Hybrid, non-Vitis vinifera grapes have been a bit of a taboo subject in the wine world. As climate change threatens the viability of vinifera grapes and a new generation of wine drinkers emerges, might the stigma around hybrid vines be dying down for good?
On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” co-hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe explore the future of hybrid wine and discuss how shifting consumer preferences may help these wines succeed on the market.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” Guys, I did survive. I just want you to know I’m OK. Healthy.
Z: You did better than the Auburn Tigers, I’m sorry to say.
A: Yeah, it was a tough loss. It was really, really interesting to be on a college campus and see what was going on. I’ve taken two Covid PCR tests since I’ve been. I’m negative. The vaccine works, people. Go get the vaccine. I also took a lot of precautions and was only outside. I did not go into any bars.
Z: I was bummed to not get an Instagram photo of the mask, though. I thought maybe you’d have it painted, put some tiger stripes on there.
A: No, no. It was really fun. I was really shocked, though. Well, I guess I’m not shocked. Shocked is a bad word because I shouldn’t be shocked at this point. What do you think I saw all over campus?
J: I know what you’re going to say.
A: Just seltzer. That’s all anyone was drinking. It’s crazy out there, guys. For college kids and people in their 20s, that’s all anyone was drinking. Seltzer. I was just like, wow.
Z: As I mentioned last week, I went with my wife to a baseball game here in Seattle a few weeks ago. It was astonishing to me, in a sense, how so much of the inventory space that was dedicated to beer in the past has now been switched over to seltzer. That’s what a lot of people in the crowd were drinking. It makes sense, I guess, but it is wild to think about. Maybe on this podcast, we’ll have to come back to the topic of what seltzer has displaced. What would have been light lager is, in so many places now, seltzer. I kind of get it.
A: I think it definitely has. It was just crazy. I definitely saw a lot of White Claw. I just saw seltzer. In all of the package stores, we saw massive seltzer displays. Another thing in Pennsylvania that I thought was really interesting — maybe it’s a thing in other places, too, but I think we forget about it in New York — is that in the gas stations, almost every single one of them had walk-in beer coolers. They had huge signs advertising them. I walked in and thought, “Well, this is boring. It’s just all ABI products. There was nothing else in there, but I needed to experience this massive walk-in beer cooler. It was pretty funny.
Z: I have a seltzer gripe. I still can’t find this Bud Light Seltzer Fall Flannel pack anywhere in Seattle.
J: Save yourself, man.
Z: We were hoping to do it on an episode eventually. It might be winter before I can get it.
A: No Flannel pack for you.
Z: Joanna. You broke into it, didn’t you? Can you give me any info?
J: They all taste like candles.
A: I will say that it was a pretty amazing Instagram post.
J: Yeah. I made my partner, Evan, try them all.
A: He was hilarious.
J: It was really funny.
Z: Was this on condition of him getting to watch football?
A: No, it was on condition of Joanna being willing to go back to Canada. She said, “I will only cross the border if you try our great seltzer products.”
J: No, he was happy to do it. He loves seltzer.
A: Does he really? No.
J: He loves hard seltzer. It’s so funny.
A: What’s his brand of choice?
J: I don’t know. I think he likes White Claw.
A: You don’t know what’s in your fridge?
J: I mean, we have a Flannel pack in our fridge right now.
A: That’s amazing. There’s one video I just love where he immediately spits it out.
J: That was a genuine spit take. It was so bad. That was the pumpkin spice one. I hope we all try them together.
A: Oh, I can’t wait.
J: Adam, did you drink a lot of hard seltzer this weekend?
A: No. That’s also what I forgot about tailgating, is how friendly everybody is. We were grossly unprepared. We pulled up. First of all, I’m not sure what people are used to in terms of their tailgating history. But, in the South, on a college campus, you can basically tailgate anywhere. All over campus, there’s tents and people tailgating and hanging out. At Penn State — and I’ve been told this is more of a Northeastern thing because this was actually my first-ever Northeastern tailgating experience — everyone is pushed into lots. You have to pay to park in them. Then, people just open the back of their cars or drop their pickup truck tailgates. They just hang out there. It was just a different experience. I think that’s why the Grove in Oxford, Miss., is so iconic. It is just this beautiful section of campus that people set up tents and tailgates without their cars. That’s the case with a lot of Southern tailgating. It was interesting. We stupidly didn’t have a cooler. As we’re like leaving our hotel, which was really far away, we thought, “I guess we should pick up a 6-pack.” We grabbed a 6-pack before we left of pilsner. Of course, when we got to the campus, we realized, “This is going to get warm really quickly, so we should drink these.” Then, we started walking around, and people just gave you beer. It was really friendly. You just walk up and they’re like, “Hey, do you want a beer?” I will say that was what was pretty awesome, too, how serious the Penn State fans were taking ensuring that Auburn fans were having a good time.
