Jack Keller On America’s Indigenous Grape And Fruit Wines

Ξ July 18th, 2010 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Tasting Notes, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Wine News, Winemakers |

Taken by a couple of articles that have recently appeared in the Palate Press on both the history and the commercial potential for American indigenous grape varieties, I did what anyone would do: I turned to Jack Keller, author of the site Winemaking, and perhaps the net’s first fermented beverages blog, Jack Keller’s WineBlog. Though humility forbids him from saying it, I have no problem calling him one of America’s leading voices on all things fermentable. And as an accomplished, award-winning home winemaker, he brings to the discussion his considerable experience with the making of fruit, grape, dandelion, even grass wines! He is a terrific resource for information and knowledge, both the arcane and the indispensable. The Michael Broadbent, if you will, of our indigenous and fruit wines. For our purposes here, he sheds significant light upon the questions I put to him.
In addition to visiting his websites, for more information please see my interview with the gentleman from the Fall of 2008.
1) Would you say a bit about the historical eclipse of America’s indigenous grape varieties by Vitis vinifera?
Jack Keller Ken, from the earliest days, I think every generation of Europeans who came to America brought with them a memory of wine that was formed almost exclusively around their homeland’s varieties of V. vinifera. It was and still is, after all, the overwhelmingly dominant grape on the western half of the Eurasian landmass and by import throughout North and South Africa, Australia, South America, and the Golden State. Sure, the more common among the immigrants possibly also had experience with elderberry, greengage, apple, blackberry and other homemade country wines, but there wasn’t really anything in Europe equivalent to the vast numbers of American native grapes.
With a V. vinifera memory, immigrants were of course disappointed in the very different flavors obtained from wild American grapes. However, the old expression “any port is welcome in a storm” also applies to wine. Oddly flavored wine was vastly preferred to no wine at all. Besides, for those who were born in American or came here very young, they had no memory of V. vinifera, American grapes made perfectly acceptable wine. Until, that is, the second half of the twentieth century, when Madison Avenue began to tell us what was and what wasn’t acceptable.
The wild grape of Europe, V. sylvestris, is somewhat analogous to American grapes in that both are dioecious, bearing male and female flowers on separate plants. If you walk through the forests of America where grapes grow, you see many vines that are male and devoid of fruit. V. vinifera, with hermaphroditic flowers, clearly would be favored in the garden or on the farm for that reason alone. But that is but a bonus. The real draw to V. vinifera is the generally superior flavors of the juice and it’s fermented byproduct over any other grape species on the planet. Even an inferior V. vinifera variety is unquestionably superior to the best V. monticola, V. mustangensis, V. acerifolia, V. arizonica, V. girdiana, V. vulpina, V. cinerea, etc. While one can get used to wines from these grapes, they are certainly not the best of the American native species.
The better American indigenous species, V. labrusca, V. aestivalis, V. riparia, and even V. rotundifolia have all produced some outstanding varieties. But, with the exception of V. rotundifolia (muscadine), the vast majority of the commercially successful “American” grapes all seem to have a little V. vinifera in their genes. Concord, Catawba, Alexander, Niagara, Delaware, Norton (or Cynthiana, if you prefer), and Ives are but a few that have had long lasting commercial success, and all but one of those had a European pollinator in its distant past. And then there are the muscadines — Scuppernong, Noble, Scarlett, Nesbitt, Summit, Carlos, Ison, Magnolia, Tara, and so on.
Certainly you can say these wines have been eclipsed by V. vinifera wines, but they were never in the same league at all. Even so, they have their place. Personally, I would prefer a good Ives Noir to an average V. vinifera, and there are a lot of average V. vinifera wines out there.
2) Tell us something of the quality of wines the home winemaker can achieve with both vinifera and native grapes, but also of various fruits.
JK I have been judging home wine competitions for a long time. I distinctly remember the first homemade wine I ever scored a perfect 20 (out of 20 possible). It was a black raspberry with a little elderberry in it, and it was superb. The beauty of that wine was that had I not known I was drinking a black rasp with elder, I’d have thought I was drinking a very well made Zinfandel.
The best wines I have personally ever made were almost all non-grape wines — dandelion, Marion blackberry, Key lime, Loganberry, black currant, pomegranate, mangosteen, black raspberry, Boysenberry, cherry, and (you’re not going to believe this…) beet. Oh, I’ve made more than a few unforgettable grape wines too, but I like to field blend indigenous grapes and produce something no one has ever tasted before. Probably my very best was a blend of V. mustangensis, V. cinerea var. helleri, V. monticola, and V. vulpina, and it was smooth but crisp and utterly delicious. I could never make it again because I just filled the press with what I had, but of course I’ll try.
