Thursday, October 30, 2014

The California Drought

California is the place a whole lot of us love to hate.  If it isn't Hollywood or Haight-Ashbury it's that smugly aloof "I'm-from-California" demeanor that just rubs this writer a hundred eighty degrees the wrong way.  Having lived out there for close to three years, I think I can truthfully say, I'd rather be in Georgia!

So now that I have that off my chest, let's get to the matter at hand.  The drought in California appears to be of the scale that could alter things there permanently.  For virtually all of the twentieth century, California has used water it didn't actually have.  Now that over-usage plus the drought plus global warming makes the future look downright bleak.  And it is...even though some forecasters see a righting of the ship if and when the drought breaks.  Eventually though, long term, global warming will alter things permanently (Blogpost 5/20/13).

The following few paragraphs on the drought are largely taken from USDA and University of California Davis publications.

The worst California drought on record dates back to 1849.  2014 is the worst year since then.  Because agriculture is so important to the California economy, much of the pain is being absorbed by urban areas where water restrictions are firmly in place.  I actually lived in California during a drought in the late seventies and the citizenry responded admirably without a mandate from government.  This drought though is, of course, much worse than that one with 17,000 jobs believed to have been lost across the state.  Those laid off employees from vulnerable businesses are the human toll represented in the current inflated poverty numbers.

Agriculture as a category includes both produce and dairy, not to mention the wine industry, and with limited water resources to draw from, major decisions have had to be made.  This year agricultural losses have been pegged at 203 million dollars.  If the drought doesn't break, next year could double that.  Planning now includes diverting water to high value crops like almonds, walnuts, and pomegranates, ceding the more staple crops to other states, which brings up a new realization for me.  California is the dairy capitol of the country but they actually have only 21% of the national business which tells me we are more diversified than I had realized.  Wisconsin, by the way, still leads in cheese.

Eighty-three percent of California's cattle are located in the eight counties that make up the San Joaquin Valley which are all Category 4 (extreme drought) areas.  Fifty-seven percent of livestock production is dairy and California's milk production is currently at record levels with prices maintaining at the retail level.  Because pastures will dry up without adequate irrigation, hay and alfalfa prices are expected to increase next year by as much as 40%.  Still, because dairy is so diversified nationwide, prices nationally are not anticipated to increase appreciably.

So what about wine?  Well, there's actually good news there for now.  Droughts are good for serious wine lovers.  They mean smaller berries with more concentrate juice to be fermented into wines with higher sugars and flavors concentrated proportionally to pulp and skin contact.  Moreover because the wine industry has been proactive with the installation of water efficiency technologies, groundwater levels may be spared through the drought.  Wine grapes are dought tolerant by nature so drier sunnier weather will ripen them sooner for an earlier harvest and faster production time.  The drought years of 2012-13 in Napa and Sonoma were rated 96 as a vintage by the Wine Advocate.

Please join us Friday October 31st for a tasting of fine red wines from Spain, Italy, California, and Chile.  And for gosh sakes, become a follower of this here blog!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Shelf Talkers

In the retail wine business we call those mini-reviews that are taped to wine shelves, shelf talkers.  They are meant to both inform and entice the shopper to try that particular bottle.  A good one will offer sound objective and pointed observations with a little subjective something that utters "come hither".  On September 28-29, 2013, Lettie Teagues wrote about these things in a WSJ article titled, "Wine-Tasting Notes Don't Need to Overflow", which pretty much sums it up but I'll continue to expound on the subject anyway.

Authorship of shelf talkers in my experience is usually anonymous.  Teagues, however, knows who writes many of them among her wine writing colleagues and others in the business.  I won't name those people here but I will classify them using a couple of generalized categories.  We'll call the flowery prose shelf talker writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and he's the talented individual who probably feels he missed his calling as a writer of great works.  Now he's taking it out on the rest of us who are just shopping for wine and not in the least interested in his narcissistic and tortured verbiage.  We'll call the opposite approach, the one that uses the fewest words and most direct commentary, Martin Scorcese, which is a little unfair to the writer since Scorcese tends to make his points in film with blunt instruments.  All other shelf talkers are some combination of Scorcese and Fitzgerald.

As I said above, most shelf talkers are anonymously written, sometimes by store employees and sometimes by wine customers courtesy of the internet.  These, of course, range from frustrated Scorceses and Fitzgeralds to embarrassingly amateurish efforts that should never be hanging in stores.  I never thought about hanging my own tasting observations in this store because as I have said many times, I don't have a great palate.  I know what good wine tastes like because of my many years in the business but I have been humbled enough through the years to know I was not blessed that way.

Or am I?  Or are you?

