About 20 years ago, it was pretty tough to
sell California pinot noir. Sure, you could peddle the occasional
bottle of high-end pinot noir to the obsessed collector, but, for
the most part, California cabernet sauvignon was king … and so was
chardonnay. Both varietals were finding a strong foothold in an
increasingly aware marketplace. The balance of wine drinkers at
that time were consuming hefty lots of white zinfandel, and some
zinfandels, as well.

Flash forward to 2006, and things look considerably different.
Pinot noir is emerging as a major player on the wine front. And,
while cabernet sauvignon is still a leading varietal, it has to
share the limelight with numerous other reds, vying for the
attention, and palate, of the consumer.

How do these shifts in consumer desirability occur? There are
reasons, both scientific and synchronistic, why paradigms in taste
are shattered by our culture, and replaced by other
tastes — reasons too numerous to go into here, but at least a
couple of which are easier to grasp, particularly in the field of

Winemakers today have white zinfandel to thank for the many
steady wine drinkers who cut their teeth on that fruity little
wine. But, talk to most former white zinfandel drinkers, and many
of them will tell you that they graduated to drinking something
less sweet, more food friendly, and with a more sophisticated
flavor profile. Enter chardonnay. Chardonnay soon became the white
wine of choice for American audiences in the mid-to-late ’80s, and
well into the ’90s. Winemakers were trying to make chardonnays that
would appeal to the former white zinfandel audience — immediately
likeable, with a heavy dose of buttery oak and an almost
perceptibly sweet mid-palate. As you can probably predict, a
backlash from all of those over-the-top chardonnays was bound to
happen. And it did. In the mid ’90s, a movement called ABC
(Anything But Chardonnay) started to grow within the industry.
Sommeliers and retailers, as well as wine critics, were growing
tired of big chardonnays, and started to, in effect, slam them, to
use the modern parlance.

Winemakers found themselves with excess chardonnay in their
coffers, slowing sales, and less-than-enthusiastic sales people.
Some of them started to change their chardonnay making style, to
reflect a more measured use of oak and secondary fermentation. This
resulted in chardonnays reflecting a more elegant flavor profile,
often characterized as “lean,” “minerally,” and “refined.” Because
consumers became more comfortable with these nuanced versions of
chardonnay, and wine critics began to give them higher scores, the
stage was set for more elegant white varietals to enter the

Flash forward to present day again, and we find ourselves
drinking more and more pinot grigio (which has replaced sauvignon
blanc, the most favored white, next to chardonnay, according to
Wine Business Monthly magazine). Pinot blanc and viognier have also
found an emerging foothold in the market, as consumer confidence
grows in areas like ordering and talking about wine. Because our
culture is increasingly exposed to talk of fine wine, the average
consumer no longer feels intimidated ordering a “French-sounding”
varietal. It isn’t unusual to find any number of Santa Barbara
County viogniers, for example, on the shelves at local grocery
stores and wine shops. This wasn’t the case even seven years

The latest white wine to delight consumers is gruner vertliner.
This little gem of a varietal became trendy about two years ago
among top sommeliers on the East Coast, looking for the next
interesting white wine to put on their by-the-glass lists. Though
it’s been widely planted in Austria for a long time, it’s just now
finding its way to American consumers. For about 15 bucks,
consumers can buy a delightful gruner vertliner; a sexy wine with
ample green apple overtones and a hint of sweet fennel on the nose.
The other night, at a local restaurant, the waiter actually
recommended a gruner vertliner. The trend has found its way to the
West Coast.

And let’s not forget pinot noir. Pinot noir became popular long
before the film Sideways, though I suppose that movie didn’t hurt
sales. But, the truth is that pinot noir is so complicated as a
varietal that it can be made in various ways, attracting a broad
base of consumers. For example, a winemaker can fashion a bigger,
more fruit-forward pinot noir, or a more lean, Burgundian-style
pinot noir. The decisions a winemaker makes about his or her fruit
sources, oak program, yeasts, harvest time, etc., will all
ultimately effect how the pinot noir will taste in the end. But,
because this complicated yet very satisfying varietal is mysterious
and complex, it can appeal to consumers with their own preferences
and likings.

I predict that California pinot noir will be a trend that, like
California “Cult Cabs,” becomes a mainstay; it will move from the
arena of what’s hip to what’s traditional. The fact that these
wines are finding their own place in the canon of American fine
wine and food may be not only because Americans love a good trend.
It may actually be because America is growing up as a culture and
becoming more sophisticated in its taste for food and wine. Wines
like pinot grigio, viognier, and pinot noir have been around for
hundreds of years in other parts of the world. That they are now
finding a place on the average American dinner table may be a
testament not to America’s rampant consumerism and love of trends,
but its deeper appreciation for quality and new traditions.


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