If you’ve ever been to a wine tasting at a winery somewhere between the West Coast and the East Coast, you may have come across American wine.
Not the local stuff, but the far away stuff: Wine made from out-of-state grapes that have been trucked across hundreds or even thousands of miles from bulk and wine specialists in places like Lodi, California. If more than 25% of the grapes inside the bottle come from outside the state where the winery is registered, it can only be labeled as coming from the United States. This is American wine.
Some people, like me, cast American wine off as something unworthy of our time. I figure, if I want California wine, I’ll buy from California wineries. Why would I buy Lodi wine from a Missouri winery?
It’s entirely sound logic: More transport for the grapes or finished wine means more opportunities for something to go wrong. Winemakers being closer to the source of the fruit are more likely to be connected to the growing conditions of the fruit as it’s delivered to their crush pad. If you’re buying a riesling from Rogue Valley (OR) grapes made in Nevada, aren’t you really just supporting someone’s attempt at selling the winery lifestyle without doing the hard work of developing a native wine program?
That last one really isn’t so bad; for a lot of people drinking wine at a winery, likely in at least a somewhat idyllic setting, is exciting: What’s in the glass is a little less important than the view from the glass. It is true that ambiance can make wine better, and that has universal value.
The former rationale, the transport and the connection, have been pivotal in my avoidance. However, I recently came across a bottle of American wine that has me rethinking it. It’s a bottle of Columbia Valley (WA) mourvèdre made by Utah’s I/G Winery, and it’s damn tasty – more tasty than many Washington mourvèdres made by people much closer to the grapes that I’ve had. It happened to be perfectly aged when I drank it, so that helped, but having tried it I’d be open to paying the $48 retail price knowing full well that it’s American wine.
It’s interesting to think about what a more liberal approach to the American wine business structure might look like.
The dynamic French négociant business model has led to some pretty stellar labels in the last few decades, often representing some of the better values (I’m thinking the relatively “inexpensive” Burgundian producer Lucien Le Moine, for example). Importer and retailer Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant just announced it’s latest “selected by” Côtes du Rhône, which is always made in partnership with a French producer and is one of the most no-brainer off-the-shelf purchases on the market.
The American wine industry couldn’t survive at scale without shiners, which are unlabeled finished bottles of wines that get sold to wineries who badge them with their own labels, or bulk wine that comes finished but unbottled. For a time, you could assume with near certainty that if you bought a sparkling wine made in Virginia, it was produced by Trump Winery regardless of whose label the bottle wore – and that was just fine as neither consumer nor seller cared and they were impossible to keep in stock.
The business model of a winery that gets its grapes by exclusively sourcing them from independent growers describes a significant chunk of the country’s premium wineries. Washington’s Gramercy Cellars, Avennia Winery, and Mark Ryan Winery come to mind, as does California’s Arnot-Roberts and Adam Lee‘s past and present pinot noir empire. Why does it not matter that Gramercy’s Washington grapes are non-estate while it does matter than the producer of the American mourvèdre I enjoyed doesn’t reside quite as close to the grapes, which were clearly grown and made with great care? And come to think of it, Adam was part of the early effort to produce Oregon pinot noir badged by California wineries. I’ve never negatively judged a California producer’s Oregon pinot because of the distance between producer and grape.
Maybe it’s the consumer that’s holding the industry back from fully leveraging American wine to deliver us good product.
Clearly risks from longer distances between vineyard and winemaker can be mitigated, as my recent experience showed me. Maybe the real issue as a mental one: The state where the wine is made is not located on either of our country’s two coasts. Maybe to think bigger, we need to think about what can be done between those two lines.