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stirring the lees with james molesworth

Waiting for the Other U.S. to Show Up

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jan 9, 2008 2:16pm ET

I’m still waiting for the Other U.S. to show up, winewise that is. By Other U.S., I mean American wines produced in states other than California, Oregon and Washington.

I know—you think I’ve got it made getting to taste all those Rhône wines. I wish it were that simple. I also get to taste all the "Other U.S." wines too. I earned my stripes here at Wine Spectator working through a few hundred of them for my Wine Across America cover story back in 2002.

And after tasting another flight of nearly 30 "Other U.S." wines this morning (which resulted in a few interesting bottlings), I took a look back at the history of all the "Other U.S." wines I’ve reviewed for Wine Spectator, now more than 1,100 in total. (I’m keeping the wines of New York separate from these numbers, as I address the Empire State separately below.)

Of the 1,100-plus wines I’ve reviewed, none has ever rated in the outstanding category (90 points or better on our 100-point scale). A few have hit 88 and 89 points, but nothing has gotten to 90. I find that both surprising and disappointing.

It’s not that I expect consistently outstanding wines to come from areas such as Michigan or North Carolina or from grapes such as Chancellor or Seyval Blanc. But I would expect the occasional breakthrough wine. Zero for 1,100-plus is not a very good percentage.

There’s certainly that tantalizing word of "potential" hanging out there though. I’ve tasted interesting stuff from wineries including Callaghan and Dos Cabezas in Arizona and Spanish Valley in Utah. In Virginia, Linden Vineyards quietly turns out consistently very good wines year after year as well. Wines from Sharpe Hill in Connecticut and the sparklers made by L. Mawby in Michigan have also proven worthy, and the Norton grape in Missouri can make an intriguing wine from time to time.

But the successes are far outweighed by the misses. More than half of the 1,100-plus "Other U.S." wines I’ve tasted haven’t even broken 80 points, or good, on our scale. That percentage hasn’t decreased over the years either. Regardless of varietal or terroir, considering modern vinification techniques, that’s a real head-scratching statistic.

At 1,100 and counting, it might seem like I’m just banging my head against the wall by continuing to taste these wines. But that’s a critic’s job—to keep searching for the good stuff. If the wines keep coming in (we have an open-door policy regarding sample submissions) I’ll keep tasting them. And if you ever come across a local winery that you think made something noteworthy, go ahead and encourage them to send a sample to Wine Spectator (but have them call us first for details on how to submit a wine for review).

As for New York State, the situation is better, thankfully, but not by leaps and bounds. I’ve reviewed over 600 New York wines and found just five that merited an outstanding score, and three of those were the ’01, ’02 and ’04 vintages of Standing Stone’s Vidal Blanc Ice Wine. (Note: My colleague Thomas Matthews tastes the wines from Long Island; I taste the wines from the rest of the state.) Only 27 percent of the 600-plus wines I’ve reviewed failed to break 80 points, a far better showing that the "Other U.S." category, but still a high number.

Within New York state, the Finger Lakes has quality Riesling in the palm of its hand, but seems intent on tinkering with a hodgepodge of varieties, including reds from Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir that rarely achieve good ripeness and varietal character in upstate New York. That lack of focus keeps holding the region back.

As for the rest of this week, I’ve got another five-dozen Finger Lakes wines here to taste. Most of them are Rieslings, including quite a few from wineries that are new to me. Hopefully I’ll turn up more than just the odd success. I need hope, because when it comes to wines from the "Other U.S.," the wait for consistent quality continues ...

Bruce Harvey
Syracuse, —  January 9, 2008 5:05pm ET
James--Living as I do on the outskirts of the Finger Lakes, I sometimes find it difficult to distinguish between the sheer joy of driving along the east side of Seneca Lake on a warm summer day, and the general quality of the wines. It can be so beautiful, that the setting raises my estimation of the quality of what might otherwise be so-so wines. Removed from the setting, one's opinion may well change. As you mentioned, though, the Rieslings can indeed be wonderful, particularly on the aforesaid summer day.

Since you mentioned Standing Stone, have you ever tried their table wine made from Vidal? I confess to having quite enjoyed a few bottles.

