Monday, September 17, 2018

Co-ops, Part 2

Co-ops are organizations of farmers created for the purpose of defraying the costs of production for their members and fairly compensating those members for the fruit of their labors.  If that is our starting point then there ought to be a realization staring us in the face.  Co-ops have to compete with sizable other entities, either the largest of private estates or more likely, with the mass marketers we have written about over and over again here.  Business being business, arrangements have to be made to ensure the flow of product to consumers and co-ops seem to have figured it out. 

Having been employed by a grocery chain store, I know what kind of supply is expected by that retail model.  The shelves are expected to be kept full.  Grand deals are struck by the chain buyer and whoever the entity is that buys that shelf space.  It's all contingent upon a steady flow of product and if you can't guarantee that, you lose your slot.

So if a co-op, either domestic or imported, is playing at that level, it has to be sizable.  For our purposes today let's look at the imports.  In Europe 25% of all wine is co-op produced.  The governments of France, Spain, and Italy all support wine co-ops resulting in 30%-60% of those countries' wine industries being co-op driven.  In specific places within those countries the co-ops clearly rule: Languedoc @ 70%, Trentino @ 80%.  In Argentina and South Africa the largest wine companies are co-ops: KWV in South Africa and Fecovita in Argentina.

How did co-ops become so strong?  Begun in the mid-eighteenth century with the support of the Roman Catholic church who shared a kindred philosophy, co-ops gradually grew in  popularity.  Lobbying may have been mutual between government and the industry.  For government: the taxing agency's job is simplified; government can shape policies (green energy, etc.); and economies can be stabilized through co-op production.  For the co-op industry?  Public financing is everywhere across Europe.

In the last post we said how the maturation of wine tastes here in America and elsewhere had driven up quality standards and that the co-ops have had to adjust to keep pace with private industry.  As a result La Marca Prosecco is now the industry leader in that category and Nicolas Feuillate is certainly in the top tier from Champagne.  Both are co-op products.

Please join us this Thursday the 20th of September after 5pm when Morgan Miller presents the acclaimed wines of Casas del Bosque of Chile.  Most recently the Wall Street Journal has declared Bosque to be the top producer in its Budget Hall of Fame.   

Monday, September 10, 2018


Historically the creation of co-ops was an effort by farmers to re-invent themselves in response to bad economic times and the exploitation of agribusiness.  The Great Depression in particular spawned both numbers and varieties of co-ops here and around the world.  For farmers, organizing was a desperate attempt to survive collectively, a "strength in numbers" appeal to vulnerable property owners whose farms in themselves were often not highly valued.

There are many different kinds of co-ops and every agricultural society on earth has some form of farming organization that manages the collective interests of the group.  What all forms of wine growing co-ops share is the pooling of the group's resources and the sharing of the cost of making and marketing their product.  Essentially what is most often collectively bought is machinery and expertise.  Unfortunately because of difficult economies and meager resources, co-ops got a reputation for making substandard products that weren't competitive with private ownership.

The most prevalent co-op model for most of the twentieth century was one that paid the farmers based on the weight of their produce and that makes sense.  Historically that is the way the business was done.  The quality of the product wasn't always primary for co-ops so the "substandard" bad rap may have been deserved.  Unfortunately not only is a bad reputation difficult to change but in the co-op case it had repercussions for the business that bought from them.  Retailers and restaurateurs became branded as substandard by their stocking of co-op wines.

For most of the twentieth century the co-op situation was what it was.  But as the wine world evolved and the co-ops took notice of the profitability that better quality production merited they too realized they had to change.  Quality had to be factored in.  That meant lower yields (less weight) but higher prices for the better grapes.  And it worked.

We were inspired to write about the subject after buying a case of fine white Italian wine.  That case came with literature that was acknowledging their co-op fruit.  It read like an apology so it was obviously bad marketing.  The case of wine was here because it was good not because of where it was sourced.  Since that purchase more high quality co-op wine has come into the store making us more confident than ever that co-op wine really is not only as good as any, it may be a better value than the estates!

