Gewurztraminer and Discomforting Sounds
Sometime in the 1970s, people changed from ordering "white wine" to ordering "Chardonnay. Between 1990 and 2007, shipments of California Chardonnay rose from 9 million to 50 million cases. Today, Chardonnay production and consumption is far and away greater than the total production of all other white wine in California.
So, what I'm wondering is this: What would have happened between the 1970s and today if Gewurztraminer was instead named "Gerdonnay" (pronounced with a soft "G"—it sounds nicer)
If this were the case, I'm convinced that the biggest selling white wine in America today would in fact be "Gerdonnay".
It's not the name itself that would have done the trick, but rather a combination of an easy to pronounce name and the Gewurztraminer grape's much more expressive and attractive (to Americans) flavor profile. And of course, there's that matter of Gewurztraminer's tendency to carry residual sugar in a much more balanced way than chardonnay does.
Some wine just seems to be held back by its name. And let's face it, "Gewurztraminer" isn't exactly the most easy to pronounce name in the world and, I think, the primary reason that the wine made from this grape isn't far more popular to Americans who tend to shy away from things sounding foreign.
Of course, the point is that where marketing (as well as nearly everything else from professional to personal issues) is concerned, language is important.
I"m struck by the effect language, words, inflection and the way we wield these tools in our business and everyday life can have a profound effect on our livelihoods and our lives.
The relative insignificance of Gewurztraminer is only one example, but a powerful one. Sales of the wine suffer because of the American indifference to and discomfort with the sound of the German language. This indifference and discomfort persuades them to move on to something similar, but different: Chardonnay, for example.
The lesson for marketers is easy enough. Be careful what you name it and be careful of the words and phrases you use to describe and sell it. For the individual, for me, for others, the lesson should also be simple enough to understand: Be careful what you say, how you say it, where you say it and when you say it because said in a manner not quite right or at the wrong moment or in a way that is indifferent or uncomfortable for some and you may find yourself marginalized.
As a lover of languages and obscure grapes, this is a source of constant frustration for me. It really hurts areas like Greece and Hungary that are making spectacular wines but whose labels are terrifying and incomprehensible for many Americans.
There’s precedent for using different names. Gouais Blanc, a grape now only known as the mother of Chardonnay, has over a hundred different names in various languages. And in the seafood industry, creative rebranding of unattractive names has been used because of scarcity/overfishing/extinction. Patagonian Toothfish became “Chilean Sea Bass”. The appetizing Slimehead became “Orange Roughy”.
My least favorite grape name? You’ll almost never see it on a label, but it’s the most widely planted white grape in France: Ugni Blanc. Looks horrid and sounds horrid, tastes fine. The Italian Trebbiano is a far more marketable name.
There were other white varietal marginalizations in the 1970s similar to what happened around then to much of Gewurtz’s markets. At that time Riesling was only somewhat more successful than Gewurtz. Linguistically, it seems Tom is right about Chard. How about the peculiar name zinfandel, though unfairly from the red varietals catetory.
Maybe the early food science around the flavor of butter beginning in the 40s-50s provided chardonnay bulk wine producers a way to enhance their mass marketed products by the time of the wine consumption explosion in the 70s without the bouquet for which cool climate chardonnay is famous. I have suspected the recipes for many white wines labeled chardonnay include synthetic butter flavor for years since the 70s. Perhaps the piquancies which are gewurtztraminer’s salient feature are less available as additions for bulkwine producers. Then again, there is that composite name, gewurtztraminer, itself an Alsatian construct rather than a legacy name of a distinctive premium varietal, as the terminology used to identify gewurtz.
Another factor differentiating the two white varietals, besides availability of recognizable artificial flavoring, seems to be the natural vinification style diference between chard and gewurtz. I am not sure I have ever seen a TBA version of chardonnay, though some excellent ones exist with gewurtztraminer as the principal or sole grape component. Nor have I ever seen a still table wine gewurtz labeled 15% alcohol. Traditionally a hillside, cool climate grape, gewurtz usually has loads of acidity, moderate alcohol, and lots of spiciness; chardonnay winemakers have a wider range of styles to select than these historic limitations of gewurtz.
The ampelographic and DNA typing aspects of gewurtz’s history are interesting questions. I appreciate the post’s review of these topics, as worthy of future research. It seems the internet might have a lot of new information in these areas, and I will look into them.
