Thursday, January 31, 2013

Agustin Huneeus

This is our second blog about historic contemporary Napa winemakers.  On October 27th of last year we blogged about Bernard Portet of Clos du Val.  Back on April 18th of '11 we blogged about Alex Guarachi, owner of his eponimously named winery but not the winemaker, but like Huneeus, a Chilean immigrant to Napa, which may be significant considering the quality of the wines they both make.

Agustin Huneeus was born to wealth in Chile being the son of a fishing magnate.  At the age of twenty-three in 1960, young Huneeus bought a struggling jug wine company for the purpose of shutting it down to secure the land for another project.  Instead he took an interest in the winery and introduced European styled cork finished 750ml bottles to the property making that winery profitable for the first time.  The winery, Concha y Toro, is now the largest in Chile.

In 1971 when political unrest swept Chile, Huneeus emigrated to America where he took a position with Seagrams, the multinational liquor giant.  He headed the worldwide wine division which was floundering because liquor people, in short, don't understand the wine business.  The importance of "place" and terroir in the making of wine eludes liquor folks but is primary to wine people.  From Huneeus: "Everything that we do is based on our beliefs that wine should be - and our wine will be - known for the property from which it originates, rather than its varietal composition."  When I entered the wine industry to stay in 1981, Seagrams Chateau & Estates wine division was exemplary for representing quality wines sourced from around the world and pricing them very fairly.  Again, Huneeus made that happen.

In 1985 Huneeus bought Franciscan Oakville Estates in Napa and seemingly turned around a most mediocre winery into a top flight contender overnight.  Amongst his other accomplishments Huneeus created the first wild yeast fermented Chardonnay in Cuvee Sauvage and with a pioneering group of Bordeaux-loving Napa colleagues, created the "Meritage" category of Cabernet-based red blends. Magnificat would be Huneeus' Fransiscan entry into that competition.

Huneeus sold Franciscan to Constellation brands in 1999 and now occupies his time with Quintessa in Napa and Alexander Valleys in California and Veramonte in Chile.  But at varying times he has owned the following:  Noble, Estancia, Concannon, Mistral, Mount Veeder, Faust, Illumination, Neyen, Flowers, The Prisoner, Saldo, Ritual, and Caliterra.  Wine writer Karen MacNeil says, "Huneeus combines phenomenal business acumen with an almost intuitive sense of where the wine industry is headed."

Quintessa, by the way, is a Napa Red Meritage blend priced upwards from a hundred dollars a bottle.  Veramonte and its luxury label, Primus, sell in the $10-$20 range and show value throughout the line and that quality control is a Huneeus trait I will offer up as being consistent with every project his career has afforded.

On Friday February 1st we will be tasting red varietals here at the store from 5 to 7pm.  Concurrently Amanda Wilbanks and Buttermilk Pies will be tasting out her wares across the room.  Perhaps a Moscato may be in order for crossover purposes.  Please join us for the event.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Violets & Tar (Barbaresco)

"Violets & Tar" is my all time favorite wine description and I'm not sure I even know what violets and/or tar would taste like.  It's actually an aroma anyway (like so much of wine tasting) and the textbook bouquet of Italian Barbaresco according to wine critic, Alan Richman, is "violets and tar".  To continue, the taste of the wine should include: cherry, truffles, fennel, and licorice, and then with a little age a Barbaresco may become smoky, earthy, and leathery on top of the intrinsic flavors mentioned above.  To sum up in my own experience, this wine starts out with violets and tar on the marquee (nose) but then, between the cherry and licorice, the violets and tar envelope and assuage the tongue in the tasting experience and then in the aged version of Barbaresco, the earthiness darkens and dirties the wine and the tar tarnishes the cherry and violets.  Somehow in my meandering I think I just nailed it!

Barbaresco is made using 100% Nebbiolo grapes from the delimited Barbaresco region within the Langhe area of the Piedmont district of Italy.  Nebbiolo, the least well known noble red grape variety, produces two of the finest red wines in the world, Barolo and Barbaresco, and within ten miles of each other!  Each wine validates the reason for wine appellation laws.  Barolo, the more esteemed wine, is a darker, more intense and longer lived version of Nebbiolo.  Barbaresco is lighter and fruitier and drinkable earlier.  Barolo has been compared to Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon); Barbaresco, to Burgundy (Pinot Noir).  So why such a difference?  Terroir, of course.  The soil in Barbaresco is a calcareous marl while Barolo features that along with sandstone and clay.  The climate of Barbaresco is maritime influenced, moderating temperature extremes; Barolo is at a higher elevation and strictly continental.