Having said all of that, I am not the best home winemaker I know. I think I am pretty good, but I know people who make wines that put mine to shame. I consider it an achievement when I can steal a Best of Show or Grand Champion from them.
I think some of the best wines and worse wines I have ever tasted were made from the same fruit or berries. You can make an absolutely delightful wine from peaches, for example, but if your method is inappropriate or you use under-ripe fruit or simply not enough fruit it can be worse than bad. The best eating plums you can find might make pitiful wine, but a bucket full of small, tart, wild sand plums can be transformed into the most delicious wine you have tasted. The same can be said of grapes. The best table grapes generally make poor wine. Have you ever eaten a bunch of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes? Not very appealing, but oh, what wine!
Native grapes present similar challenges. Many have unusual aromas or flavors associated with their species. These are not necessarily disagreeable, although they might be, but they certainly are unusual. Every winemaker knows that the wine almost certainly will not taste like the fruit from which it was made, but it will carry certain characteristics of the fruit into the wine. Learning what will and what will not be carried into the wine is one of the skills that separate really good winemakers from the rest. Put another way, knowing what the ingredients will taste like when combined and then baked or cooked is what separates chefs from mere cooks.
V. vinifera varieties present the same problem, but we have tens of thousands of examples of finished product from which to learn. With most native grapes and a lot of different fruit, you have to make the wines to learn what is possible and what is not. Learning how to manipulate what nature offers so as to bring out desirables while shedding, masking or neutralizing undesirables is what turns the average chef into the master craftsman.
I guess what I am trying to say is that the potential quality of native grape wines is really dependent on the winemaker’s skills. The same can be said of V. vinifera wines, but most viniferas are much more forgiving than are the natives. You have to be a pretty bad winemaker to screw up a batch of Merlot, but you have to be a pretty good winemaker to coax a good wine out of V. mustangensis or V. rupestris.
Country wines present different challenges, but these are basically challenges of ingredient selection and chemistry, solved by a combination of knowledge and good winemaking techniques. Just as tart plums make better wine than most table plum cultivars, tart cider apples make far superior wine than do sweet eating apples. You have to select the right ingredients and then work with the chemistry that comes with them. The results can be both surprising and delightful.
If you’ve ever eaten raw cranberries, the idea of making wine from them might seem like a waste of time and effort. But the truth is that cranberry wine served in a blind tasting will be mistaken for grape wine — usually white Zinfandel — almost every time. Few other fruit or berry wines will do this, but the beauty is what each actually tastes like once fermented. Banana wine will not taste like banana unless the winemaker adds banana extract, in which case it will taste like adulterated banana wine.
The things to remember with country wines is that they are not grape wines, should never be compared to grape wines, and should be judged by what they present — not what you expect. My wife and I were in a little winery outside of Kalamazoo and we were luxuriating in the enjoyment of one of the best cherry wines we’d ever tasted when a woman complained in a very loud, shrill voice, “This doesn’t taste like any wine I’VE ever tasted!” You can go through life complaining and being unhappy or you can just relax and enjoy the moment.
What I love about home winemakers is that they experiment. It doesn’t always work out for the better, and folks with good manners will never let their failures cross the lips of a guest. But those successes, those are where the next greatest thing might be found. My wife’s favorite wine is a wine I learned how to make from Martin Benke called Key Lime-A-Rita, which is basically fermented Key Limeade and Triple Sec, and yes, it tastes more like a Margarita than a wine. Some winemaker down in Florida is going to read my blog one day, give Key Lime-A-Rita a try, and sell a thousand cases.
3) What are the indigenous varieties which show the greatest promise for commercial success?
JK Down here in Texas we have a native grape called mustang that is probably the worst tasting grape you’d never want to try, but good winemakers have been making some terrific wines from that sucker for generations. Mustang is a real challenge, but if you can make good wines from that grape you can probably make exceptional wines out of anything else. I’m not saying mustang has great commercial promise, but at least two wineries in Texas sell an awful lot of it.
The reason I mentioned mustang first off is to make clear that a good winemaker can make good wine out of any grape. The problem with many indigenous grapes is that they bear too little fruit to be commercially viable or are too vigorous to be controlled in a vineyard setting. Those that bear well and can be managed on the trellis have largely been exploited in breeding programs or in niche markets.
