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Dan Berger, On Wine: Excellence and emerging wine regions
On Wine

Dan Berger, On Wine: Excellence and emerging wine regions

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Jan. 10, 2020 series
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Partly as a result of the rapid information transfer generated by the internet, grape growing and winemaking in the remotest parts of the world have become pretty sophisticated.

This is great news for adventurous wine lovers, but probably means nothing to those whose main concern is how many points a wine got.

Decades ago, I wrote articles about the then newly developed Chilean wine region Casablanca Valley; the great Merlots I found in Yugoslavia (now Slovenia); a terrific red wine we had on the island of Corsica, and some unexpectedly fine wines I tasted in southern Austria.

Long ago, I called these wine regions “emerging” – a word I’ve often used when it’s clear that an unknown area is showing great promise by making excellent wines.

About 130 years ago, Napa Valley and Sonoma County were emerging wine regions, rated well behind other U.S. areas in terms of wine quality. Livermore Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains, and Santa Clara Valley all were well ahead of Napa and Sonoma.

Today, considered the kings of America’s wine culture, Napa and Sonoma began to emerge as fine wine regions in the 1880s. Author Frona Eunice Wait, in her book, “Wines and Vines of California” (1881), extolled one of the state’s first top Cabernet Sauvignons, called Dunfillan, from a site now part of Kunde Estate in Sonoma Valley.

At the time, California was well behind such states as New York, Ohio, and Missouri in wine production.

Leading California’s wine image parade 120 years ago were Los Angeles (plantings by Frenchman Jean-Louis Vignes in what is now downtown L.A.) and at Rancho Cucamonga (the vast Italian Vineyard Co.).

(Trivial fact: Los Angeles residents today pronounce the downtown street named for Vignes as “vig-ness.” But in French, Jean-Louis’ last name is pronounced “veen.”)

What is an emerging region? An unlikely area that has shown some consistent success with winemaking. Today, some might call Umpqua Valley in Southern Oregon or California’s Sierra Foothills “emerging” areas. However, both have been around for decades making superb wines. The same goes for Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, as well as Idaho, Missouri, Virginia, Ohio, Colorado and Texas.

Despite great wine successes in such locales, local wine buyers often disparage the quality of local wines because most of them take their cues from a throng of ill-informed (East Coast-based?) wine writers who know virtually nothing of the wines from new regions.

Anyone who has tasted a Reustle Prayer Rock Syrah (Umpqua) or a red wine from Foothills-based Jeff Runquist knows instantly how greatness can emanate from an obscure area.

Still, negative comments often stick to such regions despite the quality — even long after it’s clear the wines are excellent.

The late Leon Adams explained this in the preface to an edition of his book “The Wines of America.” Adams refers to the term “malinchismo” as used in Mexico by locals to disparage all Mexican-made goods, including wine — some of which can be excellent. (The term derives from a despised Mexican woman by the name Malinche who assisted conquistador Hernán Cortés in destroying the Aztec culture.)

And such derision can live a lot longer than you can imagine. Just the other day, I heard a restaurant wine director say that the only great wine this country makes is from the West Coast.

That assertion ignores literally dozens of phenomenal Rieslings from New York, Michigan, and Ohio!

And quality often is unrelated to the most popular grape varieties. Need proof? Just try a Gamay Noir or Pinot Blanc from Oregon, a Barbera from Calaveras County, or even what I consider to be the best Grüner Veltliner made in the United States, from Galen Glen Winery in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania.

A few years ago, I found that Idaho’s Snake River Valley had the right combination of soils and climates to produce some startling Tempranillo. So, for that matter, does the Umpqua.

Just because a wine region isn’t well known is no reason to disparage it without trying the wines. True wine lovers know this. Yet it’s very rare that anyone reports on the excellence we now can see coming out of emerging regions.

I blame the number mongers for this sad situation.

As long as wine from “emerging” areas remains handcuffed by a coterie of elitist wine “experts” who put scores on wine, we will all be the losers.

Such number people hide their wine naiveté behind scores that carry utterly no meaning in terms that explain wine. If that continues, all wine will be seen as an off-putting exercise that turns off potential wine lovers.

One immature comment I’ve heard all too often is, “Hey, how good can this wine be? It’s from __________!”

A true wine aficionado might reply, “I’d love to try it!”

Wine of the Week: 2018 Scaia Garganega-Chardonnay, Trevenezia IGT ($14): What a delightful discovery. This light, delicate, spicy little white wine gets some mid-palate texture and citrus from 45% Chardonnay and its herbal tea/lime and spice notes from 55% Garganega. It’s produced by the Castagnedi family and is imported by the excellent Napa importer Brian Larkey (Dalla Terra Wines) and tastes as good as any $18-$20 wine. Occasionally seen at $12.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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There’s no question that wine is a complex subject. How complex? We’ve all been there: We’re standing in a retail store, facing a wall of 100 domestic Chardonnays. And we realize how confusing it is. Oh, the questions we could ask!

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