In the relatively short history of California grape growing, there have been a number of trends that have shaped viticulture—trends not always rooted in the vines themselves but in production methods and consumer tastes. Look no further than the natural wine movement, or even the recent tidal wave of rosé wines. Certain grapes surge to prominence and dominate vineyards—consider the popularity of Pinot Noir over the past 15 years—while others fall out of favor and familiarity. American consumers often wonder what the next variety to dominate California vineyards will be.
I would argue that the next big California variety is not a single variety at all—rather, it’s a plethora of varieties that’s defining this state’s future wine landscape. This is the philosophy behind the Seven Percent Solution, a movement and an annual tasting event born in 2012 out of a conversation I had with Nathan Roberts and Duncan Meyers, the proprietors of Arnot-Roberts, and Sam Bilbro, the proprietor of Idlewild Wines, all of whom are based in Healdsburg, California.
We discussed the increasing number of wines made from less-planted grape varieties, despite the fact that our analysis of the previous year’s grape crush report from the California Department of Food and Agriculture told us that roughly 93 percent of Northern California appellations—excluding Central Valley bulk growing zones—were planted to just eight grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Sirah, and Syrah. The other 7 percent of plantings encompassed more than 90 different varieties, many of which were being championed by small growers and winemakers. Our mission became clear: Our group would highlight—and celebrate—the many producers working with these “seven-percent” grape varieties, from Aglianico and Albariño to Valiguié and Vermentino, and help perpetuate varietal diversity in California.
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Seven years and six tasting events later, we are witnessing shifts in the industry in real time. The 2018 grape crush report shows that the Big Eight varieties have now become the Big Nine, as Pinot Gris now sits among the top plantings, and that 12 percent of California’s entire vineyard acreage comprises grapes promoted by the Seven Percent Solution. The needle is indeed moving—one vine at a time.
Pioneering Growers and Winemakers
It’s daring to place a bet on a seven-percent variety, not only from the winemaker’s perspective but from the farmer’s. Due to physical and financial constraints, most producers working with seven-percent varieties are sourcing fruit rather than growing their own. Small growers are now seeing a significant rise in demand for and profitability from seven-percent varieties—a just reward for taking the chance on something other than the Big Nine.
“There is plenty of evidence,” says Mick Unti, the owner of grower-producer Unti Vineyards in Healdsburg, “that a good number of these grapes are appreciating in value, because of this new demand, at a quicker rate than the more common varieties.” Unti has been growing Italian varieties like Sangiovese, Barbera, and Dolcetto since the 1990s, and has added new varieties, like Fiano and Aglianico, in recent years. For a new seven-percent grape-growing endeavor to be feasible, connecting growers with winemakers is important. “That enables the winemakers to commit to five or so vintages of a grape variety,” says Unti, who adds that the grower will likely make more per ton on these grapes “than most of the commodity grapes that were being grown there before.”
Planting a less commercially known variety can still be risky, however. Even when growers make an educated guess as to where and how to grow these grapes in California, there is no guarantee that the new variety will thrive. Many of these seven-percent grapes fell out of favor in the past and were replaced with more easily grown—or more easily sold—varieties. The availability and volume of seven-percent grape varieties has increased significantly in the last decade, thanks in part to programs such as the Foundation Plant Services (FPS) Grape Program of the University of California at Davis. There is still much to learn about the various California vineyard environments and how they can coax out the true potential of these varieties.
Because many of the seven-percent varieties have well-established Old World provenances, the small but steadfast group of grape pioneers now cultivating them in California are able to look to the origins of these grapes, learning from Old World traditions and techniques. “[Seven Percent] producers are truly students of the world,” says Shelley Lindgren, the co-owner and wine director of A16 and SPQR in San Francisco. “Their palates are tuned to quality, and the consumers are benefiting from this movement because of that.” But for some varieties—particularly Italian ones—producers can also look to California’s centuries-long winegrowing history.
“When A16 first opened [in 2004], these wines were simply referred to as Cal-Ital,” says Lindgren of California wines made from Italian grapes, but now it’s so much more than just that. “This was based on the legacy of immigrant farmers in California who grew a number of grapes from their respective homelands—but so many of those were overshadowed or pushed aside by commercial varieties. What’s remarkable is that this newer generation of winemakers is seeking out and revitalizing these treasures, [and] even planting and introducing new ones.”
A Dynamic Array of Grapes
Not all of the seven-percent grapes are obscure varieties. For instance, Grenache isn’t one of California’s top eight varieties, but it’s one of the world’s most widely planted grapes. Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc are thriving again in New World regions, particularly in cooler vineyard sites. But most of the seven-percent varieties prompting renewed interest from winemakers have historically been relegated to a specific country rather than planted internationally. Italian grapes had an early start in California’s vineyards, which has given producers the chance to explore different approaches and improve quality. Nebbiolo, for instance, is now seen as a challenging yet rewarding grape for California growers. After vintners climbed a steep learning curve, solid examples of Nebbiolo can now be had from California producers like Idlewild, Palmina, and L.A. Lepiane in Santa Barbara County, and Pax Mahle Wines (under Mahle’s former Wind Gap label, which was sold in June 2018) in Sonoma County.