Shelf talkers are by definition short, fifty words or less.  They should be fresh and personal, yet objective.  They should be utilitarian even boring, yet inspirational.  They should open the door just a crack to give a glimpse of what's inside without revealing the contents of the thing.  I can do that, sort of.  The qualities to note objectively include body, color, aroma, oak/steel, tannins/no tannins, flavors on the palate, structure/balance, finish and food affinities.  All of that should be objective, but for the palate-challenged among us, the aromas, flavors, and food affinities may be a problem.  Let's also own up to our personal biases.  Shelf talkers should be affirmative in general; they should sell the product; and they probably should not disagree fundamentally with what most others say about the thing.

Here's the good news on the subject: If you are more of a Scorcese than a Fitzgerald (like most of us), you just may be a budding wine reviewer.  Objectivity is key in the areas that matter; then just a little Fitzgerald window dressing to stimulate curiosity completes the mini-review.  Since I doubt if any readers here are wine retailers, this may be your wine logbook/diary we're talking about.

On Friday the 24th between 5 and 8pm Tommy Basham joins us with a California Wine tasting with high points in Cabernet Sauvignon because I need some good ones in the store at this time!  Please join us.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Jaume Serra Cristolino Brut Rose Cava

The Spanish wine industry just can't get any respect.  Spain has at least as many acres in vineyards as Italy and France but still comes in third in sales behind the other two.  My theory?  France and Italy are just way more familiar to us historically and culturally and that includes American fandom for the food and wine culture specific to each.  Spain remains a distant third in all of these things, hence their wine sales suffer.  If all things were equal and pricing stayed the same, I bet Spain wins the race.

That last line about pricing is actually key to appreciating what Spain brings to the table, so to speak.  Specifically, since we're talking about Spanish sparkling wine here, may I say the twelve dollar Cavas that are so widely distributed in America are, in the main, comparable to similar twenty dollar California wines and certainly heads and shoulders better than sparklers from anywhere else.  They are boldly flavored and dry, which sets them apart from those everso popular easy drinking Proseccos, but breeding shows when compared to new world sparklers.  The Spanish are much classier.

Cristolino Brut Rose is our subject here today and it is without question the best value in sparkling wine...period.  If it were twice its $8.50 retail it would still be a bargain.  How on earth anyone can make a methode champenoise Pinot Noir-based sparkler so inexpensively, is beyond my comprehension.  The charm of this wine lies in its aromas, flavor profile, balance, mouthfeel, finish, and color and bead in the glass.  Basically everything is right about this one.

The Cristolino Rose is a blend of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Trepat, an ancient indigenous grape variety.  The wine spends eighteen months on the lees before bottling and fermention using Champagne yeasts.  The resultant wine is a dark orange-tinged pink in color with aromas of spiced red currant and cranberry, strawberry/raspberry, anise, fresh dough, and steely minerality.  On the palate the wine displays even more lively fresh red fruits (pomegranate?) with herbs and spices, finishing moderately long with silky flowery notes.  This wine is complex.

Is this the perfect wine of its kind?  Well, yes and no.  If you are a Francophile when it comes to sparklers, Cristolino is bolder with stronger flavors and it is less dry but the bead is consistent and classy with bubbles that don't attack the nose.  Because of its breadth, one reviewer recommended serving this wine in white wine glasses instead of flutes.  Food pairings would include fresh fruit and salads, appetizers, picnic fare, and light desserts.

Now for the fun part.  In the 1990s Cristolino, which was established in 1943, was sued by Roederer Cristal for copyright infringement.  The case went on for years before Cristolino won...I guess.  The judge ruled that Cristolino had to place a sizeable disclaimer on their label saying they were "not affiliated in any way with Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne".  The irony is inescapable.  In an effort to keep a similar name off an inexpensive Spanish Cava, the great French Champagne company now has a court-enforced name placement right on the front label...and who the heck thought it was affiliated in the first place?

Please join us at our next Friday 5-8pm wine tasting here at the store when Tommy Basham of Georgia Crown Distributing entertains us with a presentation of fine California Wines and become a follower of this blog, for Pete's sake, unless of course, you want to be sued for blog enfringement.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Natural Wine

Lettie Teagues, wine writer for the Wall Street Journal, is my favorite source for blogpost ideas.  I just leaf through her old columns and something she has written clicks with a current theme here or it's a potential new theme that she has already developed for me.  On July 6-7, 2013 she wrote about "The Actual Facts Behind the Rise of Natural Wine", which thematically coinicides with recent posts here and introduces a new term since I have never heard of "natural wine" before now.

As it turns out, natural wine is pretty much what it sounds like.  It is pretty much the opposite of the mass marketed industrial wines that line the grocery store shelves.  But it is at this point that the issue becomes a little clouded.  Teagues cites several authorities in the trade who all define natural wine differently and we begin to see how, with the best of intentions, a rebellion against modern interventions in winemaking can devolve into dissention over trivialities, losing sight of the goal, and just abandoning principle for marketing value.

