Saturday, September 24, 2016

Chianti, Part 1 - Not Your Father's Oldsmobile

(For younger readers, that Oldsmobile reference in the title recalls an auto industry sales pitch to younger drivers who had categorized Oldsmobiles as an older person's car.  Since Oldsmobiles no longer exist I guess the ad campaign had limited success.)

The earliest written references to Chianti date to the thirteenth century.  In the mid-eighteenth century the wine was codified by Baron Ricosoli to be a red wine blend of 70% Sangiovese, 15% Canaiolo, and 15% Malvasia and that's the way things were for well over a hundred years.  The twentieth century became an evolving proving ground for Chianti as those blending proportions gradually changed with Sangiovese increasing its presence in the blend and the white Malvasia decreasing until today most Chianti is a single-varietal Sangiovese. may be a blend of four dozen grapes!   Leave it to the Italians to change their wine industry laws from already-confusing to even more so!  Legally, today Chianti must be at least eighty percent Sangiovese with Canaiolo being the secondary varietal with five percent of the blend being reserved for "other" grapes.  Up to four dozen!  But no white grapes are allowed anymore.

To understand this evolution we have to go back to the late nineteenth century when the Phylloxera epidemic basically destroyed all vineyards in Italy.  With the industry in shambles, emigration ensued with vineyard workers and winemakers moving to new world environs around the world.  As the Italian wine industry re-planted with a lower labor force, it was the higher yielding Sangiovese clones that they chose to use.  Basically,  mass marketing had come to Italy and the Chianti our World War II GI's came to love over there was that lighter, simpler variety of wine.

So when those guys returned home after the war that was the wine they wanted and in 1967 when Italy created its DOC standards for Chianti, that was what was codified.  That standard stood for a mere fifteen years though before Tuscan winemakers could tolerate the mediocrity no longer and defying convention, threw the rule book out the window and made world class wine with Bordeaux grapes integrated into the mix.  These "Super Tuscan" wines forced the bureaucrats to amend rules that no longer made sense. Not only would the new Super Tuscans be written into the appellation system (Reserve Chianti?) but Chianti, itself, would be improved.

Through it all, whatever style of Chianti has been presented to the American consumer, the wine has continued to be the most popular import on our store shelves.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Monte Rosso Vineyard

I don't know how I got started on this one since I don't even have any Monte Rosso Vineyard wines in the store.  I guess I must have read about it and got curious.  Anyway here's what I learned...

The Monte Rosso Vineyard is a 350 acre plot located at 1,200 feet altitude in the western facing Mayacamas mountains of Sonoma Valley.  It was first planted in the 1880's meaning the labor was backbreaking for man and beast alike and as we know from earlier studies, the Phylloxera menace was just ahead and poised to undo whatever planting was just accomplished.  So after replanting (post-Phylloxera), the vineyard produced well under a couple different names before Louis Martini bought the property in 1938.  It was Martini who dubbed it Monte Rosso for its iron and potassium-rich volcanic mountain soils.

Martini had been purchasing fruit from the vineyard owners for years before his 1938 purchase and shrewd Italian immigrant that he was, he recognized the indelible terroir stamp the produce showed.  To this day it is said no matter what the grape variety in the wine, the Monte Rosso terroir shows through.  One wine industry insider claims he's not sure he can always distinguish Monte Rosso Cabernet from Zinfandel so much as he can taste Monte Rosso terroir in the wine!

I just remembered why I decided to read up on Monte Rosso.  I read somewhere that it is supposed to be the best Cabernet Sauvignon in Sonoma and that makes sense given its location.  Monte Rosso is on the other side of the mountain (and county line) from Mt. Veeder of Napa.

As of 2013, Monte Rosso is also recognized as being a part of the new Moon Mountain AVA (American Viticultural Area) which boasts the best Bordeaux grapes in the county.  The appellation's Cabernet Sauvignon of course is the best variety with black olive, anise, lavender, blackberry, coffee, and cocoa all in evidence.  Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Merlot all exhibit dark fruit minimally and in some cases, berries showing a tannic inky consistency.

More than twenty wineries market wines sourced from Monte Rosso Vineyard.  In 2002 Gallo purchased Louis Martini and they market several of those labels with Monte Rosso fruit.  More than forty wineries now call the Moon Mountain AVA home.    

Saturday, September 3, 2016

John Fox

Wine scandals are nothing new.  Recent scandals documented here include those concerning adulterated wines and ownership soap operas that are as much about the industry people as the wines they represent.  We have passed on the many fake rare wines, sham auctions, and suspect ratings that abound.  The fact that there seem to be so many scandals nowadays seems in a weird way to reflect the overall arrival of wine as an intrinsic part of our culture.  And for the ethically challenged, it's an opportunity to cash in on its popularity.  Anyway, the latest involves John Fox, recent proprietor of the Premier Cru wine shop of Berkeley, California.

This post was lifted from Frances Dinkelspiel's August 18th article, "Meet the Wine World's Bernie Madoff" which has to do with the pre-selling of wine that is supposed to arrive up to two years in the future.  Apparently buying from Fox is about as easy a way to get swindled as investing with Bernie Madoff.

Wine futures are the purchasing of wines based on barrel samples before the wine is bottled.  Big players; wholesalers, brokers, retailers and restaurateurs; will commit to purchase large quantities of those wines they deem to be special and will expect delivery in a couple years.  The idea is to beat future mark-ups on the best vintages.  Futures may have been the impetus for Fox to offer "pre-arrival" pricing on high-end European wines in general with offers that were way too good to be true.  And just like every good Wall Street Ponzi scheme, the thing took on a life of its own and the originator prospered greatly before the curtain came down.

John Fox's curtain came down about a month ago when he plea bargained a six and a half year prison term conditioned upon a full courtroom admission of what he had done.  Fox admitted to billing his clientele for twenty million dollars worth of wines that were never going to arrive.  He also admitted to personally embezzling five million dollars, falsifying paper work (purchase orders), and instructing his employees to reinforce whatever narrative he constructed.

Premier Cru was apparently the finest of fine wine shops. (In a separate matter Fox borrowed six and a half million dollars to buy and decorate the store.)  Having filed Chapter 7 in January ($70mil/debt & $7mil/assets) and declaring personal bankruptcy in February ($5mil in homes, cars, club memberships, extra-marital girl friends), Fox had ample time to prepare for his day in court.  The bankruptcy trustees expect to net a little over three million dollars from the sale of assets which will, of course, be as insulting to the victims as Fox's expected early release from prison.