Interested in award-winning wines? Have you tried Wiederkehr's 1978 riesling or Markko Vineyard's 1976 cabernet sauvignon or the seyval blanc from Clinton Vineyards?
"Never tried them? I've never heard of them," you say, and with reason. The wineries all are small and are located far from such famous production centers as Bordeaux and the Napa Valley. Wiederkehr is in Arkansas, Markko is in Ohio and Clinton is in upstate New York.
This trio is cited because their wines won gold medals at the recent Wineries Unlimited conclave in Lancester, Pa. But they are only the cutting edge of a grassroots effort to give the entire United States-not just California-a reputation for producing superb wines. Currently there are 200 winiries scattered through more than 25 states outside California (whose 400 wineries account for more than 90 percent of our domestic production.)
Encouraged by the increase in wine consumption in this country and significant improvement in the quality of their own products, these producers are feeling sassy enough to throw a few jiges at California and determined enough to organize a trade association.
Formation of the Association of American Vinters was announced at a news conference during the three-day gathering. Headed by Peter L. Carp of New York State's Widmer's Wine Cellars, the association is hoping to act as a communications link for the widely scattered wineries, most of them cottage-industry endeavors, and plans to perform public relations and lobbying services similar to those done for the Californians so sucessfully by the Wine Institute.
The association will accept charter members through September of next year and operate from offices in Watkins Glen, N.Y. The director is J. William Moffett, who produces Eastern Grape Grower & Winery News Magazine and Wineries Unlimited.
It is expected that participants in this latter event, now 3 years old, will form the nucleus of the association. They came from New England; the Hudson Valley; the Finger Lakes region; along the Lake Erie shore in Pennsylvania and Ohio; from New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia; Canada; Mississippi; Wisconsin and other unlikely locations.
They-and others who weren't there in person-submitted more than 350 wines for the judging conducted by a panel of wine professional and journalists. Peter Carp made it clear at the news conference that applicants for the association will not be screened for the tasting made it equally clear that the extremely diverse quality of the grapes used by Eastern wineries continues to be a major hurdle to overcome in winning critical approbation.
Entries were accepted in 43 categories, split between generic and varietal native grapes (such as concord); European generic, hybirds (such as aurora) and vinifera (such as chardonnay), and dessert still and sparkling wines-with a few subdivisions along the line.
There was general agreement among the judges (of whom I was once) that the overall level of the entries had improved considerably over the two previous years. But I doubt that any conscientious wine drinker could enjoy the full spectrum of even the best wines. Nor can it he said that the overall quality of wines presented at a tasting the night prior to the judging in Lancaster was the equal of those I sampled at the California Wine Festival a year ago.
The history of wine making in the East has not been a happy one. Native grapes were used not so much because of the quality of wine they produce (although some people like them very much), but because harsh winters and molds were thought to make it impossible to cultivate the more delicate vinifera plants successfully. Constantine Frank disproved that theory with his riesling among other wines, but he and others are still struggling to convince skeptics that large-scale vinifera plantings are a sound investment.
The hybirds, particularly the seyval blanc, the red foch and generic blends, appear to be a good compromise. These vines deliver good yields, are hearty and their wines lack the characteristic "foxy" taste and smell of labrusca (native grape wines) so objectionable to those who favor vinifera. But the hybirds lack the personalities of the great vinifera and they aren't household names, even in wine shops.
Vinifera is expensive to buy, expensive to care for and expensive to produce.The small Eastern winery trying to market a properly made and aged chardonnay or a cabernet is in a Catch-22 situation. If the winery charges a price that reflects the cost of production, it puts them in direct competition with some of the world's most famous wines. Who, other than friends of the family, will buy?
As Peter Carp told the winemakers, there is a need to educate the wholesale and retail trade as well as consumers about the virtues of non-California wines. The logical corollary is to educate the winery owners, many of whom are beginners or part-time farmers about the realities of the market place. The rest of the wine-producing world isn't standing still, waiting for the infant U.S. industry to mature. Local pride will carry a winery only so far and only for a few vintages.
On the other hand, the determination and skill of many of the winemakers was apparent in their products. There is a lot to learn, but from the progress made in the past three year, there are quite a few fast learners who are eager to prove that you don't have to live in California to produce fine American wine.
Here is a listing of the gold medal winners at the Wineries Unlimited competition.
Gold: T. G. Bright Wine Company (Ontario), House White ; Brotherhood Winery (N.Y.), Niagara Sauterne ; Clinton Vineyards (N.Y.), Seyval Blanc ; Country Creek Winery (Pa.), Strawberry wine, Aurora ; Fenn Valley Vineyards (Mich.), Regal White ; Glenora Wine Cellars (N.Y.), 1977 Riesling ; Golden Rain Tree Winery (Ind.), St. Wendel Red, Shanti (white blend), Spirit of '76 (red blend); Hammondsport Wine Company (N.Y.), extra dry champagne ; Hememan Wenery (Ohio), Sweet Catawba ; Heritage Wine Cellar (Pa.), Niagra ; Heron Hill Vineyards (N.Y.), Seyval Blanc ; Johnson Estate Iinery (N.Y.), Delaware ; Leelanau Wine Cellar (mich.), Leelanau White ; Pleasant Valley Wine Company (N.Y.), Great Western Brut Champagne ; Royal Wine Company (N.Y.), honey wine ; Taylor Wine Company (N.Y.), Lake Country Red ; Warner Vineyards (mich.), Pol Pereau Brut Champagne ; Widmer's Wine Cellars (N.Y.), Lake Niagra, 1977 Delaware, Special Selection Sherry ; Wiederkehr Wine Cellar (Ark.), 1978 Riesling, Niagra, Verdelet Blanc, Cynthiana ; Wollersheim Winery (Wisc.), 1976 Estate Red .