The snobbery with which many Europeans view US wines is proving stubbornly resistant to change.
Despite monumental tastings, competitions, and positive changes in winemaking philosophy, Europeans still can’t seem to fully wrap their heads around American wine.
Even with the rise of high-quality producers in California, Oregon, Washington, and other American growing regions, the same negative stereotypes seem to prevail. So the question remains – in the mind of the European consumer, will American wines ever really be “as good” as those produced closer to home?
“American wines are still regarded as mass and huge production wines,” says Gregor Greber, owner of Zurich-based Napa Wine. Greber believes that although consumer awareness is starting to change, education on the subject is still needed. Earlier this year, Greber’s company hosted its own “Judgment of Zurich” tasting – and the results were surprisingly in favor of the States; five wines from Napa took the top slots amongst the group of tasters.
Greber’s importing business and restaurant, Napa Grill, focuses exclusively on wines from Napa. “The restaurant really gives the wines a true home. It’s a place for people to discover – and fall in love with – Napa Cabernet.”
Yet somehow, the stereotypes still remain. In Norway, Pal Dahle, owner of Tramontane Vinimport, notes that many people still regard American wines as “lower quality” than European wines.
“Part of this is due to history,” he explains. “The wines that drifted into Norway (and Europe as a whole) 15-20 years ago were indeed of inferior quality.” Dahle explains that while this is currently changing, regaining consumers’ interest takes time. “There is an enormous amount of American winemakers making wines in an Old-World style these days, that is, early harvest, low alcohol, high acid, etc. Quality is increasing steadily and the price is still fair.”
Dahle currently works with 12 different American wineries that he believes represents this style, including Kutch Wines, Black Sheep Finds, and Rhys Vineyards.
“Europeans actually view American wines as a luxury product – I’m saying this on behalf of the British market,” says Michael Sager, owner of London based wine bar Sager + Wilde. “This is because of the strong work done by IPOB and Jon Bonné in the past, as well as the work of Roberson Wines and Flint Wines as importers. They changed the perception of California wine post-Robert Parker.”
Sager explains, however, that many British consumers have come to compare the value (or lack thereof) of American wines to that of Burgundy, in that they are almost seen as “worse value” due to their rising prices. “This is why the third wave of natural and affordable US wine will be quintessential to the overall perception of US wines,” he states. Sager works with the wines of Domaine de la Côte and Sandhi (Rajat Parr & Sashi Moorman), Pax Mahle, Jaimee Motley, Steve Matthiasson, Abe Schoener, and more.
Keith Kirkpatrick, buyer at Roberson Wine, feels that Europeans’ inferior views of American wines isn’t just exclusive to America. “As a whole, I would say Europeans from winemaking countries view US wines as lower quality, but that would be the same for wines from anywhere else in the world, even other regions of their own country!”
He finds that, historically, there has been a view that US wine is either mass produced and low value or very expensive (100-pointers) and meant for collection, with nothing for the average consumer in between. “At Roberson, [we] show the huge variety of wines from small and medium-sized producers that sit in this middle ground and offer the best quality and value. Hopefully we have helped change this view at least in the UK.”
Kirkpatrick believes that there are certainly wines from the States that do indeed rival some of Europe’s best, both in terms of quality and value. However, it took some personal experience for him to form that opinion. “It was not until I started to spend time with the winemakers in California and explore the different terroirs for myself that I really understood the incredible potential of US wines.”
He also notes American producers are much more keen to work the market and sell their than Europeans producers, which is beginning to give them traction both on wine lists and online. Kirkpatrick finds that less-strict appellation laws also work in American winemakers’ favor. “[These producers] also have much more freedom to change quickly and react to market trends – so they have the opportunity to continue to grab the attention of the consumer and steal more market share,” he explains.
Totte Steneby, senior wine specialist at Zachys Wine Auctions, worked the floor as a sommelier in Stockholm as of 2007. In addition to running his own import company and sommelier education program, he also consults for a handful of California wineries. “I still think the average [European] consumer has a lot to learn about American wines,” Steneby says. “The stereotypical American styles seem to be what consumers gravitate towards, [which are also] the same styles that people who dislike American wine think is the norm.” Steneby feels that sommeliers in Sweden tend to be more confident in “classic” styles of American wines, which hinders them from tasting more progressive bottles. “There’s only a handful of sommeliers in Sweden who put in the effort of expanding their knowledge base and palate when it comes to American wines,” he says.
Steneby reveals that he has spent at least one month in California every year since 2015, which has greatly helped him to understand the versatility in styles/grape varieties in the United States. “These wines should be held to a high regard,” he firmly states. “For the curious-minded, there’s a lot of exciting [bottles] to be found.” He feels that, at the end of the day, the cost of American wine is their downfall. “Unfortunately, the domestic US market is strong on American wine and prices reflect that. A wine from Europe is, in most cases, cheaper for us here then the ‘same’ wine from US. That said, there are bargains to be had at every price level and of course very exciting wines. You just have to read and listen to know what’s going on.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the French as a whole don’t seem to be nearly as progressive in their opinions towards American wine. “For us buyers, American wines are too powerful and extracted. Finding quality often means expensive,” says Jan Bussière, owner Vins Urbains wine bar in Bordeaux. “[Certain] selections have a different approach (finesse, delicacy, etc.) but only on micro-cuvées.”
Victor Vautier of Early June restaurant in Paris agrees. “[In France], American wines have a high price and little visibility on the quality,” he says. Vautier notes that consumers’ perceptions of American wines have been slightly degraded by the classic stereotypes (noting “super oaky, only classic grape varieties used, etc.” as a few.) However, he recalls a unique experience with Lewandowski wines that personally changed his mind. “The wine was very good, but I imagine that it’s not representative of the American wine scene.”
Jules Deloffre, an off-premise buyer at Saint-Germain-en-Laye’s Cémiyon (located just outside of Paris) actually finds American wines to be very good New World selections. However, their image isn’t always viewed that way by his customers. “American wines aren’t ‘foreign’ enough to be considered exotic in a French wine store,” he says.
Deloffre also notes that France’s negative view of American gastronomy is additionally unhelpful in changing consumers’ minds about the perception of the country’s wines. “When my customers come back from Argentina or Chile, they talk to me about wines. When they come back from the United States, very rarely, do they talk about the wine.”
Fabien Suquet, chief sommelier at Experimental Group, also has a good perception of American wines, though he credits this to living in the States for three years. He finds that the French are now more interested in learning about American wines than ever, though price and “psychological barriers’ ” remain problematic.
“The French will order a bottle between €30 and €60 [$33-65] without advice, generally based on a grape that they already know but, beyond a recommendation, guidance is definitely necessary,” he explains. Suquet suggests that French wine bars offer American wines by the glass, as this creates a gateway for consumers to learn about new vineyards they may not have tried. “American wines are progressing enormously, leaving the notion of grape behind and putting more emphasis on the place of origin and terroir,” he says.
However, Mathilde Goujat, buyer at Paris’ famed Cherche-Midi sums it up best, and perhaps represents the most stereotypical image of French consumers’ relationship with American wines – he doesn’t work with them at all.
“They’re oaky, very concentrated, and lack acidity,” he says. “Not very good.”
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