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

Co-ops

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

Mutations

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

Priorat

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.

Salt

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!

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Domaine du Verger

This is neat.  For years we've been waiting for French ciders to reappear in this market and now they're here under the brand name Domaine du Verger.  While the brand names of the past are long gone from memory, the taste of fine French cider is unforgettable.  Hard cider is a far cry from non-alcoholic cider.  In some ways it's similar to a fruity beer but yet not really.  It's most like Champagne but of course, it's not really like Champagne at all.  It is truly its own category.

Domaine du Verger comes in two types.  The Brut is refreshingly light and dry while the Rose is light and a little off-dry.  Rose?  Yes, this one is made from Baya Marisa apples that share the red flesh we remember from the neighborhood crabapple tree, so if you're making cider this one naturally comes out pink!

The ciders we're talking about here come from a co-op called Val de Rance which was begun in 1983 in Brittany, France.  They have been growing and modernizing since then to the point where they now utilize one thousand acres of orchards owned by three hundred growers to produce up to fifteen thousand tons of apples.

All of the apples grown in Brittany are considered to be bittersweet in character.  They are supplemented with bitter apples from Normandy, the appellation best known for cider.  For both ciders produced, the mix is 90% Brittany and 10% Normandy with no other juice of any kind added.

The cider making process is pretty simple and forthright.  The apples are picked, cleaned, crushed, and fermented before CO2 is added for bubbles.  The actual bottles used for these ciders are corked and caged Champagne bottles.  For the Brut version the fermentation time is two months; for the sweeter Rose version it's just five weeks.  Because the fermentation is shorter the Rose ends up being just 2.5% alcohol as compared to the 5% Brut version.

The Brut cider is a pale straw color, light in body, and has aromas of golden apples, peach, and apricot.  On the palate the wine is refreshing.  The rose is a little sweeter with a bit more body and moderately tart with no sourness or bitterness.  The simple flavor profile for the rose includes strawberry, white grape, and pomegranate.  The wine finishes sweet.  No additional sugar is added in the making of either wine.

These ciders are perfect as apertifs, with brunch, mild cheeses, and with summer!  They should be consumed within a year of purchase.


Please join us next Thursday the 19th at 5pm when Cherie Rubio joins us for a tasting of California wines.


Monday, July 9, 2018

Silk & Spice

Silk & Spice is a Portuguese red blend marketed by Sogrape Evaton USA, a wine company that now represents eighteen labels in America, most of which are Portuguese in origin.  Historically Sogrape is perhaps best known for bringing us Mateus Rose, a cultural touchstone on college campuses fifty years ago which was really much better than we gave it credit for at the time.

According to the back label "Silk & Spice" is a metaphor for the wine's smooth juiciness which they claim must ascertain its origins in the indigenous grapes of Portugal.  While I can't exactly validate that pitch, I can appreciate the inference.  The wine is a Touriga Nacional blend that goes through a malolactic fermentation followed by six months in American oak which can kind of account for its description.  I can also report that after tasting it out here the wine has sold very well.  It is noticeably less dry than the Aveleda wines tasted here on Thursday.

Silk & Spice, again according to the back label, honors the brave Portuguese seamen of the fifteenth century who ventured into the unknown to discover new seagoing trade routes to the east, returning with silk from China and spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, and pepper) from the Spice Islands.  The front label, by the way, is a fifteenth century map of the Bay of Bengal, complete with distortions reflecting what the explorers didn't know at the time.

Actually the very idea of labeling a Portuguese product with a map of the Indian Ocean is a little confusing and after hearing more than a few comments on the unusual wine label, I decided to bone up on my fifteenth century history.  Here's what I learned:

Portugal reached the Spice Islands, now the Maluku Islands of Indonesia, in 1512.  A year later in 1513 they reached China.  Spain and Portugal were on the vanguard of ocean seafaring back then with the English, Dutch and others decades behind them.  That alone may justify the label.  They're proud.

Here are a few significant dates: In 1498 Vasco da Gama was the first to round the African Cape and make it to India.  Christopher Columbus was sponsored by Portugal to go exploring in 1492 and ended up somewhere.  I forget what he discovered.  Then in 1522 Magellan circumnavigated the globe.  Unfortunately he didn't personally make it all the way around but he still deserves the credit.

How did Portugal achieve its early seafaring success?  They created the Caravel sailing ships which were smaller, lighter, and better handling than those that were the standard of the time.  How did they do that?  They copied the fishing boats of the time!  Honestly!  Leave it to the working guys to show up the brainiacs!

So was this the beginning of international trade and maybe, globalization?  Not hardly.  Evidence exists of an international spice trade going back to 3,000 BC.  North African Arabs were usually the beneficiaries of the spices then.  Unfortunately, the current religious conflicts between the Muslims and Christians in Indonesia have their origins in the period we're discussing here.

If we have now shed enough light on our made up wine label controversy then let's conclude by saying Silk & Spice shows best on the dinner table with pork chops, beef stew, stroganoff, lasagna, and barbecue. 


Cherie Rubio offers us a tasting of California wines this Thursday after 5pm and Jean Arnold shows us his Oregon wines on Saturday starting at 1pm.  Please join us for these.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Portuguese Preview

This Thursday at 5pm Rose Adams of Aveleda of Portugal leads us in a tasting of four new wines in her portfolio.  Last year Aveleda bought wineries in the Alentejano DOC in southeastern Portugal and in the northern Douro DOC, the finest wine venue in the country.  Those wines are just now making an appearance in our marketplace.  Aveleda, itself, is located in the Minho DOC in the northwestern corner of the country, home to the great seafood wines Vinho Verde and Alvarinho.  Here's a preview of next Thursday's tasting.

