Posted on | January 24, 2014
Written by | Elaine Chukan Brown
Lesser-known grapes and producers can be the wine merchant’s secret weapon
Five grapes—Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot and Pinot Noir—accounted for about 65% of California’s 2012 winegrape harvest, according to the state’s official report. In a rather dramatic shift, the next five most-planted grapes (Colombard, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Rubired [Tintero] and Chenin Blanc) together comprising only 16% of the total acreage. And after the top ten, the remaining 19% is scattered among dozens of grapes, mostly unfamiliar even to the average American wine lover.
But tastes change. Before Cabernet Sauvignon became the leader of Napa Valley, Petite Sirah dominated that landscape. More recently, Moscato took off like a rocket from 2010-2012 then leveled off in 2013. In our social media-equipped age, it is possible that tastes will change faster. Who is to say that the zeitgeist won’t shift toward Californiagrown Teroldego, or Tempranillo, or Touriga Nacional, or that Chenin won’t become the new hot Blanc?
A growing coterie of progressive California winemakers are hoping to have a say in the matter, focusing renewed energy and attention on off-the-beaten-path vineyards. And while the wheels of the major varietal wines continue to turn, based on recent consumer press—particularly the San Francisco Chronicle and their wine editor Jon Bonne’s book, The New California Wine—interest in uncommon varieties and unique styles of wine in California is on a steep upswing.
Granted, the base for most offbeat grapes is tiny. But the collective small-scale success of such wines has paralleled the growth of the specialized food market and “farm-to-table” restaurants across the United States. California’s boutique wineries also echo America’s wildly successful craft distilling movement. In short, amid the quiet popularity of wine sameness, there is a growing buzz for uniqueness.
Which brings us that other 19%.
First of all, it’s not small. With California producing nearly two-thirds the total wine sold in the U.S., 19% of that is a chunk to reckon with (it’s almost as much as all the Chardonnay). Even more important: With the U.S. closing in on two decades of growth in wine consumption, and anecdotal evidence from coast to coast suggesting Americans are getting more adventurous in their drinking, smart wine merchants are keeping a close eye on offbeat wines from small California producers. Doing so provides both an opportunity to succeed via niche sales now, and a stake in California’s future.
Bigger Picture of Smaller Scale
Wines made from unusual grapes in California are happening at smallproduction levels, almost by default, but also by design. Small independent winemakers are drawn to non-mainstream grapes—why would they want to replicate what so many other wineries are already doing? Another factor: Younger winemakers are often slim on capital and some turn to buying fruit from unusual varieties that are not in as high demand as the big five.
s Tim Arnold of importer and distributor Polaner Selections explains, wines from labels like Ryme, Wind Gap and Arnot-Roberts are different from how we previously thought of California: “They are using classic techniques to really show what specific sites can offer. These labels are figuring out what California wine can do.”
Micro wineries create a challenge when it comes to sales. As Nate Rose, allocation specialist and fine wine consultant for Spec’s Wine and Spirits of Texas, points out, “Customers are interested in these wines but the volume is so low that their presence is limited.” Even once a wine is in a market, it is inclined to remain largely unknown simply due to volume.
On the other hand, as Neil Gernon, a representative of the distributor Neat Wines in Louisiana, points out, the uniqueness of many oddball wines plays into their attraction. “It’s exciting to show these smaller production varieties because people feel like they’re being let in on a secret,” says Gernon. He regards the passion for discovery as a reason to sell such wines. In New Orleans, Gernon has seen retailers like Faubourg Wines and Pearl Wine Co. create niche markets for themselves by carrying wines hard to get anywhere else. It is precisely in the exclusive nature of these boutique wines that some retailers find their power.
According to Gernon and Rose, in Louisiana and Texas, success of unusual varieties has partially arisen from piggybacking newer wines on the shoulders of already established brands. In Texas, for example, Robert Foley’s Charbono was pivotal in getting the Houston market curious for “other” red grapes. And in Austin, where Italian wines have long been popular, retailers encouraged customers to try Italian varieties made in California.
For wines with unclear reference points, pricing and customer contact prove crucial. Christy Frank, owner of Frankly Wines in New York City, emphasizes that in her smaller-sized shop, a unique wine at $25 or under is comparatively easy to sell; she can hang an appealing handmade shelf talker, and people are willing to try it. Above that price, it’s more likely to depend on a conversation. Once wines hit the $50 mark they become much trickier to sell.
Craig Perman of Perman Wine Selections in Chicago relies almost entirely on direct conversation. In a market where wine sales are dominated by superstores or the corner liquor store. Perman’s clientele turn to him precisely to escape the wash of indistinguishable wines available at other shops. They trust his palate, and in conversation Perman can focus on a customer’s interests while also sharing an anecdote about the producer. Stories can motivate sales; people want to taste the results.
Larger stores have also found ways to make smaller labels worthwhile. At Spec’s, the chain’s unpublicized specialization program is about to go mainstream. Rose explains that all three tiers cooperated to create “Lo & Behold”—a curated and exclusive six-pack of wines from boutique winemakers, set to debut in February. What once were hand-sells—offered off-the-grid to grape-nutty customers—have become a collective showpiece marketed to the broader store customers. It’s an all-around win-win situation, providing a new vehicle for producers, a distributor and a retailer to cultivate experimentation among curious wine lovers.