When It Comes To Wine, Don’t Sell American

There are now wineries in every state in the Union and many of those states do not grow enough grapes to support the growing demand of their growing industry. Places like Maryland, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, as well as states like the Dakotas, Florida, and many, many others simply to do not grow enough grapes. In some states, like Maryland, the supply is starting to catch up. Even in Vermont, with the help of cold-hardy hybrids, the grape supply is catching up there too.

There are various and sundry reasons supply is lacking. There isn’t enough agricultural land — and it comes at a premium in overly populated suburban areas. The expense of growing. The time it takes to mature a vineyard. I feel for these producers. It’s not fun. You’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.

When we first started to open our own winery more than a decade ago, we seriously considered buying California and Washington State grapes and bulk wine. Setting up shop in the Hudson Valley, there weren’t enough grapes to go around as it was — especially if you wanted to make Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Merlot or Chardonnay. We had to buy from the Finger Lakes and Long Island while we waited for our own grape vines to mature. The appeal of buying West Coast grapes was great, but we made the decision to stay within the state, and promote New York.

The goal should always be to use local fruit if at all possible. With the advent of the University of Minnesota varieties and classic French-American hybrids, there is no reason estate or local winemaking can’t take place virtually anywhere in America. With the improvements in grape growing, techniques in growing, and in winemaking, local and estate winemaking can happen virtually anywhere.

And if you are going to use fruit grown outside of your state, which is your right, then do so. I pass no judgment. Unless you make terrible wine. In this day and age, that is inexcusable.

However, if there is one wine term I absolutely loathe on a wine label in the United States, it’s the moniker American. Now, I am a big fan of wines made in California, Oregon and Washington. In fact, I like wines from almost all 50 states — I remain suspicious or doubtful of a few small regions or states…but that’s for another post.

No, what I mean is this. I hate when a producer hides behind the moniker “American” when it comes to the source of the grapes. They were grown somewhere. Where were they grown? “American” is a fiction the TTB created so that winemakers who were not using local fruit could hide behind it. But I think the days of using it are over.

Now, maybe you don’t want to grow grapes. It’s a bitch. Believe me, I know. And there is nothing — absolutely nothing — wrong, with sourcing your fruit. I’m very down with that. I grow fruit and source it as well. So I know. There are days when I wish I sourced everything.

I love Malbec, Petit Verdot, Viognier, and Petit Manseng. But I can’t grow those grapes properly in my region. It kills me. I get it.

But it seems genuinely dishonest to say “American” because it’s hiding where the fruit came from. If you are making wine on the East Coast and are using West Coast fruit, own it. Tell me where the fruit is from. If you’re hiding it, because you want consumers to think it’s local then that’s dishonest. Most consumers will be much more appreciative of the honesty of your product. Especially if you use a mix of local and West Coast fruit.

My preference would go the other way I would hyper identify it. It’s such and such farm, county, state. Make that sucker blare “appellation.” Stress your winemaking to your consumers. You make the product in your place. Maybe it’s Tank No. 8, or Barrels, 2, 25, 26, 27 and 31. Or maybe it’s blended with a small amount of local grapes. Maybe it’s made in New York or Pennsylvania or Arkansas oak. Hype that! Are you using local yeast? Open-top fermenters? Stress your location and your process.

The days of selling “American” wine are coming to an end. The wine media is already on hyper alert of this issue. It’s hard to get local media or wine media to cover anything that says “American” for the grape source. They already know. Even some statewide and regional competitions have disallowed the submission of “American” wines. Getting media for those wines, in particular, is hard to come by, at best.

When they read “American” many younger consumers already know it’s not local. They don’t read reviews, they read articles about you, your winery, and your process. They already know your name, and more often than not, your spouse’s name, and your children’s names. They’ve read about you. The younger consumers tend to know more about you before they come in than their parents, who might stop by one a whim. This is the time to stress your process and show who you are as a winemaker. This is a time to stress honesty and transparency. Better to be out front, than caught from behind.

Perhaps it becomes time to segment your line. Half from out of state, half from local fruit (or whatever your percentage). Especially younger consumers (21-30) are more hip to this kind of labeling than other segments of the market. I think it’s a great time to redo these kinds of label programs. It’s time to get ahead of this curve.

The winery I have seen do this best is Jonathan Edwards Winery in Connecticut. They make California wines and Connecticut wines. Each label identifies the source of the grapes specifically. You won’t see “American.”

Johnathan Edwards plays this up in its literature and media postings. They make terrific, high-quality wines, and are doing great things. But the California label is different than the Connecticut label. They both bear the same name and signature, but the labels are noticeably different.

It was so refreshing not to find the term “American” on these labels. It was nice to see a winemaker be out front on this issue.

The North American wine industry took a major step when they started naming their varietal wines for the grapes in them at the behest of wine writers like Frank Schoonmaker. There are no more California Burgundies, or California Bordeaux, or New York Bordeaux. Then we began applying our own appellations, now known as AVAs, to stress even more so the “somewherness” of the grapes (as Matt Kramer might say).

Today, more and more wineries are creating blends, and stressing their locality. This is the natural progression of things. The vestiges of the old world were shed one by one. The old robes are being discarded. Amongst the next to go, will be the term “American”. The media and some of the public already have started to tune this verbiage out. Will you be the winery tarred for using the old moniker, or praised for being bold and innovative?

It’s coming whether we like it or not.




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