The 2017 Assobio Branco is a fresh and aromatic, straw-colored, light dry steel barrel-aged white with citric and tropical fruit flavors.  The indigenous grapes are handpicked from high altitude vineyards in Douro and lend themselves to lighter fare like salads, seafood or tapas.  Assobio means "whistle" and refers to the sound the wind makes through these high altitude north facing vineyards.

The 2016 Esperao Reserva is sourced from select vineyards of indigenous grape varieties in Alentejano.  Vinification includes cold settling with skin maceration in stainless steel tanks before ageing on the lees in new oak barrels.  Yellow fruits, minerality, toast and spices dominate the palate in this fresh aromatic white.  The flavors are long and balanced within a creamy structure.

The 2016 Assobio Red is sourced from the same high altitude vineyards as the companion white listed above.  These indigenous grape varieties produce a fresh versatile summer food-friendly light red wine.  Touriga Nacional is the primary grape in the blend and it is handpicked before a temperature controlled pre-fermentation cold soak followed by pressing and fermentation.  Aging is done in both steel and oak barrels.

The 2014 Esperao Reserve Red is the flagship wine of this Alentejo winery and features handpicked Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and a couple indigenous varieties resulting in a rich ripe spicy, red fruit wine with a subtle oak presence.  Each grape type is fermented separately in temperature controlled steel tanks before a malolactic fermentation which is then followed by a year of oak barrel ageing.  The wine is textured, dense and full-bodied with structured tannins making it a candidate for ageing in the cellar.

Categorically Portuguese wines need to be considered in their own right.  Too often they fall into the "other" category or are seen as "value wines" when actually they should be seen as wonderful dinner wines suitable for a number of occasions.  Rose Adams, by the way, is someone I have known in the trade for at least twenty-five years so please join us for the tasting and expect an education in the process!

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Creaminess, Richness and Sur-Lie Ageing

You ever wonder how your California Chardonnay gets that rich and creamy mouthfeel that you love so much?  Not all Chardonnays, especially the imports, have it.  So why is that?

Well, the short answer and this is way too obvious, is that it's a stylistic choice that California wine makers have concluded the American public likes.  Rightfully.  But there's more...there are degrees of creaminess, some are even evident in the imports.  Moreover there are other white wine types besides Chardonnay that have the same creaminess so just like the wine, the plot here thickens a bit.

But before we go too far down this road lets also acknowledge that some white wines purposely do not have the creaminess we're talking about and that too is a stylistic decision.  If a wine maker wants to showcase a white grape type's essential flavor purity then the creaminess would just obscure what he's after.  Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio come to mind here.

So let's segue now to what I learned from morewinemaking.com in a post entitled "Sur-Lie Ageing."

Sur-lie ageing is the up-to-six-week period post-fermentation when the young wine is left in a tank with a layer of yeast solids covering the bottom.  The grape solids have long been removed and the yeast at this point is stressed out from having run out of sugars to convert into alcohol.  It is but a shadow of its original volatile self.  This is also the point where in most cases the white wine should be racked because several unfortunate sulfur-related conditions could ensue if care is not taken.  Nutrients have to be added, the temperature has to be controlled, and the lees have to be stirred daily.

So what's happening here?  Yeast cells are filled with liquid protein that become freed when the cell dies (autolysis) and that protein has an unctuous quality that softens and rounds off the hard tannic and acidic edges that a wine naturally has.  If the wine is properly stirred daily the protein becomes suspended in the wine bringing out complementary flavors and aromas of honey, nuts (hazelnut & almond), toast, and spice.  Moreover the now creamy complexity integrates the fruit, oak, tannins, and acidity into a unified whole.  Additionally sur-lie ageing has a reductive capacity which protects the wine from oxidation in its early stages and even promotes stabilization before bottling.

Sur-lie ageing doesn't have to be a six week long process, by the way.  The wine should be tasted daily and stopped when the wine maker thinks it is time.

So while we started this post talking about California Chardonnay, the wine we really wanted to promote was the 2015 Vidal-Fleury Cotes du Rhone Blanc which is a wonderful example of a French Viognier blend.  From the back label - "The ageing sur lies gives the wine its aromas and roundness."


This Thursday at 5pm Stefan Germain leads us in a tasting of Jacy Marteau Touraine Sauvignon Blanc, St. Emiliano Piedmont Italian Barbera, Little Canyon Ardeche Red Blend, and Chateau St. Seurin Red Bordeaux.  Please join us for the event.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Stolpman Vineyards & Ballard Canyon

Stolpman Vineyards is attorney Thomas Stolpman's thirty year project in the Ballard Canyon AVA (American Viticultural Area) which lies entirely within the larger Santa Ynez Valley AVA which, in turn, lies entirely within the Central Coast AVA.  Stolpman purchased his vineyard land in 1990, planted in '92 and hit his stride in the early 2000's with the addition of two key colleagues, wine maker Sashi Moorman and vineyard manager Ruben Solarzano.

Stolpman Vineyards is a two hundred twenty acre tract with one hundred fifty three of them in sustainably farmed vines.  Ninety three acres are in Syrah with the rest primarily in Sangiovese, Roussanne, Grenache and Marsanne.  Stolpman wines are 90% estate-sourced.

The Ballard Canyon lies to the east of the Santa Rita Hills (AVA) which serve as a buffer to blunt the stronger Pacific winds.  To the east lies the considerably warmer Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA and just to the north lies the Los Olivos District AVA.  Ballard Canyon is a long and narrow, north-south expanse that many recognize as the best AVA in Santa Ynez Valley.