And, by the way, thanks for all of your helpful comments!

Bruce
John Miller
Windsor, CA —  January 9, 2008 6:02pm ET
Don't hold your breath James. I'm from the Maryland/Virginia area, in other words, the land of good, but not great, wines.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  January 9, 2008 7:15pm ET
As I have blogged to you before, I am a fan of wines from Arizona and Virginia (although AZ is far more consistent). The ability of AZ wines to compete against the big boys was reviewed in a recent WSJ article (see http://online.wsj.com/article/SB118004998185314077.html?mod=todays_us_nonsub_weekendjournal). In addition to Dos Cabezas and Callaghan (BTW, Parker has rated a few of his wines at 90pts)in AZ, wineries to watch are Rancho Rossa and Echo Canyon. Plus it will be interesting to see how Maynard Keenan and Eric Glomowski fare once their vineyards start producing (accoridng to Maynards blog, his AZ cab is comparable to his earlier cab blends from California grapes). Check out this website for more information -http://arizonawine.org/vineyards.html. And in prior blogs I have been roundly criticized for liking AZ wines -- but give them a chance..if you like fruit foward, robust and interesting red blends...you'll like AZ (in my now infamous Pegau tasting -- the third place wine [out of 15] -- behind the 2003 Reva and 2000 Pegau reserve was a ringer -- the 2004 Las Montanas from Dos Cabezas besting other vintages of Albas and Pegau as well as a few other CDPs and Cali rhone blends)! Thanks for the blog....
James Molesworth
January 10, 2008 9:38am ET
Bruce: I have not tried their dry Vidal - it's not a grape I'm particularly fond of in dry styles, but it can make some really good sweet versions.
Clayton Wai-poi
January 10, 2008 9:43am ET
Not sure who covers them, but the wines of Canada are really delivering on quality. Having toured through Niagara many times, it's wines (including riesling and ice wines) are consistently better than the finger lakes wines. It also manes to make some good reds, especially from cabernet franc and pinot noir. Some of the reds of BC are up to the quality of Washington, with which it shares a similar terrior.I guess the wineries don't submit most of their non ice-wines to WS as they seem to be very rarely reviewed. That said, now that i live in Chicago, i very rarely see them. I wish someone would bring more in... i don't think the wineries can ship directly to consumers in the US.
James Molesworth
January 10, 2008 9:51am ET
Clayton: My colleague Bruce Sanderson covers Canada for us and there will be a number of Canadian wines reviewed in the upcoming March 31, 2008 issue.

The main problem is their lack of distribution here. Since we prefer to focus on wines that our readers can actually get, the number of reviews on Canadian wines are limited as well.
Richard Hirth
Michigan —  January 10, 2008 10:06am ET
Two that I've really liked are the 2002 and 2005 Peninsula Cellars Manigold Gewurtz from Michigan. I just checked, and you've only reviewed their regular Gewurtz (2000 and 2004), giving each a resounding 77. I agree on the L Mawby sparklers; nice stuff for the $. I've found most Michigan wines drinkable, but the biggest problem is that they don't provide value for money. At the typical $15+/- price point, I can find a lot better than drinkable from other parts of the country and world.
James Molesworth
January 10, 2008 11:15am ET
Richard: Based on the public relations spin-to-reality ratio, I would say my experiences with Michigan wines have been among the most disappointing so far...
Daniel Grotto
January 10, 2008 1:27pm ET
I live in the DC area and have heard more than one Virginia or Maryland vintner complain about how serious wine drinkers don't take their wines seriously. Perhaps they can squeeze more quality out of their fruit, but the climate here is hot and sticky, day and night, for months, leading (in my tasting experience) to a high proportion of unbalanced wines with burnt fruit and rubber characteristics. Couple this with a $15-20 price tag, and it¿s no wonder experienced wine drinkers don¿t make these wines a regular part of their wine consumption.

My impression is that the only people who buy Virginia wine are casual or occasional wine drinkers on a winery tour. In Virginia at least, many of them (perhaps even most) rely heavily and in some cases exclusively on tasting room sales to tourists. I rarely see them in shops or restaurants (although the Inn at Little Washington makes a good effort to feature leading Virginia wines). And that $15-20 price tag is just high enough to convey the impression to a novice wine consumer that the wine is "serious" (i.e., not cheap), but not so high to deter the casual wine drinker from ponying up. All this makes the wines more of a tourist novelty or souvenir.

