Those hipster white grapes

Are "aromatic whites" such as Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc really outmuscling Chardonnay for consumer attention?

Chardonnay? It's a madhouse. Madhooooouuuuuse!!
Chardonnay? It's a madhouse. Madhooooouuuuuse!!
Chardonnay? It’s a madhouse. Madhooooouuuuuse!!

There’s an interesting piece in this month’s Wine Spectator. It caught my eye while I skimmed a digital copy via Zinio (as I also enjoy doing monthly with Wine Enthusiast) on an aging Samsung Galaxy Tab tablet. En route to Ottawa for a short break from Silicon Valley, I always find zen at 30,000 feet. It’s an ideal time to catch up on some reading (Steven King’s classic The Shining), some tunes (Green Day’s ¡Uno!, and some brainstorming (like… Stark Iron).

Reading, talking and exploring about wine outside the bounds of the Bay Area and Napa/Sonoma enhances my perspective. And perhaps reinforces the fact that we’re pretty spoiled here. Case in point: a bottle of La Crema Sonoma Chardonnay is about $12 in the Valley. Here in Ottawa at the LCBO it goes for $25.

Also, there’s this: The hipster-free-wheeling-work-ethic-be-damned Millennial.

About that Spectator bit. In “California’s New-Wave Whites” MaryAnn Worobiec suggests that aromatic whites such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris are leading the charge and appealing to a new category of buyer that is eschewing their grandparents’ Chardonnay – sort of like what happened with the backlash against Buick. We learn that the USDA now tracks 29 white varieties, up from 21 twenty years ago. Likewise the amount of Chardonnays WS staff blind-taste has declined over the last decade, replaced instead by exciting grapes with names like Gewürztraminer, Viognier and Riesling (and let’s pretend we’ve never heard of something called Moscat). Napa Valley’s Stee Matthiasson is, for this article and this moment in time, the poster child for the movement.

But I have a theory.

It’s based on the fact that: (a) anecdotally, I continue to Chardonnay dominate retail store shelves (at Costco, BevMo, Whole Foods, Safeway, CVS, etc.) where the volume buying happens; (b) plantings in Northern California reveal the opposite – that Chardonnay is holding strong, and some of the once fancy whites are declining substantially (Chenin Blanc); and (c) unoaked Chards are trendy, and are altering traditional views of a traditional wine.

Also, there’s this: The hipster-free-wheeling-work-ethic-be-damned Millennial.

The selfie generation loves cover stories it seems.

And everyone must worship the most entitled generation in history. Wine writers too.

To be fair, there’s a lot of evidence that suggests this will a very innovative bunch. Work/balance could be restored. Let’s face it: Government and public policy could use an untainted set of paws. For more on all that I highly recommend this Joel Stein’s thoughtful and entertaining read on TIME (The Me Me Me Generation); he even risks attempting to live like a Millennial for a few days (sexting, anyone?). On a side note, BusinessWeek took on an interesting approach to marketing to millennials, which was dubbed by Forbes, “You Suck, Now Subscribe.”


Wine lists and restaurants is the big theme for the August issue of Wine Spectator. I was particularly pleased to see Gary Danko make the list – a top drawer dining experience. Aces. Though last time Loni and I visited, we brought a Caymus from the cellar. Next time, no doubt, we’ll try the wine service.

So, yes, editors like blazing a trail, chasing down pieces that are about something new – Chardonnay is definitely not new.

Interestingly, though, in a chart in Worobiec’s article, Chardonnay  still leads the way, representing about 53% of all white grapes planted in California. That’s roughly the same as a decade ago, and up from 34% in 1992. True, though, Viognier has seen a 50% increase in the last ten years – though, at 3,000 acres, is insignificant, at least in terms of volume. And, yes, Pinot Gris has exploded about 300% over the same period.

While some of these new grapes may be riding a trend, it’s not appearing (as many suggest) to be coming at the expense of Chardonnay. WS pulls a bit of a Shifty Sammy by saying that Chard is down because they blind-taste far less of it. That, however, is not based on the numbers or correlated to the plantings of Chardonnay which remains high. Instead, the change in mix appears to be the editorial’s (perhaps very smart) decision to cover white grapes that appeal to the aforementioned new generation of buyer – and hence, reader.

All this to say, take your stinkin’ paws of my (unoaked) California Chard, you damn dirty ape!

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