Ballard Canyon prides itself as the only "Syrah-focused" wine appellation in the country with half of all five hundred sixty-one vineyard acres in the canyon planted in that one grape.  Stolpman chose his property for the limestone soils and the drainage they provide and the cool climate featuring the diurnal temperature shifts that are conducive to making rich wines with balanced sugars and acids.

At this writing we plan to taste the Stolpman La Cuadrilla red blend at this week's Thursday tasting.  Cuadrilla means "people of the block" and refers to the talents of those select vineyard workers who have applied their talents all year long in that vineyard.  Those workers earn an end-of-year bonus based on the sales of the wine.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Dave Phinney & Agustin Huneeus

There are some really smart people in the wine business.  Dave Phinney created The Prisoner field-blended red wine in 1998 just before high end red blends became the rage.  Shortly thereafter he created his line of Orin Swift wines which grew in sales to the point where in 2010 he could sell it and pocket a handsome profit which he subsequently reinvested in new wine projects.

Agustin Huneeus is now comfortably retired after one of the greatest of twentieth century wine careers.  Concha y Toro, Seagrams, Franciscan, Veramonte, and  Quintessa are just a few of the Huneeus touchstones over the past sixty years and all turned golden from his touch.  King Midas in the flesh, you might say!

Phinney is currently marketing his Locations wines which are sourced from Argentina, Italy, Spain, California, Oregon, and Washington.  He also owns a couple hundred acres in vineyards in southern France from which he makes his D66 Grenache-based red wine.  He also owns five hundred acres in Napa and Alexander Valley and still being a young man, Phinney is reportedly immersed in grand planning for future wine projects.

Recently a representative from the Huneeus organization stopped by the store to offer tastes of some of the current wines they're offering including Flowers Vineyards Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and Benton-Lane Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.  The Oregon wines were good at the twenty dollar suggested retail range and the Flowers were exceptional, especially the Chardonnay, but prohibitive around here at $50+.  Agustin Jr. is now running the day to day operations with guidance from the esteemed old man.

There are now about fifteen wines in distribution here in the Atlanta market that Dave Phinney had a hand in creating.  When he sold Orin Swift in 2010 there were five labels in the deal.  Now at the Orin Swift website sixteen wines are being marketed by Constellation, the current owner.  The Prisoner Wine Company is now owned by Gallo and ten labels are marketed on line.  In the Atlanta marketplace, perhaps ten labels from the two companies are in distribution in total along with the Locations and D66.

So here's the reason for the post: When Dave Phinney sold the Prisoner line in 2010, he sold it neither to Gallo nor Constellation.  He sold it to Augustin Huneeus who paid a whopping forty million dollars for the five labels in the line as it existed at that time.  Phinney was a contractor who owned neither vineyards nor wineries.  The forty million dollars was for just five wine labels!  Phinney had built his sales of The Prisoner and the rest of the Orin Swift line up to 85,000 cases in ten years' time.  Huneeus doubled those sales by 2016 and then sold it to Constellation for 285 million dollars.

The Huneeus representative related this narrative to me.  Now tell me these guys aren't smart! 

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Passion

If you've been following this blog for any length of time you know how I feel about consolidation in the wine business.  Actually if you just read the last paragraph of the last post where I lamented about everyone in Napa making the same "international style" of Cabernet Sauvignon, you know where I'm going with this.  How can you enjoy tasting wines when they all taste the same?

On top of that, the fact that the small estate wineries continually get locked out of distribution because of the monopolization of those channels by the factory farms, well, it just compounds the unfairness of it all for consumers who appreciate the art of distinctive wine making.

One of the favorite movie scenes in our kid-infested household was the "let the boys play the game" scene from Remember The Titans.  The implication there was that there was officially-sanctioned wrongdoing on the field.  Of course it's not the same situation here in the wine industry and I'm not asking for an official to intervene.  I just want the scales adjusted and balanced a bit and perhaps a voice be given to the farmers.  Dream on, I guess.

Anyway, here's what I've learned recently about consolidation.  The difference between some of the mega-players in the game has to do with whether they are privately held or corporately owned.  So Gallo and other extra-large family-owned wine companies have actually owned and farmed vineyards over generations while in contrast, Constellation and other even-more-removed-from-the-farm corporations are in the business purely for return on investment.

According to one local industry professional, passion in wine production is innate and the investors in Napa Cabernet who are not natives to Napa viticulture and wine making simply don't have it.

In concrete terms (and this is a generalization) family-owned mega-wine companies that purchase small wineries include the assets (vineyards, winery, etc.) in the transaction and intend to utilize them going forward.  The large corporate entities with an investment in the wine industry just buy the brand name and fill the bottles with what they deem to be appropriate.  Either way the mass marketers play it safe and don't take chances with wine styles that may not appeal to everyone.  And that bothers me.


This Thursday evening between 5 and 7pm, we will be tasting prominent Napa Cabernets here at the store.  Our examples that evening will include both estate bottlings and contract productions.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Rutherford Bench

We're about to bring in a couple cases of esteemed Napa Cabernet Sauvignon from the Rutherford Bench region of the best AVA (American Viticultural Area) in the country.  The bench is the six mile long region to the left of Route 29 as you head north, beginning about three miles north of Oakville and bounded by the Mayacamas mountain range to the left.  The region constitutes 2,500 acres of eastern facing sloped wine country with alluvial soils of gravel, sand, silt, and clay.  Among the historic wineries that call the bench home are Beaulieu, Niebaum-Coppola, Inglenook, Grgich Hills, Vichon, Opus I, Far Niente, and Heitz Cellars' Martha's Vineyard and Freemark Abbey's Bosche Vineyard.