What Virginia needs to do is produce a stellar (say, an 89-pointer) bottle of wine priced at around $9. That¿ll help them shed this image, and hopefully lead to other producers making better wine at more realistic prices. But I'm not holding my breath.
James Molesworth
January 10, 2008 1:41pm ET
Daniel: You're right - most of these wineries sell the majority of their wines from the tasting room, so it's easy for them to sit back and relax while their inventories are slowly but steadily absorbed every year by a constant flow of wine-country tourism. Long Island wineries are probably guiltier of this than anyone else, thanks to its captive Hamptons summer crowd...

The problem is they get so used to this ease-of-sale while at the same time they lose their sense of scale for what is out there in the wine world and what they're truly up against. Then they wonder why they're not being taken seriously.

Imagine what the California wine industry would be like today if Robert Mondavi had simply been content to sell his wares from the winery door, and never bothered pushing for quality, greater recognition abroad, industry growth, etc...

As long as these other state's wineries are content with being a cottage industry, that's all they'll ever be...
John Hannon
January 10, 2008 3:07pm ET
James,Based on what you know of climate and seasons of the "other U.S.", what areas of the country outside of the far west do you think could do well? What varietals?I am just interested if there really is a largely untapped potential out there.Thanks.
James Molesworth
January 10, 2008 3:16pm ET
John: I think clearly the Finger Lakes and Riesling have something going. Possibilities exist for mid-weight red varieties (Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot) along with Chardonnay in Virginia. As mentioned above, I agree that Arizona shows promise for some red Rhone varieties such as Syrah.

It's not much of a list right now, but keep in mind that the terroir/varietal matches we take for granted today (i.e. Burgundy and Pinot, Bordeaux and Cabernet Sauvignon) are a couple hundred years in the making. Even Napa Valley and Cabernet, now a few generations old, is still fine tuning itself...
Bruce Edwards
Fredericksburg, Tx —  January 10, 2008 4:17pm ET
James:I'm suprised you didn't even mention Texas, especially the Texas Hill Country for their wines. They are making some excellent reds i.e. Cab,Tempranillo, Sangiovese & Merlot. Becker Vineyards is one of the premier producers. Broaden your horizon beyond the left coast & right coast.
James Molesworth
January 10, 2008 4:22pm ET
Bruce: Check the reviews - there's a reason I didn't mention Texas ;-)!...Becker's wines have been at the top of the list, but it drops off in a hurry.
Joe Dekeyser
Waukesha, WI —  January 10, 2008 10:43pm ET
Regrettably, I have to agree. I have found a few pleasant wines outside of the Big 3 but very few that I would consider to be better than good. Many are foxy and some are simply "off". In my mind, the exception I found this year is Stone's Throw Winery (Door County, Wisconsin) 2005 Estate Grown Pinot Nero. It has a bright acidity with good fruit. This is only the 2nd time they have been able to produce it in the last 10 years.
Steve Ritchie
Atlanta, GA —  January 11, 2008 12:02pm ET
James, I think you nailed it with your point on focus. I am in GA, which is no wine capital (yet, at least) and I am frustrated by the local wineries insistence on making wines too many varietals, many of which even a hobbyist like me knows will not do well in clay-rich soil with humid summers and frequent rain. I am holding out hope that there are some grapes that can work with many of the terroirs across the U.S., but we could learn something from the French -- not every grape grows well in every place! I hear that Viognier may be showing some progress in the Southeast climate, but perhaps it will be something else. Regardless, I wish the GA crowd, and many other rest of US wineries would remember that of the best wineries in the world are often the ones that make the FEWEST different wines.
Michael Mintz
Washington DC —  January 11, 2008 1:06pm ET
To All:I have done some bit of tasting in Virginia as I am a wine guy from NorCal...two to look for are Horton (some great Rhone varietals - Viognier and a Cote d'Orange) and most outstanding is Linden (Chardonnay, Petit Verdot...)
William Newell
Buffalo, NY —  January 11, 2008 1:40pm ET
We travel to Arizona twice a year to visit relatives, and I have never seen an Arizona wine on a menu in any restaurant. In travels to Maryland, I only recall one restaurant that offered a wine from Maryland. Here in the Buffalo area, there are only a handful restaurants that serve NYS Finger Lakes wines, and only one I know of that serves NYS wines from other regions.
Gib Masters
Oregon —  January 11, 2008 4:12pm ET
Had a nice trip to Virginia last fall. Scenery: Lovely; Wines: so-so; Prices: for what they charge for a bottle of mediocre cab franc you could get two bottles of premium Oregon pinot.
Daniel Grotto
January 11, 2008 4:43pm ET
James, I have a question for you:

