Changing tastes challenge winemakers to satisfy demands
By TIM HEARDEN
The "big four" of Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot and white Zinfandel are still the kings of wine as far as American consumers are concerned.
But other wines are gaining in popularity, such as Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, said Gladys Horiuchi, communications manager for the San Francisco-based Wine Institute.
Americans are branching out and trying new wines, partly because of inspiration from movies like "Sideways," in which the main character liked Pinot Noir, and partly because of their own desire to explore new tastes.
"I think the American palate is increasingly becoming a lot more sophisticated and knowledgeable about wine," Horiuchi said. "I think there is some experimentation going out there. ... There's so many wines out there, they obviously like to experiment and try different things."
As the volume of wine sales has kept increasing over the past 15 years, so, too, has consumers' penchant for variety. In the early 1990s, sales of varietal label wines started to outsell generic reds and whites, and since then, red varietals began to outpace blush wines, although they still haven't caught up to whites, Horiuchi said.
"A lot of classic wines tend to be red," she said.
It's difficult for growers to cater to consumers' more eclectic tastes because once you plant a vineyard, it grows the same type of grape for at least 25 years. But growers can use grafting techniques to arrive at some unique varieties, experts said.
As varietals like Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio have begun to take off, there's been more of a focus "on planting the right grape for the right microclimate and the right soil," said Karen Ross, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers.
"For the small wineries and the people directly to the consumer tasting rooms, you always want to have something new and different to keep people coming back to your tasting room," Ross said. "That's where a lot of the experimentation is going on."
The soil and climate conditions were a key determining factor when New Clairvaux Vineyard in Vina, Calif., planted its vineyards nearly 10 years ago. Located within a Trappist monastery, the operation doesn't grow the major varietals, but instead specializes in Syrah and Petite Sirah reds, which have proven to be pleasing to tasters.
"Petite Sirah is a winemaker's favorite because it's a very dark, inky wine with great tannins and structure, which creates a great mouth feel," said Aimee Sunseri, winemaker at New Clairvaux.
Cattleman Kevin Kester, who runs cows and yearling stockers on about 22,000 acres near Paso Robles, Calif., planted about 60 acres of winegrapes 10 years ago to diversify his operation.
He sells his two varietals -- Cabernet and Syrah -- to wineries and is about to graft some of his Syrah vines to Petite Sirah.
"I'm getting winemakers asking for that," Kester said. "That's kind of the normal course of business. It's not necessarily related to the recession."
Chardonnay and the other major varietals are still "very much the bread and butter of the industry," and they account for the vast majority of the 523,000 acres of winegrapes grown in California, Ross said.
But if consumers keep branching out to some of the other varietals, it may get more difficult to meet their demands, at least domestically.
Winegrape acreage has shrunk in California from more than 600,000 acres a decade ago. That's because in the late 1990s people were planting based on double-digit market growth, but the events of Sept. 11, 2001, changed all that, Ross said.
The subsequent halt in tourism and business travel left wineries and wholesalers with an oversupply, so some growers in the Central Valley pulled out their older vineyards and replaced them with booming commodities such as almonds and pistachios, Ross said.
"We have not seen significant planting, which is one thing everyone's been keeping an eye on because we've had such a slowdown in planting," she said.
"The wine market continues to grow, so we could easily be back to a shortage."
That could prompt some wine producers to purchase bulk wine from other countries and bottle it here, Ross said.
"It is very competitive to go off shore to source that wine," she said.
Staff writer Tim Hearden is based in Shasta Lake, Calif. E-mail: email@example.com.