That’s exactly the problem Austria faces with Gruner Veltliner, Blaufrankisch and Zweigelt among others. And Greece with Xinomavro, Assyrtiko, Moschofilero and Aghoritiko. Not to mention Turkey with Kalecik Karasi and Narince…heck the keyboard doesn’t have the diacritics to even spell them correctly.
So it calls for creative solutions. Gruner is an acceptable shorthand as is GV and GrooVee (but I don’t think the latter will ever catch on).
As for Turkey…stay tuned, working on some cool ideas to turn a negative into a positive. If you’re interested I’ll give you the scoop for Fermentation when we launch.
Side comment here to Steve: My favorite Turkish grape is Öküzgözü. 🙂
Back in the 1980s I did my own study concerning the rise of Chardonnay. I discovered that the word and the image of the wine showed up in movies and television programs with great frequency. That seems to have been a powerful, and sometimes subliminal message to the American public.
If it’s ease of word use, and if it’s wine style, Riesling seems the more logical choice for such an explosion. But Riesling was not the industry’s choice and it hardly ever showed up as product placement in movies and tv shows.
As you probably are aware, Tom, with the right PR technique, it’s not so difficult to establish a movement.
The reasons why grapes come and go in popularity may have something to do with nomenclature, but I would posit that it also has a lot to do with attractiveness.
Chardonnay’s growth came not at the expense of Gewurz uniquely. We lost more Chenin Blanc and Riesling from cool coastal vineyards than we did Gewurz; and those two varieties have easy to pronounce and pleasant sounding names.
But, gents, we also lost Green Hungarian, Grey Riesling, Sylvaner, Emerald Riesling. All gone in the rush to satisfy the thirst for Chardonnay.
And, for me at least, who is not a linguist, but whose age is rapidly and reluctantly turning me into a wine historian of sorts, the critical phrase is: THE THIRST FOR CHARDONNAY.
Please remember that there were 150 acres of Chardonnay in all of California in 1960. That’s it. Chardonnay did not get popular here because of butter (I hope that was a joke–sorry if I missed it) or because it appeared in movies in the 1980s. Chardonnay got popular because White Burgs were popular and people decided to try their best to acceptable facsimiles of them.
I share Tom’s sense of loss at the absence of Gewurz, a wine that I like very much, but I also think that CA almost never did a good job with the grape. Here you have a grape likely to produce low-acid wines in this climate by the time it has developed physiological maturity and those wonderful characteristics that separate it from all others.
I am not a winemaker, and I do not understand, in a first hand way, some things, but I recently visited the Kuleto property in the hills above Lake Hennessy on the east side of the Napa Valley. Our group shared a pleasant bottle of Muscat made in a low-alcohol, fairly austere style. I asked the winemaker why he did not allow the grapes to mature in order to bring out the Muscat character. His instructive response: there would be so little acidity left in the grapes that we could never bring the wine back into balance.
I wonder, with the exception of a few cold places very near the Pacific Ocean if the same thing is not true with Gewurz and Riesling.
Your history is right on, but I think the popularity of Chardonnay that Tom’s post references wasn’t confined to those who knew Burgundy and aspired to producing wines like it in America. That was “in the beginning.”
After the 1976 Paris event, and especially during the 80s-90s, the flow of Chardonnay was vastly NOT in the Burgundy style, unless you consider sweet white wine to be in the Burgundy style, which is what the biggun’s pushed on the consumer, who drank it up!
My reference to the movies and TV was to underline how the PR of a name or brand works like a snowball.
Now, Mr. P., you know I cannot let stand your broad generalization about sweet Chardonnay in California. We have been down this road before. The bulk of coastal Chardonnay was not then, is not now “sweet”. Sure, there are sweetened Chards, and we know that KJ was one of them and that there are plenty of others. But, many big volume Chards of the 1980s, the Ch. St. Jean SoCo and the Sonoma-Cutrer Russ Rvr Ranches, among the most popular of the day, were not sweet at all.
Now, I have nothing against sweet wines, Tim Hanni’s foolishness last week notwithstanding. And I do not even mind a balanced Chard with a little sweetness, like Rombauer in its good vintages, but the suggestion that the growth in Chard post-1976 was all about “sweet” simply misses the point in my humble but strongly held opinion. And my guess is that you are not in the least bit surprised to read that opinion.
