Thursday, March 31, 2005

The French Wine Industry - Will it Implode or Explode?

(and in this context, what is the difference between an implosion and an explosion? I'm not sure...).

Harper's reports that the French Resistancé is alive and well as is the French version of freedom of expression. While some of this reminds me of the first villain in 'The Incredibles' - Bomb Voyage, the explosive Frenchman - it continues to raise questions about the current state of the French wine industry and what can be done to fix it. US restaurant reports show that consumption of French wines has risen slightly (the unofficial boycott is off?) but that France, as a category, continues to slide. The French, having been passed in the US market by the Aussies in 2002, have done little to counteract their downward slide beyond raging against the machine that is new-world wines. Obviously, that raging has gone to another level.

How far will this go? (Destroying inventories?…entire Chateaus?) And what will it achieve?

When you look at current proposed solutions to the problem, you can see that they are not addressing the problem. Another Harper's article suggests that the majority of the €70 million in government funding program goes to debt relief, and if so it does little to solve the current problems the French are having in selling their wines.

There is another recent program that puts €3 million into marketing efforts, but that's less than Gallo has likely spent on marketing efforts for its new French import alone.Ironically, Gallo is reported to have shipped over 200,000 (!) cases of its first run of
red bicyclette. Gallo knows what they are doing in building brands, and wouldn't it be incredibly ironic if they ended up saving the "table-wine" portion of the French wine industry?
That's too much, even for me....

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

...Deep in the heart of TEXAS!

The stars at night shine twice as bright...
Deep in the heart of Texas!

It is reported that yesterday the great Texas legislature has recognized the will of the people regarding wine shipping [
link to the bill].

"If this Act does not receive the vote necessary for immediate effect, this Act takes effect September 1, 2005."
Even if not passed into law directly, it appears the law would still become effective just prior to Labor day this year...who'd thought Texans were going to be that progressive?

Texans are now free to have any wine shipped into the state to their homes!! And all those other states which used to count themselves as less conservative than Texas will now have some food for thought as well…


...a Huge Thank You...

I’ve now had more than 10,000 visits! Thanks to all of you who have stopped by.

Either there are a number of people who find something of interest in this blog, or there’s only 4 people who visit & revisit time after time, and don’t have anything better to do with their days…


Monday, March 28, 2005

Tuesday 3/29 : Sustainable farming conference

SANTA ROSA, March 23, 2005 -- New water regulations and sustainable farming practices are among the "hot environmental issues" that will be discussed by a panel of wine industry executives and regulators at the BUSINESS JOURNAL's 2005 Wine Industry Conference in Santa Rosa on Tuesday, March 29. Also, a panel of winery and distributor chief executives will discuss ways wineries can be profitable this year.The conference will be held from 7:30 to 11:30 a.m. at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel & Spa.

The conference sponsor is the
North Bay Business Journal, and should have participants from prominent wineries, as well as the representatives from the S.F. Bay office of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board (CRWQCB).
Unfortunately, the deadline for getting registered was last Thursday 3/23.

On the panel for "Hot Environmental Issues: Are They Fact or Fiction?" will be Chris Benziger, national sales manager for Benziger Family Winery (so there's a decent possibility that he could bring up his family's use of biodynamic viticulture for discussion); Jim Collins, coastal winegrowing director for Gallo Vineyards; Wil Bruhns, acting division chief of the North Bay Watershed Division of the San Francisco Bay office of the CRWQCB; Ed Quevedo, director of environmental management and sustainability programs for WSP Environmental North America; and David Graves, the general manager and founding partner of Saintsbury (who's had some rather Brett tainted Pinot Noir on the market in years further comment there).

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Roger Voss is at it again...

Here we are again.

Roger Voss who recently penned the all so important article about labeling wine ingredients (Wine Labels: Decorative, Not Informative, Wine Enthusiast Dec ’04) which I was happy to deconstruct, has now turned his talents to the topic of Biodynamic viticulture & wine (Wine Enthusiast Apr ’05 – no online link available at this time).