Tuesday, September 4, 2018


We just read an article about the pinot family of grapes and how an unstable genome was responsible for all of the pinot varieties around today.  Supposedly because Pinot Noir is a thousand years old, over that amount of time it has spawned Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Meunier, which are all commonly used today, and other types including an early ripening variety called Pinot Noir Precoce and a red fleshed Pinot Teinturier.

This isn't exactly breaking news for us.  A single pinot grapevine may show several different colored bunches hanging from the same branch which is evidence of mutations in real time.  Such is reality for this most intriguing of grape types.

We may have started this post with the wrong example though when you consider the Muscat (Moscato) variety.  Moscato is even older than Pinot Noir and may be responsible for the creation of 200 muscat varieties although DNA testing is showing some are probably unrelated.  Nonetheless Muscat Alexandria, Muscat Canelli, Muscat Ottonel, Black Muscat, and others can all co-exist on the shelves of your neighborhood wine shop at the same time many other muscat table grapes reside in the produce section of the local grocery store.

So how does this mutation business happen?  A quick google search reveals that mutations occur when "a gene is damaged in such a way as to alter the genetic message carried by that gene" and that change is permanent.

Since we don't have a scientific bone in our body, let's segue this discussion into changes in the wine industry itself to see where the mutations are there.  Wine may have had its beginnings in something like a hollow log before pottery was invented back in 6,000 BC, give or take a thousand years.  That wine was most likely either white or rose since those grapes were squeezed by hands (or feet) and let's be honest, the stuff probably didn't taste very good.  Manual presses enabled wine makers to extract flavors and color from grape skins and they appeared around 2000 BC.  With industrialization came machinery to really extract the good stuff and recently with information technology have come all kinds of inventions to perfect the best possible outcomes for winemakers so the everyday wines of today are qualitatively better than they were just fifty years ago.  Given the long history of wine on earth you might say the red wines we enjoy today are a very recent mutation in the long history of wine making. 

Please join us after 5pm on Thursday the 6th of September when Dustin Whiten leads us in a tasting of everyday European reds and white.  Then one week later join us as former sommelier Erik Schmitt presents a tasting of Willakenzie Oregon wines.  

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Chilean Way

No one's asking but, what's going on in Chile?  They're legislating new appellations and something called "Climatic Designations", something unheard of elsewhere in the worldwide wine industry.  No one questions the uniqueness of the place.  Geographically it measures 4,300 kilometers (2,672 miles) long and averages 180 kilometers (112 miles) across.  80% of its area is mountainous in the form of the Andes on the eastern side.  Maybe they need more rules because of what it is.

Chile measures from the 17th to 56th latitude but it's the 30th to 38th that interests us.  It's that middle third of the country and the Central Valley in particular that has the Mediterranean climate with locales that make truly superior wine.  Of course, there is also a lot of plonk made in Chile and for wine lovers like us it is at least helpful to know which areas make the best of what we're looking for...hence, the appropriateness of wine appellations.  These legally defined production areas direct us to both the types of wine produced there and the relative quality we should expect from the place.

At the store we have a pretty decent map of the Chilean wine country clearly showing thirteen appellations north to south, some lying outside of the "sweet spot" of the Central Valley midsection.  Each appellation depicts a transverse river valley ideal for certain grape varieties.  The Andes to the east are very different than the Argentine Andes.  In Argentina they have the massive Mendoza plateau where some of the finest wine in the world is made.  Chile has the Nazca plate subducting under South America proper forming the Atacana Trench 160 miles off shore.  They also have the Humbolt current from Antartica keeping the coastal waters very cold.  But it's that subducting plate that pushes the Andes steeply upwards on the Chilean side.   The river valleys where the wine country flourishes are created by the runoff from the heights.

The last item in need of mentioning is the coastal mountain range which is nothing contrasted with the Andes but it too has meaning for the legislation the Chileans have deemed necessary.  The three Climatic Designations therefore are the Andes, Entre Cordillas, and Costa.  A climate designation of Andes recognizes the mountain influence on the terroir; the Costa, the coast; and the Entre Cordillas, the area between the mountain ranges.  Makes sense, I guess.