There are a lot of old grapes — heirloom varieties, if you will — that were once popular but would now be extinct if not for a few breeders, memorial vineyards, enthusiasts, and the clonal germplasm repositories at Geneva, NY and Davis, CA. The ones I am referring to are mostly hybrids of the native species, but some do indeed have at least some V. vinifera genes. From this vast storehouse are some exceptional grapes that make exceptional wines, but would you plant a few acres of Herbemont, Lenoir, Hidalgo, Ives, Brilliant, Lindley, Elvira, Blondin, Clinton, Elvicand, Valhallah, Hopkins, Bailey, Husmann, Munson, or XLNTA when customers are still asking for Merlot? It would take a gutsy person to do so, but there are some such folks out there. I have tasted commercial wines of most of these grapes (still looking for Elvicand and Hopkins). Most of these grapes will grow fine down here in the Pierces Disease belt (PD), where V. vinifera bears two crops before dying.
The oldest continuously operated winery in Texas is Val Verde Winery in Del Rio. Their flagship grape is Lenoir, a.k.a. Black Spanish, and they make a darned good table wine and a highly respected (and a bit pricey) port from this grape. They also make a half-dozen V. vinifera wines, but I would bet my soul that they buy that juice from some place where those grapes will grow. And that’s okay. They have to compete, and even though Robert Parker is never going to mention Val Verde Winery (they grow that Lenoir grape!), he does seem to mention all the other wines they sell and that works in their favor.
The truth is that I don’t really know which indigenous species or varieties show the greatest promise for commercialization, but there is some good potential out there. I prefer the blends to the varietals in both vinifera and indigenous wines, so I am only limited by what I can find out there.
4) I believe the time is ripe for the expansion of fruit wines into the market, still and sparkling. As with crafted beers, there is a commercial niche high quality fruit wines can create. Your thoughts?
JK Ken, I think the expansion is well under way. In certain portions of Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, every other winery offers a stable of fruit and berry wines, both still and sparkling. I was amazed how good sparkling cherry and raspberry can be. It had simply never occurred to me to make these wines.
Throughout the South you will find many, many commercial wineries offering wines from every fruit grown regionally, including pawpaw, mayhaw, huckleberry, blueberry, elderberry, all varieties of blackberry, currants, star fruit, Clementines, and so on.
Just recently a friend of mine living in the Sierras above Oroville commented on a winery in Chico that makes blackberry, cherry, cranberry, and elderberry wines, as well as a dry mead he likes.
When I lived in San Francisco, on my jaunts down home to San Bernardino I always stopped at a place in Pacheco Valley called Casa de Fruta and picked up a few bottles of pomegranate, raspberry and apricot wines. When down your way, I always tried to stop at Chaucer’s Winery in Soquel, CA, and pick up a bottle of Olallieberry wine, arguably the best blackberry that ever grew, and a bottle of raspberry mead.
I think the wines have been here for a long time. What has happened, though, is that the commercial wine world, especially in California, is 99.9% invested in V. vinifera and that is what rules the roost. Wine writers perpetuate the “If it isn’t vinifera, it isn’t wine” mantra by completely ignoring non-vinifera and non-grape wines. In the PD belt of the South, where V. vinifera vines only survive for 3-5 years, non-vinifera grapes are widely grown and their wines widely consumed. Indeed, muscadine is the grape of the South, and people who drink muscadine have no problem with fruit wines.
5) What are the cultural, practical and gustatory obstacles to the commercial success of fruit and non-vinifera wines?
JK I think there are few gustatory obstacles. Yes, cherry wines will never taste like any wine that rude woman in Kalamazoo has ever drank, but every good cherry wines tastes, well, good. And if truth be told, I have never met a person that didn’t like blackberry wine. But, if you don’t like fruit, well, then you might want to stick to beer.
On a practical level, the shelf life of fruit wines is comparatively short. If they don’t sell quickly, they probably won’t sell. But fruit wines are almost always shoved into the corner with the lowest traffic in the store because the big money controls the high traffic areas. You have to go looking for fruit wines to even find them, and you won’t go looking if you don’t know they are there. When is the last time you saw an ad or commercial — or just a mention in a movie or TV series — for a fruit or berry wine?
So that brings us to the cultural obstacles. I think most of the above is relevant here, from Robert Parker and all the Parker-wannabes, to the farmer who isn’t going to take a chance on a vine that will grow but which almost no one still living has ever heard of. The truth is that it is a V. vinifera wine world and in America it is all influenced by two or three small valleys in northern California.
I talked to a grower 12-14 years ago who was losing all his vines to Pierces Disease. He asked the agricultural extension agent, who was there at that moment, when was someone going to put some real money into solving the PD problem. The agent said, “When PD reaches California the money will flow.” He was right. PD has reached California and there are big bucks flowing into PD research. But that too is part of the cultural obstacle. PD wasn’t a problem as long as it was just wiping out mom and pop vineyards in the South. But when it threatens Big Wine’s vineyards, then it becomes worthy of notice.
