Jason Wilson discusses his exploration of the world’s lesser-known wine grapes.
There are approximately 1,400 grape varieties used for winemaking, but most of the world’s wine comes from only 20 of them. Author Jason Wilson hit the road to find out why. His new book, Godforsaken Grapes: A Slightly Tipsy Journey Through the World of Strange, Obscure, and Underappreciated Wine, explores the grapes you never hear about and never see in wine shops—often with good reason. But perhaps the next great grape is just waiting to be discovered.
Q: You’re best known for editing The Best American Travel Writing series, and for your drinks column in The Washington Post, which focused mostly on cocktails. What led you to wine?
A: I had always been writing about wine as well, but it wasn’t as front and center. Honestly, I got pretty bored with cocktails—they’d kind of plateaued in terms of interest and knowledge. I still write about spirits, but wine was just more interesting.
Could it be argued that the wine market’s reliance on 20 grapes is really just market forces at work? Giving the people what they want in the same way that Hollywood makes the same films over and over?
It’s market forces at work, for sure. It’s easier to sell 20 grapes than to expect that people will have a taste for 300 or 400 grapes. But it’s not for me to say what people should drink. If they only want to drink five grapes, go ahead. I’m just telling you there’s a lot more out there you might like that you haven’t been presented with.
And it’s not like I don’t drink Cabernet, Merlot and Pinot Noir. Of course I do. But I’ve been discovering others I’m interested in as well.
What’s the most exciting wine variety you discovered in your research for the book? Does it have the potential to go mainstream?
In the book I get into the idea that obscurity is relative. Grüner Veltliner is probably my favorite grape, but for most people in the U.S. it’s still pretty obscure. On the other end of the scale are alpine varieties, where there’s one acre of each grown in the entire world. Somewhere in the middle are the wines of southwest France, like Mansois [also called Fer]. If you like Cabernet Franc or those more savory red wines, it’s a cool, inexpensive red. Maybe moving a little less obscure would be Schiava from Alto Adige, Italy—a light red you can drink every day.
Were there any grapes you discovered that have enthusiastic, perhaps delusional advocates?
Some of the Eastern European ones, the jury is out on. Žilavka, from Bosnia, for example. But I feel terrible every time I have to say that about one of these grapes.
Is taste the reason why so many varieties never caught on, or is it typically a more nuanced story, grape to grape?
It’s from grape to grape, and because of market forces, power, trends and geopolitics—not because of taste. It’s not monolithic. For example, there are great Chasselas, [a white wine] from Switzerland, and also not great ones—but you can’t get the good ones here. Also, Chasselas is shockingly lacking in acidity, but it’s a perfect wine for certain occasions or times of day other than dinner. You have to think about the situation. Mostly it didn’t catch on here because it’s a hard sell. Oaky Chardonnay is an easy sell.
One of our favorite discoveries for Blue Apron Wine was a St. Laurent. Do you think it has a shot at the spotlight?
It’s a very finicky grape because there’s so much variation from year to year. Some years it’s amazing, some years it’s not. I had one from 1950 in Austria that was amazing. It’s really good [from vineyards] around the city of Vienna.
What’s the endgame for an avid wine drinker? Is it embracing the understanding that there is no endgame at all, and instead enjoying the journey of discovery?
That is it. There’s this idea of wine education where wine is a ladder, and at the top there are all these serious, important wines that you gain enlightenment with. That isn’t the case at all.
Wine is a labyrinth, and it leads from one thing to the next. There’s endless discovery if you’re willing to have an open mind and embrace the fact that you’re never going to know everything. There’s always a new grape or new region. That’s the best thing about wine, really.
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