As I researched the subject one of the first things I learned was that, geologically speaking, there is no Rutherford Bench.  A bench is a terraced soil formation that at one time was a bank of a long gone river or stream.  The professionals in the field have determined that the soils that exist in the area in question are not a bench strictly speaking but share much of the makeup of bench soils.

Napa soils show both marine and volcanic influences dating back 150 million years meaning at one time the region was under ocean water before being pushed up by plate techtonics.  In the previous post we discussed how erosion from mountains deposit stony soils in the flatlands below.  Such soils then provide ideal drainage for plants like grapevines that require a deep taproot for good fruit.  In the case of what is called the Rutherford bench, those soils instead result from an alluvial fan.

Like a bench, a fan displays sedimentary soil carried downstream by river current and deposited at the base of a mountain except in this case the gradient of the slope will force a river or stream to change directions.  What makes the geological fan is the stream continues to separate over millenia creating concentric streams leaving sedimentary evidence in the shape of a Japanese folding hand fan.

Now aren't you glad you hung around long enough to learn that!  And by the way, Oakville has its own fan also!  Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Dalla Valle, Rubican, Quintessa, Kathryn Hall, and Mondavi's To Kalon Vineyard take advantage of that one!

There are now sixteen AVAs within the larger Napa Valley AVA, each in theory, capable of producing wine different from its neighbors.  Unfortunately those terroirs replete with benches and fans and other singularities are largely irrelevant because with few exceptions, winemakers are all aiming for the ubiquitous international style of Cabernet Sauvignon.  Since most of Napa Valley is now owned by investors from somewhere else the profit motive trumps natural distinction.


Please join us this Thursday the 24th of May at 5pm when Quinton Lucia of WX Brands presents the wines of Jamieson Ranch of Napa Valley.  Quinton represents Jamieson Ranch in a number of states on the east coast so this tasting should be an informative event.

Then on Saturday afternoon of this holiday weekend we will open a great Napa Cabernet Sauvignon here at the store.  Please join us. 

 


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Altocedro

Altocedro (old cedars) is a wonderful Argentine property located in La Consulta in the Uco Valley in southern Mendoza.  We're writing about it here because we happen to have a stack of three of their fine reds in the store right now (hint, hint).  This boutique winery uses hand harvested, terroir-driven, sustainably farmed fruit in an ultra-modern gravity flow facility that then turns to concrete fermentation tanks before oak aging.  Classy.

At 33 degrees latitude La Consulta is the wine growing district where Altocedro is located.  The Uco Valley begins about an hour's drive south of the city of Mendoza and extends for about forty-five miles southward.  It is about fifteen miles wide.  What sets La Consulta apart from the larger valley and the even larger Mendoza appellation is its altitude of 3,772 feet above sea level.  At that elevation the air and water are pristine and the long growing season there offers fully two hundred fifty days of sunshine.  The climate is hot and dry and the wines are all organic by default since at that elevation there are no pests!

The Tunuyan River is the essential element that makes this region a destination for wine industry professionals and connoisseurs alike.  Mendoza, for all practical purposes, is a desert with a stony, sandy surface over alluvial soils of clay and rock.  Drainage is optimal in such soils that are obviously the result of erosion from the Andes.  Similarly the river is melt from the mountains.

Wine making here began as early as the 1500s when Spanish settlers brought vine cuttings from Chile.  Three hundred years later Malbec and other vinifera vines were brought from France. Then in the 1980's Nicholas Catena from that great wine making family furthered the science by blending wines from plantings at different altitudes (to 5,000 ft!) to delineate the existing microclimates.

Now here are today's vocabulary words: diurnal effect or thermal amplitude, which mean pretty much the same thing as far as I can tell.  Both terms refer to the desired dramatic temperature swing from afternoon highs to pre-dawn lows that wine makers love. Why is that so important?  Because in order for grapes to achieve the desired balance of high sugars and acids (phenolic ripeness) a pronounced swing is necessary.  For Mendocino grapes that means deep color, intense floral aromas, and rich flavors.

And that's why the great reds of Altocedro should be your next purchase!


Please join us in a tasting of Altocedro reds and others this Thursday the 17th starting at 5pm.  The following Thursday, by the way, features Quinton Lucia of WX Brands with a presentation of the wines of Jamieson Ranch of Napa Valley.                         


Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Punch

One of my favorite wine experiences is that of getting whacked by the acidic punch of a light dry white wine and if that experience happens on a hot summer afternoon, well, all the better!  You know what I'm talking about.  You've bitten into a lemon, lime or grapefruit and have felt your face recoil in that delectable horror of losing, at the very least, your composure and at the most, what you know to be your self hood!  Suddenly you are no longer the actor on the stage but rather the one being acted upon...by a piece of fruit yet!

While the wines I'm talking about could be from the interior of any wine producing continent, if you really want to get whacked, go to the coasts where wines tend to whack seafood quite well.  "Green, crisp, lively, tangy, and clean" are all the right adjectives for the experience we're talking about here.  Sometimes, I swear, you can even taste the salinity in the air in the wines of those places.  Heck, go to Italy where the whole country is coastline and they're always coming up with new (to us) old wine grapes like Pecarino.  Go to the French Mediterranean and have a glass of Picpoul.  Or to South Africa for some Steen.

