Category Archives: Musings

Is the Cannon Closed Or What Does it Take for New Crosses to Become Classic Varieties?

I took a very interesting elective in college called “The Bible as Literature.” My first choice, “History of the Old South: A look at Antebellum Society” didn’t fit into my schedule and the biblical course seemed like an intriguing topic given the only way I had ever looked at the Bible was from a religious context. It was an enlightening class and one of the questions we had to answer in essay form was the following one;
“Is the Cannon Closed?”
Meaning, could any new books (or newly discovered books) ever be added to the bible and be accepted as valid gospel the way the current layout has been.
What does this have to do with wine you may be asking yourself?
A similar question popped into my head while I was going over my German grape varieties for an upcoming WSET Level 3 class I taught this weekend.
“What does it take for new crosses to become classic varieties?”
Germany has quite a few crossed varieties that make up some of the top 5 varieties grown there. They include Muller-Thurgau, a variety crossed in 1882 by Dr Hermann Muller (born in Thurgau), which is Riesling crossed with Madeleine Royal (a table grape) and Dornfelder bred in 1956 by August Herold a cross of Helfensteiner and Heroldrebe (an earlier cross by the same breeder). None of these are widely considered to be great varieties on the global scale. Germany’s greatest variety, Riesling, has not yet reached the masses the way some of us Riesling lovers would have liked it to. Jancis Robinson recently commented on this in one recent post.
That makes me wonder, if Riesling can’t catch on then what chance do any of the “new” varieties have?
Let’s face it. According to Carole Meredith’s DNA research at UC Davis, Cabernet Sauvignon was a chance crossing of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc likely sometime in the 17th century. It took close to 400 years for Cabernet to become the king that it is. That’s not exactly a rapid rise to fame but if one was to graph acres planted over those 400 years, the exponential growth that Cab has seen over the past 50 year probably made the previous 350 look like a flat line.
So does this mean that if a new cross really looked like it had potential, it would be embraced faster than an already existing variety? It is possible but I would be highly skeptical. I think a bias exists against new varieties, particularly those that may be unfortunate enough to be called “hybrids”, meaning a cross of a Vitis vinifera with a non vinifera. I would like to believe that the wine community would have an open mind when it comes to trying out these varieties but deep down, I don’t think that is the case.
My Alma Mater, Cornell, has been churning out new and improved varieties for many decades but none of them have a very wide appreciation in the winemaking community. See all of them here. All bred to be easier to grow, deeper color, more resistant to fungal infections. Who wouldn’t want to plant a vine that they didn’t have to worry about spraying? It would make Organic viticulture so much easier, particularly in humid environments.
But does it make as good quality as our existing varieties? I think it is highly unlikely that growers in what we consider classic wine regions would try out some of these new varieties. Why, you ask? It’s supply and demand. There is no demand for varieties that consumers have never heard about. Sommeliers, even though most are looking for new and different, are not clamoring for the newest varieties on the scene. The rise now is among traditional varieties native to their mother countries that have been lost for ages but are now being resurrected by growers wanting to salvage the remaining remnants of their viticultural history. A noble effort and one which should not be discounted but does this also hold true for the native grapes of the US? I don’t think so, because they are not vinifera species as the European varieties are.
At some point in wine history the “classic” international varieties were established. I’m not going to venture a guess as to when exactly, but it happened. After that point no other varieties are likely to rise to the global greatness that Cabernet or Chardonnay have enjoyed since. Like the number of books in the bible, the door has been closed and it is unlikely that it will be opened again. This ventures the question as to why we keep trying to breed new varieties? I suppose it is in search of the elusive variety that makes vinifera quality wine with better resistance to disease resulting in less chemicals sprayed. It is a noble cause but one with innumerable failures before seeing success.
Or perhaps the future does not lie in global powerhouse varieties but in sparingly planted regionally specialized varieties similar to craft spirits and craft beer that the interested consumer can seek out. An exceptionally niche industry led by the “ABC movement” (Anything but Chardonnay) driving customers to the new and different. In that case, breed away grape breeders. The future may be brighter than I can imagine. I hope so.