Z: Oh, that is kind of sweet.
A: They all kept asking, “Are you having a good time? Are you enjoying State College? Isn’t it great?” That’s totally different in college footballI, I think. Obviously, each team wants to win. We would never be that nice to Alabama fans.
Z: I was going to say, isn’t this the difference between a conference rival and a team that you play once every 25 years?
A: Yeah, that’s probably true. We’re pretty nice to South Carolina fans. We kind of have to be, because it’s sad for them. It is funny. In the pros, I feel like no pro team’s nice to another pro team’s fans. I remember going to the Eagles game in Philly. We were warned prior to the game to not wear anything that shows we were from Atlanta or we would get a beer dumped on us. We were like, “OK. Cool. We will just not wear anything. We’ll wear normal clothes.” We saw an Eagles fans get in a fight with an Atlanta fan. Like, why? Anyways, I’ve talked for too long. What about the two of you?
J: I drank some great things recently. First, on Friday night, I listened to the latest episode of “Cocktail College” about the Manhattan, which happens to be one of my favorite drinks. I promptly made Abigail Gullo’s Manhattan.
A: Which one?
J: The classic, from the people who you interviewed, Adam. In the blue can. It was great. I really enjoyed it.
A: It’s like an alcoholic Fresca.
J: Yeah. It really did taste like that. It’s delicious.
A: They’re tasty. Zach?
Z: I have a drink and a story to share with you guys, because it’s not just Adam here who gets to do this. We are in the midst of fresh hop beer season here in the Pacific Northwest.
A: That’s cool. Fun. We don’t get that.
Z: For all the true beer lovers out there, it’s worth traveling to the Pacific Northwest. You see it even more in Seattle because more of the hop fields are in Washington. Every brewery around here has multiple fresh hop beers at this point. It’s just such a cool thing. It’s so seasonal. They pick the hops and, instead of taking them through any kind of preservation technique, they literally ship them right to the breweries. You have to get them in the beer within 48 hours or everything you’re trying to get out of them degrades to the point where it’s almost worthless. It’s wild. It’s a big deal for the breweries. It’s a lot of late nights. The beers are just really fun, and it’s such a cool, seasonal thing. We’ve had nice early fall weather where it’s sunny and a little warm but not too hot. It’s great beer weather. I had a couple of different ones. I had one from Fremont Brewing and one from Reuben’s Brews. They are delicious and something to seek out if you are around here or if you make it out here in late September, early October.
A: Sounds cool. Now, story time.
Z: As we’ve discussed before, I do this subscription wine club with a friend of mine. I was placing orders for October because I have a baby due any day and wanted to get stuff done early so that the wines all arrive and everything is set up. That way, if I’m not able to be a part of the packing and distribution, everything is good to go. I placed my orders 10 or so days ago. I was at my friend’s restaurant yesterday, looking through everything, and I thought, “Huh. One of the wines didn’t show up. That’s weird, because the other wine from this distributor came.” I emailed my sales rep and asked, “Hey, what’s the deal? Did something get mis-delivered or what’s the deal here?” He responds to me — and I still can’t believe this — and was like, “Yeah, we’re out of stock. It said so on the invoice.” I’m like, “OK, but you couldn’t have told me this 10 days ago when I emailed you?” This is obviously a wine buyer in a restaurant or retail setting kind of complaint, but it was so weird to me. It’s still a customer service job. I don’t have to buy wine from this company or from this person. I was so taken aback by the lack of any attempt to communicate this very simple fact. If you’re out of stock, that’s fine. I don’t have a problem with that, but maybe I would have wanted to order something else from you. Instead, we’re going to buy something else from another distributor that’s vaguely similar, to fill our orders. That’s sales you don’t get because you couldn’t take the time to email me. I don’t know. It was very interesting.
A: Yeah, that’s crazy.