So who could blame me? I couldn't resist the temptation to look for flaws…especially considering the subject!

Discussing the history of biodynamics (aka BioD), he points out that it has had its share of naysayers (should I raise my hand here?). Unfortunately, he characterizes it somewhat dismissively by implying that those objectors do so solely in regard to the fact that it follows lunar and astrological calendars.
He never acknowledges the objections regarding the suggested preparations – which cannot be described as being based on anything more than superstition (see my previous posts Santeria, BioD email, Jphelps: BioD-like , & Perspective). I mean compost teas being sprayed onto your vineyards have been proven beneficial, but would it make any difference if the compost for those teas were composted in the skull of a cow/horse/goat as opposed to having been placed in a shallow mound or stack? That’s pretty doubtful…and does nothing but raise questions.
(Prime examples: “Would it be ok to use the skull of a dog? But if I hadn’t liked the dog would it still be effective – or would the negative karma sour the compost?”; “If I only had a cat, do I have to kill it so I can use it's skull? And how would I ever be able to make enough compost for my 50 acre vineyard?”; etc).

Unfortunately for BioD believers, we see mounting evidence that many of their practices are not only arcane and tedious, but needless as well.

*** Sidebar:
If you have access to the article, pay particular attention to the box titled “What is biodynamics, and how does it differ from organic farming?” It’s interesting from several different angles – that it says biodynamics prohibits the use of genetically engineered organisms (a constraint added later as they weren't even invented when Steiner gave his lectures founding biodynamicsin 1924). It also conveniently doesn't mention the needed Stag's bladders, cow mesentary, or animal skulls that the farmer has to utilize for soil preparations to get & maintain his BioD certification.

And of note is the mention of a May 2002 Swiss study by Paul Mäder which concluded that land farmed using biodynamic techniques, was overall healthier than either organic, or conventional farming methods. What’s not stated is if he used a control group which didn’t use the phases of the moon (or animal skulls) while not using any conventional fertilizers.
*** Now let's head back...

In many of the articles I’ve seen, viticulturists interviewed state that they don’t follow the tenets of biodynamics fully – and that holds true in this article (like Otto Rettenmaier of Chateau la Tour Figeac, or Joseph Phelps Vineyards). Some don’t use lunar or astrological calendars, others don’t bother with the “fermentation” (composting) of plant matter in horns or skulls. Indeed, these free thinkers are tailoring this type of agriculture to their own needs & beliefs.

And all the while they experiment & still report success, they disprove some strongly held tennets of BioD theory...

The interesting conclusion one draws from the improved results is that those practices which they decided not to adhere to (cow horns, burying quartz, using a lunar calendar, etc) weren't affecting the outcome anyway, otherwise they wouldn't be seeing these same benefits while they're being omitted!

Similarly, we can also look to their remaining practices to see what they all have in common: they eschew pesticides, inorganic fertilizers; they compost organic matter from the farm, and use compost teas on their crops; they try to enhance and encourage beneficial and predatory insects; cover crops are used; the entire farm is viewed as a single unit (of interdependent) cycles.

Soon perhaps it will have morphed into some form which denies the use of skulls & “magical” celestial cycles, and ends up looking more like (improved) conventional organic farming. As long as we are realistic about what totally chemical free agriculture can accomplish...there are still scenarios where some pesticide use may be warranted:

Kendra Baumgartner, a researcher in plant pathology for the USDA Agriculture Research Service in Davis, said, "Many of the practices used by biodynamic growers are the same as practices used by all growers, conventional, organic and biodynamic. These include irrigation practices, cover-crop management practices, nonchemical weed control practices and sulfur use for powdery mildew control. Therefore, if a conventional grower wants to be semi-biodynamic and decided that using mechanical cultivation for weed control was the way to achieve this, the grower would kind of be missing the point. The preparations and when they are applied, in relation to the lunar cycle (I think), is the key to being biodynamic."

