W hen I started working full-time in the wine industry, I vividly remember chuckling at the giant wall of vodka in liquor stores. Every few months, there’d be a new “hot” brand of vodka that every store needed to carry and the wall continued to grow. I thought about how unique wine is—a handmade, farmed product that was produced with passion and, in general, the marketing was focused on the producer’s location and unique story. Something has happened since then (mid 1990s)—wine has become the big hot item. There are more wine brands and labels now than ever. Every wine label sold in the US needs to be approved by a governing body (the TTB, aka Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) before hitting the store shelves. In 1999, about 60,000 labels were approved; in 2010 the TTB approved 163,000 labels. So for the consumer, there is plenty of choice. But is that good or bad? Too many choices make decision making more difficult for the casual wine consumer (even the serious consumer). And with increased choice/confusion, the opportunity for branded wines increases. The biggest wine wholesale companies, import companies and spirit companies have noticed this and are taking advantage of it.
What’s a wine-curious customer to do with all this market confusion? Follow my path to drinking success. Start with a grape you like, then research all the places that grape does well and start drinking. I recommend starting with the grape’s historical home. Once you’ve found a grape to work with (that means drink, and don’t forget to spend a few seconds actually thinking about the taste and aromas), move around the globe with it. What do I mean by that? Let’s take Cabernet Sauvignon. Start with a Bordeaux from Pauillac or Saint Julien, then try one from Napa, one from Sonoma, one from Mendoza, Argentina, one from Coonawarra, Australia, and one from Walla Walla, Washington. When you run out of ideas, find me for more. This can be done for each and every grape and you don’t worry about the “brand.” You worry about the grape and where it’s from.
With Cabernet Sauvignon, you might think, what about Long Island? There you might need a bit more guidance as the climate is a touch cool, so I’d recommend a vintage that was unusually warm and dry (2005, 2007 and 2010) and one with a touch of age. There are some warmer vineyard sites on Long Island the grape will do quite well. I’ve had very good luck with Cabernet Sauvignons from Paumanok Vineyards. But for the most part, Long Island is best suited to grapes that like a bit cooler weather—Merlot and Cabernet Franc for reds. The historical region for Merlot is also Bordeaux, just a different part that is cooler and more in-land, specifically Saint Emilion, Pomerol and neighboring regions. On this venture, you will find plenty of price variables, and that speaks to the regions’ ability to brand themselves as Champagne has done for sparkling wines, Chablis has done with Chardonnay and New Zealand has done with Sauvignon Blanc to name a few. It is much more interesting to drink a wine from somewhere, rather than from some corporation.