How I fell in love with American wine
When I first arrived in the USA in 2009 I was in my early twenties and ill-prepared to jump into an MBA program that would shape my life in more ways than I could imagine. My taste and love for wine were still in their infancy, but I had a fun memory of recalling my first ever tasting note at a winery just a couple of years before that. I knew that I liked wine and I knew that I really enjoyed red wine, but beyond Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec I was clueless to the world that was out there, especially in a country that I would eventually call my home.
My wine journey is one that would take a while to seed before finally exploding into a passion that I feel I can never put down. Or if I do put anything down, it would be to age it for a good twenty years before I enjoy it. An investment in future pleasures if you will. But that was not something I knew about when I was 21 or 22 years old. I knew that I enjoyed robust red wines, with full bodies, and was not too keen on lighter wines. That would change, but it was something that I could identify early on and therefore hold on to. I had grown up and lived in a few countries with a rich history in wine including Spain, South Africa, and Hungary so I had learned from a young age that wine could be something special even if I never tried it (or maybe I did, I’m just not going to admit to any underage tasting in this blog haha). One of my favorite things to do as a kid was going with my parents to wineries, visit them and take in just how incredible these places were. Eventually, tasting wines became like a cherry on top of an already delicious Sunday. But for some reason, I never put too much stock into it. It was something nice to do on holiday and nothing more.
Where it all began, in Napa of course
I would eventually finish my MBA, fall in love with an incredible woman (which sadly did not last), and visit Napa with her. We spent just a day in Napa and visited one winery in our California road trip but to this day I think of it as my greatest highlight.
We visited Trefethen, hardly a small winery but still a favorite of mine. We tasted a few wines that to this day are amongst my favorites and most memorable. My interest in wine would grow steadily but it was not until two years later that I had a sudden realization that working in market research was not for me. What I really loved was drinking wine! I loved how wine could both secure and spark a memory, and how different wines just somehow suited a situation or a mood better. If I was feeling bright and happy then a Rosé was key, but if I was in a brooding sort of mood then a deep and dark Syrah was more my thing.
I launched a website to record my journey as a burgeoning wine geek slowly learning new things. In this journey, I got to meet and speak to a number of different winemakers including Andre Heuston Mack, Barnaby Tuttle of the Teutonic Wine Company, and Martha Freaking Stoumen! All of whom are incredible, legendary people who make delicious wines. It seemed so easy for them.
And yet every story was different, every approach was unique even though their passion was rooted in the same thing, a deep passion for wine and sharing it. I know I had to do more and got a job as a grunt working the floor at Brix Wine Shop in Boston and later at The Uran Grape. I got to meet so many winemakers from around the world but the people who impressed me the most were the American winemakers who saw things a little differently and had a certain light in their eyes. They love doing what they do and feel a great sense of freedom in doing it. Every story, every wine was unique. It showed so much more diversity than anything I had come to know.
This is when I realized I wanted to do a reverse, Steven Spurrier. Where Steven Spurrier brought American wine to the world, I wanted to bring American wine to America.
Selling wine, naturally
At the shop, I learned to connect with people through wine in ways I never thought possible. Every experience and interaction with a person was different. It should come as no surprise that different people have different tastes and they want to be heard. What I learned was that wine is never singular, and different people will like the same wine for different reasons. Something I feel the wine industry is not fully aware of today.
Everything felt like you had to know wine to know how to sell it, but the truth is nobody gives a damn about the origin story of a grape. What people want to know is how that wine is going to make them feel (besides buzzed or drunk). They want to know if they are going to enjoy this wine for the moment, for the context. Is this wine going to help them get over a breakup? Is this wine going to go well with Pizza? Is this wine going to impress their inlaws? Those were probably the most common questions I got.
The sign of a great salesperson is when people come back. Not only were people coming back to my stores but they were making a point to talk to me about my recommendations. Not because of my taste, but my passion. I was never going to sell anybody a bad wine, but I was going to show them the wines I was excited about. I wanted to make sure they had a great time with that bottle. One time I even held a bottle up in the window as a regular visitor walked past to show them we had a new vintage of their favorite wine. Naturally, they came right in and bought three bottles. You’re very welcome Laurie!