The four new appellations are: Lo Abarca, Licanten, Apalta, and Los Lingues.  Lo Abarca and Licanten are small and coastal regions.  Chilean wine law is most similar to California so a slew of different grapes are allowed to be grown there.  Los Lingues is four times larger than each of the first two and similarly allows for a lot of different grape types.  It is an Entre Cordillas appellation.  Apalta however, is the crown jewel of the lot.  It is more than twice as large as Los Lingues and it appears to be Chile's Napa Valley.  It is a horseshoe shaped valley at the foothills of the Mountains so it is consequently an Andes climate designate.  Apalta is where Cabernet Sauvignon and the other Bordeaux varietals strut their stuff.

Please join us this Thursday after 5pm as we taste Cabernets here at the store.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Villa Sparina Gavi

We've sold three cases of this one over the course of the last month which is pretty good for this little store.  While you expect to sell more whites in summer the return business on Sparina is what informs us that this one is for real.  Gavis have historically been called the finest white wine of Italy and Sparina is at the very least evidence of the assertion and it may, in fact, be the best we've ever tasted.

The grape here is Cortese and it is native to Piedmont, the finest wine production region of Italy.  Gavi is the town in Piedmont the wine is named after.  First mentioned in wine industry documents in 1659, Cortese performs best in the southeastern quarter of Piedmont where it is sandwiched between the Alps to the north and the Mediterranean Sea to the south.  It is actually separated from the Mediterranean by the thin Liguria appellation but you get the idea.  Its proximity to the seafood there may be the grape's reason for being there.

Villa Sparina was established within the municipality of Gavi by the Moccagatta family in the 1970's but some of its vines date to the 1940's.  It is a 100 hectare (247 acre) estate with sixty acres in vines.  The vineyards lie at an approximate 900 foot elevation with south/southwest exposure.  The soil is largely marl and clay.

Wine from the Cortese grape is almost always a bright yellow color, medium bodied with moderate to high acidity and light crisp flavors like apple, peach, honeydew, citrus, mown grass, minerality and almonds.  Cortese is also planted in Lombardy and other locales in northern Italy and its flavor profile reflects its environs.  The grape is also known for its delicate bouquet which remains aromatic to the finish.  In the case of Villa Sparina the bouquet shows dried pineapple and peach, pomelo, lemon thyme, and white flowers.

What else makes Sparina special?  The grapes are hand harvested from their guyot-trained (cold climate) grape vines, put through a soft crush, and fermented for three weeks in sixty-five degree temperature controlled stainless steel tanks.  Then to tame the acidity the young wine goes through a partial malolactic fermentation to make it a little creamy and that may be the key to its popularity.

Please join us at the store on Thursday after 5pm when Ted Fields offers us a tasting from his fine Italian portfolio.  Expect a fresh wheel of Piave Vecchio to be on the cheese table for this one!

Saturday, July 21, 2018


As some of you know, I've been in this business a l-o-n-g time.  Priorats probably didn't cross my radar screen until the late 80's or so and then they were viewed as exotic "can't get" wines.  The advance word was that these big powerful reds were actually the finest wines of Spain, better than the more Bordeaux-like Riojas.  And then they arrived...sort of.  For years I would have one example of a Priorat wine on the shelf like that was my allocation for the year.  Now it seems like they're coming out of the woodwork.  Without walking across the store I know of four off the top of my head.

So what's going on?  Let's go back to the beginning.  Written references to Priorat wines go back to the twelfth century.  Those references were made by the monks who planted the vineyards.  (Don't you love the monks.)  The name, Priorat, actually comes from the monk title, Prior.

Today Priorat is a Denominacio d'Origen Qualifada (DOQ) government de-limited premier wine region in the Tarragona province in the Catalonia region.  It is encircled by the Montsant DO which should clue you into its stature having been carved out of a larger entity and then given a higher rating than the surrounding area.

