The combination of ongoing climate chaos and the shifting demographics of wine drinkers have driven some California wine producers to embrace formerly unfashionable approaches to making wine, with some surprising results.
Few things seem more sacred when it comes to telling the story of a wine than time and place. The last 200 years of fine-wine sales have been, if nothing else, a continuous disquisition by industry to consumers on the value of vintage and site. This lesson, repeated in near-infinite variation at every possible opportunity (even, increasingly now, when hawking champagne) seems to have all but cemented the notion that a four-digit date and a place name are the true emblems of a quality product.
The yearly parade of petitions for ever-smaller official viticultural areas combined with the explosion in single-vineyard designated bottlings in America clearly spotlights the fundamental underlying belief: when it comes to wine, the more specific, the better.
Should anyone question this conventional wisdom, plenty of studies demonstrate that American consumers will gladly pay more for a bottle with the word Napa on the label than one labelled with California. What’s more, there is evidence that consumers get more real enjoyment out of exactly the same wine when they believe it to be from Napa instead of generically from California.
Is it any wonder, then, that for many years, the making of multi-vintage and multi-regional blends has been tantamount to commercial suicide in the California wine industry?
That’s certainly what the business team at Cain Vineyard & Winery made clear to winemaker Chris Howell when he first proposed making a multi-vintage blend in 1998, when a particularly lush, bountiful vintage was followed by what many considered one of the worst in California’s modern history. Though, in Howell’s mind, the point wasn’t so much about rescuing the vintage of 1998 as much as it was utilising the bounty of 1997, in which even the second-rate barrels were fantastic.
‘It wasn’t commercial suicide’, laughs Howell, ‘but there was distinct pushback on the idea when I first brought it up, and it did put a damper on the perceived value of the wine for years. I had a lot of work to do with the sales team to get them on board. Our importer in Ontario even refused to bring it in on principle because it wasn’t a single-vintage wine.’
This article is my monthly column at JancisRobinson.Com, Alder on America, and is available only to subscribers of her website. If you’re not familiar with the site, I urge you to give it a try. It’s only £8.50 a month or £85 per year ($11/mo or $111 a year for you Americans) and well worth the cost, especially considering you basically get free, searchable access to the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and maps from the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs. Click here to sign up.