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Uncorked: U.S. wine industry just beginning its evolution

Jason Haas provided perspective.

It seemed like American wine culture had carved out its path forward. Winemakers had their niche, vineyards had aged nicely and the wines had shown greater depth, balance and flavors than ever before. Consumers were at an all-time high.

So, a sports metaphor was the logical way to compare the state of the American wine industry: If it were a baseball game, what inning would it be in?

“You have to remember that it’s only in the last few decades that the United States has had a significant wine-drinking culture,” said Haas, a partner and general manager at Tablas Creek in Paso Robles, California. “It’s only logical that it takes some time for that culture to mature enough to be able to differentiate between different stylistic approaches and to find the right homes for the new diversity.”

This is the first column in a series on the evolution of the U.S. wine industry. It features three California wineries.

Winemaker spotlight

For Revana Wines President John Gabelhausen, the fans are just settling into their seats, hot dog vendors are loading up their carrying cases and neither pitcher has even worked up a lather on the mound.

“In my opinion, we are in the first inning,” Gabelhausen said. “I’ve been in the wine business 20 years and I travel to Greece, Italy, France, Croatia ... the really old world wine countries where they have been making wine for 1,000 years. Wineries in Burgundy have four to five generations to look at their style. Châteauneuf du Pape or Bordeaux winemakers have had so many different trials to get to know every vineyard and how they react differently in certain situations.”

The Revana Cabernet Sauvignon Terroir Series 2015 ($105) has blackberry, cloves and anise all perfectly integrated, a welcoming mouthfeel and a lingering finish. Because there’s only one harvest per year, each represents a new learning opportunity.

“Wine is different than most other products in that you only get one shot a year,” said Haas, whose Patelin de Tablas Rosé is my go-to variety for its consistently delicious flavors and ease of being paired with food. “So, even an experienced winemaker doesn’t have hundreds of data points under his or her belt. But, I feel like the world of wine is more international than ever before, with winemakers spending time in different regions as a part of their training more routinely than ever before, so you get broader horizons as a result.”

For Haas, whose vineyard nursery has been responsible for plantings across the country, the domestic wine industry has had time to make in-game adjustments and it’s now on the manager to call the shots.

“It’s significantly past the first inning, given the pace of movement and the fact that trends don’t happen in isolation,” Haas said. “Maybe we’re at the fourth or fifth inning. We’ve had enough time into the game that the starting pitcher has had to go through the order a couple of times, has had to make adjustments, and the manager is deciding whether to let him face the heart of the order for the third time, or whether they’re going to bring in one of their ace middle relievers.

“Of course, you can only push the analogy so far, since there’s not a ninth inning – hopefully – and there isn’t a single pitcher or manager here. But what feels new is an increasing diversity of approaches from wineries, and a better understanding in the marketplace that there will be styles that conform to stereotypes.”

When those Old World vineyards were well established and had been planted for generations, the Mexican military was living on what now is the Soberanes vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands.

The Soberanes family was granted a large chunk of the Santa Lucia Highlands when it housed the Mexican military in the 1800s. Over the years, they sold off pieces of the property, but they kept and farmed 40 acres.

In 2008, they leased the property to the Franscioni and Pisoni families, who also work together in the neighboring Garys’ Vineyard. The families invested $700,000 into another vineyard venture. Together, they manage vineyards that produce some of the best Pinot Noir, Syrah and Chardonnay in California.  

“Mark Pisoni had been farming the vineyard for a while, so It was kind of like a rite of passage when we got the lease,” Franscioni said. “They got to pick the clone spacing and row direction for the project.”

The 2016 Roar Syrah all cost $45 and showcase the varietal’s unique expression in a cool climate. Because Garys’ and Rosella’s vineyards were planted more than 20 years ago, in 1997 and 1996, respectively, it’s fascinating to see Sierra Mar, which is in its infancy.

“Garys’ vines are about a decade older and we are seeing some more earthy kind of flavors on them,” Franscioni said about the vineyard that was planted in 1997.

The Roar Sierra Marr had a beautiful almost perfume-like nose of violets; there was crushed rock, blackberry, licorice and thyme flavors. It’s inky dark in the glass and the weight of the wine really enhances the mouthfeel without being ripe or extracted. The finish is strikingly long. Garys’ has Châteauneuf-like characteristics with white pepper dancing with the fruit flavors. Rosella’s has an elegant mix of red and blue fruit flavors.  

While the evolution has been exciting, there’s a pinch hitter sitting on the bench that could change everything.

“We’ve got to keep pushing the envelope,” Gabelhausen said. “What could cause a dramatic change for us is climate change.”

• James Nokes writes a bi-weekly wine column for the Daily Chronicle. He’s been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Contact him at​

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