In the last two-plus years, I’ve made a concerted effort to visit U.S. wine regions and taste as many wines as I can from states other than California, Oregon and Washington.
I’m a sucker for trying varietals that are new to me, visiting vineyards that don’t look at all like the ones near where I live (California) and discovering how viticultural and winemaking practices vary throughout the country, based on the conditions of each area. I am fascinated, for example, by how Southern U.S. grapegrowers combat rot in their humid weather, how those in Michigan and Minnesota grow wine grapes in ground that for half the year is under snow, and how Texas and Colorado vintners can have enormous crop losses due to freezes and frosts, yet they continue to forge ahead.
During a recent visit to New York’s Finger Lakes region, I learned that the cute little multi-colored Asian lady beetle (Harmonia axyridis), common in regions where soybeans grow, moves into nearby vineyards after the soybean harvest. When frightened -- as a ladybug would be if awakened by a mechanical harvester while sunning itself on a grape cluster -- the beetle secretes a substance with a sensory quality that can make its way through the winemaking process and give the finished wine an aroma of peanut butter. Peanut butter! Who knew?
Not everyone who drinks wine cares about such details, yet for me, knowing where and how a wine is made enhances my enjoyment of it. When I pour a glass, I want not only a stimulation of my palate, but also my brain. I equate it to watching a sporting event. It’s fun to cheer the home team when it scores a run in baseball, but the game is also a chess match; to understand the moves the manager made to create that one run is as interesting as watching the runner cross home plate. Knowing the process adds to the pleasure.
So I’ve been tasting my way through the less-recognized wine regions of America, and less-respected varietals. This year, I have had truly delicious Baco Noir and Sangiovese from Colorado, Blanc du Bois and Tempranillo from Texas, Frontenac from Vermont, Kerner and Traminette from Michigan, Marechal Foche from Wisconsin, Marquette from Minnesota, Norton from Missouri and Virginia, Vignoles from the Ozark Mountains, and Muscadine from Florida’s Lakeridge Winery. Take that, Muscadine haters!
I regularly purchase Chateau Gruet’s splendid methode champenois sparkling wines from New Mexico, and wish that the Thibaut-Janisson Blanc de Chardonnay from Virginia was sold in California. I’d purchase a case of it straightaway, as it displays true Champagne character from Virginia-grown grapes.
If I had to drink only California, Oregon and Washington wines for the rest of my life -- the wines most available to me -- I would not be unhappy, but I would be restless. My curiosity about wines produced in the other 47 states would consume me: What am I missing?
One doesn’t drink only Bordeaux and declare, “I know French wine.” One must taste the wines of Burgundy, Alsace, Champagne, the Loire and Rhone valleys, the Languedoc, etc., in order to make that statement. I want to “know” American wine, and that means tasting everything I can, from regions that aren’t already familiar to me.
In 2002, Pointe of View Winery became the first commercial winery in North Dakota; with that, the claim was validated that wine is being made in all 50 of the United States. Today, there are some 6,500 licensed wineries in America, and ongoing improvements in the vineyards and cellars are collectively lifting the game for all producers. California is still king, with Oregon and Washington the queens in the image/production pageant, yet the rest of the U.S. is catching up, doing what it knows how to do best, and delivering delicious wines.
If you think you know Texas wine from a tasting you did a decade ago, you don’t know Texas wine as it is today; the quality improvements are remarkable. The same can be said for most other states, where vintners have figured out which varieties are suitable for their growing conditions, and eliminated those that don’t work.
As much as every winemaker in America may want to produce Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay -- and some dream of making Pinot Noir -- many don’t have the optimal climate and soils for success with these varieties. The smart ones are growing grapes that are suitable for the conditions. That’s why Tempranillo is a great fit for the warm, high-elevation Panhandle Plains of western Texas, why Riesling works so well in the chilly Finger Lakes of New York and Old Mission Peninsula in Michigan, and why Muscadine is the best grape for the humid South.
The biggest challenge for so-called regional wineries -- those outside the commercial mainstream -- is to change the minds of their own populace, which includes owners of restaurants, wine bars and wine shops.
On a recent visit to the Lone Star State, several vintners told me, with exasperation, that many Texans still don’t know that the state produces wine. I dined in a restaurant in Lubbock with Llano Estado winemaker Greg Bruni, and there were only two Texas wines on the list -- both made by Bruni. Otherwise, California wines dominated the list.
In New York’s Finger Lakes region, which produces some of the most scintillating Rieslings in America, vintners tell me that most restaurants in New York City want nothing to do with their wines, preferring to stock their lists with bottles from Europe and the Southern Hemisphere. This saddens me, as I wish these wines were available to me in Sonoma County -- which cannot produce top-notch Riesling, due to its warm climate.
There has been much written lately, including in the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, about restaurants that proudly serve dishes made from locally produced ingredients, yet they have wine lists heavy on bottles from other states and countries. “Locavore” does not necessarily mean “locapour,” and in top dining cities such as New York, Boston, Chicago and Miami, local wines can be difficult to find.
If eateries are serious about promoting locally sourced products, they should do the same by offering local wines that pair with the dishes. If one lives in Colorado, the opportunity to purchase a Colorado wine in a restaurant should be a no-brainer.
This Thanksgiving, pull the cork or twist the cap on a wine that is local to you, wherever you live. For that second bottle, consider a wine from another state; you’ll broaden the wine drinking horizons of everyone at the table. Many imported wines are well-suited to the Thanksgiving meal, but since this is the most American of holidays, it begs for American wines. Drink up!