J: It’s like ordering something or getting a gift. You’re ordering a bunch of things and you’re unaware that it’s out of stock. You expect that it’s coming, and then it’s not there.
Z: Because this is my background, I think of it in a restaurant setting. If a table of six people all ordered a cocktail or a glass of wine and the server came back with five of the drinks, put them all down, walked away, and never said anything, that sixth person would ask, “Excuse me? What happened here?” If, eventually, they flag the server down and ask, “Hey, what’s the deal?” and the server responds, “Oh yeah, we don’t have that. We ran out of it,” wouldn’t you have offered the customer something else when you figured that out? Why did I have to seek this information out from you? That’s the part that blows my mind. I would have been willing to give you the money for something else. Now, you’ve done nothing. If you’d come to me initially and said, “Hey, we’re out of this. Here are some alternatives. Here’s another wine from that producer or here’s a similar wine.” I don’t know what I would have done in that setting, but what I did in this setting was reach out to one of my other distributors and ask, “Hey, can you get this here by tomorrow, please? I need it to fill my orders.” That’s all done. That’s a sale that this other company doesn’t get.
A: So, we want to talk today about hybrids. You pose an interesting question as we were starting to think about this episode. Not only are we going to see more of them, but are the newer generations of wine drinkers more accepting of them than the older ones? Why don’t you set that up first? I think that’s an interesting part of the question. I think we will see more of them because of climate change. But the acceptance thing is a big deal.
Z: I’ve been thinking about this for the last couple of years. I think so many of the emerging trends we see, whether it’s in natural wine or these styles of wine that have become more popular of late, really don’t exclude the use of hybrid or even non-Vitis vinifera varieties. There’s Concord grapes, Catawba, et cetera, and other things that are native to North America. When I was first getting into wine and learning about wine, almost no time was spent on any of that stuff. I, like many a Jew of my age, drank some Manischewitz when I was a kid. Until recently, that was basically my only experience with non-vinifera wine grapes. I’ve had a number of hybrids because those occupy a slightly different space. You see them used in a few places around the world, in some places in northern Europe, Canada, in the northern U.S., et cetera. I’ve tried some of those wines. The way that those varieties have been denigrated in the past is that they’re too fruit-driven, they’re too “grape-y.” That’s a slightly weird complaint, but whatever. They’re too high in acid. They don’t have a lot of tannin. I think what prompted this thought in me was the question of, “Are these characteristics that we laud in Vitis vinifera really the only things that wine drinkers want now?” In this world now, you’re seeing producers who have a certain kind of cachet blending grape wine and cider, making fruit wines, doing all kinds of stuff that totally would work with hybrids or non-vinifera grapes. So, why is this stigma still here? Is it still here? Is there an opportunity for people, whether they’re in other parts of the country or in the world that aren’t considered great sites for Vitis vinifera, to make wine? As we’ve talked about a number of times on this podcast, for a lot of the places that make, to this date, great wine from Vitis vinifera, it’s not looking great over the next couple of decades. I don’t know how I would feel about my vineyard holdings in parts of California or France. It ain’t been pretty the last few years.
A: I do think that there’s going to be more acceptance. I do think it’s because of natural wine. There is a growing movement of people who just think that is the term for wines that are trendy. There’s a flavor profile that a lot of consumers are enjoying. They may not be the flavor profiles that we like. They might be very mousy, whatever. I think that is the very grape-y, sort of Beaujolais bubblegum style. You’re seeing a lot of wines made like that. I’m seeing a lot of hybrids where they’re also doing carbonic and these really juicy wines that I think a lot of consumers like because they’re fun, easy, and very approachable. I think that is allowing hybrids to exist and people to accept hybrids. Do I think that hybrids will be accepted by the same people that are huge Barolo, Bordeaux, Burgundy drinkers?
A: Probably not. But, in the world of natural, I definitely think hybrids will continue to grow.
J: You said younger wine drinkers. I think that also goes for people who are unaware of this stigma around hybrid grapes. They’re not aware of it, so why would they discriminate against a wine that’s made from those grapes?
Z: I think that’s an excellent point, Joanna, because one of the things that we’ve seen in wine more broadly is that, as you bring more regions and varieties into the fold, how is someone who’s not a wine expert going to know that Hondarrabi Zuri is a vinifera variety and Seyval Blanc is a hybrid? No one knows.
