East Coast Misconceptions

Erasing The Stigma of East Coast Wines

The “Top 100” wine list by Wine Spectator was just released yesterday. Guess what? The East Coast was acknowledged! It may have only been two wineries, but still…we made it. Congratulations to Ravines Wine Cellars and Wolffer Estate Vineyard on their accomplishment! I’ll have a review of at least Ravines 2012 Dry Riesling from their Argetsinger Vineyard soon. I’m having a harder time getting a hold of Wolffer’s Grapes of Roth 2010 Merlot. It’s sold out at most places that will ship to PA!

A slight digression, wineries (and friends) take note. Wine can now be shipped to residences in Pennsylvania which wasn’t the case before. The only caveat is that it can’t be sold in our PA State Wine stores. Otherwise, it’s fair game! (Ahem…you’re really taking note, right?) So if you live in PA and someone tells you they can’t ship you wine, set them straight. Keep in mind, each winery has their own house policy regarding shipping, so it may not matter. But it’s at least worth getting the word out there.

Now back to my main point. Really, I do have one. It’s a big one. There is a misconception that all or most of East Coast wine in the United States is sweet, and crappy. I hear it all the time working at the winery. Everyone is always surprised that our wine is good, as in high quality up there with California and France good. To exemplify my point, there was recently a waitress at a restaurant that carries local wine and a customer wanted to order one of the local wines (who has had the wine before and loved it). The waitress told the customer that she should never order the local wine, that it’s horrible and crappy and she would never recommend it to her customers. She thinks it’s so bad that she’s never even tried it herself! This is the stigma we face for East Coast wines in the United States.

Yet, there are several hundred wineries on the East Coast that are thriving, despite these misconceptions. While production may be small, the quality is high. Of course wineries that produce high quality, world class wines often exist next door to that are – charitably – rustic in nature. That’s the nature of the beast everywhere.

Early on in the 1900’s, grapes such as Vidal Blanc, Marechal Foch, Chambourcin, and Baco Noir were  planted up and down the east coast and in the country’s interior. They were prolific, generally winter-hardy and if they didn’t taste exactly like vinifera, they were close. Now, many wineries have expanded to European vinifera and are producing high quality European wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Petite Sirah, Shiraz, Ports and more.

What is unique is that the wines of the East Coast are decidedly Old World in structure, not necessarily the preference of the winemaker or grower, but it happens nonetheless. Winemakers should embrace it and be proud of it instead of fighting it all the time trying to be like California wines. It’s not going to happen unless you only import California grapes to make the wine.

The French wine magazine Gilbert & Gaillard in a recent article famously inverted a map of the Gironde River leading to Bordeaux matching it almost identically with a map of the Delaware Bay and River leading to Philadelphia. On the map, South Jersey was comparable to Bordeaux’s Left Bank, Delaware and the Chesapeake setting up as the Right Bank and the Brandywine as America’s answer to Entre-Deux-Mers. The Lehigh Valley is similar to the Loire Valley in France. They went on to observe that the soil in both regions are the same and that both enjoy the same Atlantic climates mellowed by the influences of the rivers that flow through them. The soil is gravel and loam with layers of clay and sand allowing for good drainage and the vine roots to reach lower layers of soil without restriction. There are an average of 190 to 210 freeze-free days per year allowing a growing season long enough to ripen the great wine grape varieties of the world. If you want a more in-depth discussion on terroir, check out this article by professor and research climatologist Gregory V. Jones. 

To say all that, it is a matter of personal preference when it comes to styles of wine. When pressed to explain how all East Coast wines are faulted or “bad,” it’s realized that the wines are not faulted. It is just the person did not like that particular wine. There’s a fine line between the distinction of when a person says “I don’t like the wine” versus “The wines aren’t very good.” When a person says they don’t like the wine, they are making a personal judgment. This is fine, however, just because one person does not like the wine doesn’t mean everyone doesn’t like the wine! It’s an over-generalization that condemns entire wine regions.

What it boils down to is lack of education and preconceived bias about East Coast wines. There are winemakers and vineyards working to change this, but it takes time. The next time you hear someone utter the phrase that the wines from X are not very good, ask them what faults all the wines have from X that make them not very good. See if you discover that the person making the statement really means that he/she didn’t like the wines. Wineries need to educate their consumers about wine including wine faults so that wine tasters can differentiate between wines they do not like and wines that have something wrong with them.

The best way to learn about East Coast wine is to visit wineries on the East Coast or buy their wine and ship it to your home! Not a hard concept to embrace. Taste their wines and judge for yourself.



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