On the use of compost, which adds organic matter to the soil, Baumgartner said via e-mail: "Soil organic matter is an important measure of soil health and some practices are better than others at increasing it."

Of the special biodynamic preparations used in composting, Baumgartner, who is involved in research on sustainable agriculture, said, "I think that organic matter is organic matter; whether you use stinging nettle or not, it's all good. The moon signs stuff is a bit odd, but if it gets growers out in their vineyards, they may notice a problem that they normally wouldn't see from inside the pick-up truck. For example, maybe if a grower is out stuffing a cow horn with "stuff" on the night of a full moon, the grower may notice that an irrigation line is busted and several rows of vines are getting all the water for the whole vineyard."

She did sound a note of caution:
"I hate to sound like a nozzle-head, but I am a plant pathologist by training. Some disease and pest problems cannot be helped by nonchemical methods (while still keeping grapevines around). Sometimes nuking an infested vineyard is the best way to prevent additional infestations for introduced pests like the glassy-winged sharpshooter (GWSS). Biodynamic and organic growers are limited in this respect."



Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Terroirists Beware!

In a rude affront to the French, two English economists will soon be publishing a paper that they claim debunks the French claim of terroir. Why economists? I don't know, perhaps there are no suitable scientists in the UK who are qualified to look at this. It does reinforce my conviction, however, that terroir is highly overstated and one of the most overused phrases in the wine vernacular.

Terroir is thought to be an expression of "place" that is considered a characteristic of wine from a particular region, expressed as a flavor of the soil. In theory, wines from the same region will have defining characteristics that will allow you to blindly pick them out from other wines. Oddly, it is a term used for old-world wines (France, mostly) but almost never for new-world wines. The French are fond of pointing out that they have a monopoly on terroir: 'Very good wines are produced in Chile, for example,' says Denise Capbern Gasqueton of Château Calon-Ségur in St Estèphe. 'But they can lack terroir, and terroir is what makes everything. A wine that is well-produced is a good wine, but lacks complexity and other elements to which we are used.' (from Decanter)

That's right, new-world wines are lacking a certain, as the French say, "I don't know what". And they aren't kidding either, they really don't know. They can call it terroir, complexity, minerality, etc. but apparently when you try to measure it, as these English economists have shown, you can't find it. Maybe Terroir is subject to Heisenburg's uncertainty principle of quantum physics. Therefore, I now put forward what I will call Huge's principle of Terroir:

"The more precisely Terroir can be tasted, the less precisely it can be measured"

Tom at Fermentations has had a number of good posts on this lately and I agree with him. I think that a region's wine's inputs must be consistent between too many variables that can overcome "terroir". What I mean by that is that for wines from the same region to have defining, consistent characteristics, you must have: Similar soils, similar drainage, similar trellis configuration, similar water inputs, similar timing for all viticultural activities, similar row orientation, similar slope, similar additions to the soil, similar harvest time, similar maceration, similar barrels, similar aging time, similar blending, similar additions, similar fining, etc. etc. etc.

If you can keep all of the above the same from winery to winery and vineyard to vineyard then you will have something to compare it to. My belief is that the above variables tend to be more homogenous across a given region of the old-world and while that does allow for a better comparison, it is still difficult to isolate which of the above elements contributes to any commonality and which elements are an intrinsic expression of "place".

As Tom points out in one of the above articles, it is not universally accepted that soil characteristics are expressed through the vine and into fruit. What I found highly interesting was an article on an experiment performed by Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon where he basically macerated his wine with three different sets of ground-up rocks to directly express 'minerality' in his Le Cigare Volant.

I do believe that since many new-world winemaking regions tend to produce riper fruit (through winemaking style or through Mother Nature herself) that it can be more difficult to isolate nuances that can get lost in a monster Cabernet from Napa or a Shiraz from Australia. However, not all new-world wines are made this way, and I still believe that if terroir exists, that you would see it expressed when tasting two different wines made by two different wineries from fruit of the same vineyard. I have had the chance to do this before and the difference was so remarkable that I would have never guessed them to have the same origin (or even the same varietal!). Thus, I have to agree with the English economists, that winemaking style (and viticultural inputs) can too easily mask whatever terroir really is.


Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Don't let this happen to YOU!

72 years ago today (3/22/1933) Franklin Roosevelt signed legislation allowing the sale of beer of up to 3.2% alcohol by weight, effectively ending prohibition and spelling the end for the 18th Amendment. On 12/5/1933 the 21st Amendment was ratified which struck the failed 18th Amendment down. I encourage you all to take a moment tonight to reflect on how far we've come in the past 72 years, and I'll also personally be thinking of how much better we are without the Volstead act - regardless of whether the Supreme Court decides to back interstate shipping or not.

Prohibition was not just an overnight sensation. Actually it had its roots in the late 1880's and sped toward the creation of the 18th amendment in January 1920, spurred along by all sorts of unrelated occurrences - including the lawless oil towns on the Midwest plains in the 1900's. Those towns were created by the oil fields which drew the men who worked them, and became a boomtown for prostitution, and cheap saloons to
supply drink...violence inevitably followed.

They were an obvious and easy target for the likes of self-appointed moral crusaders like Carrie Nation, who could walk into the saloons and smash them to bits with an ax - and walk away Scot free. And while there was a real need for law & order in those towns - as well as something that even remotely resembled moderation - the religious right took it upon themselves to whip it into a tempest (in the media of the day) that they could then defeat like St. George striking down the Dragon...[link]

Carrie Nation was the spokeswoman at the front of the fight. In fact she was in such demand as both a speaker and firebrand that she needed a manager! It was a time that the Anti-Saloon League, Women's Christian Temperance Union, and other organizations (mostly based on religious beliefs) had the US politicians in their palms...

Even so, we have weathered the prohibition experiment. After we experienced all the evils brought on by prohibition that it had been touted to solve, America was finally fed up, and FDR's election as President was due in part to his stand on getting rid of prohibition.

We're light years ahead of Carrie Nation...all we need to do is make sure it doesn't happen again! Though there has been a slow quiet steady fight to bring prohibition back ever since it was repealed.

(Even Madd has gone totally over to the DRYS) [link]

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is increasingly finding itself "fighting off critics who say the once all-powerful group has become an organization of prohibitionists."

The founder of MADD, Candy Lightner, left the organization years ago because she believed it was moving in the wrong direction.

"It has become far more neo-prohibitionist than I ever wanted or envisioned," said MADD's founder. "I didn't start MADD to deal with alcohol. I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving."

MADD has been calling for bans on alcohol advertising, widespread sobriety checkpoints, increased taxes on alcohol beverages, and other measures that have drawn sharp criticism not only from the organization's founder but also from consumer-rights advocates and civil liberties supporters, among others.
Reference: Bresnahan, S. MADD Struggles to Remain Relevant. Washington Times, August 6, 2002, B1-2.)

Frankly, the last thing I ever need to see is this ~

Really, she looks like Queen Victoria channeling Lizzie Borden...

...and a message for those who want to bring prohibition back...

Friday, March 18, 2005

New Zealand: Growing attitude as well as grapes

The following is excerpts from the National Business Review (New Zealand):

"Our task is to persuade the greater public, not just wine enthusiasts, to celebrate diversity and authenticity rather than a slick brand and to understand that the artisan, not the marketer, makes the most interesting wines." says Richard Riddiford, of Martinborough's Palliser Estate, chairman of "The Twelve -- New Zealand's Wine Family”.

Asked whether his charges applied to big corporates owning New Zealand wine operations ­ Allied Domecq and Lion Nathan ­ he responded with an emphatic "yes."

"It's the dumbing down of wine, and you could argue they're not making wine. Rather they're making alcoholic beverages at a particular price point. People will charge us with elitism. But we'll let our wines speak for us on that front."

