In America -- land of "been there, done that" -- we like new things. Sometimes it seems as if the U.S. wine industry is no different than Hollywood, where today's celebrity is tomorrow's parking valet. Remember when Sangiovese was the next big thing? Then it was Viognier's turn. Only Syrah successfully outgrew its niche.
The American wine generating considerable buzz these days goes by two names: Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris. Whatever the label reads, sales of this white wine have been growing at a faster rate than any varietal except Syrah/Shiraz, according to IRI Infoscan, a service that surveys sales in supermarkets around the United States.
Supermarket sales of domestic and imported brands of Gris/Grigio increased from 530,000 cases in 1999 to 741,000 in 2000 -- a 40 percent increase, according to Infoscan figures cited in the 2001 edition of Impact Databank's The U.S. Wine Market report. By comparison, Syrah/Shiraz sales were up 85 percent during that period, and Sauvignon Blanc had a modest 4.7 increase.
"It's hot, no question about it," said Brad Biehl, general manager of King Estate, the Oregon winery that makes as much as 70,000 cases of Pinot Gris a year, depending on the vintage -- a fact that ranks it as one of the largest producers of the wine in the United States.
The varietal has a long, albeit spotty, history in Europe. Pinot Gris is at its best in the Alsace region of France, where the wines are often sweet and rich, with spicy, tropical fruit aromas. Northeastern Italy produces a sea of Pinot Grigio, and while much of it is thin and undistinguished, the best are refreshingly crisp, clean and vibrant, with citrus flavors.
The popularity of the Italian bottlings has helped pave the way for American Gris and Grigio. While their numbers -- acres planted, tons crushed, case production, etc. -- remain tiny compared with those of top-sellers such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, the market for these domestic whites is growing while the markets for many other varietals stagnate.
In California, plantings of Pinot Gris/Grigio have increased from only 140 acres in 1997 to 1,241 acres of fruit-bearing vines in 2001, according to figures from the California Agricultural Statistics Service and the 2002 edition of Impact Databank's The U.S. Wine Market Report (which will be out later this month). Production has already exceeded that of Viognier: More than 9,500 tons of Gris/Grigio were crushed in 2001 (up from 1,136 in 1997) compared with about 7,800 tons of Viognier harvested in 2001 (up from 2,848 in 1997).
In Oregon, Pinot Gris has actually surpassed Chardonnay in quantity and value, according to the state's Department of Agriculture. In 2000, there were 1,442 acres planted of Pinot Gris, which was worth about $1,300 a ton, compared to 1,300 acres of Chardonnay, valued at $1,000 a ton.
Small wineries have been the backbone of production so far. Luna Vineyards in Napa Valley has been a lead player, with about 18,000 cases annually, while most wineries in Oregon make no more than 5,000 cases a year.
But large U.S. producers are beginning to take Gris/Grigio seriously. Pepi Winery, a brand owned by Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates, produced 20,000 cases in 2001. E&J Gallo makes about 25,000 cases of domestic Gris among three brands -- Gallo of Sonoma, Rancho Zabaco and the just-released MacMurray Ranch -- in addition to importing about a half million cases of Italian Pinot Grigio via its brands Ecco Domani and Turning Leaf.
John Kongsgaard, part-owner and former winemaker of Luna Vineyards, has a theory about Gris and Grigio. Because of the popularity of "big, bold Chardonnays," delicate fruit-forward Chardonnays are increasingly difficult to find. Gris and Grigio fill that niche. Said Kongsgaard, "I think it's the old story of people not wanting to drink something as heavy as Chardonnay."
If you're having trouble with a single varietal going by two names, Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are indeed identical. As with Syrah or Shiraz, the name on the label is mostly a stylistic decision.
California vintners, who can choose between Gris or Grigio, typically select the name that best fits the style they're going for: Alsatian or Italian. A few wineries, such as Luna, even barrel-ferment the wines to add richness and fill out the midpalate, although the percent of new oak used is small.
Oregon has taken a different approach, embracing Pinot Gris as the state's alternative to Chardonnay.
"It's a competitive thing," Biehl said of his colleagues in Oregon. "We just can't compete on the same price level with Chardonnay as California or the rest of the wine world." Oregon can compete with Pinot Gris, Biehl argues, and vintners have been organized in their efforts to market the varietal consistently.
Oregon winemakers have actively promoted the notion of a regional style, which Biehl describes as "between Italy and Alsace," richer and more viscous than Italian Pinot Grigio, but crisper and less sweet than the Alsatian wines. They've even gone so far as to require the use of Pinot Gris on labels, banning Pinot Grigio.
Prices remain modest, generally in the $15 to $18 range, and even the best domestic Pinot Gris or Grigio table wines have yet to score above 90 on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale.
While Biehl applauds the growing interest in Gris and Grigio, he is concerned that vintners will repeat past mistakes made in the United States and Europe with other varietals.
"It's that yo-yo effect from producers who are always looking for the next big thing," Biehl said. "The key is not to go back to what happened with Sauvignon Blanc 15 years ago and overplant and overproduce. I hope that doesn't happen. I hope the variety doesn't get bastardized."