Or you could go to Rias Baixas, Spain for Albarino like we did here last week with our tour guide, Brian Espanol.  That excursion went quite well, especially after a stop at the cheese table for some Idiazabol and Manchego!  Aye Charamba!

Join us here this Thursday after 5 as David Rimmer takes us to the coast of Brittany for a taste of Muscadet which punches as well as any of them.  Not Muscadine or Muscatel or Muscato despite the name similarities, this one is a lean, mean punching machine!  Wanna go a round or two?  Be here Thursday between 5 and 7pm.  And bring your boxing gloves!

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Wine Preservers

Last week we got in an order of Vacuvin pumps and stoppers and Private Preserve gas, wine preservation tools which will probably end up just being used here by yours truly.  The Vacuvins will trickle out over time but just about the entire case of gas will remain on the shelf here where I will use it to preserve the many bottles we open for tastings.

So why don't such things sell better?  The most common response to my sales pitch for them is that the customer doesn't need such a tool, as in, "There's never any wine left in the bottle at the end of the evening."  Can't argue with that.  You don't need it then.  I bet though, that on occasion everyone could at least save some for the next day.

"Vacuvin" is the most common tool for preserving wine.  It is the small, usually white, plastic vacuum pump that sucks air out of a partially filled bottle using the Vacuvin proprietary rubber stopper.  That stopper has an escape slit on top where the air exits leaving a vacuum in the bottle above the wine surface thereby preventing oxidation.  This is the tool I have used for most of my time in the wine business.

About ten years ago I became sold on "Private Preserve" which is a spray can blend of nitrogen, argon, and carbon dioxide.  Their propaganda asserts that Vacuvin only removes 75% of the air in a bottle and the heavier-than-air Private Preserve, when sprayed into a partial bottle, completely covers the existing wine surface.

"Coravin" is the most recent addition to wine preservation and it is remarkable indeed.  It is most applicable for tasting expensive bottles over time and not losing anything to the atmosphere.  Rather than try to describe the apparatus here, stop in and we'll demonstrate it for you.  If you have three hundred dollars burning a hole in your pocket we'll even get you one!

So air is the enemy of wine in an opened bottle.  If you choose not to use one of the options above, your wine may be fine the next day.  While wine starts to deteriorate as soon as you open the bottle, some go down faster than others.  Usually by the third day, the quality is pretty much gone.  Refrigeration helps to preserve wine although in some PC circles that is just plain unacceptable.

So what do I do?  I gas 'em and refrigerate them overnight before bringing them out the next morning to warm up.  Works for me!


Please join us here at the store this Thursday the 3rd of May at 5pm when Brian Espanol joins us for a tasting from his fine wine portfolio.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Fifteen Dollars

Last September Lettie Teague wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal lauding what fifteen dollars can get you in the way of a nice bottle of wine.  It was the kind of article that makes you scratch your head, not because you're confused by the assertion but rather because it's so obvious, you wonder why you hadn't thought of it yourself.

In the article she mentions the cost of movie tickets (or for that matter any kind of entertainment ticket) and food, especially food that is associated with the entertainment venue.  She might as well have just said food in general since a nice fifteen dollar bottle of wine really is a bargain compared to current grocery store food prices.

I remember reading an article quite a while ago that maintained that getting the ten percent discount on a case purchase was really much more substantial than we realized.  It's like getting a bottle and a half free on a case, or something like that, and compared to other volume discounts, that's a lot!  Today that assertion pales by comparison to the basic pricing of wine circa 2018.  Ever since the recession of 2008, wine pricing in general has been a bonafide bargain compared to practically anything else.  It has to do with global overproduction and competition and that is probably the real backstory to the fifteen dollar wine assertion.

I also remember from ten or so years ago when oil prices skyrocketed and overnight food prices seemed to double.  It was supposed to be cause and effect.  Once the oil prices stabilized the food prices would drop down again.  Yeah, right.

So if we stay with a discussion of food and wine, let's see what fifteen dollars will get us in a nice wine that might go well with pizza, which I'm quite sure would cost upwards of fifteen dollars.  In the store right now we have Riojas, Cotes du Rhones, Malbecs, a Pinotage, and a particularly nice Washington State red blend, all for fifteen dollars or less.  From Italy, which seems appropriate considering our pizza  purposes, we have Montepulcianos, Chiantis, and a particularly special little red from Manduria which is exceedingly close geographically to Campania where pizza originates.  The Primitivo (Zinfandel) we're talking about is a Wine Spectator Top 100 selection and retails here for a mere fifteen smackeroos!

Now that's a deal!  The perfect wine for the purpose!  And it's just fifteen dollars!

Last Saturday Importer Taylor Carmichael presented his Fantini Italians which were really quite good at a mere ten dollars each.  Then last Thursday Nick Simonetti did ten dollar Bulgarians.  Please join us this Thursday at 5pm when Bob Reynolds offers up a fine Pinot Gris from Oregon and three reds, one each from Spain, Chile, and California and if you think the Chilean will be a cheapie...guess again!

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

2008 Nicolis Amarone della Valpolicella

Amarone is one tough nut to crack.  It's one of the great wines of Italy (and the world) but seems a bit too foreign for some of our tastes.  Corvina is the primary grape of Amarone and it contributes sour cherry flavor and acidity to the blend.  The Corvinone and Rondinella grapes both contribute herbal flavors and color while a number of minor grapes may yet be added to round out the blend.  All of the constituent grapes are native to the region which explains in part why Amarone has a marketing problem in this country.  No one has ever heard of these things.