A: Seyval Blanc probably sounds, to a lot of consumers, like it’s a vinifera.
Z: Traminette or even Vidal Blanc, which may be a little more widely known because it’s used for dessert wine in Canada a lot. We don’t live in a wine world anymore where people only drink six varieties, thankfully. If you’re the kind of person who is seeking out wine from Georgia, Slovenia, Croatia, or wherever, the name of the variety on the label isn’t going to register with you. If you’re getting, alternatively, a hybrid wine from, say, Wisconsin, Michigan, northern Germany, or something like that, I just don’t see people being too caught up in the idea that this isn’t all Vitis vinifera. If you look at the way many of these hybrids have been developed, they’re 90 to 95 percent vinifera, with just a little bit of some other variety to give them a little more cold resistance, frost resistance, or some other characteristic that is considered desirable. I think the real fascinating thing, too, is the question of, “Are there under development hybrid varieties?” I think there are. Many of them are not yet really named or commercially available. But, are these being developed, not as hybrids were previously for these very cold regions? Obviously, the problem we face going forward is places where access to water, extreme heat, or just very unpredictable weather is a bigger concern. Can hybrids be developed that will thrive in those conditions and might replace the varieties that we now associate with those great regions? I don’t know that in 30 years, the slopes of Barolo will be replanted to some hybrid. But it wouldn’t totally shock me.
A: I had a crazy thought, and it’s probably going to piss some people off. But, as you’ve been talking, I’ve been thinking about this. I want to be clear when I’m using the term natural wine. Since it has no definition, I’m going to define it the way that I define natural wine. I’m not talking about wines that are biodynamic and organic, where the wine still comes out clean and you can taste the varietal and it tastes of the varietal and of the place. I’m talking about the wines that, through infection of the spoilage yeasts, Brettanomyces, or through the mousiness quality, or carbonic maceration. There’s something else that is more powerful in the wine than the essence of the grape.
A: That movement of wine, a lot of people like. It’s crazy. To make a weird tangent, one of the fastest-growing brands right now in the U.S. is a hard kombucha. Right? That flavor profile and that kombucha thing is very popular right now. JuneShine is the brand.
J: It’s the funk.
A: The funk is the thing. Varietals don’t matter. It’s basically like a red blend. That world of natural wine is the red blend of that wine world. That’s what I’m going to say. Varietals don’t matter. The question is, is this the flavor profile you’re looking for? In that world, Zach, you’re really right. No one’s looking. No one’s asking. I was at a dinner last night before this event that we all went to with a bunch of, like, bartenders who were all into wine. We were at a place that only had natural wine on the list. The people who were serving us wine didn’t even tell us what the varietals were. They just said, “We have a red from Italy that’s super natural and funky, and we have an orange from Spain.” Right. There wasn’t even a description of the regions it’s from. It was like, “This is what we have.” And I think that’s becoming more and more common in my definition of what I think a lot of people think of when they think about what natural wine is. Does it have the funk? Does it have the juicy juice? No one is really that concerned with what grape it was made from, which is fascinating. But, it does make sense. When you do have those things happen to the wine, the varietal characteristics of the wine go away. I know we’ve had this conversation before, Zach, but what does varietally correct mean? I don’t really know. We can talk about that again at some point. I definitely think you want to taste a variety. I can still tell you that it’s Nebbiolo, even if it’s made in different places, it’s still Nebbiolo. I think with some of these wines, they just aren’t. Hybrids are great because if you’re not looking for that. If you’re looking for it as a vehicle to get the other flavors that people actually like, then who cares?
J: I don’t know. I also think it’s kind of interesting because, when I go out and order wine, I just want a wine that’s delicious and tastes good. I care less. I have no wine training or anything like that. I’m still learning a lot about wine, and I just don’t really care about the varietals. I’m not saying it’s because I want the funkiest natural wine you have on your list or anything like that. I just care more about how it tastes. I feel like, if hybrid wines are delicious, then sure, why not?