The trivialities go directly to the meaning of the term, natural wine.  Some in the wine trade would insist the wine must have no additives or chemical adjustments.  Some say no commercial yeasts.  Some say only organically grown grapes may be used.  Some, biodynamic.  Some, vegan (no fining with egg whites).  Some, no added sulphites.  And so on ad nauseam.

When I say this debate loses sight of the goal which is to produce a healthful and good tasting meal accompaniment, I am reminded of our recent post on Michael David wines and the "Lodi Rules".  Those rules enabled grape growers to label their wines "sustainable" by using a composite score covering a number of categories without having to score 100% on everything like the organic growers do.  That 100% costs the consumer an extra 20% at the register.  Moreover according to David Phillips of Michael David, using one specific chemical in the vineyards to target spider mites makes much more sense than the organic treatment which kills more than the targeted one.

Then there is the cynicism of knowing that for some in the trade, words like "natural" on a wine label are really there for their marketing value.  If you take that point of view one step further, it indicates a predatory ideology on the part of the producers to dupe idealistic and naive customers.  Sulfur dioxide added to wine as a preservative of color and flavor against oxidation is the number one enemy of natural wine lovers who believe minimally it can cause headaches in some people.  Conversely however sulfur dioxide is also an effective prophylactic against the side effects of biogenic amines that can occur in wines.

Teagues concludes her article with a quote from William James, "The art of being wise is knowing what to overlook."  If what we really value is a chemical-free product, then natural is for us.  If first and foremost what we want is good tasting wine, we may want to moderate our personal purity rules.

This Friday Allen Rogers of Atlanta Beverage Company returns with a tasting of wines from California portfolio.  Please join us.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Wine Chemistry

My good customer recently brought a September 22, 2014 article to my attention entitled "A Taste of Wine Science: Researchers zero in on flavor molecules, ponder ways to control them during production" by Lauren K. Wolf.  This chemistry magazine article basically falls into two halves as the title says.  The first half being the "zeroing in"; the second, a potential reconstituting of wine once the flavor and aroma molecules have been isolated.

Wine lovers aren't like sausage lovers by the way.  We really don't want to know how the stuff is made...for romantic reasons.  We want to believe wine is "made" in the vineyards with limited human intervention in the winery.  What's more, that winery is small and set in some bucolic hinterland somewhere tucked away from the corrupting influences of the world.  Sausage making involves slaughterhouses and animal parts we would rather not know about being crammed into intestinal skins...FYI.

In actuality science is a part of the modern winemaking process year round, as much in the vineyard as in the winery.  Moreover as a retailer, I can tell you that science and chemistry are affecting the flavor of a wine long after it leaves the winery and enters the marketplace and even as it rests in your home before finding its way to the dinner table, but I guess that's a different blogpost. 

In this article, researchers identify thousands of chemical compounds in Italian Amarone, a commendable choice for a wine guinea pig if I ever tasted one!  Using a mass spectrometer (whatever that is) they identify thirty-five molecules that essentially simulate the taste and feel of real Amarone.  Further they identify approximately the same molecular amount to capture the Amarone aroma.  When other wine types were dissected similarly, those sixty or so molecules worked the same way in each case.  Unique vineyard conditions altered certain concentrations in molecules in grapes but nothing changed essentially.

The article then turned to studies of vineyards growing the same grapes across continents controlling for viticultural practices.  Among their conclusions were that altitude was more important than rainfall and the solution for methoxypyrazine was pruning foliage for more sunlight on the grapes, which is anticlimactic in a way.  Having isolated the sixty or so molecules, I would have thought they could have used their evil scientist dark side to construct some kind of Frankenstein wine which could have been sold to yuppies to turn them into zombies or something.

Actually I have mixed feelings about the article.  Obviously work like this will lead to improvements in winemaking.  On the other hand I think of that Twilight Zone episode set in a futuristic society that was all about conformity.  The plain looking but thoughtful girl was being pressured to undergo that society's change of appearance and personality to be transformed into a beautiful but clueless babe.  I kind of liked the girl the way she was.  If all wines are cleaned up to fit a one-size-fits-all profile, what do we lose in diversity?  Besides I kind of like a little methoxypyrazine in my wine.

Please join us for Friday's 5 to 8pm tasting and also consider being a follower here or I'll take your essential molecules and turn them into play-doh or something. 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Michael David Winery

Michael David Winery is really quite a story.  Michael and David Phillips are fifth generation brothers in a six generation family success story with origins in vegetable farming in the 1860s.  Fruit farming would be added in the early twentieth century followed by cattle raising before the Phillips' winery was established in 1984.  During Prohibition boxes of Phillips grapes shipped to homes included written advise on "how to not let the grapes turn into wine".  Implicitly we would think today, it was an admonition to have all preparations in place before the winemaking could begin.

