Home / The Wine Orchestra vs. the Wine Soloist

The Wine Orchestra vs. the Wine Soloist

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The differences between wine from California and wine from the Old World stalwarts like France, Italy and Germany cannot be overstated. Over the last thirty years, California has asserted its individuality in that old fashioned American tradition of breaking the rules and doing things its own way.

Often to the disdain of European wine makers, vineyards in California have made an art-form out of blending grapes trucked in from different locations all over the state. The Europeans, on the other hand, favor making wine from the grapes grown only in one vineyard. In wine growing, they call this the concept of terroir. It is the idea that a unique wine is made special by a singular combination of soil, climate and terrain that cannot be found anywhere else on Earth except for that particular vineyard. California wine makers like to create a certain style that wine drinkers will like and come back to year after year, so to keep this style consistent they have to blend grapes from multiple vineyards so the differences in vintages from year to year can be smoothed out.

Think of it as listening to the orchestra versus the soloist. California wines typically have many different players that go into a single bottle: if one player misses a note, the rest of the members can easily make up for it. European wine growers prefer the Yo-Yo Ma model: listening to the individual style and personality of a single maestro is prized above everything else.

Is one better than the other? Of course not, it all depends on your tastes and what you’re in the mood for. But California is ready to shift gears, and some of its major wine makers are positioning themselves to make single-vineyard wines. The reason is that more and more wine consumers are seeking them out. Some of the best wines that come out of California happen to be from small, single-vineyard wine makers, but these are often made in medium to small supply and carry a higher price. Demand is increasing for soloist style wines that are distinct and affordable.

Even Robert Mondavi’s behemoth bargain label Woodbridge is releasing a single-vineyard series that will hit the shelves at $10.99.

The New World and the Old World can argue all they want over which way is better. Do you prefer the team or the athlete? The band leader or the band? Most would agree that it depends on the mood. We’re just happy to have the option.

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About Tynan Szvetecz

  • Mondavi’s winery is able to go forward with this non-California mode of wine-making because Robert Mondavi is no longer at the helm.

    But there have been “boutique” and “cult” wines in California for a long time. Perhaps they are entering the mainstream now by adopting the terroir concept in their marketing. Or more likely, American consumers are gradually acquiring the sophistication that allows them to appreciate the more subtle and varied pallette of wines.

    Although – obviously – as a port wine drinker, I see nothing wrong with blended wines.

  • J Rayburn

    Sorry, the dichotomy doesn’t hold up. If a wine is labeled Napa Valley, 85% of the grapes that went into it have to be from Napa. And, higher prercentages are required for more specific Napa subregions. And, though I don’t have figures, there are large numbers, possibly a majority, of Napa producers use Napa grapes exclusively in their Napa-labeled wines.

    European vintners understand blending well. Rather than offering single variety wines – Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah, etc., the norm is to blend different, complementary grape varieties from the same region. Bordeaux wines are the perfect example. So is Champagne, wines from the Rhone Valley, wines from Tuscany, Rioja, etc., etc. Of course, there are regions that require wines bearing their names contain 100% of a particular grape. Barolo, several Loire Valley appellations, Cornas, are a few. And, if a grape variety is mentioned, it must compose 100% of the wine. By the way, many of the appellations of Burgundy, commonly regarded as mono-cultivar zones (Chardonnay or Pinot Noir), permit the blending of some other, local grapes. This practice seems to be very limited, but it’s permitted.

  • The difference we’re discussing is one of emphasis. Old World wines, for example, are primarily identified by the region in which they were grown (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace etc) where as the New World emphasizes the grape itself. While a California wine will certainly have the region (Napa, Sonoma etc) mentioned on the label, the obsession with location does not currently compare to that of the French and Italians. But that is all changing before our eyes which is the point of the discussion. To the French, the idea that the site determines the quality of the wine is expressed in the French word for winemaker: vigneron, or grape grower. It is a more humble approach to the wine creation process – one that sees the skill of the wine maker as secondary to the soil the grapes are grown in.

    The difference between soloist and orchestra is used simply to articulate how this elusive notion of terrior can affect a wine for the average wine drinking public. Sure the Europeans invented blending – but they also came up with a word to describe the soloist qualities of the soil, land and climate that doesn’t exist in the English language: terrior.

    The best, small vineyard wine makers in Napa certainly pay ample respect to this idea (whether they’re making blends or single grape wine), but the release of the new Woodbridge single-vineyard series shows that the European emphasis on soil is entering the mainstream as something important to the average consumer.

    And that’s interesting!

  • B. Sourdis

    I agree with the Europeans that for wine is very important the soil “terrior”.
    The quality of the soil is very important. That’s why Europeans wines are the best in my opinion.
    The US should pay more attention to the soil and less to technology