Z: Yeah. I think one thing that we found — and it’s something kind of echoed in your statement, Joanna — is that there was a period of time when certain grape varieties were considered “noble” and other varieties were, I guess, “ignoble.” This is a phrase I hate, so I’m going to immediately dismiss it. Frankly, though, if you look at the origins of this, there’s a lot of weird, very creepy eugenics-y things. There’s a lot of race theory, let’s put it that way, in this idea about everything, not just in grapes. Grapes were a prominent place for it, though. So much of what we’ve come to learn about different varieties, how they grow, and how they express themselves, is that there might have been a point in time when — through lack of knowledge about viticulture or winemaking — that might have been why certain varieties were prized in one place and less cherished in another. A lot of that stuff is apocryphal, ahistoric, and just doesn’t hold up to modern understandings of wine. This notion that only these few grape varieties or only this one species, Vitis vinifera, is capable of producing great wine is a myth that’s persisted because it gets lazily passed down. It fits well into a textbook or a 30-minute training that someone gets at a restaurant. Everyone in the wine industry, up until recently, was invested in the truth of that myth. Producers that spend a lot of money to plant and grow Vitis vinifera don’t necessarily want someone else to come along and say, “It turns out that I can make equally good wine from this unknown hybrid variety that I grow in a place where the land cost me one hundredth of what it costs you, and the people who buy it like it just as much as your wine.” I don’t know that that is exactly where we’re at, at this point. But, it doesn’t seem impossible to me that that could be true, at least for some meaningful segment of the wine drinking public. I think there’s a lot to be said about getting away from this fetishization of certain varieties over all others. That being said, I will say your point, Adam, is a well-made one, and an important one for people to keep in mind, too. One thing that we have valorized, and I think rightly so, in wine over the last century is the notion that there is some value in wine communicating something about where it’s from in drinking it. That communication can happen through the variety to some extent. Certain varieties are associated with certain places or maybe only grown in certain places. It can be in the mono-varietal nature of certain wines, and it can be in the winemaking and all that. As you described the natural wines you were talking about, Adam, when the thing that people are treasuring in a wine are other things, then I think we are at a perfectly valid expression of wine. It’s just not going to convey those things. It would be good for those who are in that industry and want that style of wine to open themselves up, as some of them are, to this notion of, “Why do we need vinifera in the first place? It’s hard to grow. It’s expensive. Why don’t we make our wines from other types of grapes?” There’s no inherent reason not to, other than that that can’t put varieties that people are familiar with on the label. Since many of them are not really interested in doing that, who cares? You can give it whatever fanciful name you want and put whatever crazy label on it. That’s great. Let’s party.
A: Glou-glou! It is interesting. The cool thing is that whether you’re on the side of, “Screw you, you have biases that are bullshit. I can make a beautiful wine with these grapes, not just this vinifera,” or you’re on the side of, “glou-glou,” it’s super cool that more people are using hybrids. It’s great to be able to now go to places like New Hampshire and Vermont and they have good wineries. That’s awesome. I think having wineries in communities is similar to having breweries. They’re places where people can go and see how wine is made firsthand. They’re also great places to socialize. They’re usually places that support really great cuisine and help build economies. With wine countries, hotels often come with them and there are great restaurants and stuff. If that can happen in other places, and it’s just with hybrids now, that’s freaking awesome. I’m all for it.
Z: I want to add one last point that I think is also kind of cool here. The other thing that has been hard for hybrids and non-vinifera varieties is that, because they have been so looked down upon by fine wine, they largely have not been made for that consumer. Adam, we got some wines a while back from a producer in Wisconsin and the owner who sent us the wine and communicated about it was upfront that a lot of their clientele like sweeter wine. So, they make a lot of sweeter wines. They don’t necessarily do it because that’s the only way to use hybrid grapes, but because the kind of people who are open to drinking those varieties are not typically people who want what we think of as fine wine. Therefore, they may want some sweetness. I don’t think that means that you can’t make great dry wines from these varieties. The more that people open themselves up to the possibility here, that denigration of hybrids and non-vinifera varieties, that “of course, they’re sweet,” is really just a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t think there’s any winemaking reason why you can’t ferment those wines dry. It’s just that many of the producers that currently exist are trying to meet a market demand that fine wine doesn’t really speak to very well. People may say “hybrids have to be sweet,” but that doesn’t have to be the case. It just has been the case because that’s who is willing to buy hybrid wines: people who like sweet wines.
A: Team, this was a great conversation. If you’re into some hybrid wines, let us know which ones they are. If you make hybrid wines and you listen to the show, send us some. I’d love to try them. Joanna, Zach, talk to you Friday.
J: Thanks, guys.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.