Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Gold Rush In States Not Named California

Viognier from Virginia, Texas and elsewhere
Five or so years ago, the president of a prominent and popular Northern California winery piped up when conversation around the table turned to wines from other states. "They're terrible," was his blunt and surprising assessment. End of conversation, as far as he was concerned. Clearly, he hadn't traveled about the U.S. much, or if he had he'd kept on his California blinders, refusing to see that while wines made in other states might be different they aren't necessarily terrible.

I don't travel much about the U.S. myself, but I get to judge at several wine competitions that attract entries from thoughout the nation, and I've got to tell you, the range and refinement of wines being produced in other states looks to be accelerating faster than even in California. That Washington, Oregon and New York can produce exceptional wines is widely acknowledged, but states often seen as dependent on California and Europe for something decent to drink - Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri, Ohio, Iowa, Texas, etc. - are showing themselves capable of making some mighty fine homegrown wines.

Often, winemakers in other states work with grape varieties far different than what is found in California. They're apt to be grapes native to the North American continent rather than Europe. Or they could be hybrids created to thrive in the sort of heat, cold and humidity generally not an issue in California. Sometimes, they aren't made with grapes at all, but other fruits.

Stylistically, they frequently are more than just a little sweet. In part, that's an indication of how grapes and other fruits in other parts of the country best express themselves. Also at play is that residents of the nation's interior seem to have more of a sweet tooth than residents along the east and west coasts, though that's a long-held view open to question, especially now that sweet wines are finding an openly receptive audience along both the Pacific and the Atlantic.

Dryness and sweetness aside, what's important in wines regardless of where they are from is the pleasure and interest they deliver. Are they alluring? Are they refreshing? Are they balanced? Do they offer an intensity that invites you back for another taste, and more after that? If you routinely drink California wines, such as chardonnay and zinfandel, a "marechal foch" from Wisconsin or a "norton" from Missouri initially may startle you. Give it another sip. You just may find something in the glass that grows on you, in a pleasant way.

This afternoon, I head out for the Riverside International Wine Competition in Temecula Valley. Over the past decade, the Riverside judging has stood apart from other competitions for the willingness of judges to award gold medals and other high honors to wines made with obscure grape varieties from settings not often identified with fine wine. Whether that distinction continues with this year's results won't be known until later this week, but one thing for sure is that Riverside no longer is alone in acknowledging how vibrant and polished the wine trade is in other parts of the country.

And the willingness, even eagerness, of judges to pay high tribute to wines from other states isn't limited to releases made with such novel grape varieties as "traminette" and "diamond." Wines made in other states with such popular mainstream varietals as gewurztraminer and viognier also are collecting honors. At the recent Pacfic Rim Wine Competition in San Bernardino, the panel on which I sat judged an astonishing class of pinot blanc. Of the six wines, we gave gold medals to three, an exceptionally high percentage for any class of wines. Afterwards, when the identities of the wines were revealed, I was even more astonished. Not one of the six was from California, where pinot blanc long as been a popular variety, though not as popular today as it was 20 years ago. Two of the three gold medals went to wines from Michigan; the third went to a wine from Okanagan Valley in Canada. The other entries were from Canada and New York.

And at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition early this year, the sweepstakes white wine was a gewurztraminer from the Finger Lakes district of New York, winning that honor over 21 other candidates.

Judges no longer look to be intimidated by the old standard that an exceptional wine that isn't a dessert wine must be dry, or without noticeable traces of residual sugar. At the recent Pacific Rim Wine Competition, for example, the sweepstakes white was a "niagra" with seven percent residual sugar from upstate New York, while the sweepstakes rose was a sweet blush made from "marechal foch" grown in Wisconsin.

The rise of acclaimed winemaking in other states is no threat to California, which dominates the domestic wine industry and continues to expand. Wineries in Colorado, Florida, Idaho and elsewhere tend to be small, with their wines generally distributed within their immediate area. It's actually unfortunate that only a few of them ever can be found in California wine shops and on California wine lists. If they were, even that outspoken winery president likely would agree to rescind his blanket condemnation of wines from other states.


  1. Mike,
    Great post, and a good reminder that blanket condemnation is never a good idea...the only thing it ensures, is the opportunity to be proven wrong.
    Thanks for writing with a positive attitiude about "other" winemaking states, and more importantly, about the lesser known, and oft underappreciated hybrids. The search for terroir is about finding the right grape to fit the place, and allowing the two to express something unique through the vintner's stewardship.
    With production expanding into these wine frontiers, I would think that curious appreciators of wine would be interested in expanding their palates as well, by going down the vineyard roads less traveled.

  2. Mike,

    Humbly submitted... might I add that a Washington Rose (Barnard Griffin Sangiovese) was the sweepstakes winner for the second year in a row at the San Francisco judging.

  3. Mike,
    As someone who made wine in the east for many years, it's nice to see some recognition. I work in California now, but I still miss the stunning range of flavors that exist in eastern wine. One of the things I always appreciated in your Bee columns was your willingness to look off the beaten path. Two quibbles from the uncontrollable editor within: 1. Diamond is not 'novel' - it has a longer history in North America than does Cabernet (but I know what you mean) and 2. It's 'Niagara' like the falls, not 'Niagra', although that is how it's usually pronounced.
    Also, another native grape you should try is Isabella. Best American version is from Goose Watch, but it's widely grown in the Azores, Moldova, Brazil and a few other wine regions.

  4. I run a small shop in the Maryland suburbs of DC. Of course California and French wines do very well here, but I also sell wines from Idaho, Arizona and Virginia. I have been told by a distributor that he wants to stock wine from Texas but he can't get any because it's all sold in Texas. The Texas producers can't keep up with in-state demand. I also hope to add a Colorado wine and a Michigan wine. I also carry Georgia wines but they are from the Republic of Georgia.

  5. Great stuff as always Mike!