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Micro-Diffusion and the Rise of American Wine
By Michael Franz
Mar 17, 2009
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I published a column here on WRO last autumn entitled, "Going Local: The Way to a Wine Culture for the USA," arguing that the geographic diffusion of winegrowing across different regions was an important development for the status of wine in American culture.  I noted that wine is now made in all 50 states, and suggested that the presence of vineyards and wineries across the USA would go a long way toward alleviating the persistent uneasiness that America--with its Puritan and Prohibitionist past--has always shown toward wine.
 
By itself, this wasn't a particularly daring claim, and I suspect that other writers have made it as well.  However, I also made two other points that I would like to amplify--and exemplify--in this column.  First, what we need to weave wine more deeply into the fabric of American culture is a true diffusion of winegrowing that spreads it not only among but also within the 50 states.  Second, such a 'micro-diffusion,' which is actually underway at the moment, will reap important benefits not only for the cultural acceptance of wine in the USA, but also for the quality of American wines.
 
I'll address these points in order, developing them with three examples from across the country.
 
My first contention is based on the psychological premise that the mere presence of a winery in every state is just a curiosity and not an epiphany for most Americans who regard wine as intimidating or elitist.  What we really need to make a difference is not a sprinkling of wineries across the USA (which has already happened), but a significant increase in the number of wineries that are close to urban areas where people work and live (which is happening now).
 
When I was growing up outside of Chicago in Wheaton, Illinois (then a dry town, mind you), I might have found it vaguely interesting to learn that some guy had planted a vineyard someplace in my state.  But if I were growing up there today, now that there are 23 wineries in northern Illinois alone, I'd be running into the things all the time.  There's no doubt in my mind that I'd have started checking them out when reaching legal drinking age, and that my interest would have been jump-started by these five lessons that are imparted by actually setting foot in a winery:
 
--Wine is not just a commodity that is shipped in from some exotic point on the globe, but something crafted by one's neighbors;
 
--Wine is not simply a luxury product skimmed from nature like caviar, but an agricultural product conjured from the soil by the honest labor of farmers;
 
--Wine is not only a beverage enjoyed by the pinky-extending gentry at polo parties, but by anyone who pulls into a parking lot to visit the tasting room at the new winery in town;
 
--Vineyards are not just the stuff of travel brochures, but beautiful additions to the local landscape that keep land in agricultural production and serve as barriers to urban sprawl;
 
--Wine is not an impenetrably complicated product, but an essentially natural beverage made by a surprisingly simple process that can be grasped readily during a pleasant walk through a winery.
 
These are the things that Americans need to learn for wine to become a welcome and familiar aspect of everyday life--as Thomas Jefferson hoped it would someday be.  In my case, I'm sure that it wouldn't have done much for me to learn that there was a winery 122 miles away from me in Galena, Illinois.  I would have needed to encounter them on my regular rounds in nearby locales like Orland Park, Geneva, Long Grove and Roselle --as I could if I lived there today. 
 
I now live in the Washington, D.C. area, with 141 wineries in nearby Virginia and another 35 in Maryland (and of course there are many more vineyards than that, worked by growers who sell fruit to the wineries).  If you want to know what I mean by the coinage 'micro-diffusion,' follow the link below to have a look at the dispersion pattern of wineries across the state of Virginia:
 
http://www.virginiawine.org/wineries/browse/all
 
Especially if you know the outline of the borders of the state, the direct implications of this graphic are unmistakably clear:  If you take a drive into Virginia--damn near anywhere in Virginia--you are going to encounter vineyards and wineries unless you make an extremely concerted effort to avoid them. 
 
The less direct implications of the graphic are fun to speculate about.  For example, if you were a teetotaling fundamentalist living in Bible Belt Virginia and thinking that wine is Devil Juice, I'd have bad news for you, which is that--at long last--we've got you surrounded.  And if you were intent upon teaching your benighted intolerance to your kids, I'd have more bad news for you:  Your son's Little League coach or Scoutmaster may well be a winemaker, and nobody could mistake him for one of Satan's Minions, because he's probably a hell of a nice guy.  And since the vineyard that was just planted down the road from you replaced a planting of tobacco, I'd like to hear you explain how that change is not one for the better.

