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NorCal Wine Blog

Reality, Perception and Potential

We all want to reach our potential. And we hope others’ perception of us at least matches the reality of who we are and what our potential might be. It’s nice when perceptions go reality one better. That creates expectations we must strive to meet. Motivation.

But what happens when the perceived quality of something, say a wine growing region, is lower than the actual quality? In that situation, the sales of grapes and wines may be lower in both dollars and units than deserved. Lagging perception also has an impact on the area reaching its true potential. If people dismiss the existing products and refuse to pay a fair price, will investments in even better products be rewarded?

This problem has been faced by most wine growing regions at one time or another. There may be a few exceptions, Burgundy for example. But I think it’s fair to assume that every single viticultural area in the New World has faced it due to OId World bias. Very few — Napa Valley, Marlborough, etc. — have completely blown past this phase. One might argue that even those regions still have perception issues.

This was my train of thought as I drove past acre after acre of characterful ancient vines, their roots reaching dozens of feet deep into unique, extremely well-drained soils. I was pulling into Lodi for three days of intensive vineyard visits, tastings, and meetings with growers and winemakers. Fortunately, Lodi has spent the last 20-something years focused on simultaneously improving the real quality of its products and the consumer and critical perceptions of that quality.

[Note: You may see a Lodi ad running to the right of this article. That is being served by the Palate Press ad network and the placement is entirely coincidental. I do not get any direct revenue from the Lodi or any other region or winery and this article is not sponsored in any way whatsoever.]

One of the many old vine Zinfandel vineyards in the Mokelumne AVA, nested within the Lodi AVA.
Photo: Fred Swan 

The raw materials were there. Lodi had century-old Zinfandel and also Carignane, Cinsault and more. There’s a multiplicity of soil types, most conducive to excellent grape quality. There is plenty of sun and warmth but also surprisingly stiff and cooling breezes, a big Delta air-conditioner. Perhaps the most important element though was a generation of growers and vintners who believed in the phrase “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

They thought cooperation, collaboration and mutual investment would help both farmer and producer. Successful marketing could make Lodi a nationally-known and sought after AVA. Outside producers could be convinced to designate the AVA on labels. Consumers would learn to taste the difference and eventually pay more for Lodi wines. That incremental revenue, if invested in improving quality from vineyard to bottle, would continue the cycle. They were right.

Two decades after that effort began, the vines are a little older. The soil and the weather haven’t changed. But Lodi’s wines and grapes are different — better. Consumers do seek out Lodi wines based on the AVA, not just the winery brand. Grower and producer revenues are up, as is the number of wineries. There are dozens of tasting rooms and Lodi has become not just a good source but a legitimate destination.

Even with these improvements across the board, the Lodi AVA is still working to get better.  That’s what you do, especially when the potential is so high. (It really is.) There were bumps and uphill climbs on the road to betterment and there will be more. There is also a lot of positive momentum and a new generation of people who have grown up within and fully embrace the process. I’m looking forward to sharing specifics with you about some of the most intriguing wines, vineyards and people in the Lodi wine region.

The timing of this article, just days after the announcement that the Mendocino County Winegrape and Wine Commission will be dissolved, is coincidental yet appropriate. When Mendocino County set up the group six years ago, the area already had more critical acceptance than Lodi did at the founding of it’s commission. And, while Mendocino’s road forward was appropriately twisty, progress was definitely being made. The area has been getting much more press. New tasting rooms have been built and Mendocino is now thought of as much for wine tasting weekends as for whale watching and peaceful retreats.

Yesterday’s Taste of Mendo, held in San Francisco, was a great reminder of the diversity of Mendocino wines. At one point I sampled six consecutive rosés, all good and none made from the same variety as another. There were some excellent Pinot Noir of course, but also very fine Syrah. I found compelling Sauvignon Blanc in three distinct styles. And there were plenty of other highly recommendable whites, including Albariño, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc.

However, the wine business is intensely competitive. (See the first part of this recent post by Randall Grahm for some excellent thoughts on that.) There are countless wine regions, wineries and drinks conglomerates all fighting over a finite amount of available mindshare and revenue. The Mendocino County wine industry has to find a way to get everyone working together again or it will not only fail to reach its potential but the perception of its quality and relevance will slide backward.

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This article is original to Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. Photos by Fred Swan. All rights reserved.