Both Barbaresco and Barolo were sweet reds in the 19th century.  Due to the late ripening nature of Nebbiolo, the grapes had to be picked before late October when seasonal rains would form a destructive mildew on the berries.  French enologist Louis Oudart is credited with first fermenting young Nebbiolo grapes dry inside Barolo wineries in the late 19th century with Barbaresco following suit in the 20th century.  Now global warming is solving the problem of ripening those grapes earlier.

Barbaresco has always suffered by comparison with Barolo.  Nineteenth century Barolo was known as "the wine of kings and the king of wines", a tough act to follow.  Barbaresco only received its acclaim after World War II when investment money poured in from Gaja, Bruno Giocosa, and other great Barolo makers.  Barbaresco is one-third the size of Barolo with a resultant one-third of the production.  In its favor in these times, the wine seems to be ready to drink in a third of the cellaring time compared to Barolo, which perhaps explains the Barolo makers' investment in Barbaresco.

Last Friday's wine tasting was highlighted by the 2008 Franco Serra Barbaresco.  The bottle was opened at 2pm and continued to improve at 7pm when we had to close.  Please join us this Friday, February 1st 5-7pm, for our weekly tasting and lets see what new and exciting wine unfolds before us then.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Goat Gouda

Goat Gouda, always one of our more popular cheeses, seems to be a gamechanger for those who have been put off by stronger, funkier goat cheeses in the past.  By contrast it is mild, a little sweet and a little salty, with just enough tanginess to make it interesting.  It also has that medium hard/medium soft Gouda texture with some moisture so as to be sliceable without crumbling.  It is also meltable so an alternative grilled cheese sandwich could be in the offing here too.  Aroma-wise, this cheese screams sour cream by the way.

The particular Goat Gouda we have been selling here has been the Van Dijk (Dyke) Chevre Blanc which originates courtesy of Anna Van Dyjk's herd of five hundred goats just outside of Eindhoven in the southern end of the Netherlands.  There the goasts feed daily on natural grass and wild herbs.  "Chevre", the French word for goat, is also a synonym for soft goat cheese so it's name here is a little misleading.  Also misleading is the fact that the city of Gouda is in western Netherlands but the name, Gouda, has been left legally unprotected and is appropriated freely throughout the country and worldwide.

Goat Gouda actually has a very brief history.  Apocryphal rumors of mild Dutch goat cheese have circulated from tourists for decades and Europeans have enjoyed the cheeses for about the same length of time but Goat Gouda for export has only been around this decade.  Our health consciousness may be one reason for the cheese's popularity.  Goat cheeses are easier to digest than cow's milk cheeses so the lactose-intolerant may be okay with them.  Goat cheese is also lower in fat, cholesterol, and calories and higher in calcium.

Wine affinity for Goat Gouda is scattered amongst food and wine writers.  Because the cheese is simple, lacking length and complexity, I like it with light dry white wine.  Others would add it to the standard rich red wine group.  Beer would be a natural friend also.

This Friday from 5 to 7pm, Tommy "Slick" Basham joins us here to present Italian and California wines for our edification.  Tommy is out on work release so lets all show up and support his rehabilitation.  Any fighting or other disruptions that might bring the police will be dealt with immediately and permanently (if you know what I mean) so lets all behave. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Schug Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

Last night's tasting here at the store was a real hoot.  Thanks to Amanda Wilbanks and her family and friends along with her new "child", Buttermilk, a good time was had by all.  Buttermilk is actually the name of her pie-making company, which is an infant at this time but judging by the tasting response last night, it should grow like a weed. 

The best wine on the table last night was the Schug Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, which is a little unfair since everything else was much lower in price than the $20 Schug.  In my opinion the Francesco I Chianti Classico and Anciano Tempranillo were better buys than the Schug but when comparing the Schug with the other Pinot on the table, Delicato's 667, well there was no comparison.  Schug, hands down.