Where is it written that a larger company can’t also be using artisan techniques? And who has decided what case count per year should be allowed to call itself ‘artisan’? Without any such accepted guidelines, then the only true way to prove the point is to let the marketplace decide whose product is superior. If their wines are so great they wouldn’t have to form some association to pretentiously appoint themselves as superior would they? It would go without saying.
You can still be an elitist, even if you produce good wines. And good wines are no absolution for an odious attitude…
No. It doesn’t ring true in my opinion – more likely this move resulted out of fear of market share loss (or of being unable to market successfully against a larger company) than some righteous crusade to defeat some wine Goliath.
Now more from the

But the suggestion that all big wine companies are the same -- simply pumping out a slick branded commodity -- has outraged one of the family's larger neighbours.

Lion Nathan bought Marlborough's Wither Hills in 2001 for $52 million, and its former owner, Brent Marris, was gobsmacked by the "family's" attitude, saying his big corporate owners took a "totally opposite approach" to what they were being accused of.

"I mean the whole Lion Nathan federation of wineries is totally the opposite to that. In fact, the Lion family of wineries is making a similar statement by keeping individual personalities of the wineries intact and approaching the whole international market as a group.

"What they're saying I don't buy into at all."

Mr Marris said he had been asked early on about being a member of the "family" but soon got the impression "they felt with Lion being what Lion is, it wasn't appropriate."

But he said the subsequent inclusion of relatively large companies like Villa Maria, Nautilus and Palliser Estate meant the concept was "a joke," and meant grounds for his and other New Zealand companies' exclusion were baseless.

"That's a whole contradiction in terms. Nautilus is owned by one of Australia's biggest wine companies, Yalumba, for God's sake, it's a huge company." "It's a joke, I'm sorry, for them to be isolating themselves like this is an absolute joke."

I’ve got to side with Mr. Marris’ viewpoint. I’d stated in the past (and will say here again) that the enemy is not the size of the company, but crappy overpriced wines. The quality a company delivers and how it chooses to price it is the true gauge of their success.

Any company which sacrifices its quality to increase the revenue it receives is a sham. But if they can grow the company while keeping their quality – or even improving it - then by god, they should do so, and not become a pariah for it. Let the people decide.

And their hypocrisy by including (by proxy) some very large wine companies in the Southern Hemisphere is both obvious and ridiculous.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

San Francisco Wine Auction

If you live in the SF bay area and like wine, consider attending the 29th annual San Francisco Wine Auction, its a great event with the proceeds going to disadvantaged kids in the Bay Area. Thanks to Thomas Hawk for the heads up.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Can you overdevelop your sense of smell?

I realize this is hardly timely, but I was thinking about this very issue recently and remembered this very interesting letter to the San Francisco Chronicle, which I have excerpted here:

"Another interesting perspective is something I was told by Andy Waterhouse, who last year was vice chair and professor of enology at the UC Davis School of Viticulture and Enology. Waterhouse told me it is theoretically possible for someone to train himself to detect exceedingly low levels of TCA. When I asked why anyone would want to enhance the ability to smell or taste something nasty, he replied, "Good question! The problem is, by being ultrasensitive, you exclude a lot of wines you might otherwise enjoy."

Laube, in his position as one of America's most powerful wine writers, should, in my opinion, be extra careful before going public with these sorts of charges. As a senior sensory scientist at Vinquiry, a Sonoma County wine laboratory that competes with ETS (the Napa laboratory Laube uses to test for TCA), told me, "If (Laube) found TCA ... he might have said something to Gallo, on a personal aside. But to slash it in a national periodical is, I think, in poor taste and ethically questionable."

