This week, I joined much of the rest of the California wine community in Sacramento for the Unified Grape and Wine Symposium. Unified, as it's called, is part trade show, part educational conference, and part social hall, with nightly reunions of all the significant viticultural universities and lots of the informal socializing that helps keep a community together.
I was up there to speak on a panel titled The Proprietary Wine: Rethinking the Constructs of Blended Wine, a topic near and dear to my heart. I and the other panelists shared how we thought about, and went about creating, the blends that we each focus on. I showed the 2012 Patelin de Tablas Blanc and the 2011 Esprit de Tablas, to have an opportunity to discuss how our approach differs for an estate wine and for the Patelin line, which is primarily from a collection of other local vineyards.
It became clear that each of us, to one degree or another, agreed that the freedom to blend different grapes, and the liberty to adjust to what each vintage gives you, allows us to make wines that we find more consistent and more interesting. But more than why we blend and what we hope to gain from it, I thought that the most interesting part of the seminar came in the question-and-answer period at its conclusion, specifically a question as to whether we thought that blends would, in the short or long term, take the mantle of desirability from the varietal wines that now dominate the marketplace.
On one side of the debate stands the success of the other panelists (whose quantities had grown in a shorter time than we've been active well into the tens and hundreds of thousands of cases) as well as brands like Menage a Trois, which came up in discussion several times as one of the top selling wines in the country despite its unconventional composition. Also on that side is the 15+% growth in both the red and white blend categories reported in Nielsen data from 2012. Arguing on the other side of the debate was the proprietor of a small winery, who asked me privately after the session whether I had any answer to the questions she gets from wine buyers just where they're supposed to put her blend on their shelves or on their lists. I hear that less than I did, but it would still certainly be easier to be in a more widely recognized category.
My general feeling is that blends will continue to grow in acceptance, but not because of a paradigm shift. In fact, I feel that the growth of acceptance of blends is part and parcel of the growing acceptance of unusual grapes and new growing regions. The American market even a decade ago was dominated by six grapes (Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc) and maybe eight foreign regions (Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone, Germany (mostly German Riesling), Spain (mostly Rioja), Italy (writ large), Australia, South America (mostly Chile with a little Argentina). Perhaps you could add in South Africa and New Zealand. It was these regions that warranted their own sections in even the best stores and wine lists. If you didn't fit into one of these categories, you tended to get stuck in "other red" or "other white". I know, because that's where we spent a lot of our history.
Fast forward a decade, and while retail has by and large been slower to change -- some notable exceptions notwithstanding -- wine lists are a great deal more inclusive than they were. Most large lists are still organized by grape or region, but there are many more grapes and many more regions listed. And small lists, which are more and more common even in many top restaurants, have more flexibility in their category-less simplicity to include whatever wines their buyer thinks interesting and complementary to their food. If it's based on Vermentino, or Negrette, it's likely listed that way, without fanfare or apology.
These developments are part of the maturation of the vibrant American wine market. I don't mean to say that there is a more mature wine consumer, though many Americans are still relatively new to wine, and I think that as wine lovers spend more time with their passion their tastes do tend to become more diverse, but that there are more and more different types of wine consumers in this wonderfully heterogeneous market. That means you don't need to convert a Chardonnay lover to Picpoul in order to be successful.
And that is a future to be excited about.