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Berger: Distinctiveness in our lives


Is the wine industry losing some of the most exciting wines we have ever made in the quest for profits?

Over the decades, I have seen some terrible losses due to greed. It is the abandonment of vineyards that once made phenomenal wines, but never showed enough profit for their owners. There are many examples, but one in the early 1980s should suffice to illustrate the point.

In 1982, I tasted a 1978 petite sirah from Calistoga that was one of the greatest such wines I had ever tasted. Two years later, in 1984, the man who owned that vineyard told me that he had bulldozed it to extinction, not even bothering to save the genetic stock of the scion wood.

His complaint: He was getting only two tons per acre of the “damned stuff.” He replanted the vineyard with cabernet sauvignon, and the wine that new vineyard made was totally mediocre.

Wine and grapes are not alone here. Greatness is often abandoned for reasons other than quality. In the 1966 book “Eden in Jeopardy,” the author, Dr. Richard Lillard, writes about why we are left with so few choices in our fruits. Subtitled “Man’s Prodigal Meddling with His Environment: The Southern California Experience,” the book speaks of the modernization of the food-growing business in the 1950s, and how rising production costs led to “clever” shortcuts to growth — usually at the expense of quality.

Lillard says figs, lemons, oranges, and peaches all became standardized because the trees on which they grow could be flat-topped and thus mechanically harvested. It was cheaper.

But only certain varieties of these fruits were candidates for this treatment; other varieties of each wouldn’t conform to the flat-topping. So they were discarded. Today, just try to find an orange other than a Valencia and a Navel.

Many of the discarded fruits were more flavorful, more distinctive. Today we call them “heirloom fruits,” they cost a lot more, and are grown only by home growers who revere great taste. Sure, we can still buy Meyer lemons, but they cost more because they’re grown by smaller producers who don’t typically use mechanical harvesters.

The Gravenstein apple is a treasure because it has survived (barely) the “look pretty” syndrome demanded of so many apple consumers. Gravensteins bruise easily and thus can occasionally look funny to some buyers. As a result, they have become outcasts in many markets around the country.

Decades ago, I visited Fetzer Vineyards’ former organic garden in Hopland. Gardener Michael Maltas picked some of the apples he had growing on dwarf rootstock and offered them to me to taste. They were the most exotic tastes I had ever experienced in apples, with truly distinctive flavors.

I asked Maltas why the apples weren’t commercial, why in fact we were inundated with Red Delicious. “Look at the skins,” he said. “What do you see?”

Most of the apples were splotchy, with minor streaks and black marks.

“There’s nothing wrong with these apples,” he said. “That’s the way they grow, and that’s why they’re not commercial. People don’t like the looks of them. They’re not pretty.”

The Red Delicious is easy to grow and doesn’t bruise as much, so they survive in markets around the country despite the mediocrity of their taste.

There are also endangered wines. In 1993, I was chatting with a winemaker in the McLaren Vale area south of Adelaide, Australia. We had just tasted an awesome Shiraz he had made.

He said it came off one of the finest Shiraz vineyards in all of Australia. I asked where the vineyard was. “Not far from here,” he said. “Wanna see it?”

We jumped in his car, drove a few miles, and turned up a residential street filled with ticky-tacky, pre-fab homes. Soon he stopped and pointed left. “See that yellow house there?” he said. “That’s the finest shiraz vineyard in all of Australia.”

A housing tract now sits where some of the greatest vines in the world once grew.