A big, full-bodied, high alcohol, tannic red wine, Amarone is a far cry from the more common lighter, simpler Valpolicella version.  By drying the grapes in the appassimento method, the flavors, colors, and tannins all become concentrated in this rich world class red wine.  A sweeter Recioto version is also made as is the Ripasso Valpolicella which may be considered a half-way measure between regular Valpolicella and Amarone.

So how do we get the word out about this stuff?

Sometimes the trees get in the way of seeing the forest.  In a WSJ article from January 27-28 of last year Lettie Teague laments the difficulty of pairing Amarone with our typical American cuisine.  Me?  I thinks she doth anguish unnecessarily.   That and we may be missing something fundamental here.

In her position with the WSJ in New York, Teague is probably accustomed to top flight estate Amarones that are in fact more suited to the cuisine of northeastern Italy.  Now however half of all Amarone is made in co-ops and those versions are lighter with forward red fruit accents and softer tannins and that makes all of the difference.  They're also lower in price and that too makes a heckuva lot of difference for vox populi.

So, in short, traditional Amarone needs traditional Italian foods but also compliments most aged cheeses magnificently and according to Sandro Boscaini, president of Masi Agricola, if you couple that cheese with a teaspoon of acacia honey and chase it with your Amarone, well...Voila!  Instant self-actualization!  As for the co-op Amarones, try them with any pork dish and other everyday red meat and poultry dishes.  Amarone is now accessible!

As for our Nicolis of the post title, that one is great but it is somewhat old world earthy so break out the cheese and honey!

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Value Wines

This is so obvious it hurts.

I was scrolling around one of those news websites that's sort of like the USA Today of the internet in that it was not so much about news as it was about entertainment.  Maybe I was looking for the Think and Do page.  Anyway, I found a wine column that asks the question, "What's the best way to make sure you're not overpaying for wine?"

Simple enough, I thought.  Then reading on, the writer said to look for wines from the parts of the world that don't have esteemed (high priced) models, and I thought of Chile and Spain.  And yes, I know there are expensive Spanish and Chilean wines...just not as a rule.  If ninety-eight percent of what we get here is under twenty dollars, then the chances of overpaying is greatly reduced, especially if you recognize the value in the twelve dollar wines from those places.

So just to make sure the point is made: If you buy a fifty dollar Bordeaux you should get a righteously fine red wine.  But it might not be fifty dollars worth of fineness.  But if you bought the twenty dollar Spanish red you are probably going to be more than pleased with the quality those guys put in their moderately priced bottle.

I am reminded here of my old friend who went to the fine wine shop in Buckhead and bought three older vintage red Burgundies at $250 each.  They all turned out to be tainted.  When he went back to the store with the bottles (with tainted wine still inside) he was informed that that store's policy was not to replace them or refund the payment.  All sales final, I guess.

Regarding older vintages of wines from great appellations, that store's policy is commonplace and understandable.  Retailers want to stay in business and some customers either don't get it or purposely take advantage in these situations.  All the more reason to purchase with care.

In the store right now we have two twenty-five dollar Chilean Cabernets and several Spanish and Chileans reds in the ten to twelve dollar range.  If you're interested, cite this article for a discount on them the next time you're in the store.


On Thursday March 29th, Frogtown winery will be here for a tasting of their fine product.  Then two days later on Saturday the 31st, Taylor Carmichael of Empson Imports will be here for a tasting from his Italian portfolio.  The Thursday tastings are from 5-7pm; the Saturday event starts at 1pm.  Please join us!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Scarbolo Sauvignon Blanc

"Tropical fruit and peaches along with spicy nuances wrapped in a supple, structured-yet-creamy body."  Or something like that.  The point is Scarbolo Sauvignon Blanc is just plain awesome.  That was my immediate reaction two weeks ago after tasting it.  I don't think I even completely exhaled after tasting it before making my breathless pronouncement.  It was honestly that good.

Hailing from Friuli in the most northeast corner of Italy where Sauvignon Blanc has been made for centuries, Scarbolo continues in the longstanding viticultural traditions there.  The grapes are hand harvested from the cool high elevation Guyot-trained Sauvignon Blanc vineyards which actually reside above the clouds.  At that height grapes receive full sun without overheating yielding full phenolic complexity and aromatic depth before the grapes' sugars peak.  Guyot (cane) pruning, where only the trunk of the vine is left brown, protects the vine from frost and limits the budding on the shoots that emerge further qualifying the fruit to follow.

Fifty percent of the Scarbolo Sauvignon Blanc harvest is immediately fermented in whole clusters while the remainder is de-stemmed but left on the skins for a twenty-four hour cold soak before pressing.  The fermentation is done in stainless steel at controlled temperatures followed by aging on the lees for six months with frequent batonnages (stirring).

...and that's how you make exemplary Sauvignon Blanc! 

The only problem is...we don't have any at this time!  However it is on order and may be here when you come by next.  In the meantime we have new Sauvignon Blancs from Patricia Green of Oregon, Bernardus of Monterey, and Henri Bourgeois of the Loire Valley of France.  Folks, these brands take a back seat to no one which means you're simply going to have to stop in for them now!


This Thursday at 5pm former sommelier, Erik Schmitt, offers us a tasting here of Roussanne white wine from Yangarra Estate, McLaren Vale, Australia and three reds: Andre Brunel Cotes du Rhone, Coppo "L'Avvocata" Barbera d'Asti, and Scattered Peaks Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.  Please join us for the tasting. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Sauvignon Blanc

Unless you're buying New Zealand wine the problem with Sauvignon Blanc in general is you don't know what you're getting.  Eh, maybe not so much with French wine.  But certainly with California wine and others around the globe, it's like the wine making cultures have gotten schizophrenic when it comes to making what should be a fairly simple wine style.

