Monday, August 27, 2012

O'Neill Beverage Company Part 2

I got interested in writing about O'Neill because of a conversation I had recently with a food vendor.  He had asked if I knew that Boars Head doesn't own any manufacturing facilities of their own.  They are just a marketing company.  The wine industry is now similar.  There are "virtual" wineries galore with ownership far from California and no physical plant of their own.  And then there is that category of enabler to facilitate this kind of  industry development with O'Neill being in that number.

Many of O'Neill's competitors are similarly not household names but basically every wine label on the grocery store shelves comes from a player of that scale because supply must be contractually guaranteed.  Depending on how one defines industry terms, Continental Brands or Gallo would be the number one wine company in the world.  O'Neill, by the way, is number eight.  But Gallo is listed as a client of O'Neill so its sales numbers are dependent on supply from O'Neill.  Many other grocery store wines also depend on O'Neill or Bronco or Delicato to maintain supply.  Many other popular grocery store wines are wholly creations of the mega-bulk wine houses.

Along with its aggressive vineyard acquisition expansion into northern California in the eighties and nineties, Golden State Vintners (later O'Neill) replanted many of those vineyards with varietal rootstocks known to work in their respective locales.  Trellising was also done by working with the right viticulturalists.  In other words, they did it right, as you might expect from a company dating to the 1930s with three generations of one family running the business, each with ongoing relationships with other producers through time.

What makes O'Neill's story of "vertical integration" in the wine business noteworthy though concerns how they chose to react in the nineties to the new competition from South America and Australia.  They realized that so much of the cost of competing was in the marketing of the product so they marketed their production of wines to include storage, shipping, and a complete service department dedicated to providing support for their clients and it has been a model of success.

In 1998 Golden State went public.  In 2004  they became the O'Neill Beverage Company and created their giant physical plant in the central valley in Parlier, California.  By renovating and enlarging the brandy distillery they had purchased in the eighties and rode to number two in sales in the nation, that circa 1900 building now lies as part of one of the most modern energy efficient complexes in the wine industry.

Today 80% of California wine sales are considered to be premium wine sales as opposed to jug wine sales.  Seven wine companies account for 75% of that number.  Thirty years ago those numbers could have been reversed with 80%  being jug sales and that number being controlled by seven companies.  But the great cultural change did happen and the rest is history, a history accomplished by companies like O'Neill who were able to pull it off.

On Friday September 7th from 5 to 7pm, Henry Leung of Hemispheres Fine Wines will join us here with an exposition of  blended reds and whites from California, France, and Italy.  Henry, for the uninitiated, is a popular wine educator with a noteworthy following in Gainesville.  Please join us.

This Friday we are tasting California reds with one of those being an O'Neill product.  Again, please join us.  

Thursday, August 23, 2012

O'Neill Beverage Company

No one has ever heard of the O'Neill Beverage Company, right?  I hadn't until I stumbled upon it while researching the inexpensive California line, Back Story.  Back on June 6th of this year we blogged about Back Story and their star winemaker, Jeff Gaffner, attributing Back Story to Jeff's company, Saxon Brown Wines (est. 1997).  Now it turns out Back Story is actually made at O'Neill, a company that dates to 1934 but was re-born in 2004 through the efforts of Jeff O'Neill and a ton of financial backing.  The Back Story wine label actually started its existence in 2010 at O'Neill and, yes, Jeff Gaffner is still supposed to be the winemaker.  Let's unpack this crate and get the real backstory on O'Neill.

In 1934 one of the giants of the jug wine era, Golden State Vintners, was born.  They began with one hundred twenty acres in vineyards in the south-central valley in the town of Cutler in Tulare County, California.  Their competition included Gallo and Delicato but early on proprietor, Arpaxat Setrakian, turned his vision in a different direction.  While Golden State always marketed their own wines, they actually became one of the first bulk wine suppliers to others.  In fact most of their production was sold to prominant competitors thereby generating most of their revenues.

In 1981 Jeff O'Neill, grandson of Arpaxat Setrakian, joined the company and quickly envigorated what had become a stagnating industry.  In the late seventies wine was emerging as a cultural necessity for baby boomers with tastes changing to the drier styles. Bulk wine producers of the past either had to change to survive or give it up.  With foresight Golden State and a few others went upscale with the quality of their product utilizing their longstanding relationships with growers and winemakers who were knowledgeable both historically and contemporarily.  Anticipating the wine boom, Golden State embarked on an aggressive acquisition plan including 10,000 acres in vineyards in north and central California and the purchase of a brandy distillery that would lead to new acclaim.