From SFGate Letters (link)

Most who follow the industry know that Laube "outed" Montelena, BV, and Gallo in recent years and that other prominent reviewers, such as the above letter's author and Robert Parker, have not found these same wines to be nearly as flawed. That led me to the question I was considering - "Can a person overdevelop their sense of smell?" Or, said differently, can a critic become so oversensitive to a flaw that they can become irrelevant to the public they try to serve? I haven't had the opportunity to taste many of the wines that Mr. Laube has recently trashed for "high" TCA levels, but I have tried a couple of the 2001 Napa Cabs that he disliked (immensely) recently and found them to be quite good, in my opinion, and not flawed by TCA. What, then, should be done by Wine Spectator? Is Mr. Laube finished as a taster? (there are rumblings, but they may be just that)

I, for one, think that the damage done to those who have been scored poorly by him for flaws undetectable to the average high-end wine consumer cannot be undone and that Mr. Laube should consider a future as an editor and writer, not as a reviewer.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Should Wineries Specialize?

Have you ever walked into a winery that you knew for its exceptional Chardonnay and ended up trying a particularly vile Pinot? Ever tried any of Rosenblum's Bordeaux attempts? (ugh) Did you know that Ravenswood makes a Cabernet Franc? I've been thinking more and more that new-world wineries should strive to specialize in a brand (or region) so as to keep a more consistent, understandable message.

We know that, in the broad market sense, Blackstone=Merlot, K-J=Chardonnay, Sutter Home=White Zinfandel, Ravenswood=Red Zinfandel, Australia=Shiraz, etc. In the small market sense, you've got the same thing (Kistler=Chardonnay, Duckhorn=Merlot, Ridge=Zinfandel, Phelps=Cabernet, etc), and for good reason, people like those varietal wines the way they are made by the preeminent producers.

When I walk into a winery known for outstanding Russian River Pinot or stellar Napa Cabernet, and they are pouring a particularly mediocre Dolcetto or Tempranillo, all I can think of is what a nightmare that becomes to manage and understand for both the consumer and the winery. Starting with grape sourcing, through keeping additional lots separate in the winery, to extra bottling runs, to confusion in the marketplace - it all becomes a distraction from the winery's message.

Its all about core competencies - stick with what you do best. Just because Turning Leaf offers a Pinot Grigio doesn't mean that you need to expand your line. Make a few experimental barrels here and there, but don't expect that 1,000 cases of Monterey Pinotage is going to drink itself.....

While I realize that its nice to have some additional offerings in the tasting room, how many cases of Lemberger are you really going to sell? If you are known for growing great tomatoes, don't offer the public generic cucumbers....

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Canada: biting off it's own nose...?


Ok. So we get the message.
So does George W. Bush….

And what better way to get the attention of the head of the government that’s imposed trade tariffs against your lumber industry than to threaten a commodity whose head honcho is a brother-in-law of the US President?

You can bet that Bush heard from Robert Koch (president of the Wine Institute, and Bush’s brother-in-law) pretty damned quick. Now it’s doubtful that the ban would ever come to pass – especially if it meant that Canadians would then be without 16% of their previous supply (95% of which is from California). [post corrected, previously I had truncated the above sentence when posting, making it appear that 95% of Canadian wine import was from the US which is not the case. /huge]

I can almost hear France drooling over the prospect that they could gain more market share should the ban actually be enacted…

Friday, March 11, 2005

Byron and Arrowood - where's the other shoe?

Its been several months now since the emminent deal between Legacy Estates (owners of Freemark Abbey) and Constellation over the Byron and Arrowood wineries was leaked. I've heard that Legacy has been working on this since last September(!) so when will it finally close?

Wednesday, the Arrowoods apparently let out a premature press release announcing that the deal was closed and that Dick and Alis Arrowood would stay on in the new company. Soon after, Constellation countered that release, saying that "nothing has been signed". So what gives? Is there last-minute trickery afoot?

This wouldn't be the first time that Legacy Estates announced something that they never closed. In 2003, they announced that they were buying Gordon Brothers in Washington state. Although announced as a "done deal" it was never completed and the parties walked away. Although that doesn't appear to be the case here, one wonders why this is taking so long to close. If Constellation can bid for and close Mondavi in 60 days, why does it take twice that long to close a deal for two small wineries......?

