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If Food Can Be Slow, Why Not U.S. Wine Culture?

Wes Hagen

America is an infant when it comes to winegrowing. But we like to act all grown up, like a teenager flashing a fake ID to get into a swanky club. We’re so jealous about the properly-aged wines of Europe that we constantly couch our own culture, immature though it is, in a Euro context. But if we were really respectful of our French and Italian wine forefathers, we would know there is only one way to develop a wine heritage: slowly, over centuries. Economics and popular influences urge us to evolve before our time.

In my backyard of Sta. Rita Hills, a relatively new AVA in Santa Barbara County, California, we were subjected to the fallout from the 2004 movie “Sideways,” which rhapsodized about the region’s pinot noir (and relegated merlot to a has-been). It was too much attention, too fast. The wine culture in Santa Barbara was just finding its feet when the hordes descended, like pilgrims coming to behold a relic with rumored curative powers. We went straight from being pinot neophytes to being seen as pinot rock stars. In order to quench the sudden Faustian thirst — and take advantage of the sales opportunity presenting itself — wineries turned out instantly pleasing wines, sacrificing elegance for less sophisticated fruitiness. Rather than continue the hard work of perfecting their jazz solos, they were rewarded for bubble-gum pop. Pinot noir is a varietal that usually takes a drinker a long time to understand, it’s the endgame for the wine geek, not a diversion between white zin and cabernet.

The point is this: America is an infant on the stage of the world’s wine regions. We have the dirt, the climate and the passion, but in our attempts to legitimize our wines, we give them French and Italian sounding names. We use the grape varieties that spent millennia adapting to climates that are not ours, and with some early success we have developed a façade of culture, one that’s not yet earned. In other words, we are the lusty rakes throwing our grappling hooks over the walls of Burgundy’s Clos Vougeot, trying to co-opt wine culture rather than evolve our own. And as often happens in fables, the treasures can turn to dust. We want to steal the luster from the Tour d’Argent. We may not have earned a proper American wine culture yet, but we’re on our way. All we have to do is take deep breaths, cook our hearts out, and sit at table with friends, food and good bottles (and maybe leave the smartphones in the car). Wine can’t be appreciated in a vacuum, it has to become an integral part of our lives.

Every grape that grows into wine in the world today evolved from a single genetic mutant (a hermaphrodite, no less!) that was the result of humans meddling with domestic vines almost 10,000 years ago. That single hermaphroditic vine traveled the ancient world, and everywhere it was planted it mutated and cross-pollinated with local vine varieties to become the grapes and wines we recognize today: Gamay from Beaujolais, sangiovese from Chianti, cabernet sauvignon developed in Spain and perfected in Bordeaux. Even though we like to pretend that zinfandel and petite sirah belong to U.S. viticulture, they don’t.

And every time New World vineyards need replanting, we rip out all the wonderfully adapted vines and use the clonal material from Europe again, resetting the clock and guaranteeing we won’t be creating our own, unique varietals anytime soon.

Because the U.S. was never conquered by thirsty Roman legions (who planted vineyards in all their acquired lands and started the Euro-mutation ball rolling more than a thousand years ago), we had to wait for Spanish missionaries and Italian immigrants to bring existing vines to California. Now almost all New World winegrowing is dependent on these same varietals — cabernet sauvignon, riesling, chardonnay and the like — to sell wine.

Those of us alive today aren’t likely to see an American wine culture that has divorced itself from Europe. A wine tradition defines itself over centuries as generations of vintners incorporate new grape varietals that, mutating from the cuttings that spawned them, exquisitely adapt themselves to the soil and situation they find themselves in. Understanding how regional wines mesh with local game and produce at the table is what creates an authentic cultural experience, one so primally rewarding it’s repeated, and over time becomes tradition. The real sign of progress is not in putting “Chateau” on your label, but in being European with your patience, in giving the American wine scene a few relaxed centuries to evolve.

Perfection is worth waiting for. It’s the 20-year-old Tokay, the 10-year-old Balsamico, the 30-day dry-aged prime filet that brings us to tears and makes life worth living. Let’s take all the energy we’ve been wasting in defining our wine regions prematurely, and put in the real work, the slow work that it will take to develop our own regional character. No French accent needed.

Wes Hagen is the vineyard manager and winemaker at Clos Pepe in Santa Rita Hills, California.

Photo: Wes Hagen with his Clos Pepe weed patrol. Credit: