Thursday, November 19, 2009

Pride & Prejudice

Whenever Carlo Devito, as a wine writer, is about to offer some good humored criticism of a fellow winemaker he usually prefaces it in some fashion with a statement evincing his affection and respect for that individual about to come under his less than admiring scrutiny, not that I do not think he is sincere so, just let me say here (and I am not just saying this), I genuinely like Carlo DeVito, as I mentioned in previous posts he is one of the few winemakers in the valley with whom I feel I have something in common that goes beyond wine i.e. we are both enamored at the opportunity of waxing poetic over the grape, however, since this blog is not dedicated solely to my personal literary rants on topics of my discretion but to promoting actual discussion about wine I would like to respond to his recent post on EastCoastWineries blog regarding the hybrid vs. non-hybrid controversy in New York viticulture; in particular the segment called 'My Favorite Hybrid' which as presented, raises some issues that I would like to address. And as far as the preliminary praise, and in the spirit of obscuring shared ambition as exemplified so eloquently in Shakespeare's rendering of Mark Antony's funeral oration, let me first say I come not to praise Caesar nor to bury him, but to 'goose' him.

While the title of his post is obviously coy play on 'My Favorite Martian' (the 1960s sitcom with Bill Bixby and Ray Walston) it is clear that the point Carlo is trying to make with this is that hybrids are not in fact from Mars. He adduces the fact that Cab Sauvignon, one of the most loved and respected of the 'noble' grapes varieties is actually a cross between two venerable varieties, Cab Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.

I must admit here that the innate prejudice of the wine buying public in favor of the 'noble' grapes (a term which embraces all the vinifera genus) grates on some deep egalitarian instinct in me (can't we all just get along?) but we need to get some perspective on this issue aside from the political implications and the constant din of clamoring for 'quality' NYS wine which even when produced remains subject to some unfathomable instinctual suspicion.

Firstly, I must object to the classification of Cab Sauvignon as a hybrid in the same sense as we have become used to using the term here in NY. Hybrids here have generally come as the result of intentional crossbreeding programs at University sponsored experiment stations, they are not the result of natural selection or historical factors such as resulted in the production of many of the European so called hybrids. The reason for this is simple; new wine grape varieties are no longer produced by germination in the field (We all remember Gregor Mendel from Junior High School and his magic peas--not personally of course oh well, age jokes at my age are de rigeur), they are produced in commercial applications by grafting, so the likelihood of developing serendipitous field crosses (such as occurred in the case of Cab Sauvignon) through a process of selection by growers over decades or centuries such as occurred in Europe here is slim to none.

Secondly, as the term is commonly used in America, hybrid refers to varieties that contain genetic material from non-vinifera varieties. This is not the case in the example cited by Carlo. Cab Sauvignon is a cross of two vinifera species.

If I may attempt to play the devil's advocate for a moment, I will agree, there are excellent wines being made from hybrid grapes in New York and as Carlo correctly points out, the difference may lay largely in the skill of the winemaker and not in the native characteristics inherent in the juice but to address this last point let me introduce an analogy from a field I am more comfortable with. I am a bass player and I have two instruments that I own, basses. One is European (Czech) and the second was made by a luthier out of Middletown. You can play Beethoven on either of them and make it sound reasonably well. As a bass player, I am keenly aware that I have to struggle to as they say 'get the notes under my fingers' when using the Middletown bass (at the moment I have no choice because my better bass is in hock as the repair shop). Anyway it is just the way that bass is set up and constructed. Secondly, I know that under most circumstances, I well never get the American bass to make a tone as classically beautiful as the second. In other words, if I am playing Beethoven I would much rather be playing the Czech bass. As
everyone is aware however, Beethoven is not the only composer and classical not the only style of music. The American Bass is much boomier and has a big bottom, (lower range-- not in the booty sense). If I was playing jazz or country I would much rather be playing the other bass despite the physical challenges. I think the analogy to be found in this is appropos to this discussion and bears some reflection.

Also, if you know anything about winegrowing in the Hudson Valley, unless you are a multi-millionaire, growing nothing but vinifera grapes is akin to viticultural masochism. I can tell you this from experience, the amount of labor required to make them productive and the struggles with weather here will require huge constant infusions of that most American of commodities, cash. In case you haven't noticed, that is a commodity presently in short supply.

So, the (average) winemaker in the valley in these times finds him or herself in somewhat of a bind. What to do? Grow hybrid grapes and still be able to take pride in the fact that the product you produce was under your hand from inception or, buy grapes from the Finger Lakes or some other region where the weather is a smidge kinder to the vine or a combination of both?

(To be Continued)

1 comment: