The Fully Formed American Wine Culture

Hagen 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 Zester 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.


6 Responses

  1. Ned - May 25, 2011

    I’m going to side with Wes. Despite your patriotic effort at positive spin, a streak of defensiveness shows though. Our diversity as you describe it, is pretty thin considering the size of the geographic area you offer. We grow a handful of mostly french grapes, in pretty chaotic fashion, based nearly entirely on pet aspirations and commercial considerations. What is lacking is coherence, and traditions with deep roots, and genuine natural diversity.
    To say that the wide variety of European wine available here can be counted as a part of our diverse culture is missing the point. You insist we have a vibrant “fresh” new unique culture here. I say if it wasn’t for the originals we’d have nothing. Our culture at this point is the equivalent of a vacant lot covered with a random assortment of non-native plants and calling it a garden.
    It’s OK that ours is embryonic, just like it’s OK that babies can’t play Mozart on violins. You don’t have to react reflexively as PR guy. I wish I could know where it will be a few hundred years from now.

  2. Thomas Pellechia - May 26, 2011

    I fully agree with Ned’s point.
    Like much of everything marketed to Americans, our wine culture is aspirational. In this case, the aspiration is to mimic Europe’s successes. Have you ever tried to sell Native American wines in the US market or wine from a hybrid species that was developed either abroad or in this country?
    Too many philosophers about wine and culture lack grounding in grape growing and wine making to make a judgment concerning the value or lack of value behind what passes for an American wine culture.

  3. Tom Wark - May 26, 2011

    Ned and Thomas:
    America is not the Old World. As soon as we stop expecting it to mimic the old world in order for validation to be granted the better off we will be.
    Ned, that “vacant lot” is a perfect way to describe this Country. And Thomas, “Aspirational” is perhaps the best description of what America is understood to be that I’ve heard in a long time.
    Both of you want our and any wine culture to be pegged to the embrace of native varieties. Why must that be so for wine when it has never been so for anything else in American history.
    For more than 300 years, people have brought to America cultures, ideas, implements, philosophies and more from other regions of the would and sought to replant them here. This tradition came along with the idea that these things and ideas could be improve upon here without the limitations inherent with the stiffling of innovation that slowed change and progress in the old world.
    No, we have a fully formed and vibrant wine culture here that not only embraces the notion of terroir, but also goes well beyond it. We are experimenters. We are innovators. We will not be told what MUST be planted here and HOW it must be made and WHEN it must be picked.
    This is why the American Wine Culture is so much more vibrant and contemporary and innovative than that of the Old World.
    The mistake is made when we insist that the American Culture can only be valid if it looks like the European Culture. Poppycock!

  4. El Jefe - May 26, 2011

    I agree with Tom W. We have our American culture, such as it is. Let’s stop trying to be some other culture. Instead let’s enjoy wine within our own culture we have created.
    Consider the tomato. The Italians have so fully integrated the tomato into their own Italian culture that most people don’t realize that the tomato originated in the new world.
    And I for one am not willing to wait a few hundred years before I can enjoy our wine culture. The rest of you are welcome to try.
    (NB: I read a fair amount of history. Someone will need to explain “European patience”. They’ve never seemed particularly patient to me.)

  5. Thomas Pellechia - May 26, 2011

    El Jefe,
    Europeans have been as patient as it takes a colony to revolt 😉
    I did not mean to be complimentary to the culture of aspirational. As you are well aware, it’s aspiration that drives marketing to consumers. That kind of culture creates a moving target–an impatience, if you will–to immerse in one aspiration and before even getting to enjoy it, move on to the next. When something is good, why not try to make it marvelously good, or wonderfully, marvelously good, or bigger, or this or that.
    That kind of aspiration is not one that develops something,; it’s one that constantly chases something, which is why we have not so much a wine culture but a culture of wine fads.

  6. Ned - May 26, 2011

    Hmm there’s some differing ideas about word meanings and what is most important in defining culture here. If culture is what you have, where you are, at the moment, then sure we’ve got culture. Your idea is that American culture is defined by or rather is a product of the “melting pot” concept. Just by doing whatever we do, here, what results can be declared “our wine culture”. If you want to define culture that way then there’s nothing more to say.
    I suppose one must decide how derivative a burgeoning culture can be for it to be declared distinct and unique. I think a culture really needs to have some fundamentally original aspects to it in order for it to earn the honor of being considered a fully formed and distinct culture. We’ve done some adaptation and transformation of the original, but I can’t see that we have anything we can truly call our own. Maybe we can’t really, maybe all we can really do is our best, in our way. As I said before there’s nothing wrong with that, one can’t invent classical music because it’s been done already, one can only contribute to the tradition.

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