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MR: I absolutely agree. It'll be interesting to see, too, because there are a lot of wine regions outside of California, throughout the U.S., that are very rapidly climbing the learning curve on how to grow great wine in their specific regions and climates. I recently had some amazing wine from Ohio — shockingly good! It was a Chardonnay that was unbelievable; it was almost Chablisienne in its intensity and purity, at 11.5% alcohol. It was gorgeous! And how apropos to a challenge in the primacy of Northern California! Although, I don't know if that [primacy] will ever be dislodged in the American wine-buying public's imagination. But it will be interesting to see other regions get up to speed and people start to explore [wines] locally, instead of thinking they have to buy California wine.
TM: What I'm hoping this all does for Napa and Sonoma is that it drives out the development of marginal vineyard land that's planted to Cabernet. People expect that land to produce great wine just because it's in Napa or Sonoma. If you take Bordeaux as an example, Margaux is fabulous — but everybody else around it is just okay. Similarly, I expect the same thing to develop in Napa, where we'll have more localization of quality. In that scenario, the benchlands next to the Napa River will be growing Sauvignon Blanc, instead of bad Cabernet or bad Merlot.
"It will be interesting to see other regions get up to speed and people start to explore [wines] locally, instead of thinking they have to buy California wine."
NM: This is a good opportunity to segue into a discussion about varietal wines and their gravitational pull in the market. From your perspective, in terms of varieties that have waxed and waned, what happened to Merlot in the '90s and what is happening with Pinot Noir currently? And in terms of varieties that have remained steady, what's been happening all along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay? And where is Syrah in all this? What's your opinion on what the future hold for varietal popularity?
SJ: Well, we make Merlot [at Pride Mountain] — it's been our flagship wine throughout our history — and our sales of Merlot have not dropped, regardless of the Sideways controversy. But I think the most important thing is for producers to make wines they believe in…
EV: And not just jump on a trend!
SJ: Yeah, not jump on a trend, not plant Pinot in Calistoga just because it's now worth $5,000 a ton, or plant Merlot in Carneros because everybody is drinking it. Those vineyards are not being picked and aren't being sold; they're ending up on the bulk market. But for me, it's really interesting what's happened with Syrah. Ten years ago everyone said it was going to be the next Merlot; this was before anyone thought about Pinot. I still love Syrah — I think it's a great wine; it's still my favorite wine. But nobody wants it, you can't sell it, no one plants it anymore, it's kind of a dead end. It's not because the wines aren't great; it's not because producers don't have the passion for it. It's that consumers don't understand it: it's not a big Cabernet that goes with steak, it's not a light Pinot that goes with fish.
MR: It's so curious to me, too. Because even with what's going on with Pinot Noir right now — first the big surge, and now the drop off — quality Pinot that's grown in the right place and produced conscientiously is doing fine. The Pinot that I make for Elizabeth Spencer hasn't seen any downturn. A lot of that drop off was with Pinot that was grown in sites that the vine is indifferent towards, which ended being bottled as crap. People were like, "Ooh, yeah, Sideways! Pinot's great! I want to try it!" And then they taste that wine and go, "This tastes like shit" and then never drink another Pinot again. So, I think the producers who are making Pinot well continue to have a solid audience. Whereas those who planted it just because they were thinking they could cash in on the big boom were the ones who got bitten.
SJ: I've seen Pinot on the Russian River at 8 tons an acre and they're getting $4,000 a ton. That sort of vineyard will be ripped in five years because that fruit will never be worth that price; the quality won't be there. It's just taking advantage of a blip in the market.