Golden State's customer base has included Sebastiani, Heublein, Robert Mondavi, Beringer, Sutter  Home, and very prominently, Gallo.  Store brands galore have also been stock in trade for Golden State with Trader Joes being one standout and even little Vine & Cheese in Gainesville, Georgia as another albeit tiny account.  All of this precedes the actual creation of the O'Neill Beverage Company in 2004, by the way, which we will talk about next time.

Join us here on Friday August 24th from 5 to 7pm as Tommy Basham of Continental Beverage shares his fine selection of Spanish wines with us. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012


The 2007 Auka Argentine Malbec and 2010 Penfolds Australian Bin 2 Shiraz/Mourvedre were the tasting winners from last night as far as I could tell.  The Penfolds may have been the better wine but for the price differential, I would have opted for the Malbec, especially if there was a steak in the picture anywhere.

We just bought a quantity of Auka wines and while the Malbec seems pretty hard to beat, as I recall, the Syrah from them is even better.  After looking at several reviews on-line, it may be a toss-up.  Reviewers use the same " full-bodied, oak, and smoke" for both wines, but the Syrah features both red and black fruits (raspberry, cherry, plum) along with black pepper and notable structure.  The Malbec was all about rich black fruits in my opinion.

Auka is from the San Polo Winery in La Consulta in the Valle de Uco in the department of San Carlos within the province of Mendoza, the best wine growing region of Argentina.  On the map it appears to be near the middle of the western side of the country.  It is a 180 hectare vineyard at 33 degrees latitude and 1000 meters above sealevel.  It is at the foothills of the Andes and receives its irrigation from melting mountain snow.

The winery was founded by three european immigrants in the 1880s who settled in Mendoza and gave San Polo its corporate name in the 1930s.  Today two great grandchildren of the founders operate the winery.

At the San Polo website the winery gives credit to the Auka indigenous people for the wine label art.  The Auka people, according to the website, would carve into the earth the design on the label which features a sun, moon, and star over a hill, which meant the people were beseeching the deities in the sky for rain. 

I thought that was interesting so I started researching the subject and found nothing to indicate there ever was a tribe of Aukas in Argentina.  There was a notorious Auca people to the north in present day Equador but even that people was not known by that name.  They were the Huaranis and if you google them, hold on to your stomach.  Supposedly the neighboring Jivaros tribe, which used to shrink heads, would cower when confronted by the Huaranis.  According to my research, "Auca" is a pejorative term for the Huaranis which means "enemy".

My dad was a lifelong avid hunter in the upper penninsula of Michigan, by the way.  At his funeral his buddies told me my dad would go deeper into the woods than anyone else.  My dad  told me his greatest fear was coming upon a wolverine, which he called the meanest animal on earth.  Something like the Auca maybe?

Here is the thing, though.  Indigenous new world people everywhere invariably get overwhelmed by "civilized" european immigrants everywhere in the western world.  If they survive at all, they are displaced, marginalized, and reduced to poverty...and we call them savages.  So where does the truth lie?

Last night we tasted the 2009 Auka Torrontes also.  Last year that wine was ultra-popular and made it into my semi-serious Tasting Hall of Fame.  The regular retail for the Aukas is $9.99.  Say you read this article and they are $7.99/btl. 

Tommy Basham of Continental Beverage joins us with his fine portfolio of Spanish wines 5 to 7pm on Friday August 24th.  Be here.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Great Antifreeze Wine Scandal

The following text relates to the preceding article about Gruner Veltliner.

 In 1985 a scandal was exposed by German chemists who, when testing the purity of German wines, uncovered illegal adulteration on two levels:  1) German wines were being supplemented with Austrian wine, a violation of German wine law.  2)  That Austrian wine was contaminated with diethylene glycol, an ingredient in antifreeze!   At about the same time an Austrian tax examiner was wondering why a certain wine broker was claiming diethylene glycol as a business expense.

As scandals go, this one was major.  Diethylene glycol poisoning damages kidneys and tests revealed that the levels in some bottles could have been lethal.  Of course, it started innocently enough.  After two weak vintages in the early eighties, someone thought of a plan.  Why not amend the product with an ingredient that would sweeten and fatten the body of the weak wine.  What an idea?  Who could have thought of it?  While twenty-four individuals were charged and many went to jail, a chemist named Otto Nadrasky appears to be a central figure.  Perhaps the wine broker who claimed his business expense would be another major player.

While no one ever claimed to be damaged physically, the Austrian wine industry most definitely was.  Common wisdom suggests the industry lost the value of about ten years worth of business. Since only two dozen people were ever charged, the vast majority of innocent workers paid an excruciating price for the criminality of a few.