I am reminded of an article I read last year in which a Wall Street Journal writer asserted that the Sonoma Coast appellation in California would in time become the finest Pinot Noir appellation in the new world.  (Say what?)  Delicato (DFV), a brand favorite of mine, has been receiving accolades from critics for the skillfull blending of select Central Coast vineyard Pinots and we had coincidentally also just brought in DFV's La Merika Pinot recently so last night's 667 from Delicato's expansive Monterey County land holdings offered an opportunity for comparison.  Like I said above, this time Schug ruled, meaning Sonoma Coast may in fact be all it's cracked up to be.

The current 2010 vintage Schug Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir features a label badge "celebrating 30 years, 1980-2010".  In the 1970's Walter Schug was the founding winemaker for Joseph Phelps where he made the first varietal Syrah, the first California Red Meritage (Insignia), the great Backus and Eisele vineyard-designate Cabernets, along with elite late harvest dessert wines.  If he had retired at that point, his Winemaking Hall of Fame ticket would have been already punched.  Schug, however, was reared in the German Rhein village of Assmanushausen where Pinot Noir was the primary wine grape and when ln 1980 Phelps showed little interest in the grape, Walter Shug bought fifty acres in Carneros and started his own company.

Carneros has always been a special microclimate in California.  It spans southern Napa and Sonoma and features a heavy blanket of cool air and fog generated daily by the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean.  Carneros is a cooler terroir than that of Napa/Sonoma proper and perfect for Pinot Noir.  The Schug Carneros Pinot is a $30 suggested retail while the Sonoma Coast, made from sourced fruit, is suggested at $24.  In my opinion the Sonoma Coast is usually the one to buy, again reinforcing the WSJ article.  Schug's initial vintage yielded two thousand cases of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Now, thirty years later, it's 30,000 annually with most being Pinot and Chard but additional varietals now round out the line.

One last thing about Schug Pinot Noir...The current winemaker, Mike Cox, a native Sonoma Countian, believes in blending Pinot grapes in the same way DFV has been lauded for producing great wines from the Central Coast.  Only moreso.  Cox will blend hundreds of separate lots to achieve the wine he wants.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Top 30 Wine Companies

This is a more current listing of the largest wine companies in America updated from our prior listing (Blog 5/4/12).  Why?  For the same reason I track the competition between grocery store chains.  It is competition on a scale above and beyond my station in the business and it is really a camera angle on America in action.  Big business calls the shots in this game and the players advance with all of the ruthlessness and finesse of a major league pitcher throwing a baseball 93 miles an hour with movement and precisely hitting the corners of the plate, all of which factors in to the consternation of the disadvantaged hitter.  More often than not I feel like that hitter, but I still remain in awe of the game.

If you google the name of any of the companies listed below, you can see all of the mass marketed labels they control, which overall is basically everything in the chain stores.  An asterisk notes privately held companies which I think signifies competitive strength at this level.

1.  E&J Gallo Winery*-66 million cases sold domestically, 76 million globally annnually.
2. Constellation Brands-59 million domestically, 112 million globally.
3. The Wine Group-44 million.
4. Bronco Wine Company- 20 million.
5. Foster's Wine Estates-20 mil, 44 mil.
6. Trinchero Family Estates*-11 mil.
7. Brown-Forman Wines-5.5mil, 7mil.
8. Diageo- 5.5mil.
9. St. Michelle Wine Estates- 5.1mil.
10.Jackson Family Wines*-5mil.
11.F. Korbel & Bros-2.45mil.
12.Delicato Family Vineyards*-2mil.
13.Don Sebastiani & Sons-2mil.
14.C. Mondavi & Sons*-1.2mil.
15.Ironstone Vineyards*-900,000.
16.J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines*-900,000.
17.The Coppola Companies*-900,000.
18.Bogle Vineyards*-850,000.
19.Rodney Strong*-800,000.
20.The Hess Collection-650,000.
21.Precept Brands-600,000.
22.San Antonio Winery*-500,000.
23.Purple Wine Company-470,000.
24.Domaine Chandon-440,000.
25.Wimbledon Wine Company-400,000.
26.Castle Rock Winery-400,000.
27.Rutherford Wine Company-350,000.
28.Wente Vineyards-300,000; 400,000.
29.585 Wine Partners-340,000.
30.Winery Exchange-300,000.