Other Italian varieties also thrive in California, like Vermentino and Montepulciano. Both have proven to be stylistically versatile, with high-end results, high yields, and attributes well suited to California’s warmer climates. Even varieties like Aglianico and Fiano—which are often associated with the volcanic soils of their native sites—are being used successfully by producers like Unti, Giornata in Paso Robles, and Ryme Cellars in Healdsburg. The California climate has a lot in common with that of Italy, given the state’s proximity to the coast, warmer temperatures, similar soils, and mountain diversity, and the high-acid nature of many Italian varieties works well here. “It’s all about acid and structure,” says Brian Cronin, MS, the Brooklyn-based national education manager for Taub Family Selections in Port Washington, New York, “because you know that in California you can get the ripeness. Really finding the right grapes that naturally retain freshness is the key. Places like Greece, where you have similar soils to California’s, point to varieties like Assyrtiko being great candidates to do well here.”
For the same reason, Spanish varieties like Tempranillo and Albariño are also succeeding in California—though in tiny amounts, as neither accounted for more than 0.28 percent of 2018’s grape crush. There are also more Graciano vines planted in the state than initially thought—a number of vines in Paso Robles were mistaken as Mourvèdre until 2018. Graciano yields delicious wines. Interestingly, the one Spanish grape that most of the Seven Percent winemakers are eagerly anticipating is one that no one is yet working with: Mencía. Though none is currently grown in California, four clones have become available in the past decade from UC Davis FPS. We’re all just waiting for someone to take a chance on it.
The Seven Percent Solution movement is not suggesting that anyone take Cabernet Sauvignon out of Napa, or Pinot Noir out of the Russian River Valley. Rather, we’re hoping to expand the range of vines throughout California and therefore drive the broader consumer market toward varietal diversity. We’d also like to see more acreage dedicated to varieties like Gamay and Grüner Veltliner.
The Future of Seven Percent
One evening in 2008, I had a conversation with a famous Bay Area Michelin-starred chef. He asked if I felt that the local, farm-to-table movement could also be applied to wine. Essentially, the question was, Can a restaurant maintain a locavore philosophy while creating an all-encompassing wine list? The chef contended that wines from Europe have a much wider range and create broader pairing opportunities. He suggested that California wines were limited in their flavor and textural range, likening that limitation to a chef having only 10 ingredients to choose from.
That conversation underscores the reason we must pay attention to and expand the prominence of California’s seven-percent varieties. Think of it as expanding the array of flavors, aromas, and textures a chef can experiment with; more grape diversity allows for greater opportunity in winemaking and a more dynamic selection of wines for both wine buyers and consumers.
“This is an opportunity to define an industry,” says Vinny Eng, who until recently was the wine director of Tartine Manufactory in San Francisco, and further, “to define an era of winemaking in line with the current trends in cuisine.” As he points out, it’s now common for restaurants to conceptualize their cuisine according to their philosophical approach to food rather than placing the focus on a specific region, such as France or Italy. By working with an array of varieties, rather than a handful, California producers will not be limited to practicing within a set, specific wine style.
Eng also notes that many wine consumers are enthusiastic about broadening their wine knowledge, and that with every bottle they buy, they’re effectively advancing their wine education. Megan Glabb, the cofounder of Ryme Cellars, concurs. “Diversity is a boon for today’s consumers [who are] eager to try something new and different,” she says, “and we only see this trend continuing.”
Though the Seven Percent Solution movement is young, winemakers are already seeing a change in consumer perception of California wine. “When we first started [in 2007],” says Glabb, “we used to have to explain what Vermentino was—but not anymore. Awareness and demand for ‘other’ varieties has blossomed, and there is a huge shift from just five years ago.” And as winemakers feel the positive effects of readily selling these seven-percent wines, those benefits are passed on to the vineyard owners and growers as well.
There is no shortage of stylistically interesting wines coming from hundreds of grapes grown around the world. However, supporting the seven-percent varieties being grown in California makes sense for sommeliers and retailers across the country. Not only can they help the winemakers by endorsing these delicious, mind-opening local U.S. wines, but they can diversify consumer opportunities and challenge wine drinkers to try something new. Each of these efforts is contributing to the change in complexion of today’s California wine industry—one grape at a time.
Bergamot Wine Co. hosted its sixth annual Seven Percent Solution tasting event, showcasing 42 outstanding California wineries, 200 wines, and 60 grape varieties, on June 2 in Los Angeles.
Participating wineries are Arnot-Roberts, Birichino, Calder Wine Company, Dirty & Rowdy Family Winery, Donkey & Goat Winery, Edmunds St. John, Etxea Wines, Fine Disregard, Front Porch Farm, Gamling & McDuck, Giornata, Gros Ventre Cellars, Harrington Wines, Horse & Plow, I. Brand & Family, J. Brix Wines, Jaimee Motley Wines, Jolie-Laide, L.A. Lepiane Wines, Leo Steen Wines, LIOCO, Little Frances, Lo-Fi Wines, Matthiasson/Tendu, March Wines, Nonesuch Wines, Palmina, Pax Mahle Wines, Preston Vineyards, Reeve Wines, Rootdown Wine Cellars/Es Okay, Ryme Cellars, Sébastien Wines, Ser Winery, Solminer, Tessier Winery, Thacher Winery, Trail Marker, Two Shepherds, Unti Vineyards, Villa Creek, and West of Temperance.
Kevin Wardell, a sommelier and the wine director of Bergamot Wine Company, an online retail shop and wine club, is perpetually seeking out, discovering, and experimenting with new wines. The seemingly endless world of grape varieties to discover has drawn him to focus on the Old World, and more specifically, Italian wines. The Bergamot Italian Wine Club is a celebration of this passion. Wardell loves finding just the right juice.