On the joys and sorrows of rising cabernet sauvignon in Washington State

Booming cabernet sauvignon plantings in Washington State have made wine news this past week following a new report from the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. This news makes me sad, though I probably shouldn’t be.

Washington can do superbly good things with cab sauv. Even if some efforts are built for earning high points from Wine Spectator rather than actual drinking enjoyment, Red Mountain and its neighboring AVAs in the state’s southeast can turn out beautifully dense, velvety, complex cabernets that make you want to pull out the good china for dinner. And cab sauv gives strength and seriousness to the red blends that are, across the board, what southeastern Washington does best.

Back In 2014, I wrote a piece for Palate Press inelegantly titled “When your iconic wine is everything: Washington’s diversity issue.” I had just returned to New Zealand from a fieldwork visit to my old home state, where I’d reveled in good bread, central heating, people who didn’t want me to taste multiple sauvignon blancs in a row, and plenty of really excellent wine. In that context, I’d been struck by the extent to which neither Washington State nor any of its subregions had One Big Wine that made up their public identity. New Zealand immediately conjures up Marlborough sauvignon blanc, Central Otago pinot noir, and Hawke’s Bay syrah. In the States, most readily nameable “regions,” whether states or American Viticultural Areas, have an equivalent: Napa cab, Oregon (Willamette Valley) pinot noir, Finger Lakes riesling, even Virginia cab franc and Missouri Norton. All grow other things, and in particular I’m sorry that Central Otago isn’t better known for its aromatic whites and that Marlborough isn’t in a position to develop its promising chardonnay and pinot noir. Nevertheless, the iconic wine is what consumers latch onto, what makes the region memorable and easy to understand, and what sells.

Washington doesn’t (yet) have an equivalent. (Red Mountain is known for cab sauv and Walla Walla for merlot, but only regionally as yet.) The state’s diversity doesn’t help it when a nervous New York City restaurant diner just wants to choose something familiar. Moreover, the best wines being produced in Washington are cab sauv, merlot, or blends driven by those grapes. If New York noshers are going to recognize not just Washington but Red Mountain, Walla Walla, and Horse Heaven Hills, big reds will be the reason.

But the best wines don’t always make for the best drinking. Diversity makes for a joy-provoking field to explore if you’re willing to get to know them, and a welcome tasting experience if you’re out for the day. Washington winemakers – most of them running tiny businesses by California standards – to their credit, aren’t afraid to experiment in their still relatively young terrain and to find varieties outside the big 6 that are worth both their time and yours.

Not all of those experiments need to become traditions, and some no doubt deserve to be planted over with cab sauv. But some of those unusual wines are brilliant, from the totally unexpected and thoroughly delicious montepulciano I once tasted in the winemaker’s garage to the creamy semillons more often offered alongside those big reds – but, the numbers suggest, increasingly being edged out by cab sauv. These trends are signs of the state’s wine industry growing up. They’re also signs, perhaps, of losing something unique and beautiful the state losing a big part of what makes it unique, worthwhile, and beautiful to someone who isn’t nervously noshing in New York.

There’s much more to be said about the interactions of developing an icon style with winery size, consumer expectations for consistency, brand associations with wine labels or wine regions, climate change, fashion, distribution, and the development of new AVAs, among other things (some of which I say here). All topics that I hope the industry is discussing, and discussions that I hope to see taken up more publicly as well. For now, it seems that what I really want to say is: three cheers for odd-ball wines, in Washington and elsewhere.

Does (diet-branded) Cense wine make sense?

The marketing story: Cense Marlborough sauvignon blanc is the first Weight Watchers-branded wine, made by Truett-Hurst, a holding company for California-based wine production and branding operations. Cense has 85 calories per 5 oz glass,* equating to 3 Weight Watchers’ “points.” The partners expect to add other wines to the brand line-up including (surprise, surprise) a rosé.

The numbers: Cense is a reduced alcohol wine. The brand also hooks its diet-friendly message on claims about no added sugar, but dry table wines essentially never contain added sugar, and the small fraction of residual sugar in the vast majority of table wines makes an insignificant calorie contribution. “Lower calorie” is just alternate marketing for “lower alcohol.”

Since ethanol and sugar are the only signficant sources of calories in wine, estimating the calories in your glass of non diet-branded wine is simple.** (Color only matters in that whites are often, though not always lower in alcohol than reds.)

Calories in a 5 oz glass = (alcohol on the label as a decimal)(785) + (sugar in grams/liter) X (.568)

A 12% dry wine with .5% residual sugar clocks in at just about 100 calories per 5 oz. Make that 13.5% – the starting point for sauv blancs from Kim Crawford up to Cloudy Bay and Greywacke – and the same 5 oz glass comes up to 110 calories. By drinking Cense, you save about 35 calories per glass, the equivalent of about 5 almonds or one and a half medium-sized carrots.

The analysis: Does Cense make sense?

Continue reading

Responding to Matt Kramer: Is terroir a metaphor?

Matt Kramer, of Wine Spectator, recently wrote about his guest lecture for Dr. Kevin Pogue’s terroir course at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Kramer, invited to speak to a class about terroir, led by a professor known for supporting terroir, as a wine writer known for supporting terroir, could have chosen some particular element of that big tangled concept to dissect, knowing that he didn’t have to spend most of his time explaining what terroir is and arguing for why it’s valid. Instead, as he explains in his Wine Spectator column, he explained what terroir is with an eye to why it tends to provoke such consternation. Terroir, Kramer says, is a metaphor.

My first reaction, seeing that phrase, is that it’s interesting idea.

My second reaction, reading on, is that Kramer isn’t talking about metaphors.

At the risk of sounding pedantic, I’d like to explain why, and argue for why the difference isn’t pedantism but is actually significant to how we understand and work with this concept.

Kramer says that terroir is a lens through which we see and (can) come to understand the world: “As a metaphor, terroir is nothing more—and nothing less—than a way of being alert. It’s a way of both acknowledging and accepting that the Earth—not just the soil—can speak.”

Metaphors are a way of directing our attention, highlighting some elements of the metaphor’s target over others, directing us to ask some kinds of questions over others. All language functions this way, to a greater or lesser extent. If I introduce a wine as “a lush, ripe Australian red” I’m predisposing you to pay attention to its sweet fruit flavors. Introducing the same wine first as “a classic Barossa shiraz with a meaty finish,” I’m encouraging you to pay more attention to its savory side right from the start.* Rhetoricians call the ability of words to make us selectively alert “framing.” The words we use change what we see by drawing our attention to some aspects of a complex picture and hiding or downplaying others.

Continue reading