The wine making history of Spain for the past hundred fifty years or so has been difficult, to say the least.  Priorat had 12,000 acres in vines before the devastating Phylloxera epidemic of the late 1800's.  All of those would be destroyed by the bug and before they could be replanted, the European wars, including the Spanish Civil War, would set the industry back for another fifty years.  Finally in the 1950's the re-planting of Priorat was begun but because of economic circumstances, that reset was on a much smaller scale than what was there pre-Phylloxera.

As California wine makers upgraded their vineyards and wineries in the early 1980's preparing for the anticipated wine boom to follow, something similar started happening in Priorat.  Knowing the potential of their collective land holdings, five insightful growers banded together to form a cooperative venture.  Priorat, which had always been planted in common jug wine grapes, was now primed for replanting and re-branding.  Garnacha Tinto now became the premier varietal supported by Carignon and other reputable vinifera types.  The co-op's initial wine offerings consisted of making one common wine which each participant labeled with his brand.  As the new Priorat wines began to make a name for themselves, investments poured in. By the year 2000 2,500 acres were in vines.  In ten years that number doubled and today 48,000 acres are now in vineyards.

Priorat vineyards are diverse in elevations and microclimates but they share a continental climate and rocky soils which mean low yields and intense wines.  96% of the production there is red wine and because of the sales potential internationally, the international varieties (Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah) are increasingly being planted.  Also the traditional Spanish labeling of Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva is now being amended or even disregarded.

Please join us here at the store next Thursday the 16th of August after 5pm when Atlanta importer Ted Fields presents a tasting of Italian wines from his fine portfolio.  Fittingly the cutting table will feature complementary Italian cheeses like Piave Vecchio.


Beverage Dynamics is a trade paper that reports sales numbers for mass marketed alcoholic beverage brands.  Since I'm not a mass marketer my interest in tracking such things is similar to my interest in the grocery store wars in the business news.  Having been both a mass marketer and a grocery store guy in the past I voyeuristically remain interested in who's winning those competitions.

Occasionally Beverage Dynamics does offer up something relevant to what we're doing here and in the May/June edition of this year in an article called "Salt is Wine's Best Friend," Marnie Old reports on the contrasting effects of salt and sugar in combination with dry red wine.  Old is a wine educator and former director of wine studies for Manhattan's French Culinary Institute.

When pairing wine with food, most of us defer to the traditional model of pairing red wine with red meat and white wine with chicken and fish.  Others might look to the relative lightness/heaviness of the meal and select a complementary wine based on those terms.  Soups, sauces, and gravies and the busy-ness entailed in those types lead sommeliers and other wine geeks to go further and check out the spices involved before selecting a wine go-to.  That is the stepping off point for Old's article.

Knowing the place of salt in cooking everywhere, she selects Italian cuisine as a case study asserting that the dryness of Italian red wine works with pasta sauce because salt blocks the wine's acidity thereby revealing the inherent fruitiness of the wine.  Therefore...this is why European wines are so dry and acidic.  They are so designed to complement foods.

Want to experiment?  Join us here for a Thursday afternoon wine tasting.  Typically we'll taste the wine on its own terms and then walk over to the cheese table for a gnosh.  If it's a European red wine the salty cheese should make the wine turn quite fruity.  If it's new world red wine the change is minimal and sometimes for the worse, making the wine seem heavy and dull.

Sugar is something else entirely.  It blocks the tastebuds that detect sweetness and sensitizes acidity making the wine seem less fruity according to Old.  New world fruitier wines therefore fare better with sweet foods than do the dryer Europeans but any wine with sweet foods must at least be as sweet as the food.  So with that in mind try a noticeably sweeter Riesling with your next honey-baked ham!

Please join us this afternoon for a tasting of Palermo Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and others as we celebrate another summer Saturday afternoon.  Tuesday is National Wine & Cheese Day so after 5pm on that day Nick Simonetti directs us in a tasting of four from Borsao of Spain including the Garnacha, Blanco, Rosato, and Tres Picos.  On Thursday we'll have the regular weekly tasting as usual.  And if your curious about the thesis above, grab a piece of cheese at the next tasting!