa giant, Duckhorn, into Washington state with their Canvasback Cabernet. We are only using Duckhorn as an example of the many large wineries that are choosing this expansion strategy. The troubling part with these larger wine companies is that they are doing it via the creation of a brand without any tie in to their sense of place and what they have been historically good at. Like it or not, Duckhorn Merlot has achieved iconic status in the wine world; it is the classic Napa Valley interpretation of this noble varietal. It is unclear to wine professionals, and likely to wine consumers, how a Red Mountain Cabernet enhances that image.
The business of wine will likely continue this trend to geographic expansion and diversity. For wine consumers though, it is far more likely to dilute not only their fondness for their favorite producers, but also cause confusion on what their favorite wines are from their most cherished winemakers. It will ultimately lead to more challenging sales, branding and identification to a sense of place for producers that select this as a strategy. The best wines, in my opinion, come from winemakers with a keen focus on what they do best and from where they do it. Those are the wines consumers really love and develop loyalty to. Those are the wines that you the consumer ultimately request over and over.
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George Balling is co-owner with his wife, Mary Lancaster, of the dinner party, a wine and gift shop in Coeur d’Alene by Costco. The dinner party has won the award for best wine shop in North Idaho twice, including for 2018. George is also published in several other publications around the country. After working in wineries in California and judging many wine competitions, he moved to Coeur d’Alene with Mary more than 10 years ago to open the shop. You can also follow us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/#!/dinnerpartyshop.