Some of the top wineries in Virginia, like King Family Vineyards outside of Charlottesville (a tiny but very serious operation, makers what I think are the best wines so far in Virginia), don't seem to send their wines to WS for reviews. I wonder if the more ambitious, conscientious wineries like this are actually afraid of a low-80s rating, which their peers might welcome but might disappoint a winery that aims higher? Do you ever encounter such reluctance?
Paula Woolsey
Jerome, Arizona —  January 11, 2008 7:45pm ET
To William Newell & James, I own 2 restaurants in Northern Arizona and both of them carry several AZ wines. I find that there is a great interest in Local wineries. AZ is in the early stages of figuring out which grapes will suit the environment the best. Keep on the look out for a wine called; Arizona Stronghold, Cochise County, a new project by Maynard Keenan & Eric Glomski. The white will be realesed in Feb.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  January 12, 2008 12:12am ET
William -- Cowboy Ciao in Scottsdale also has a lot of AZ wines on the list (among about 1 zillion others...). If you go there, order a bottle reccomended by the waiter and get the Stetson Salad...you will not be dissapointed
Kurt Wieneke
Indianapolis, —  January 12, 2008 9:11am ET
James,Agreed on the L. Mawby. Huber winery in southern Indiana makes a very good old vine Seyval Blanc. Butler winery makes one of the best Chambourcins in the US of A. Some of the zinfandels from west Texas are also very good. Are they outstanding? I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Matt Ferrell
Delaware, OH —  January 12, 2008 1:43pm ET
James--couldn't agree more with your assessment of the Finger Lakes. Although the occasional Cab. Franc and Chardonnay is pretty good, only Riesling consistently performs. And I am always disappointed at the number of producers that have yet to abandon native and hybrid grapes. Any insight as to why the region seems resistant to focusing on the one grape it does really well?
James Molesworth
January 13, 2008 6:08pm ET
Daniel: I'm sure for some of them, they figure a bad review could hurt more than a good review could help. It's up to the wineries to have the courage of their convictions.

Matt: if you ever saw how busy some of the tasting rooms were, selling sweet Chambourcin or whatever, combined with the cheap costs of growing hybrids, etc, you'd see why they're sometimes reluctant to grow more expensive varieties (that also require much lower yields).
Dave Gimbel
January 14, 2008 12:38am ET
Hi James: Ontario wines are well represented in the US and beyond. Most of the larger producers have US Importers and over 25 wineries are available to US consumers on-line at www.thecuvee.com
Scott Mitchell
Toronto, Ontario —  January 14, 2008 2:26pm ET
Kind of off topic, but you should be looking at some of the pinots from Ontario. From the top producers, these wines are very good. Look for labels like, Le Clos Jordanne, Tawse, Hidden Bench, Thirty Bench and Flat Rock Cellars.
John Poggemeyer
Cleveland, OH —  January 14, 2008 2:41pm ET
Having lived in Napa, and now in Ohio near Lake Erie, it is OBVIOUS that Ohio wine will never reach the plateau that California did. "Jester's Blush" made from native Catabwa grapes will always be a tough sell on the open market, and again, local wineries make LOADS of money hawking the swill from the winery, rather than dealing with distributors. Cuts out the middle man. Along with that, Ohio (and moany OTHER places) does not have the climate to grow vinifera grapes. You don't see wineries in Greenland popping up to make a quick buck; they understand that Mother Nature did not bless them with the right soil/climate/etc.

That and the fact that "CATABWA" is a tough grape to say..,..

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