Sunday, March 29, 2015

We Who Live in Glass Houses

Courtesy of our legal friend in town, we learned of a story in the New York Times last week about the financial problems of a Napa Valley winery owner and what he did to try to save his business.  We won't mention the winery or owner by name because we, of course, live in glass houses ourselves, but suffice it to say, when we have faced adversity in business, we chose less desperate measures to sustain ourselves than did our compadre in Napa.

Our unfortunate case study began his career in the wine industry servicing both large and small wineries in northern California as an agricultural pest controller.  That soon evolved into managing vineyards which then allowed him to expand his business into buying and selling grapes and bulk wine.  As you can see in this most organic of industries, one thing can lead to another and eventually result in this personable big, burly, and gregarious man now having the product knowledge and industry contacts to parlay into a seat at the winery owner table.

It takes money to make money though and the hard truth in the wine business is that you have to sell the stuff.  That is what I've always heard and that is what I've learned through my own experience.  And if the competition is too tough then you have to get creative, think outside of the box, or get out before the looming inevitable becomes downright inevitable.  In retail one can always outflank one's competition with alternative offerings.  In Napa, the home of some of the world's finest Cabernet Sauvignon, it's a war for those market segment dollars and, as always, the strongest usually survive.  Our subject, meanwhile, proceeded to borrow two million dollars from his in-laws who also enabled a bank loan for an additional million and in 2012, our Mr. X leased his dream winery on the Silverado Trail.

So much of a small business is figuring out how to make things happen.  Our friend managed to get his wines placed on United Airlines Sochi Olympics flights, which may have been moderately profitable but after experiencing the marketing skullduggery of the Atlanta Olympics, that move could have netted nothing.  Our friend also presciently continued his outside vineyard management work to supplement what he expected to make at the winery and that did bolster his project, just not in the way one might expect.

By California wine law, if a wine label says the contents are Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, that bottle must contain at least 75% Napa Cabernet plus another 10% Napa wine, Cabernet or something else, with the remaining 15% being anything from anywhere in the state.  With glaring financial problems staring him in the face, our hero boldly substituted purchased juice from neighboring counties for Napa juice, cutting his costs by as much as two-thirds.  In his vineyard management business, he started altering sources, types, and weights of grapes he sold to others including selling organically farmed product that, in fact, wasn't.  Finally, he surreptitiously diverted partial lots of Oakville and Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon from some of his elite Napa winery clientele into his own already compromised wine.

Now bankrupt, eight million dollars in debt, and facing lawsuits from everyone he victimized; our subject would appear to be a completely unsympathetic figure.  Except is he really?  Should he have known better?  Most definitely.  But he let his vision (and ethics) get clouded. Then denying the slings and arrows that were coming, he continued on a course that bordered on delusional.  Pliny the Elder who documented the devastation of Pompeii 2,000 years ago once said, "Wine is frequently adulterated."  So let's get philosophical as we conclude our look at this modern psychodrama.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

And while we're discussing modern psychodrama, please join us Friday April 3rd after 5pm for a tasting of Tommy Basham wine from Georgia Crown Distributing.  Tommy (as usual) is on the run from lawmen and mobsters, each of which hold him responsible for mayhem committed here and in neighboring states.  If you join us for the tasting we strongly urge you to wear a protective vest of some kind since we cannot be held responsible should anything happen.  We ask for a ten dollar per person donation to taste which is then applicable to a fifty dollar purchase.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Arsenic in Wine?

Our last two posts both concerned healthful benefits from drinking wine in moderation.  Now we're doing a one-eighty after learning last Thursday that some wines contain arsenic of all things.  What gives?  Just how does that happen?

Before we get too creeped out let's consider the extent of the problem.  First of all, while the United States does not regulate arsenic levels in wine, other countries do.  Our neighbor to the north, Canada, sets a standard of 100 parts per billion as its acceptable level.  America regulates arsenic in drinking water at ten parts per billion.  In the lawsuit filed in California that prompted the media to explode on the issue, the water standard was used as a proxy for our lack of wine purity regulations.  The worst arsenic-laced wine offender cited, Franzia boxed White Grenache, had fifty parts per billion, outrageous by the water standard but just half of the threshold set by Canada.