When you buy New Zealand wine you know you're getting a boatload of citrus flavors in a soft round often off-dry package.  It's cocktail wine.  Even considering any Bordeaux blending, with French wine you're getting minerality, flowers and fruit, acidity and lightness of body.  Dinner wine.  The superior Chilean and South African styles also seem to have settled loosely on what their products should be.  So maybe it is just California that doesn't seem to have it's act together.  Which isn't to say there isn't great Sauvignon Blanc there.  It's just a matter of knowing if what's in the bottle will marry well with your occasion.

Once again our inspiration for this post comes from Lettie Teague of the WSJ and she wrote twice last year about this subject.  In one article she posited two modal centers in Sauvignon Blanc styles; one being the New Zealand style mentioned above, the other being that of French Sancerre, arguably the finest Sauvignon Blanc in the world.  She also described modal examples of inexpensive ($10-$15) Sauvignon Blanc as "zesty and bright" while an obscenely priced example may be considered "layered and age-worthy".  Eh, I don't know about that.

Sauvignon Blanc is probably my favorite white type and with my forty year industry window to take it all in, I must conclude that superior Sauvignon Blanc should reside in the $15-$25 range and should be characterized by all of those adjectives listed above except the "layered and age-worthy " business.  Sauvignon Blanc should be light.  The $10-$15 bottles should indeed be zesty and bright and all examples at any price should be both food-friendly and July-in-Georgia porch-sitting wine!  I don't ask for much, do I?

This Thursday the 8th at 5pm Ted Fields offers us a tasting of four from his fine European portfolio including Chateau Peneture White Bordeaux, Sursum Primitivo/Montepulciano and Ujliese Negromara/Sangiovese Italian Red Blends, and Fina Spanish Red Priorat.  Please join us for that one. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Does Size Matter?

Once again taking our cue from Lettie Teague in a Wall Street Journal article from a year ago, we ponder the question, "What the heck difference does it really make whether a wine company is a big corporation or a mom and pop?"  Does size really matter?  Do the soulless conglomerates that effectively run the commercial wine industry deserve credit for making a better product than the guy on the tractor farming his forty acres?  Or is the soulful little guy better by definition?

The question is perhaps more relevant today than ever before.  The conglomerates own the chain store wine departments while that guy on the tractor is very possibly stretched to the limit financially mired in a career that wasn't supposed to be this hard.  Bucolic setting.  Simple life.  Do the rudimentary chores in the vineyard and when the time is right make the wine and God willing...it is good! Voila!

If only it was that easy.

The corporate guys have it all over our tractor guy in every way.  They have teams of employees managing the vineyards and making the wines and those vineyards aren't vineyards in any way like the tractor guy has and the wineries bear no resemblance to the farm wineries.  We're talking industrial farming over great expanses and wineries that look more like oil refineries, all of which provide the wherewithal to make things happen even in bad years.  It just doesn't seem fair.

So let's get to the point.  What about the product?  Which is better, small production or large?

My thirty-eight years or so in the business inform me that what the big guys have done is nothing short of amazing.  Back in the sixties and seventies jug wine quality (and that's what it was back then) was hardly palatable compared to boutique quality and that's putting it nicely.  So the quality leap accomplished by the large scale producers that we see today clearly outdistances the boutiques who frankly didn't have to leap at all since they were already there.  With advanced technology and the brain power to operate it, the big guys have clearly won the race.  That and the dollars to buy the boutiques they wanted to fill their portfolios kind of guarantees their success.  So the bad rap the corporate guys get needs to be relegated to the dustbin of history.

What the big guys cannot claim is authenticity or distinction of place of origin which is antithetical to the basic mass marketing model of wine production.  In order to please most tasters one must not offend anyone so the product has to fit the profile the popular palate appreciates.  That the giants do quite well.  So the fifty and hundred dollar Cabernets live up to industry-set standards and Joe Six Pack gets a pretty darn good everyday bottle of wine at the end of the day.  And this is good.


Please join us this Thursday at 5pm when David Rimmers pours tastes of two fine whites, Roussanne and Viognier, and two great reds, Cotes du Rhone (Syrah!) and Savennieres les Beaune (Pinot Noir).  These wines are new offerings to this marketplace and should display authenticity.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Wine Business

Back in March of 2014 we posted about the 2013 film documentary, Somm, which I thoroughly enjoyed, albeit guiltily as the four main characters obsessed in their pursuit of the Master Sommelier credential.  Not only was that pursuit expensive ($2,000+ per test) but the accrued knowledge to pass the test seemed to be more about a drive for self-satisfaction than about practical vocational information.  But the wine business can be like that.  If we're in it we tend to get caught up in the minutiae.

Today we're posting about the far from glamorous grunt work of the wine business and once again we're taking our cue from Lettie Teague of the Wall Street Journal from an article entitled "A Closer Look at the Making of a Sommelier."  In that article Teague says the physical work often leads to an early retirement from the profession by age fifty.  Really?  I'm way older than that and I'm still hefting cases.

Also in the article she says the pay isn't that good (unless you're in a great restaurant) and there is continual pressure to "upsell" your patrons.  Frankly, your raison d'etre is to increase the revenues at the end of the day and that increase really needs to be substantial enough to justify your employment.  I think that comes closer to the truth about why sommeliers get out of the business.  Are you starting to see where I'm going here?  It's a job with performance pressures like any other.

