America’s Great Grape Variety Shortage

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is a notoriously Kafkaesque entity, with a maze of self-contradictory rules winemakers are required to navigate successfully or face unclear consequences.

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The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is a notoriously Kafkaesque entity, with a maze of self-contradictory rules winemakers are required to navigate successfully or face unclear consequences.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), with a slightly less mercurial reputation, but an equally imposing bureaucracy, controls the ability of growers, producers, nurseries and researchers to import new grape varieties into the country. At first glance, the hostility to foreign grapes appears misguided at best. While it is completely acceptable to douse wines with 60-plus additives and preservatives without alerting consumers, it is forbidden to grow and use grapes that do not appear on their startlingly short list of approved grape variety names.

Granted, the list of grapes widely used across the world is even more startlingly short than that. Of the 10,000 vine varieties in the world, 13 occupy more than one-third of all plantings, and 33 comprise about half, according to the intergovernmental research organisation International Organization of Vine and Wine.

Of that 10,000 fewer than 400 can legally be grown in the US and appear on wine bottles.

How is it that less than 4 percent of all grapes in the world are available for fermentation and delectation in the US – a country often characterised as the Wild West of winemaking, with no regional bodies dictating what grapes can be grown where, and harvested at what weight and aged for how long in what kind of vessels – as there commonly are in European countries?

The US isn’t alone of course in its phylloxera PTSD approach to grape cultivation.

When, for example, the powers that be in Bordeaux and Champagne change the kinds of grapes that can make it into their designated bottlings, it makes headlines. And in New Zealand, internationally renowned winegrower James Millton was sentenced to five months of community detention and fined $15,000 for importing vine cuttings from Australia.

But Jason Haas, whose family has successfully petitioned the TTB to get at least nine grapes approved for use on wine bottles – the last and number 348 on the agency’s index of acceptable grape names for use being Muscardin, which got the green light last year – and could understandably be frustrated by the red tape, says there is reason for both the TTB and USDA’s caution.

“I don’t think the government is making it too hard, actually,” Haas says. “They have a legitimate interest in not spreading a disease that could wipe out a multi-billion-dollar industry. But because it’s slow and expensive, people often try to get around it, and are actually proud to say they smuggled grapes in. How many stories have you heard about suitcase clones?”

 

Slow and expensive

Haas’ family began importing grapes in 2003 for its Paso Robles winery, Tablas Creek, a partnership with the Beaucastel family, renowned for their Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines at Château de Beaucastel. His father, Robert Haas, spearheaded the project initially, and all of the seven grapes imported at that time were found to have viruses.

“We had an agreement with UC [University of California] Davis from the beginning, so we didn’t have to pay to bring the cuttings in or clean them up,” Haas explains. “I can imagine that trying to do it yourself would be extremely expensive though.”

The National Grapevine Importation Program at UC Davis serves as an importation and quarantine facility, and is the largest national program for grape importation in the US. (The first facility was built at UC Davis in 1952.) The cooperative effort was launched with the USDA and the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and it is designed to ensure that any grapes that do arrive in the US are monitored in a lab for disease, and that any viruses or diseases that are detected are eliminated before they are released into the hands of growers.

After UC Davis cleaned up Haas’ Terret Noir and Clairette Blanche, they were released in 2009, but Picaridin required more cleanup and was released in 2012, and Bourboulenc, Vaccarese and Cinsault needed until 2015 to get the greenlight. Muscardin was the final one allowed out in 2018.

But getting cleared for planting doesn’t mean the grape’s name can appear on a label.

In 1996, the TTB’s predecessor set up regulations “intended to provide specific and accurate labelling of grape wines labelled with grape variety names”.

“Essentially, you have to document that it’s a real grape, and of enough value to be used on labels,” Haas explains, adding that he didn’t know of any grapes being rejected. “If the TTB approved Picaridin and Muscardin, rare and obscure grapes even in France, then I can’t see any grape being rejected.”

Indeed, while Muscardin was on the list of approved Châteauneuf-du-Pape grapes when the appellation was approved in 1936, there are thought to be less than 50 acres of the grape across the world. (Compare that to the classic CDP banger, Syrah, with 470,000 acres under vine worldwide).

Once approved for planting, the process of getting Muscardin approved for use on the label took about six months, Haas says.

 

Biodiversity, climate, curiosity

Why did Haas and his family bother?

