The Fully Formed American Wine Culture
Sitting on a Belizian beach yesterday, trying hard dismiss the sad fact that I would soon board a plane back to reality, I tried to ease my way back into my real life: I began to look what was being written about wine during my one week, honeymoon absence. That's when I cam across Wes Hagen's stout reprimand of the American wine industry that it take it slow, and not try to evolve an authentic American wine culture before it's time; that we embrace our nation's immaturity where wine is concerned and not be so quick to try to challenge those more mature wine cultures of the old world.
Writing at that outstanding on-line food and wine resource ZesterDaily, Hagen, winemaker at Clos Pepe, delivered the following:
"America is an infant on the stage of the world's wine regions. We have the dirt, the climate and the passion, but in our attempts to legitimize our wines, we give them French and Italian sounding names. We use the grape varieties that spent millennia adapting to climates that are not ours, and with some early success we have developed a façade of culture, one that's not yet earned. In other words, we are the lusty rakes throwing our grappling hooks over the walls of Burgundy's Clos Vougeot, trying to co-opt wine culture rather than evolve our own."
I don't know Wes. But I like him for a number of reasons: 1) he make terrific wines that have given me great pleasure, 2) Like my bride and I, Wes is a devote of that fantastic breed of dog the Italian Greyhound, and 3) he's willing to write and have published controversial and thought provoking ideas.
However, Wes it wrong on a number of counts.
First and foremost, Wes makes the fatal mistake of making the same mistake he accuses the American wine industry of making: Wes uses the European wine cultures as a model for what the American wine culture out to strive to be:
"A wine tradition defines itself over centuries as generations of vintners incorporate new grape varietals that, mutating from the cuttings that spawned them, exquisitely adapt themselves to the soil and situation they find themselves in. Understanding how regional wines mesh with local game and produce at the table is what creates an authentic cultural experience, one so primally rewarding it's repeated, and over time becomes tradition. The real sign of progress is not in putting "Chateau" on your label, but in being European with your patience, in giving the American wine scene a few relaxed centuries to evolve."
Why must a "Wine Tradition" or "Culture" be defined by indiginous varieties and a culture of matching them with the local culinary traditions and products as defilned in France, Spain and Italy?
The fact is this, America has a wine culture that is well defined and purely American in its character. More than any other characteristic, America is a culture and place that is defined by diversity and assimilation. For more than three centuries, America has been the place where representative of numerous countries and cultures have come to be something new and individual. Italians, Germans, English, Jews, Catholics, Chinese, Blacks, Hispanics and every other identifier under the sun have arrived in America and put their mark on this country. Our wine industry and wine culture has taken the same path.
In Sonoma County, for example, and even in Hagan's Santa Rita Hills, you will find Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines within spitting distance of Syrah, Petite Syrah, Zinfandel and Cabernet vines. This promiscuous diversity of plant material all set beside one another and producing various wines from a single terroir is much like the bumping up of cultures and traditions we see particularly in America's urban areas.
The American wine culture is defined by diversity in a way that European wine cultures can never be. And the diversity of our American wine culture is its most unrelenting virtue. The spectacle of Chardonnay growing right next to Syrah is a purely American idea in the same way that Italians and Eastern European Jews rubbed shoulders in New York and other cities or as Chinese immigrants and Mexican immigrants rub shoulders today in many of the West Coast cities. It's marvelous. And it's American.
The wine lists at America's best restaurants also reflect this defining idea of wine diveristy. These lists are spectacles of diversity with Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir from Oregon, Syrah and Cabernet from California, Merlot and Blends from Washington all listed along side Gruners from Austria, Rieslings and Gewurz from Alsace, and numerous other bottlings from Spain, Italy, New Zealand, Australia, Chile and Argentina. No other country in the world hosts so many restaurants with so much proclivity toward vinious promiscuity.
And consider the amazing variety of styles of Pinot Noir, for example, that hail from American vineyards located in single regions. From the western portion of the Russian River Valley alone one can find Pinots that feature density and sweetness, lightness and refinement, high alcohol and lower alcohols, darkness and feminine character.
America's wine culture may be an infant in terms of its longevity. However, the American wine culture is equally well-defined and vibrant as any in the world, particularly when compared with those of the "old world".
Hagen ends is provocative piece with this admonition:
"Perfection is worth waiting for. It's the 20-year-old Tokay, the 10-year-old Balsamico, the 30-day dry-aged prime filet that brings us to tears and makes life worth living. Let's take all the energy we've been wasting in defining our wine regions prematurely, and put in the real work, the slow work that it will take to develop our own regional character. No French accent needed."
The genius behind CLOS Pepe makes the mistake of believing that a wine culture can only be rendered significant when the slow work (centuries long?) of matching region to variety without leaning on other worlds is accomplished and that we ought to be willing to accept the long trek toward that standard with patience. But true "wine culture" need not and should not be defined only by a long evolution that works at matching place with plant.
The American wine culture is here and with us now and it is perfectly unique. It is an extension of the American Experience that embraces, celebrates and encourages diversity.