The wine business attracts all kinds of personalities.  What we all have in common is we all get the wine bug, that romantic notion that there is more to the stuff than just getting an alcoholic buzz.  We want to learn about the history, chemistry, agriculture, and anything else that's culturally related to wine and we want to feel accomplished in this field we have chosen.  Then we take a job and reality whacks us in the face.  It's a job.

Most sommeliers and other restaurant people (and retailers) who are interested in this field end up working for distributors, importers, brokers or other businesses further up the wine food chain.  Not only is that where the money is but if one of your values is self-determination then that's where you want to be.  Me?  I just don't have good sense.


This Thursday at 5pm James Murray leads us in a tasting of 2016 Scarbolo Italian Sauvignon Blanc, 2015 Zorzal Argentine Malbec, 2015 Domaine du Somali Minervois and 2014 "A Proper Claret" from Bonny Doon of California.  Please join us. 

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Pecorino (the wine, not the cheese)

You learn something new every day it seems.  This week I learned about an Italian wine grape called Pecarino which has nothing in common with the Pecarino cheese except I am told they go well together.  I learned about Pecarino wine by way of a vendor tasting here last week.  There were three Italian whites in the lineup and the Pecarino was clearly the winner as far as I was concerned.  It was straw-yellow in color, floral in the nose, and minerally and fruity yet dry to the taste, which brings us to what is wrong with Italian white wines in general.

First of all let me say that Italian white wines are some of the finest white wines on earth;  fine, being the operative term here.  You talk about subtlety and nuance!  Treat these wines with the utmost respect.  Serve these wines on your finest platter before dinner!  What's wrong with Italian whites, with all humility, is there are so many that are so similar (in that fine sort of way) that the poor retailer can't stock them all for a wine-buying public that is not yet ready for that degree of fineness (finesse).

Compounding this logjam of delicacy is the fact that the Pinot Grigio category is way too successful.  It surpassed Chardonnay in sales in this store long ago.  It's hard to get around that sales monster to offer the legions of others that no one has ever heard of, wines that are much more European in style than the Pinots that are shipped here.  Their lightly acidic structure frankly yields a winier flavored product in contrast with the forward cocktail pinots we like so much.  These alternative Italian whites really need a table setting with seafood entrees and sauces to show their potential.

Pecarino also has a great story behind it.  The name comes from the culinary habits of the sheep in Central Italy.  Pecarino means "little sheep" and those guys apparently loved to dine on the sweet wild grapes of the region to the point where the low yielding Pecarino grapevines have had to be propagated back to commercial viability from near extinction.  That effort was begun in the 1980's and now yields the high quality dinner wine we have in the store now.


Please join us at 5pm Thursday the 15th for a tasting of Italian wines.  Brian Espaniol leads us in a tasting of one Pinot Grigio and three blended reds.  Not coincidentally Italian cheeses will be on the table!

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Syrah and California Pinot Noir

I can't believe it's been over two months since I've posted!  While the holidays have certainly been a factor in this lapse, other interests must have tripped me up from fulfilling my obligations here.  Anyway here's what I'm thinking about now...

Some of the finest big red wines in the world come from the northern Rhone Valley of France and by definition those wines are Syrah-based.  North of the Rhone Valley lies Mecca, Burgundy, where the finest Pinot Noir in the world originates.  While Syrah works wonderfully as a blending grape, Pinot Noir, by virtue of its stature in the wine world, stands alone as a varietal.  Except...when the rules have been broken and the two are mixed together.

The rules, by the way, are French rules.  Laws, actually.  Syrah is not allowed to be blended into Burgundian Pinot Noir.  Not even in a bad vintage when the pinot could use a little beefing up with the stronger Syrah.

In California things are different.  If a California wine is labeled as Pinot Noir it only needs to be 75% pinot.  The other 25% can be anything, but because Syrah is such a wonderful blending grape it seems to have become the go-to for that purpose.

So what does Syrah add to Pinot Noir?  Syrah from cooler climes offers blackberry, mint, black pepper and tannin or, my favorite description, violets and tar.  Syrah from warmer climes gives a blend soft tannins, jammy fruit, licorice, anise, and leather.  Does that description sound familiar?

From their own website Meiomi Pinot Noir is described as having "blackberry, black current, dark chocolate, cola, espresso, and vanilla."  According to princeofpinots.com it also has approximately three times the sweetness of French pinot.  So what's going on here?

In 2011 Constellation Brands, the second largest wine company in the world bought Meiomi from Joe Wagner of Caymus fame, for $315 million dollars.  Whenever a label like Meiomi changes hands it usually is just the label that is being sold.  Constellation already owns enough Pinot Noir vineyards and they don't need the winery.  They also own Mega Purple, the most popular branded additive used in domestic wine making.  Mega Purple is a grape concentrate that is capable of covering a multitude of sins in mediocre wines.  So that in combination with likely 25% Syrah will yield the style of wine marketed as the domestic industry leader, Meiomi.

In the wine business we say, "You have to sell it."  In this case the makers of Meiomi have done a wonderful job of selling their product.  In our store at this time we have two Meiomi knockoffs according to princeofpinots.com, Diora and Mark West Black.  Diora is priced similarly to Meiomi while the Mark West is half that price.  So if Meiomi is your cup of tea stop in and try our Diora or Mark West.  Maybe they're even better than Meiomi!


This Thursday at 5pm David Rimmer joins us for a tasting of three Italian reds and a French Sancerre.  David has the best wine portfolio in this market so we strongly urge you to be here for the tasting.  Please join us!