Very interesting point, though I think Gewurztraminer very much also suffers from a misperception that all Gewurz is sticky sweet and unbalanced. Nine times out of ten, it’s the reaction we get at Alexander Valley Vineyards when we break out a bottle of our Gewurz (easier to pronounce?) for tastings, whether in our Tasting Room or at a Wine Shop even though the wine finishes dry. It’s a battle wine produers and sellers fight every day. Witness the slow (though hopefully steady) growth of rosé, which at least is easy to pronounce.
We are talking past each other. I wouldn’t consider St Jean and S Cutrer as the bigguns, although I don’t know what their volume was.
I did a number of RS tests on KJ and a variety of other well-distributed Chardonnays twenty years ago. ‘nough said. You are getting on that horse concerning the potential anti-Ca wine thing, which is not at all what I am talking about.
The issue Tom brings up doesn’t seem to be about wine style, but about word recognition. It’s easier to spread word recognition to a mass audience if you appeal to that mass audience. With wine, one easy route is through sugars.
I highly doubt Gewürztraminer would ever catch on with the Chardonnay sippers of the USA. It is not the name so much as the malleability of Chardonnay which has made it an economic success. The low-acid pineapple-vanilla fruit cocktail has been a resounding success for some inexplicable reason. As soon as the ABC crowd doth protest, wineries start pumping out unoaked, no-malo, earlier-harvested versions. Can Gewürztraminer be that much of a chameleon? The most common descriptors I get from CA Chardonnay novice drinkers is that Gewürztraminer is “too sweet” (even dry versions) and “perfumey” for their tastes.
You do hit on a subject that goes beyond this one: the relative lackluster of Chardonnay as a grape of distinction…and I’m sure we are about to hear from those who think we are nuts. But after having worked with the variety myself, I came to that conclusion years ago.
Did he really say that? Not that I can tell.
You worked with Chardonnay? Where? Which clones? Every try to grow it in the Russian River Valley?
How about growing it in the Hyde or Hudson Vineyards in Carneros?
The mention of chenin blanc calls to mind another early widely planted white varietal, French colombard; both of those whites became less planted as California vinification styles developed in the 70s + 80s. The vineyardists responded with increasing quality of fruit around the same epoch in CA viticulture ane enology as terroir became recognizably important, and with the new canopy training, irrigation, and cropload controls which developed. I am reluctant to discuss specific labels. From a food chemistry perspective, chenin blanc’s fragrances to nose and on palate left it a distant second to the subtleties of the then extant clones of chardonnay. French colombard remains a brandy substrate for one notable northcoast operation; and chenin blanc is seen in production still in wine country, albeit rarely. Staying on the white varietals topic, further, there is a lot to be said for the growth of northcoast “finishing” styles of sauvignon blanc, a grape which saw increased planting around that same ancient time in the 70s+80s in the ~4county region; in its various forms sauv blanc matched chardonnay for breadth of possible styles of winemaking, though it shows its strengths best with a drier finish. I think it is standard interpretation currently that residual sugar attracts many occasional wine purchasers. There is also a gender preference, which is somewhat as difficult to mention as the spectrum of current labels. However, I think part of chardonnay’s attractiveness is the possibility a chard purchase might be of excellent quality whether replete with residual sugar or somewhat dry, a kind of guessing game, given many bottlings omit any information about residual sugar. Harvest volatile acidity would be helpful on labels, too; though nowadays a tech notes page on a website is sufficient to explain this subtlety to experienced buyers searching for a somewhat exotic chardonnay.
You know nothing about me, and I have no reason to educate you.
Go to the Anderson Valley International Alsace Festival to experience what these wonderful wines are about!
Tom’s post references wasn’t confined to those who knew Burgundy and aspired to producing wines like it in America. That was “in the beginning.”
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I like the way customers still struggle with varietal names. Gewurztraminer is sometimes known simply as “the Gurz,” which seems a fair enough stab at it. Merlot is “MER-lott,” rielsing is “RIZE-ling.” White zinfandel is sometimes “Zin-DELL,” although I’m not sure why people omit an entire syllable of a well known wine. I’d very much like to rename and relabel all our French wines as simply “French wine A,” “French wine B,” and so on, so that people can speak with confidence of what they want without fearing massacring a French name. But, that would wreak havoc on our invoices, and besides, what of “Italian wine A,” or Italian wine B? Or, apparently, “Russian,” or good grief “Turkish.”
My good friends at Scheid call it G13, which — I think — is brilliant, simple, classy and could catch on…
Plus, really, it so kills chardonnay in every way, shape and form.