Observations:  Most all of the companies above just move up or down a notch or two from the previous list.  Certain prominant properties have been taken over by the top thirty, most notably, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars (by St. Michelle) and Hahn (by Wimbledon).  Emphases on organic and sustainable farming and private labeling have impacted the list with longtime members offering new products and new list members entering the list because of these kinds of offerings.

Marketing, of course, is key to selling wine on this scale.  One company on the list is there purely for their marketing ability.  The inaptly named Castle Rock Winery, which owns no winemaking facilities or vineyards and solely relies on bulk purchases and rented winery space.

This Friday (5-7pm) we will be tasting 667 Pinot Noir from #12 Delicato, Uno Argentine Malbec, Pedroncelli Sonoma Zinfandel, Raymond R Collection Field Blend, a couple Italian reds and somehow we will have to work in some whites!  Please join us.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Blackstock Vineyards

This is just an observation in passing...

Last week Blackstock Vineyards and Winery (blog 2/9/12) closed its doors.  In his classy closing email, David Harris cited the horrendous frost of last spring (blog 4/24/12) as a precipitating event and competition from local wineries who chose to take advantage of loose Georgia laws to purchase and sell bulk California wine instead of actual Georgia wine.  All of Blackstock's bottlings were estate sourced in White County.

The passing of Blackstock is tragic in several ways.  I always thought Blackstock was the best of the Georgia wineries and I base that pronouncement solely on my humble but educated palate.  I thought the quality of David's wines were competitive with most from around the world and I regret I couldn't do more with them.  That he was so passionate about what he did, heightens the pathos of what transpired last week and his firm oenologically-educated hand in this infant native agricultural endeavor will be sorely missed.

On a larger scale this is what we have been blogging about all year long here and this is what I think the public at large misses:

1.  Consolidation within the wine industry and the development of mega-wine companies has  concentrated power in the hands of mass marketers who value varietal generalizations over individual distinction.

2. Because of vertical integration within the industry involving contractors for the production of mass market wines the advantage goes again to the powerful large players who do not stand to prosper by offering individuality in wine production.

3. Because of the successful lobbying efforts for the California wine industry by the Wine Institute in Washington DC, smaller players become further marginalized.

4. Because of the successful commoditization of wine as a beverage and not as something particular to specific food selections, this industry has effectively been turned on its head with "place" and food affinity no longer mattering at all as a criterion for what a bottle of wine is.

I guess it is what it is.  Lets move on.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Leitz Out

Last night's tasting was one of the most successful in recent memory.  The turnout was light, maybe a dozen folks at most, but the response to what we poured was fantastic.  We unknowingly selected just the right lineup for this bunch and they quickly depleted my tasting supply including the Leitz Out German Dry Riesling which was a last minute addition when the Wentes sold too well prior to the event.

Johannes Leitz is the owner/winemaker of Leitz Out and his concern is located in the Rudesheim region of the Rheingau in Germany.  The Leitz winemaking family traces its business back to 1744 with major disruptions in the twentieth century due in part to a couple world wars.  Johannes took the reins unofficially in the mid eighties, officially in 1997, and because of his current successes his reign should continue well into the future.  Shrewd land acquisitions in these years have increased Leitz holdings from 2.9 hectare to 40 hectare with 30 hectares of the most prime real estate being within Rudesheim proper.  Because of their successes a new modern winery was constructed in 2010 on the property to meet the increased demand.

So what makes Leitz Out noteworthy?  First the wine is dry compared to the stereotypical German mass market plonk which points up the second qualifier: dry unoaked white wine must have inherent character to carry the day or it will fail in any tasting or market placement.  Thirdly Rudesheim Riesling is recognised internationally for its dry mineral-driven style accomplished of course by virtue of having the correct soils for the Riesling vines to flourish (or struggle) and here is where it gets complicated.

The ten Leitz vineyards in Rudesheim are at varying elevations with slopes up to 59 degrees requiring apporpriate terracing with all vineyards facing south.  Leitz is another of what seems to be a growing number of wineries that feature a website that treats the casual reader as an adult.  At one can learn of the four basic soil types in Leitz vineyards along with an explanation for their coming into being four million years ago during the ice age.  A website link to Daniel Sogg's article, "Tasting the Earth" furthers the discussion of soil's contribution to wine.  From  Sogg: "The best wines come from soils that moderate the water supply.  In wet regions good drainage is required; in dry regions, good retention."  Seems too simple, right?