Now, it may just turn out that there isn’t a solution to PD. If that comes to past (and I sincerely hope that it doesn’t), then all those native hybrids I mentioned earlier will start looking really good because many of them are PD tolerant and some are outright resistant. Andy Walker and many others at UC-Davis and elsewhere are looking into that resistance and the genes that may be responsible for it. Until the actual genes responsible are identified and spliced, the next best approach is to cross-breed resistance from the natives into V. vinifera. Once you do that, you then cross back to vinifera repeatedly until you have just enough residual resistance to protect the vinifera without messing up the flavor too much with that pesky American muck. It’s a perfectly understandable approach. Another approach would be to simply plant Lenoir, or Herbemont, or Bailey, or….
Having spent megatons of money convincing Americans that they are mere commoners if they don’t drink toasted oaked Chardonnay, it would be, well, insincere — would it not? — to retrain the palate to like something less noble. God forbid we should stoop to anything so low as Carlos muscadine, persimmon wine or — dare I say it? — Key Lime-A-Rita.
So, bottom line, my interest is in the clear-headed promotion of commercial alternatives to Vitis vinifera. I have enjoyed a number of pear and apple-based wines recently, and was blown away by the quality. It seems to me that the success of off-dry Rieslings, for example, the dumbing down, the homogenization of vinifera wines, especially at lower price points (the Two Buck Chuck Effect!), combined with new marketing niches now possible because of the revolution of crafted beers, all dovetail into new opportunities for non-vinifera expressions.
JK Ken, I couldn’t agree more with your last opinion. Despite the best efforts of Big Wine to dictate what we should like, the truth is that not all people are sheep. You can burn out on any taste after a while. The success of all those soft drinks on the cola aisle is based on the fact that people get tired of Coke or Pepsi or 7-Up all the time. The same is true of wines. But I fear Big Wine is trying to control that desire for diversity.
Take, for example, Arbor Mist’s fruit flavored vinifera wines. I counted 11 different flavors the other day at the market, and their success validates your instincts. There is a niche out there for fruit wines and Arbor Mist is jumping in to fill it. But why not sell the real fruit wine? Why flavor Merlot with blackberry when you could sell blackberry wine? The truth probably has something to do with a glut of grapes on the market. Merlot is cheap. If it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be a Two-Buck Chuck Merlot.
Now, I do understand why there is at least some grape in most fruit wines. Having made the real McCoy of every wine Arbor Mist offers, I will be the first to point out that most fruit wines are light in body. I myself usually add about 12-20% grape juice by volume to my fruit musts to thicken that lightness. But the difference between adding fruit flavors to vinifera wines or vinifera to fruit wines actually is significant. Arbor Mist Peach Chardonnay tastes too peachy, like that banana wine adulterated with banana extract. The consumer who tastes it and then tastes an excellent, real peach wine may well be disappointed in the real thing. Arbor Mist is tricking the consumer into tasting what he or she expects peach wine to taste like rather than presenting the real flavor of peach wine. This, in the long run, may well work against the real fruit wine producers.
You mentioned the Two-Buck Chuck Effect on pricing; let’s call this the Arbor Mist Effect on flavor expectations. The former has been positive for the consumer. The latter is just deception. Deception may be profitable and it may taste good, but it’s still deception. It is important to remember that whenever deception is practiced, someone gets hurt. In this case, it is probably the real fruit winemakers who suffer. The niche they belong in is being largely filled by Big Wine (Arbor Mist is owned by Constellation Brands, the largest wine company in the world) and manipulated so that many consumers will reject real fruit wines as “lacking flavor.”
I’d love to be wrong. I don’t think Arbor Mist will steal established customers away from fruit wine producers unless it is on the pricing level, but it probably will absorb the bulk of new customers turning to — what did you call it? — “non-vinifera expressions”? But of course they satisfy the change with more vinifera. The fruit wine producers may not lose customers, but they certainly won’t gain the many new customers they might have.
I really don’t know where all of this is going, but it worries me. If there were suddenly a demand for Norton, would Big Wine plant Norton, buy established wineries producing Norton, or follow the Arbor Mist model and sell Merlot with Norton flavoring added? It’s anyone’s guess.
Great thanks for your reflections on what promises to be a lively cultural conversation in the coming years.


2 Responses to ' Jack Keller On America’s Indigenous Grape And Fruit Wines '

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  1. Arthur said,

    on July 19th, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    Nice to see this piece and the topic of native varieties continued.

  2. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on July 19th, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    Hi, Arthur. Yes, a great deal needs to be learned about what such an array of wines may offer the wine enthusiast. And Mr.Keller’s is certainly is a name more people should know. I hope readers take the time to explore the invaluable web resource his years of patient work has become.

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