The winery is located in Lodi, California, a place we have covered several times here in the past.  Lodi is at the north end of the Central Valley and was little distinguished from the rest of that long north-south valley thirty years ago.  The advent of the Phillips' winemaking venture coincided with a reappraisal of the region which had always had vineyards since the gold rush days.  Now twenty-five percent of all California varietal grapes are grown in Lodi and they're not going into the grocery store jug wines like they were previously.  Moreover the old vine Zinfandel and Petite Sirah vineyards existant since before the turn of the previous century are treasured for what they bring to today's dinner table.

Michael David Winery follows "Lodi Rules" for ecological sustainability which involves third party inspections with multiple tests which eventuate in a composite score.  This system allows for flexibility for growers so scoring isn't dependent on a high threshold for everything.  The Phillips have some certified organic vineyards with grapes they sell to elite wineries but the costs for growing grapes that way are about twenty percent higher than the Lodi Rules.  David Phillips makes the case that with flexibility, growers can use specific chemicals sparingly in conjunction with beneficial bugs to target pests more efficiently than the broader methods the organic farmers use.

Michael David is a company that is somewhat larger than life and over-the-top when it comes to what they put in and on their bottles of wine.  They market wines with names like Earthquake, Inkblot, Petite Petit, Sixth Sense, Freakshow, Incognito, Rapture; and then there are the "sins" like Lust, Sloth, Gluttony, and their 300,000 case monster, 7 Deadly Zins.  Their reds are husky, concentrated, effusive and high alcohol.  The whites are juicy, off-dry, and accessible.  All are made with very ripe fruit and ample oak.  This year we have done really well with a half dozen labels from them including the Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc which we have stacked on the floor at this time.

So why are we writing about this winery at this time?  In part it has to do with my ongoing psychopathology regarding the place of California wines in the overall scheme of world wines.  The Michael David wines typify what I don't like about California wines yet when I tasted them, I liked most of what I tasted, and in all honesty, that's the way it has always been for me.  Someone who calls himself "The Reverse Wine Snob" on the internet says the stuff is "just fun to drink".  Maybe that's the place of California wines in the scheme of things.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


Harlech is a Welsh Cheddar forcefully flavored with horseradish and parsley.  I have sold the cheese for years and have personally enjoyed its fresh, zingy and peppery (even hot) attack especially with cold beer, although "attack" sounds a little harsh since the cheese is actually smooth and creamy.  Reviewers vary when describing the sharpness of the cheddar base which probably means the added flavors mask the essential cheddar taste to the point of confusing the palate.

Harlech is a round disk roughly eight inches in diameter and three inches tall.  It is coated with a thick orange wax, which is a nice color considering the season.  It weighs 2kg or 4.4 pounds.  A large round label covers the top of the cheese with "Harlech Somerdale" appearing in large print.  Somerdale is the leading exporter of British cheeses to the United States and they actually export two hundred fifty cheeses to fifty different countries.  Barbers Cheddar, which we wrote about on September 20th is one of theirs also.  Nowhere on the label does the maker of the cheese appear.  Just for the record, it's Abergavenny Fine Foods of Gwent.

In the middle of the cheese label appears a sizeable soldier carrying a sword and shield which, coupled with his dress and long hair, makes him appear quite medieval.  With just a little research a story begins to unfold about Harlech being a castle in North Wales perched on a cliff overlooking both Snowdonia National Park and the sea.  Harlech Castle is classified as a World Heritage site by UNESCO and "one of the finest examples of 13th and 14th century military architecture in Europe", hence the soldier on the label.

Harlech Castle was commissioned by Edward the king of England and built from local stone by architect Master James of St. George between 1282 and 1289.  Edward was a tall, temperamental and intimidating sovereign who forcefully believed in royal authority and national identity.  Welsh patriots defended their homeland repeatedly against the invading British under Edward over a twenty year period before succumbing to the invaders in 1282.  The castle was to be built as both a fortress and royal palace for the king and a symbol of British permanence in the area.  In 1284 Wales was formally incorporated into England.

In 1301 Edward II was born in the castle and became the first Prince of Wales.  There was an earlier "Prince of Wales" however, one of the Welsh fighters before colonization, and in fact those fighters bore the Harlech name before the construction of the castle, which makes one wonder if the image of the soldier is British and defending the castle or Welsh and defending the homeland.  So is the cheese named after the castle or the Welsh soldiers?

Please join us Friday when Dave Klepinger of Northeast Sales joins us with a tasting of Spanish and South American wines and then on Friday the 10th when Scott Beauchamp of Eagle Rock returns with Italians and California wines. 

Also consider being a follower of this here blog.  Perhaps one day it can all be yours!