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In Praise of Originality and Strangeness

Posted August 21, 2012 in Web Exclusives

Last week, nearly 400 wine writers gathered in Portland, Oregon, for the fifth annual Wine Bloggers’ Conference.

The event opened with a keynote speech from Randall Grahm, the legendary vintner behind Bonny Doon Vineyard, who urged attendees to “support originality and strangeness, two features that the wine business, especially in the New World, desperately needs.”

It’d be hard to ignore the fact that Grahm was urging the audience to embrace more winemakers like himself.

Grahm rose to fame in the 1980s thanks to his originality — he was among the first American winemakers to embrace Rhone varieties like Syrah and Grenache. And Grahm is proudly strange. For most of his career, he was best known for his flamboyant and irreverent marketing campaigns. Six years ago, he famously decided to cast aside his three biggest wine brands in order to focus on small-production wines made with minimal intervention.

Such originality and strangeness should be applauded. And fortunately, more and more winemakers are following in Grahm’s footsteps.

For some, this means introducing Americans to obscure grapes.

Consider Red Tail Ridge Winery on Seneca Lake in New York. Like most producers in the Finger Lakes, Red Tail Ridge makes a number of different Rieslings. But it also produces varieties like Teroldego, a red wine that hails from northeast Italy, and Blaufrankisch, Austria’s signature red wine.

Or look at Chateau O’Brien in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northern Virginia. Its flagship wine is a Tannat, a grape that’s typically associated with Uruguay. On a recent visit to the winery, I was extremely impressed by its Petit Manseng, even though the variety is historically used in southwest France as an unremarkable blending grape.

Chateau O’Brien and Red Tail Ridge aren’t alone. Across the country, countless producers are introducing consumers to unfamiliar grapes.

For other winemakers, originality and strangeness means jettisoning modern winemaking techniques and mimicking the producers of yesteryear.

Just think about the arsenal of tools today’s winemakers can employ.

On the vineyard, viticulturists can ensure that their vines receive the perfect amount of water through irrigation. With chemical fertilizers, grape growers can maintain textbook levels of soil nutrients. By using pesticides and herbicides, growers can protect their grapes from fungi and invasive weeds.

In the cellar, winemakers can manipulate their wines in a number of ways. Adding sugar just before fermentation can raise alcohol; using a specialized filtration system can lower it. Winemakers can make a wine seem fresher by adding tartaric acid. Aging wine in oak barrels is expensive; using oak chips saves money and time. Adding a small amount of grape juice concentrate to a wine can mask vegetal aromas.

These practices aren’t necessarily bad — many are critical in the production of affordable, consistent, commercial wine. But they make it difficult for a wine to express a sense of place. That “sense of place” — or terroir — is what makes wine special. It’s why two wines made from adjacent vineyards can taste distinctively different from each other.

The pursuit of terroir inspires numerous winemakers to produce wine as if they’re living in ancient times. For longtime California producer Steve Edmunds, who, like Randall Grahm, is known for his focus on Rhone varieties, this makes perfect sense.

“Winemaking isn’t Rocket Science,” he explains on his website. “It’s an ancient, relatively straightforward process that should yield, in any wine, a precise expression of the vineyard and the season that produced it.”

Even big wineries have started to move in this direction. Since 2007, Sonoma’s Benziger Family Winery has pursued “the highest level of natural farming appropriate” for each of its vineyards, not solely because of environmental concerns, but because the Benziger family believes such practices help produce more honest, authentic wine.

As Grahm finished his speech in Portland, he urged the audience to “speak up on behalf . . . of those who are innovating new styles, or preserving something precious.” Every year, it seems as if an increasing number of American winemakers are doing just that. It’s a development worth celebrating.

David White, a wine writer, is the founder and editor of His columns are housed at, the fastest growing wine portal on the Internet.

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