Part of what makes wine beautiful is that in many ways it is unknowable. Built from the caprices of sun and rain, yeast and age, excellence in wine is an ever-moving target. Even the best winemakers must confront a new set of challenges with every crop. Wine is mercurial and temporary, and that’s the source of its magic.
We can count on some wines to always be good—those perfect plots of earth tended by centuries of accumulated knowledge. But there are also surprises in wine—sublime instances when all the variables smile on a certain vineyard or valley, where they reward a decision in the field or inspiration in the winery.
And so we search, faster and faster lately, for that next epiphany. Wines from new and different countries, regions, and grape varieties have been gracing our local stores and wine lists like never before. Importers want to appear forward-thinking, sommeliers are chasing trends, and consumers are conspicuous about their obscure purchases. We’re trying out Slovenian pinot grigio and saperavi from the republic of Georgia. We’re uncovering wines from Turkey, Lebanon, and the Canary Islands. No corner of the map is going unsearched.
But what’s driving this pursuit through the atlas? One could certainly point to Millennials as a keystone group in the movement. As they become more established wine drinkers, they’re making it clear they’re unhappy with their grandfather’s same old chardonnay—that a gamble on an unknown wine might result in the pride of having discovered something new for themselves. But regardless of a consumer’s age, the impetus to search far and wide is, at heart, really more a question of the intrinsic source of a wine’s value.
“The people seeking out esoteric wines want an experience, not the same thing day in and day out,” says Gretchen Skedsvold, owner of Henry & Son, a Minneapolis retailer. “These wines are compelling. They make you think more. Even if some are a little weird, in a good way.”
For many new wine drinkers, value is found in the “story” of a wine. They might fawn over the idea of a family farming the same plot for generations with no intentions of their wine being enjoyed worldwide. Their story might include a unique soil mix or grape cultivar, or an ancient winemaking technique—something that leads to a singular expression of terroir that you’ve been missing with mass-marketed wines engineered to conform to a recognizable style.
“There’s more of a story to be told with these wines than wines made to taste the same every year, every decade,” Skedsvold explains. “These are diaries of artists, farmers, climate, tradition—like notebooks in a bottle.”
And it’s when we learn these stories that we begin to understand all the reasons, completely irrespective of quality, that a wine region might be underrepresented in the United States—politics, trade embargos, marketing strategies, production mandates, fashion, ethnocentricity. Suddenly it feels like the whole world of wine has been artificially narrowed on us for some time, and that frustration breeds an attraction to these wines that had been sheltered from our radar.
There’s a sexiness to the chase. When you dare to venture into the stranger wine aisles, you might be rewarded by a brooding Croatian plavac mali or an “orange” wine conjured from white grapes. You’ll sparkle in rhythm with the spontaneous bubbles in your pétillant-naturel and feel like one of the cool kids when you call it “pet-nat.” Such are the joys of the early adopter of the new and the novel.
But just like the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the race to discover unique wines can easily be taken too far. Like seeking out the next hot band or restaurant, new wine countries and regions are all too often prematurely declared as having arrived. Consumer hype often outpaces the reality of a new wine region’s quality. Though it’s not just the consumers who are at fault—our fervor is stoked by the professionals.
“Some are fantastic and some are undrinkable,” says Bill Summerville, restaurant manager and local in-the-know wine guy. “You have young winemakers and young somms who are jumping on the bandwagon and they don’t understand it’s the emperor’s new clothes. They’re just excited about it because other people are excited about it. You have to be discerning with a new wine region or method.”
The media shoulder a portion of the blame as well. A weekly wine deadline naturally leads to some rash pronouncements of “the new wine of the season.” The success of the documentary film “SOMM” is at least partially responsible for the number of supercilious wine pros with the nerve to give you the hard sell on something like Irouléguy blanc. With so many people in the wine world using their knowledge like a bludgeon, it’s growing harder to discern marketing angles from true discoveries, or ego from genuine enthusiasm.
All of this can make it easy to stay content with that $12 malbec you’ve been buying for years. Because when you revert to your go-to bottle, even though you’ll never be wowed, at least you’ll never be disappointed.
But when a new, obscure wine does pay off—when it delivers that ineffable shock of quality-plus-uniqueness—there are few experiences in the beverage world that compare. So how can we safely co-opt the Millennial buying strategy and dip our toes into the esoteric end of the wine pool?
To begin with, we should belay our suspicion of the new just because it’s trendy. Rather, we should feel fortunate for the opportunity to explore the whole world of wine. With all these choices at our disposal, there’s never been a better time to be a wine drinker than right now in America. And keep in mind that these wines aren’t really “obscure,” they’re just unfamiliar and only “new” to us—many come from places with centuries more winemaking experience than, say, California.
Even though these fads might bring with them some poorly made, overhyped wine, such is the byproduct of an influx of well-made, properly hyped wine. In this sense, the demand for obscurity in wine mirrors exactly the rise of craft beer. It’s the result of people rejecting sameness, knowing full well that although variety sometimes misses the mark, it’s the price you pay for the chance at something exciting.
No wine fad will last if the wine isn’t actually any good. No one will repeatedly shell out $20 for Uruguayan tannat if it’s making them wretch, no matter how many trendy sommeliers tell them it’s the next big thing. (Side note: Uruguayan tannat is actually delicious, but the moral of the story is, don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself and trust your judgment.)
Your best defense against faddish wine is an educated palate. Find a producer, retailer, or sommelier you can trust, ones who are willing to guide you on that path of exploration. Explore. Sample. Combine wines from a strange region in a flight and host a wine tasting party. Accept the misses alongside the hits, and think about the reasons you like one wine over another.
The drive for obscure wines is about wresting a measure of personal control over an expansive subject. It’s about rejecting the orthodoxy of the 100-point wine scale and determining your own entry points to the vast world of wine. At its heart, seeking out the unfamiliar is a valid approach as long as there’s a measure of thoughtfulness behind it. And the more often people make informed decisions, the better and richer our collective wine experiences will become.