My second contention is that the diffusion of winegrowing across North America will contribute not only to acceptance and appreciation of wine among the broad public but also to the enhancement of wine quality in the future.
 
To refine and amplify the point I made in the initial column, I want to distinguish between the national process of the diffusion of winemaking beyond its epicenter in California and the secondary process of micro-diffusion within states.
 
I believe there's no question that the quality of American wine has been improved markedly by the development of wine industries in states beyond California.  America makes better Viognier and Cabernet Franc than it did a decade or two ago because these grapes are now being grown in Virginia.  America is a first-rate producer of Riesling today in global terms only because it is now grown in Michigan, Washington, and New York 's Finger Lakes region.  California is a world wine paradise in general terms, but not a place that has done particularly well with Riesling.  Similarly, Merlot is better for being grown on Long Island and in Washington, and Pinot Noir is certainly better for having migrated to Oregon .
 
Oregon provides a couple of particularly interesting cases in point regarding the effects of micro-diffusion on the improvement of American wine.
 
First, it is well known among Pinot lovers that many of Oregon's offerings are no longer sourced from the undifferentiated Willamette Valley appellation, but are now also designated by reference to six more closely defined sub-appellations (or, more precisely, appellations in their own right that are legally designated as American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). 
 
These AVAs were established through a formal process overseen by the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB for short).  The TTB does not consider the stylistic qualities of finished wines when ruling on applications for AVA status, but it does require that petitioners establish a region as being distinct from neighboring areas in viticultural terms.  During the past five years, six regions have met that standard and been awarded AVA status:  Dundee Hills and Yamhill-Carlton in 2004, Ribbon Ridge and McMinnville in 2005, and Chehalem Mountains and Eola-Amity Hills in 2006.
 
We are still getting a grip on the stylistic profile of the wines from these AVAs, but a couple of findings are already clear.  One is that the diffusion of Pinot plantings that has occurred since the first vine was planted in the Dundee Hills 44 years ago has led to the discovery of areas with differing soils and microclimates that result in wines of distinctive excellence.  Moreover, while some may still find a personal preference for wines from the Pinot birthplace in Dundee Hills, nobody with a brain and a palate would argue that Oregon isn't a much better and more interesting source of wine due to the diffusion.
 
The second point about diffusion in Oregon (which is far less well known among American wine lovers than the first) is that winegrowing has spread well beyond Oregon's Willamette Valley to other recognized AVA regions that are turning in increasingly impressive performances.  Importantly, these fine wines are often renditions of grapes other than the usual suspects from Willamette, namely, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris.
 
For example, as a lover of Spanish wines, I've wondered for years where in the USA vintners would place a bet on Albariño or Tempranillo, and where those bets would pay off as they have for Rhône varieties in California's Central Coast .  The jury is still out on that, but Oregon's Umpqua Valley shows real promise in the form of wines from a producer like Abacela, as does the Applegate Valley (from where I've recently tasted an impressive Tempranillo from Anna Maria, a brand released by Valley View Winery).  Troon Vineyard in the Applegate Valley has also produced some very good Cabernet Reserve and Meritage.
 
Similarly, during recent months I've tasted some delicious wines from the Columbia Gorge wine region (especially from Phelps Creek) and the Rogue Valley (especially RoxyAnn Viognier).  Strong wines are also being made in the Umpqua Valley, which I'd bet is a source that is still unknown to most American wine lovers.  Moreover, few are aware that significant portions of the Walla Walla, Columbia, and Snake River Valley AVA's extend into Oregon, and the grapes behind some excellent wines widely thought to be from Washington are actually from Oregon . 
 
Oregon became famous for one wine from one place, but reality has outstripped reputation, and now it is a fascinating source for all sorts of wines from all over the place. 
 
I've reviewed some of these wines in this week's issue, and will review others in coming weeks.  I also hope to write brief backgrounders on some of these AVA's in the WRO Wine Blog this week, so please check the site for a look at those.
 
I'll wrap this up with a prediction:  A generation from now, analysts of the American wine scene will look not to 'cult wines' from Napa when handing out credit for the USA's rise as a truly multi-faceted wine producing country with one of the world's most wine-appreciative cultures.  Rather, they will look to regions that are still on the upswing today, and to the sort of winery that's now being built down the road from you.

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Questions?  Comments?  Write to me at mfranz@winereviewonline.com