Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Identity in Specialization

On Monday, I wrote about wine regions' need for signature varieties in creating an identity. The post my have been a bit odd because while I proclaimed the need for a region to be known for a specific grape variety I also praised two wines made from non-mainstream varieties. If the Russian River Valley weren't known for its pinot noir nor the Napa Valley for cabernet sauvignon, then these two wines would have been just another bottle in a sea of many. But because they both came from regions with strong ties to specific varieties (and styles), their uniqueness was part of their stories.

But above their respective regions' identities, both Gary Farrell and Massican have their own identities. Not surprising, Gary Farrell is known for producing chardonnay and pinot noir. Massican, on the other hand, is known for white wine blends inspired by the wines of North East Italy. Not too many Napa wineries can make that claim. Even in the sea that is Napa Valley cabernet, there are wineries that stand out because of their identities. Corison Winery is known for its age-worthiness, elegance and balance. Dunn Vineyards is known for its formidable tannins, bright acidity and low alcohol. Silver Oak is known for its prodigious use of American oak and the resultant characteristics. When buying wine from Napa, winery style/identity clearly is important. The same could be said about wine from every region.

In neighboring Sonoma County, there is a much more diverse set of wineries that also have to set themselves apart from their competitors. Just as in Napa, many strive to make the best example of the signature variety that they can. Yet, many also try to be known for something more specific or different. For example, take the group of 17 wineries (including Massican) that are a part of what they're calling the 7 percent solution. They are all rallying around lesser-known varieties like ribolla gialla, grenache blanc, trousseau, verdelho and others. While some of the wineries make less exotic varieties like cabernet sauvignon and syrah, together they are embracing diversity and experimenting with interesting (to me) varieties. I have been lucky enough to have tasted wines from nine of the wineries and in fact am proud to have purchased (yes, bloggers are also consumers...) and presently own wine from five of the wineries.

Now to bring this back to Colorado. I have told many of the wineries here that they make too many wines. It seems that every winery makes a merlot, a cabernet sauvignon, a cabernet franc, a syrah, a chardonnay, a riesling, a viognier, a sweet rosé and a few other odds and ends. Many even have the token port-style dessert wine. They claim they need the cabernet sauvignon for the serious drinker and the sweet rosé or a sweet riesling for the RV crowd just passing through. Of course they have to have chardonnay and merlot (they are the two of the most planted varieties in the state...). Making ten different varieties in three or four different styles is ok, if you're a big winery with the resources to spread yourself out. But the average winery in Colorado makes about 1,000 cases per year, total. So many wineries are making two or three barrels (50-75 cases) of ten or twelve wildly different wines. It seems that many of the Colorado wineries are trying to make a wine for every consumer without any thought given to the wineries' identity. I doubt any winery in Colorado is going to be the next Robert Mondavi Winery that can make a high-quality wine for every single type of consumer. I think many wineries make good wines, but I also think almost all of them have wines they should stop making in order to focus on their better wines.

Why not make a concerted effort to create an identity? What if a few wineries were known for only producing Rhône-style wines? What if a few wineries were known for their big, bold Bordeaux varieties? Rather than making many different, often mediocre, wines, wineries could focus on what they do best and do it better. I am more apt to buy a specific type of wine from a winery that specializes in that style than from a jack-of-all-trades winery.

Say a winery "needs" to have a white wine to sell in its tasting room. Perhaps buying finished bulk wine (or even shiners) from a winery known for its whites and selling it under their own could work for a winery making only Bordeaux varieties. Or, Colorado law allows Colorado wineries to sell any other Colorado wine in their own tasting room. Not spending the time and energy to make a mediocre wine just because you think you need to have it in your tasting room would allow you to spend more time and energy on the cabernet franc you do well. Plus, you might be able to sell a better white than if you had made it. That would be a great way to help promote the region as a whole. Wineries could focus on what they do best and also support their neighbors.

I don't want to knock all the wineries, because there are more than a handful that do already have an identity because of specialization. A brand is more than a winery name and logo. It is a promise to customers about the quality and type of product being offered to them. If they don't know what they're getting when they see a winery's name on a label, they're probably not going to buy that wine. Knowing the identity of a winery is perhaps more important than the identity of the collective region. And when individual wineries start being recognized for high-quality wines of a certain style, then the region will benefit as well.

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