Red Storm Rising Across Northern Wineries
Cold hardy red wine grapes appear to be in a kind of limbo, looking for an identity, a style, a flavor profile to call their own. Unlike the hardy whites that seem to have found a light, flowery, fruity, crispness that cannot be found out west or nearly anywhere, our reds seem to be trying to imitate California.
To be sure our reds have improved in palatability but until we become comfortable enough in our own skins to be ourselves we will never be able to say anything but, ‘Look! We are almost as good as California.”
However, trying to do what California does best will make us forever second best. More importantly we deserve an identity of our own. We need wines that reflect our agriculture, our unique climate, our grapes.
Just as Cabernet Sauvignon is identified with the Napa Valley and the Merlot/Cabernet blend reflects Bordeaux, we need to have appealing red wines that can be distinguished from wines grown anywhere else.
However, the wines we are are most proud of essentially imitate California. Dry wines with little residual sugar and subtle flavors that take time to appreciate and are a hard sell for the average Midwesterner.
Generally, these dry, subtle wines need oak aging to give them aroma. Often what are described as the “best” of these wines are full of tannins that give the bottled wine long life but, quite frankly, are repellent to the average American palate.
We as an industry make a mistake saying that these traditional wines are ‘good’ rather than simply a style and a type. A certain type of wine is not inherently good or bad. And wines are not “bad” simply because they are not dry, pure vitis Vinifera wines.
It is almost as if we as winemakers and owners are saying, “We have come to appreciate this as ‘good” wine and that is what we offer you, Take it or leave it.” Teaching our customers what is ‘good” and what is not, intimidates them and keeps them out of the winery.
It may plump up our egos to know something others may not, but, in the end, keeping customers out of the winery simply costs us all a lot of money. As Tami Bredeson owner of Carlos Creek Winery in Minnesota is fond of saying, ‘We shouldn’t try to teach our customers. We should let them teach us.”
Not too long ago, I had an experience that changed my perspective about where the Midwest fits in the broader world of wine. I was working at the farm one day when a man and his family came in and began asking questions.
Whenever possible, I take time to give visitors a little tour and answer their questions. Quickly, I realized this man was asking questions that were way too knowledgeable for an average tourist. I asked him where he was from and what he did. Turns out he was a winemaker for Frog’s Leap Winery, a major California wine operation.
I told him I was flattered that he stopped by, as my operation must have been peanuts to him. He replied, ‘Don’t worry Mr. Marshall, we Californians know what you Midwesterners are doing.”
Unsettling as this ‘big brother” comment made me feel, I soon realized what had prompted his remark: California wine sales are generally flat. Ours are not! The big wineries are interested to see what is working for us in the Midwest.
More recently, I was at the local liquor store here in Lake City, Minnesota. While perusing the selection, I noted that more than one of the large national brands were offering a generic ‘Sweet Red ” blend.
Advertising the sweetness of a California wine was something one would never have seen a few years ago. I asked Tami, the store manager who stocks my wine, how these sweet wines sold and she replied, ‘really well.”
Could it be that the highly professional and pragmatic marketing teams at the big wineries have identified something important: Sweet red wines sell. To their credit, the big West Coast wineries decided to go with the lesson that the public is teaching them rather than trying to teach people what is”good wine.”
More to the point, many of our hybrids reportedly exhibit a characteristic that the wine establishment calls ‘hybrid character.” No one can really describe it and blind tastings do not reveal it. But based upon the mistaken belief that these European flavors are the very apex of wine quality and cannot be improved upon, our hybrids must be lacking because they do not taste exactly like pure Vitis vinifera wines. I submit that the unique qualities of our new cold hardy wines are an advantage.
The uniqueness of these wines represent an enormous opportunity to create the thing we need the most, a flavor profile to call our own. A type of wine that distinguishes us from California, Europe or anywhere else.
Together with their obvious mission of leading grape growing into cold climates never before blessed by the vine, cold hardy hybrids, particularly the reds, can also lead the way in forging an identity for the Midwest and a new, user friendly kind of wine.
In the next edition of Midwest Wine Press, John will profile his favorite cold hardy red wines. John is a regular columnist in Midwest Wine Press and a vineyard and winery owner in Lake City, Minnesota. See Great River Vineyard and Nursery for more information.