 Germany had been Austria's primary wine trading partner receiving ninety percent of its exports.  Because Germany's bulk producers were using the tainted Austrian juice, they suffered internationally also.  Having been in the business at the time, I remember the removal of German labels from the shelves and while I don't remember the Austrians of the time, records show twelve of those brands were also removed.  The contaminated Austrian wines were the opposite of the German bulk wines.  They were the elite pradikat wines, some of which being competition winners.  The wine with the highest level of contamination discovered was one of those award winning desserts and it was actually determined to be very dangerous to consume.

So here's the irony.  Austria decided to change from sweeter wines to Gruner and other lighter and drier whites as a result of the scandal, coinciding with the change in tastes of the global market.  At the same time, the screw caps that seem to aid in retaining the freshness of such wines, were coming into vogue.  So despite the hit the Austrian wine industry took, they have landed on their feet by proactively adjusting their industry to contemporary tastes.

This Friday (5-7pm) we are tasting everyday Argentine reds and whites along with our continuing exploration of superior California Cabernet.  Please join us.  And if you enjoy these blogs, please let me know.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Gruner Veltliner

As I type in Gruner Veltliner I understand why this wine has been flying under the radar for about twenty years in America.  It is the same reason Gewurztraminer will never find a decent audience. It's the name.  Gruner was marketed twenty years ago very unfortunately as "Groovy" and that didn't work either (duh!), so it appears to be destined to a lesser status than it perhaps deserves.

Gruner Veltliner is a white wine grape indigenous to Austria as far as the ampelographers can discern.  DNA testing has shown Traminer to be one of its parent grapes while the other is an obscure 19th century variety called St. Georgian-vine, which is now being rescued from near extinction by progagators interested in its potential as a wine producer.

The flavor profile for Gruner is typically citrus with peach fruit particularly, along with white pepper and tobacco for the more earthy component.  The wine is typically light and intended as much as any wine for early consumption and that is what most of us in this country understand about the subject.

Gruner vines occupy about 50,000 acres in Austria or 37% of vineyard land in a country the size of Maine.  It is the most widely planted variety there and that always means it is the type that is the most marketable.  Gruner is a staple of wine bars and restaurants in Austria and neighboring countries and for most of the past one hundred fifty years or so, Austria's focus has been on mass marketing their wines.  Only in the past twenty years or so has the emphasis shifted to  quality.

The other great white variety of Austria is Riesling and there is an ongoing debate as to which type produces the better wine.  Most Austrian oenophiles would go with Riesling but the gap has closed with the quality emphasis dictating vineyard selection for optimal terroir.  Mastery in Gruner winemaking technique has also evolved in recent decades.  Gruner does best in the lower part of the country on hillsides with just the right slope to retain water with the soil composition consisting primarily of clay with minerality.  Cropping for lower yields and ripeness then provide the winemaker with the raw materials to make an intensely concentrated and rich white wine.

So how good are these Gruners?  They actually counterbalance the easy-growing commercial wine style.  They compare to great white Burgundies and age similarly, perhaps up to twenty years!  Because the variety has not caught on in America, it is doubtful we will ever see them here though and since only about twenty producers make these "Super Gruners" anyway, they get consumed entirely in Austria.

One last point about Gruner Veltliner is its  food-friendliness.  This is a wine suitable for all vegetables.  Along with the fruit flavors mentioned above, vegetable aromas are there without the vegetal grassy herbaciousness.  Some sommeliers think there is no better match for artichokes or asparagus.  Could this be the ideal wine for cabbage?

Taste Gruner Veltliner with us here at the store (5-7pm) on Friday and judge for yourself.  Say you read this article and get a free Dancake!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Boisset Part 2

The Buena Vista wines currently in distribution here are: Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and The Count (red field blend).  Soon to be added: Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay.  These are designated as the Sonoma Series and all are priced in the mid teens.   Projected for the near future are several higher priced Carneros region specialty wines and "Eclipse" which was an  historic methode champenoise sparkler from Count Agoston Haraszthy that won a gold medal at the 1867 Paris Exhibition in France.  It is now being reproduced by Boisset.  Just for clarification, that winning accomplishment was more than a hundred years before the "Judgment at Paris" tasting (blog July 5, 2012) popularized in the film, Bottle Shock!

