Variety an advantage as consumers seek out new wines

The temperate climate of California’s Central Coast makes the region alluring to winemakers who farm a diverse palate of wine grape varieties. But is the lack of varietal specialization a marketing disadvantage?

As part of the Central Coast Insights program, hosted March 12 in Paso Robles, Calif., by the Wine Industry Symposium Group, four winemakers shared their observations during a panel entitled “Central Coast Diversity: Blessing or Curse?”

Matt Kettmann, Central Coast critic for Wine Enthusiast and senior editor at the Santa Barbara Independent, led the panel, which included Marta Kraftzeck, winemaker for Scheid Vineyards; Tim Snider, president of Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard; Karen Steinwachs, general manager/winemaker of Buttonwood Farm Winery & Vineyard and Seagrape Cellars; and Mike Sinor, winemaker at Sinor-LaVallee, director of winemaking for Ancient Peaks and consulting winemaker for Center of Effort Wines.

Scheid is located in Monterery County, and Sinor’s various projects are in San Luis Obispo County. Steinwachs and Snider both work in Santa Barbara County.

The panel’s consensus: Consumers are willing to explore lesser-known wines such as Albariño or Gruner Veltliner when they understand how select grape varieties thrive in designated American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) throughout the Central Coast.

The detail with which a winemaker, tasting room associate or distributor describes a particular AVA’s merits – be they warm days and cool nights for Bordeaux varieties, or foggy, temperate weather ideal for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – helps sell consumers on wines, panelists explained.

“The more we can market how specific AVAs are known for specific varietals, the better off we will be,” Snider said. His winery, he noted, rebranded its Parker Station Pinot Noir label as one that originates in the Sta. Rita Hills rather than Santa Barbara County in general.

Steinwachs, who left a lengthy marketing career for winemaking, likened selling wine to the following the premise of USPs, or Unique Selling Points: “Product, placement, price.” Utilizing the Central Coast’s AVAs to sell wine “gives us a way to explain what grows where,” she noted.

Santa Barbara County’s transverse valleys allow the coastal marine layer to flow inland, cooling down the Sta. Rita Hills at the western edge of the Santa Ynez Valley, and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara at the east end. That allows grapes ranging from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, to Italian and Spanish varieties to all flourish, Steinwachs said.

Sinor, who focuses primarily on grapes grown in the Avila Valley for Sinor-LaVallee and in Paso Robles for Ancient Peaks, echoed Steinwachs on the benefits of diversity, thanks to microclimates and various soil types. “We have learned where to plant the varietals so they thrive,” he said.

Kraftzeck noted that Scheid farms 4,600 acres of grapes from 10 different vineyards, and she works with 34 grape varieties.

In response to a question from Kettmann about selling diversity, Kraftzeck said Scheid doesn’t find that to be an issue. “People are interested in different varieties, new wine trends, something different than Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Gruner Veltliner does well.”

But the fact remains that most wine does not sell itself, and sommeliers and the public alike still may need convincing when it comes to a particular varietal, the panelists noted.

“We do have to be pretty smart about segregating things (grapes)” in terms of focus marketing, Steinwachs said. “At Buttonwood, we call ourselves ‘franc and blanc,’ because Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc are the two biggest plantings at our vineyard.”

Each of the four panelists works in some capacity with the Central Coast’s most prevalent grape varietals – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

Kettmann asked the winemakers what each believes will be the “next big grape.” Sinor’s choice was Albariño, and Snider hailed Grenache. Steinwachs chose Cabernet Franc, and Kraftzeck couldn’t pick just one, so she chose two: Grenache and Grenache Blanc.

The winemakers then asked Kettmann for his choices for the next big wine grape: “Grenache blanc, and Riesling, when done dry. Red? Grenache, and Carignan, especially old-vine Carignan,” he said.

Laurie Jervis blogs about wine at www.centralcoastwinepress.com, tweets at @lauriejervis and can be reached via winecountrywriter@gmail.com.