So how does the poison get into wine in the first place?  Organic arsenic is in soils and that is what most countries would find acceptable in minute amounts in wine.  Inorganic arsenic is a by-product of industrial farming and large scale wine making and a hundred times more toxic than the organic type.  Inorganic arsenic can cause many health problems with cancers of the liver and kidneys being among the worst.  In the problematic wines cited, the inorganic arsenic in pesticides may not have been filtered out in the wine making process.  Conversely, since the problematic wines were all inexpensive whites and blush/roses, it could be that the chemicals used to filter and clarify those wines may have been the contaminants themselves.

So on the one hand, the problem of inorganic arsenic in wine is serious and should be exposed. As I said in a Facebook post, "Shame on the producers (for allowing the current situation)."  I read somewhere that four or five glasses daily of the Franzia wine mentioned above would most likely result in serious health problems from the arsenic content.  On the other hand, I also read that apple juice, rice, brussel sprouts, and dark meat fish like tuna and salmon have similar problems with arsenic so it may all be way overblown.

1306 bottles of wine were tested in the study exposing the arsenic.  Eighty-three exceeded the water contamination standard.  Most were two, three, or four times the standard.  The tested wines represented 75% of the wines consumed in America and all were produced by the $23 billion dollar California wine industry.  None of the contaminated wines have ever been sold at Vine & Cheese, by the way.  But being a blue collar guy in the industry, it does bother me that the largest wine companies in the world can't self-regulate well enough to at least avoid the appearance of impropriety.    

Join us on Friday the 27th after 5pm when Teri Skaggs of United Distributors presents Spanish wines from Raimat and Codorniu at our weekly event.  I have known Teri for more than twenty-five years and look forward to hearing her share her accrued product knowledge.  Rest assured, Friday night's wines will be pure!

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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Resveratrol and Red Wine, Part 2

Our last post (Part 1) came about because I fell for the "drinking wine is as good as exercise" study that was recently widely publicized.  The study actually maintained what most of these kinds of studies conclude, that moderate alcohol consumption seems to improve one's health.  Contrary to the headlines, if anything, the study confirmed that exercise was much better for you health-wise than drinking wine.  The popular media gurus just twisted the findings a tad to catch the consumer interest.

So after reading several more articles citing similar studies, I now believe in the health benefits of moderate wine consumption (1-2 glasses per day).  I also believe the intentions of some writers is not so much to inform as to sell magazines.  Some of what I read, in fact, could have passed for promotional literature from the alcoholic beverage industry.

I did learn some new and interesting facts though.  In 1904 the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article citing increased longevity in a study of moderate drinkers.  Oddly enough, today the American Heart Association still does not recommend wine or any alcoholic beverage intake but maybe that's not so odd considering the downside of alcohol abuse.

Cardiovascular disease, the number one killer in America, usually has its onset around age forty-five, which is about the time when it is believed moderate alcohol intake begins to measurably improve health.  Lifestyle changes like weight loss through exercise and diet and the introduction of blood pressure and cholesterol medication complicate the bottom line on alcohol benefits since studies can't realistically control for every lifestyle component.  With exercise being recognized as the most important healthful activity, red wine with meals may be second since it not only aids digestion but moderates food intake.

As we said in the last post, resveratrol in red wine acts as an anti-oxidant, mimicking exercise by increasing HDL (good cholesterol) and removing fatty deposits in blood vessels caused by LDL (bad cholesterol).  Polyphenols, like the tannins in red wine, then add more protection to the linings of vessels to prevent or retard future fat cell growth.  

This Friday, March 20th after 5pm, we'll be tasting a lineup of mostly domestic reds including the new Out Kaste Zinfandel blend from Steele and highlighted by Orin Swift's D66 French centerpiece.  Maso Canali Pinot Grigio will be our white wine headliner.  We ask for a $10 fee to taste or a $50 per person minimum purchase.  Please join us.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Resveratrol and Red Wine

We have covered this ground in the past but the studies keep rolling out new claims for moderate alcohol consumption so let's do our due diligence here to keep our faithful readers updated. Specifically, let's look at the "alcohol consumption is as good as exercise" study from the University of Alberta, Canada.  I mention this one out of utter humility, having recently posted a distorted and oversimplified pop magazine report on the subject on the store's facebook page.