What do you think it would take for new varieties to become widely accepted?

Six California’s and What that Would Mean to Wine

There is a movement currently to break the state of California into six separate states. Read more about the plan here. I could see some positives to the plan such as bringing law creation to a smaller group of people. Let’s face it what works for Napa doesn’t always work for San Diego and bringing this hugely fragmented demographic into agreement takes equally huge amounts of negotiation.  I highly doubt that this will get much farther than it already has but it definitely got my wheels turning thinking about the consequences of such a movement on our industry.  If one only considers the ramifications to the wine industry one quickly realizes the impossibility of this plan.

1) Say goodbye to “California” Appellated wine. This is by far and away the most important issue that this plan will bring up.  Political AVAs are defined by political boundaries therefore anything grown in the Central Valley would have to be listed as “Central California”. You also can not blend wines from multiple states without losing all appellations and just calling it American. Gone would be the days of mixing Central Valley and Central Coast wines (split into two states, Silicon Valley and West California) and it probably would drive further industry out of the Central Valley.

2) What happens to regional AVAs that span multiple states? Under this plan, both the North Coast and the Central Coast will be spread over two states.  Will they end up like Carneros and be defined as the AVA only or will you have to say North Coast – Jefferson or North Coast – North California, which in a way kind of defeats the purpose of the North Coast appellation.

3) Water. Some of the most populated proposed states don’t have their own water sources. Water has already become a huge issue between counties. What would the motivation be for states with water to share it if their own people needed it?

4) Distribution. With six states brings opportunity for six new different distribution laws. Maybe one of the states decides to go to a control state like Pennsylvania.

On the positive side, maybe we can petition to change the name of the state currently suggested to be called Northern California into Wineland? It might be more appropriate considering Silicon Valley gets to keep its pop culture name.

Seriously, this is a crazy plan. Hopefully calmer heads prevail.

Life, Love, and Ceiling Fans

My husband and I met when I was really young. I was 17 when we went out on our first date. Conventional wisdom says that we never should have made it this far but never the less we have. We didn’t get married immediately although we wanted to. I graduated high school. We each went to different colleges although we were able to stay within a 2-4 hour drive of each other most of the time. We had our ups and downs like any other long distance relationship for the 5 years before we got married and finally stopped being a long distance relationship. One of our favorite pastimes on the weekend was to wander around Home Depot and talk about what our future house would look like. On one of our wanders I came across a ceiling fan, which I promptly fell in love with. For months, I would always look at that ceiling fan when we went to Home Depot but I knew it was crazy, on our limited college student budget, to buy a fan that we had absolutely no place to hang and nothing to do with. My husband, Brian, has always had a quirky sense of romance, so on one of these trips he bought my fan for me against all my protests. It was at that point, I knew we were going to make it. It was by far the most romantic thing he had done to that point. He bought me a fan for a house we hadn’t found yet and said when we did buy the house then we would put the fan up. We got married the next year and moved to California. The fan, of course, came along, still in the original box, never opened. We rented in Fresno for 3 years so the fan still sat quietly in its box. When we moved to Calistoga, we still moved the fan in the box with us to our new rental. A year later we bought our house in 2010 however there was no place to hang our ceiling fan when we arrived. We had to completely gut and renovate the house, which I may add we are still not finished with. For almost 4 years the fan sat in its box in the back of Brian’s closet waiting for the promised day that we would hang it. Finally that day arrived last week. After some concerns as to how the fan had handled 9 years in the box we went for it.

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We hung it together and once it was up it took me back to the day 9 years earlier in the ceiling fan isle of Home Depot when we made a promise to each other that one day we would have a home together in which we could hang our fan. We put it up ourselves since we are died in the wool do it yourselfers and have enjoyed its breeze ever since. There seemed to not be any ill effects from the years in the box and luckily it has a limited lifetime motor warranty since the standard warranty ran out a while ago. :) >