If there was ever a hook that really got people to try something new it was telling them the story of the winemaker. At the time I started the foundations of my wine career I was more enthralled by the stories of a lot of American wineries who were breaking rules, trying new things, and driving the natural wine movement in America. I tried to bring that joy for natural wine into my work, but remind myself that balance is necessary. It's great to share your passion, but you have to remember that other people have their values and preferences too.
There was always going to be a lot of buzz around European wines. Bourdeaux, Burgundy, and just about every part of Italy are fun and exciting. That's before we get to Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Georgia, and even England. And yet I often say that when we spoke about American wine it was all about buttery Chardonnay, $20 Sauvignon Blanc, and Napa Cabernet. I wanted people to know that there was so much more to American wine out there. So I went ahead and started buying it for myself from the wineries online. I wanted my bosses to know, I wanted people to know, and I wanted to show the full picture of these wines that I was falling in love with.
Yes I’m telling you American wine is better
I used to hear this all the time, American wine just is not as good as European wine. What the hell are these people talking about? I am not going to argue that it is better or worse than European wine, but American wine today is better than it has ever been. What I learned very quickly is that there is so much variety in the United States not just in terms of grape varietals but also style.
If you want to talk about grape varietals the United States has a lot to offer. The classics of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir to name but a few all have excellent examples coming from the United States. When we think of American wine we think of these wines, and very few people would argue that they are inferior to Burgundy. What I love the most about these wines is that they have found homes in the United States, and in very different parts. When you think of Cabernet Sauvignon you think of California and Napa being gigantic wines that are the symbol of American opulence, but we should not forget the more subtle examples of Washington. Oregon and Sonoma are becoming the most exciting regions for Pinot Noir. One could argue that in Oregon the influx of Burgundian winemakers looking to play and experiment in the region is all you need to confirm the region’s potential if you still do not believe it. Arguably both Oregon and Sonoma could have some Grand Cru level vineyards producing the best wines in the world.
California is unique in that it has such a long history with wine and yet it is constantly evolving. Immigrants brought the wines they knew, which is why you see so many grapes with so many different origins. French, Italian, Spanish, and even South African varietals are all planted there be they massive tracts of land or even a small parcel in one vineyard. Trends have seen vines come and go, and people are always looking for the perfect spot to plant the vines they love. Inspiration goes a long way in the United States, especially in California. One only needs to look at a winery like Ascension Cellars who are very much inspired by luscious Rhone varietals, and yet their signature wine blends lots of Syrah with plenty of Cabernet Sauvignon. It is one example that shows how American wineries are inspired but not held back by what has come before them.
It's all about style
Too many times we think of American wines as being singular, having to check a bunch of boxes to be appreciated by wine aficionados. This does 99% of American wines a great disservice. We expect an American Chardonnay to be loaded with oak and have notes of vanilla and butter, and we expect American red wines to be super full-bodied and fruit-forward. Where is the fun in that?
Meeting all these boutique wineries I discovered something that is the new calling card of American wine. It's all about the style! To understand the wines you cannot just say a Syrah from Napa is going to be 14% alcohol is going to be insanely rich, and taste like plums, you have to ask where the winemaker is coming from. You have to hear their story, their passion, and their approach. It's not all about being a natural winemaker either. Winemaking is a series of decisions and it's all about what the winemaker is trying to achieve. Sometimes that's natural and minimalist, other times it isn't. But at the end of the day, they are trying to make a wine that they want to share with their friends, that they are proud of, and they enjoy drinking themselves.
If wine is a social elixir then winemakers are the social butterflies and fairies who bring us together. They want you to be excited, to enjoy the wine. That is what made me gravitate towards American wine more than anything else. There is a little bit of unpredictability, but if you ask the questions of where a winemaker comes from, what inspires them, and what they love then you will taste that in the wine more so than anywhere else in the world. American winemakers are free to be themselves, and that's why I fell in love with American wines. That's why I promote them, sell them, and champion them in any way that I can.