Here are the facts.  This study used laboratory rats separated into four groups: sedentary rats, sedentary rats with resveratrol injections, active rats, and active rats with resveratrol.  In short, the sedentary rats who got resveratrol shots were judged to be 25% healthier than the sedentary rats who did not receive the shots. That is where my magazine report stopped.  What the report didn't say was that the active rats with resveratrol were four times healthier than the sedentary group!

It should be noted, I suppose, that the active/resveratrol group was demonstrably healthier than the active/non-resveratrol group but the larger qualifier here is the resveratrol itself.  As we reported here a year ago (Blogpost 3/12/13), resveratrol is a natural phenolic compound found in red grape skins amongst other places.  Phenolic compounds are synthesized by plants in response to the introduction of pathogens or wounding of some kind.  Resveratrol also simulates enzymes called Sirtuins which are produced by exercise in combination with a healthy diet.  The net result of this wonder drug on the workings of the body are an increase of good cholesterol (HDL) which removes fatty deposits created by bad cholesterol (LDL).  But going back to the study, the exercise was what actually created the primary healthy numbers in the rats while the effect of the resveratrol was statistically significant but marginal by comparison.

To my knowledge there have still been no resveratrol studies on people and the concentrations of the compound for actual healthful effects would have to be huge.  Red wine drinkers may have to consume a hundred glasses a day to get the percentage of resveratrol the rats got!  Still the reports keep rolling in from around the world. Whether it's resveratrol or something else, alcohol consumption in moderation (one or two glasses a day after age 45) appears to be good for you.

Henry Leung was one of the giants of the current wine era in these parts.  Let's call him the "empresario" of educational wine tastings. Henry retired a couple years ago and at about the same time his employer, Hemispheres Global Wines, decided to stop servicing the Gainesville market.  Two weeks ago we implored the company to give us another shot. Hemispheres' strong suit is California wines and that is what Tim Servold, the current empresario, will be pouring here on Friday the 13th of March after 5pm.  Please join us.

Sunday, March 1, 2015


At next Friday's After 5 wine tasting, David Hobbs of Prime Wine & Spirits offers up a tasting of current vintages from Eberle Winery of Paso Robles, California.  That evening we should be tasting examples of Chardonnay along with their award-winning reds: Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Syrah.  Eberle is a hallmark winery of Paso Robles and ranks among the top twenty wineries of California (out of 1,500!) in awards received.

Gary Eberle, the winery's namesake, hales from Pennsylvania where he excelled at both football and academics.  At Penn State via an athletic scholarship, he earned an undergraduate degree in Biology before doing graduate work at LSU.  There he studied Cellular Genetics and that is where one of his professors changed his career trajectory by taking him down to his wine cellar, which happened to be filled with classified growth Bordeaux.  Cabernet Sauvignon became Gary's focus from that point on. With his academic credentials in hand, Gary was accepted into the Oenology program at UC Davis and completed the doctoral program there in 1971.

Early on, Gary Eberle focused on Paso Robles as the terroir he wanted for his wine making.  In 1973 he established Estrella River Winery (now Meridian) where he honed his craft while planning his own Eberle vineyards which would be a sixty-four acre tract just down the road from Estrella.  In 1979 the first Eberle Winery Cabernet Sauvignon was released and the rest is history.  The winery was built in 1984 and in 1994 the only wine caves in Paso Robles were added, eventually a 16,000 square foot accomplishment.

The Eberle wine label is distinguished from others by the prominent placement of a pig front and center.  Actually, a boar, since Eberle is a German name meaning "small boar".

A little over a year ago in January of 2014, Gary Eberle was ousted from his leadership position at his namesake winery.  Between his brother and himself, they had owned 80% of the company stock. That brother, however, now resides in an Alzheimer's facility and Gary's sister-in-law partnered with two minority investors to own 52% of the company combined.  Gary was informed that his now 35% ownership meant he would be a "figurehead" going forward.

Eberle wines have been marketed by the Terlato Group, one of the world's largest wine companies, and the minority owners now in charge believed the winery as it existed was not profitable.  The winery is mid-sized compared to others with a 26,000 case production annually.  Gary Eberle: "They say they want it to be more profitable.  The winery is profitable.  The winery was never designed to be much different than it is.  I don't see how you can maintain the same quality off site."

The wines we will be tasting here on Friday obviously pre-date the purge.  Going forward I'm betting with Terlato know-how we'll be seeing more Eberle wines on chain store shelves and stacked in big box stores and they'll probably be as boring as all of the others.

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