“Beyond the idea that there are great grapes out there that may be better suited for a hotter and drier future, and the fact that we don’t know how they will express themselves in our California terroir until we try,” Haas says. “It’s just smart from a marketing standpoint. Consumers are super fascinated by the idea that there are grapes they’ve never tried, or never even heard of. We find in the tasting room that people get a huge kick out of trying the grapes.”

Haas estimates that at this point, hundreds of different wines have been made from the grape varieties his family imported into the US, then got on labels.

Other researchers and growers who have sought out new grapes had their own reasons for venturing beyond the expected – but they all generally fall somewhere in the usual cocktail of climate, curiosity and preservation that has characterised every decision made in wine-cultivation and making for thousands of years.

At the 256-acre Halter Ranch in Paso Robles, owner Hansjörg Wyss was determined to honour his Swiss heritage via wine. Vintner Kevin Sass made it his personal mission to find a Swiss grape that would thrive in the hot climate.

“It took awhile, but we found a grape in UC Davis’ mother block  that we thought would work,” Sass says, referring to the school’s legendary collection of some of the hundreds of grapes brought in from across the globe over the decades by researchers and scientists.

They selected the tropical, fruit-forward Heida (a.k.a. Savagnin or Savignan Blanc), which comes from Switzerland’s Valais.

“We were only able to buy 10 sticks or 50 buds from them,” Sass says. “We sent them to a nursery and let them grow for a year. Then there were more sticks that we could cut. In a year, that turned into 300 plants, which we then grafted onto rootstocks.”

From there, they kept replanting and growing their crops year after year. Four years of slow-motion fruition yielded 1.67 acres of Heida, and the first 99-case bottling of the white grape.

“It says ‘white wine’ on the back label though because it still isn’t recognized by the TTB,” Sass says. “But we love the flavour.”

Joseph A. Fiola, PhD, a specialist in viticulture and small fruit at University of Maryland grows a whole range of experimental vines, in part to find grapes suitable for planting on the Eastern seaboard, and also simply because he’s a curious tinkerer.

“When I was at Rutgers I got a phone call from Dr Bob Goodman, a scientist at Southwest Missouri State, because he knew I was interested in grape cultivars and genotypes,” Fiola says. “He sent me a few dozen from the several dozen red and white grapes he had brought in from across the world.”

 Goodman had a plant introduction licence, and so was permitted to import grapes. He bought several dozen in from Eastern Bloc countries, and planted many himself, and distributed others to Fiola.

Over time, he narrowed down the 20-plus varieties to three promising whites that showed good disease tolerance, aromas and flavours. The inauspiciously named Petra SK77-53, Petra SK77-69 and XIV186 were all from Hungarian and Romanian origin, and while he tried to sell them to commercial wineries and growers, no one was interested. Until he met Dave Collins of Big Cork Vineyards in Maryland.

“I brought him the wines I made from the grapes, and explained how disease and cold tolerant they were,” Fiola says. “This was around 2013, and he was the first person who wasn’t determined to just plant Chardonnay and other recognizable grapes.”

Eventually, instead of just buying the grapes, he planted the grapes and created an off-dry white wine he dubbed Russian Kiss.

“People loved the flavour, but they also loved the story of the wine, and it began to sell really well, and it’s even won several state and national awards,” Fiola says.

He sees a bright future for grapes no one has ever heard of.

“As more growers want climate-appropriate grapes that they can grow sustainably without a lot of inputs, and younger consumers are less conscious about traditional grape varieties and actually embrace novelty, I think the market for these grapes will grow,” Fiola says. “I just wish it was easier to get them in the country, and put them on the labels.”

Because you guessed it: even though you can legally grow these Eastern Bloc escapee grapes, you can’t put their names on a label. And not everyone will have the marketing brainstorm that Collins had.

Haas, meanwhile, was finally able to get Muscardin, the last of the 16 grape varieties planted in the Beaucastel vineyard – all of the traditional Châteauneuf-du-Pape grapes, along with Viognier and Marsanne – vinified and on the label. It took several decades, all told. Was it worth it?

“Yes!” Haas says. “Muscardin isn’t without challenges. It’s low yielding, it requires a lot of hand work in the vineyard. But the wines that it produces are low in alcohol, fresh and elegant.”

Low-ABV plus fun plus still complex. In other words, Muscardin, one of the most obscure yet historic grapes in the world, is completely on-trend right now.

“I’m really glad we pushed it through,” Haas says. “But I do wish the process was a little easier and faster.”

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