But because I work in the service area, to me regional identity isn't about sales or image. When I open a wine for someone I like to be able to paint a picture of where it's from. Many emerging regions focus on grape variety as identity, and yes, it makes my job easier to sell wine when I can say to a consumer, "yes, this is pinot noir, so it may remind you of x, y or z." But should grape variety be tied to regional identity in emerging wine regions?
A grape variety is a unique genetic composite formed from a single seed. A pinot noir plant will not grow from a pinot noir seed—you can only get a pinot noir plant from cloning. Pinot noir is many centuries old. Imagine if a single person were cloned for over 1,000 years. On one hand, it would be cool to have the world over-run with Einsteins and mutant Einsteins, but then we might have never had a Richard Feynman.
To me, there is too much a focus on the “classic” grape varieties in the world—vintners/nurseries are cloning old genetic material, which weakens it over time—just think of how many pinot and grenache mutants there are! Not only does this create monoculture in the vineyard, which is dangerous for longevity over centuries, but it pushes new regions to establish themselves in the image of previously established regions. These are issues that nobody really wants to talk about because it’s bad marketing—but I’ll go out on a limb here, and start the conversation. I’d love to see genetically younger grape varieties in emerging wine regions; I’d love to see emerging wine regions grow different clonal material than from Burgundy or Bordeaux. I’d love to see consumers more willing to experiment with grape varieties aside from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. These varieties are wonderful, and lovely, and needed. But the more consumers push for familiar tastes, the more big wine companies will graft over unique plots, the more start-up wineries will be less willing to experiment with different varieties, and the more homogenous our wine flavors will become. I embrace diversity because I fear the threats to the wine industry that monoculture poses. So, I think it can be dangerous for emerging wine regions to focus on creating their identity around a few international grape varieties. I think we should all be searching for multiple varieties, and perhaps even new varieties.
But these issues of identity that emerging regions face are played out every night in restaurants. People don’t know what to expect from a Martinborough pinot noir, and they want a comparison—is it like Burgundy, or is it like Sonoma Pinot Noir? I want to say “It is like Martinborough Pinot noir,” but this isn’t practical in the situation when someone is searching for a benchmark to set their expectations. So, I am forced to compare Martinborough to Burgundy. I don’t want to. But do I have an alternative?
It seems that emerging wine regions face such high start up costs that they need to enter the market with semi-recognizable wines. But I am willing to work harder at my job to sell less familiar grape varieties to create a little more diversity in the world, and I think there are many other sommeliers willing to do the same.