In this second part of the interview with Rich DeScenzo, the grape chemist from ETS Laboratories, I sought his opinion on a few Midwest grape industry issues. We talked about the growth of Midwest wines and the rising awareness – even surprise or bottle shock – outside and even inside the Midwest, that this region can make great wines. Harking back to that ‘Search for a drinkable Norton’ posting, we also talked about some of the pros and cons of the Norton grape. I’m Australian and probably not a very good judge of the distinguishing traits of people from different US states, but with Rich’s home and company based in California (although he is originally from New England), he did strike me as a good source for a Californian type of perspective on Midwest wines. So here it is…
Busy on the Trade Show floor at the Midwest Grape & Wine Conference
Danny: You’re at this Midwest Grape & Wine Conference for the first time. I’ve just moved to live in the Midwest and I’d never heard of wines coming from this region even though I’ve drunk wines for quite a long time. Your presence here, representing the biggest independent wine laboratory in the US, does that confirm that this is a wine region that is growing in importance?
“If you want to be a winemaker, here (the Midwest)
might be the place to come and start.”
Rich:Well, no, we have a lot of clients in the Midwest but indeed it is a growing region and I think if you read some of the wine magazines you’re seeing that the people who evaluate wines are starting to look at some of these wines from the Midwest and for the first time, I think, on a national level, you’re seeing wines made with Norton and Chambourcin getting some really nice reviews. There are so many people that came by the booth that are just starting up; there are so many start-ups here winerywise! And I think if you want to make an impact this is the place where you can start. If you think about what it costs to start in Napa, about $100,000 an acre on the valley floor to buy land, and then you’ve got to get a winery. If you want to be a winemaker, here (the Midwest) might be the place to come and start. You can do it for far less money down and there’s this really great community of people who are very friendly and very helpful with each other. I mean Texas has a big industry, I heard Iowa has 75 wineries! I did my post-doc there 15 years ago and there were no wineries. So I think this is a pretty neat thing. Some of these people are mom and pop but they understand that this is a competitive market. I think if you go to the sessions that they’re doing right now on marketing, and how to get your wine sold, and how to have your tasting room really stand out, those are the ones that are really heavily attended. I think it’s going to grow and grow; we’ll be back at the conference here again.
Nice bottles at the Midwest Grape & Wine Conference
Danny: The Norton grape fascinates me. Presumably you’ve had people come to you with their Norton grape and say why is it doing ‘x’ or why is it doing ‘y’? Could you give me a guide as to what this grape’s issues can be?
Rich: Well I think any wine can have issues. Nortons have a lot of acid and so their pH is usually lower and their total acid is higher. That can be a challenge to some of the bugs certainly. But when you get down to it, a winemaker takes the grapes and makes wine, but for the microbes out there, their goal is to turn it into vinegar. So your job is to prevent the bad bugs from having a nice home and so whether it’s Norton, or Cabernet, or Riesling or whatever, individual wines have different problems that go with them.
Danny: I always thought Pinot was a particularly hard grape to grow, is Norton also particularly difficult?
Rich: Norton is wild American grape, they’re pretty hardy, but I think they have challenges here although they are somewhat disease resistant and pest resistant. The climate here, the humidity! I lived in Iowa and it can get really humid. I think every region has its own individual problems as far as producing grapes. Pinot can be really finicky, but I think Norton is maybe better acclimated to this area and so I haven’t heard anyone saying anything about it being difficult, but I don’t know that much about the varietals here.
“I’ve had some wines here and I was really like,
‘Wow! That’s pretty darn good!’”
Danny: Okay but I guess you drink a lot of wine yourself apart from studying it?
Rich: (Laughter) All for research!
Danny: It seems like if I tried a Norton 20 years ago I could have really struggled to find a nice one…
Rich:I would say that too. When I lived in the Midwest we were going to St Louis once and we stopped and did some tasting and the wines were not memorable. I think what’s happened is it’s one thing when you’re just selling locally because people will buy almost anything because that’s all they know. But I think what’s happened now is the Midwest wines are starting to get national exposure and when you’re competing on a national level, then you really tend to step the game up and I think they’ve done that. Like I said, I’ve had some wines here and I was really like, “Wow! That’s pretty darn good!” You know if someone opened that bottle at dinner I’d be quite happy with that. But I don’t think it was that way 15 years ago.
These sandwiches were very nice
Danny: You seem like you’re a Californian by origin?
Rich: Ahh no, I’m from New England but from all over really. My Dad was in the service and we lived all over the country.
Danny: Oh I see. I guess with some of the interesting stories I’ve heard about attitudes towards the wines here, the Norton especially, it’s like the French attitude towards California wines thirty years ago, there’s a bit of a snobbery towards Midwest wines…
Rich: But like I said, I even read something about a recent, national competition, with the best wines out of Napa and Sonoma and there were some wines from the Midwest. Some Nortons in particular did very well with gold medals. So that tells you that the ability is here and the winemakers here are stepping up their game. More and more people are accepting them and it has changed my mind about them, truthfully! Before, if I came here, I probably wouldn’t even look at a Norton but now I’ll do some price comparisons at Trader Joe’s and see if I can find what I like…
Danny: I don’t think you’ll find it at Trader Joe’s, I wish you could.
Rich: BevMo maybe! So we do a lot of work here and we’re at this conference to start to meet our clients and get more clients and we’ve talked to quite a few new people. I think we’re reaching a critical mass in the Midwest where it’s good to come out and meet people
Danny: Thanks very much for your time.
Rich: My pleasure Danny.
Danny is an Australian gun for hire who’s just moved to the Midwest from Spain via San Francisco. Apart from being a wine lover, he’s a former BBC News reporter and a history documentary maker. If you need videos for your website to tell the unique stories about you and your winery, its people and history, highlighting your quality wines and awards, please get in touch. Or if your winery’s website or blog is languishing without any content, and needs articles or blog entries, also get in touch. I can also set up your internet social media for you, from websites to Twitter. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 816 863 2496