Boisset Family Estates markets wines from twenty four properties in Europe and California.  In 1999 Jean-Charles Boisset united all of his family's Burgundy negotiant holdings into one company, Domaine be la Vougeraie, which had been the historic name of his family's Vougeot estate before his ascendancy.  This move instantly made Boisset the largest Burgundy wine company and the largest Pinot Noir producer in Burgundy.  The company markets four Grand Cru Red Burgundies but the flagship wine of the company ironically may be a Chardonnay, Vougeot 1er Cru "Les Clos Blanc de Vougeot" Monopole.

Boisset also markets a line of California wines eponimously named JCB.  Each type in that line is named by number, as in, No.7, which is said to be "debonnaire, charismatic, and seductive" on their website.  Puh-leeze!  JCB also features a couple of French wines in the line whch makes me think there is more here than seems apparent now.  Gina Gallo is the wife of Jean-Charles and E&J Gallo is the largest land owner in Sonoma County.  The Sonoma Coast region is projected by some to one day be the finest Pinot Noir source outside of Europe.  Jean-Charles Boisset has described Sonoma Pinot as being "open, flamboyant, and exuberant" while Burgundy is "earthy, austere, and serious".  And yes there is a Boisset plan to blend the two!

It is truly a frighteningly new and modern wine world we're living in and Jean-Charles Boisset may have more in common with the great Count than we could have anticipated.  Both were/are certainly experimenters, dealmakers, and self-promoters.  If you take a look at the Boisset web presence you see both its ubiquity and engenuity. may be the best winery website I have seen.   While this writer has actually tasted few of the Boisset offerings available in this market,  enough has been shown to warrant an optimistic approval.

Curtis Gauthier of Empire Distributors will provide the wines for this week's Friday tasting.  Expect more fine California fare.  Be here 5 to 7 pm!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Boisset Part 1: Buena Vista

A week ago our best seller at that Friday tasting was the 2010 Buena Vista Cabernet Sauvignon.  Last night the winner was the 2010 Cabernet-based Raymond R Collection Field Blend.  Besides both being moderately priced California Cabernets, they are both owned by French Vougeot-based multi-national, Boisset Family Estates.  We blogged about Raymond back on February 16th of 2011.  This time we'll look at Buena Vista.

Jean-Charles Boisset, head of Boisset Family Estates, purchased Buena Vista in May of 2011.  While the Cabernet we tasted a week ago was made prior to his ascendancy to ownership, Jean-Charles, being very historically reverent toward this industry, would no doubt view his position as a temporal custodianship.  Buena Vista was founded in 1857, making it 155 years old.  One of the new owner's first moves was a label change to approximate an 1860 Buena Vista label.

Jean-Charles was born in Vougeot in Burgundy and his California winery purchases all reflect that inherent historical context.  Deloach Vineyards, purchased in 2003, was the first Russian River Pinot Noir.  Lyeth Estate was the first red Bordeaux blend from California even before the term, Meritage, was coined.  Raymond boasts five generations of Napa winemakers and Buena Vista is all about history.

Buena Vista was founded by Count Agoston Haraszthy of Hungary, a notorious bon vivant and dealmaker.  The Count was actually Hungarian royalty by birth (1812) but moved to America in 1840, returning to the homeland periodically to visit and bring others back with him to America.

 Haraszthy became known in California as "the father of California winemaking" and is credited with introducing 300 European grape varieties to California, Zinfandel arguably being one of those credits. Before Buena Vista, Haraszthy experimented with viticulture for a decade in various locations and partnered with like-minded agriculturalists resulting in the 1858 "Haraszthy Report", the first published treatise on winemaking in California.  The following decade yielded further written delineation on the subject along with much speechmaking advocacy for the industry.

Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma was a natural outgrowth of Haraszthy's grape experimentation which continued for years on the Sonoma property prior to the opening of the winery.  The winery itself was a "gravity flow" creation built of stone with nearby hillside caves for cellaring.  Charles Krug was one of the notable winemakers hired by Harszthy.

Winemaking history has largely been eclipsed by mammoth production in California in the current era.  For twenty years prior to Boisset, no wine was actually made at Buena Vista and, sad to say, that isn't unusual.  Now winemaking has returned to the old stone winery and so has the Count in the personage of actor/historian George Webber who aptly recreates that larger than life figure on the premises.  "The Count" may be experienced more viscerally in the Buena Vista wine of the same name, another red field blend from Boisset.

Because this is the slow season, stop in the store and get a ten percent discount on our wines from the past week's tasting.  Curtis Gauthier of Empire Distributors will be feting us with some of his stellar California wines this Friday between 5 and 7pm.  Please join us.

By the way...Count Haraszthy joins a relatively short list of notables who all died in mystery, that is, they disappeared!  Amelia Earhardt, anyone?