Thursday, March 10, 2005

The Ever-Changing Wine Market

After three years of oversupply, the California Bulk Wine Market (think of buying and selling pork bellies, only the pork bellies are held in stainless steel tanks, contain ~13.5% alcohol, and aren't traded on an exchange (other than that, they're identical)) has literally "turned on a dime". With no new vineyard plantings in recent years and two light crops (2003 and 2004), the oversupply has quickly flipped to an undersupply. While many producers of negociant brands (those with a label only, no physical winery home) have many fortunes in recent years, that may end much more quickly than many had thought as the demand for bulk wine supply drives prices up to levels that become uneconomical for these type of producers.

Although Barefoot's sale to Gallo last December seemed rather abrupt, it was, in reality, a savvy move by Michael Houlihan, Barefoot's owner. He knew that 2005 would be a year of thin margins (he wouldn't be able to raise his prices against supply-integrated companies like Gallo, Wine Group, Constellation, Beringer, etc. and would be paying more for his supplies) and got out while the gettin' was good. One would imagine that other negociant (or "virtual" brands) like Smoking Loon, Castle Rock, etc. will be bailing out soon or taking a very painful price hike.

What does this mean for the consumer, you ask? Those who have enjoyed many of the deals in the California wine marketplace lately will see a gradual increase in retail prices. I'm not talking about just the sub-$10 negociant brands but also the heavily discounted deals from most all California producers.

What's interesting is the way this actually works.... For example, winery A has been selling its Napa Chardonnay at a price that will hit $15 retail to the consumer. During the last couple of years of slow sales and price competition, the winery hasn't actually lowered its prices to $12, but has instead given discounts, credits or just free cases to retailers and wholesalers to allow them to bring the retail price down. This way, when the oversupply eases and market forces allow retail prices to come up, the winery doesn't have to "raise prices" to wholesalers and retailers, rather it just eliminates the "price support" given to them.

Every time you scan your grocery club card, for example, the grocer sends a bill back to the winery for the $1 you got taken off the price of your wine purchase. For the grocer, its a win-win since they don't do anything except look good by bringing you lower prices. For the winery, they take it in the shorts.....

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

It's all about style, Baby!

"Hey, if all you are doing is buying a style of wine, what's the difference."

That quote is from a comment on my post about whether
vintage dates really serve a purpose on wines priced under $10...

The problem is that I hear this type of comment more and more frequently. All I get from it is a level of pretentiousness which I find very disturbing. All wines are created in some style or another, and it's an exercise in personal choice when deciding which wine you wish to drink.

First, my question for all of you reading this blog is as follows: aren't we always buying a style of wine - be it a Chianti, Sauternes, White Rhone, Pinot Gris, etc...? We all approach a bottle with some expectations about what the contents should be like. And that's in response to the price, label information, overall package used, cultural biases, past experiences, and so on.

Second, I feel it necessary to point out again that it's a fallacy to assume that all wines which are created for mass consumption are inherently inferior, or that they will someday replace all other wines. I'm not sure what the source of this angst of wines for the mass market is, but I don't like the fear it fosters. There never has been a wine made without regard to style - ever (other than that very first wine ever consumed by mankind). Man has been trying to improve, control and enhance the flavors of this most primal of beverages since that first ethereal encounter with it. The thought some winery relies solely on serendipity and luck to turn out a wine is ridiculous; that any winery would then reapply that same model harvest after harvest is sheer fantasy. And anyone who tells you otherwise has something to sell you. All throughout history people have emulated wines from other cultures - Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Chinese, Celtic, Gallic, etc.

You see, anyone who's making more wine than fills their immediate needs (which would probably be around 2 barrels worth max) is looking to sell it to or barter it with someone else. By default that implies they are looking to make it attractive to others. In other words, they're going to adopt or develop a "style" of winemaking which appeals to someone other than themselves.

If all you see in wine is art then remember that art is bought & sold every day. Get over it. Get a corkscrew and have a glass, as wine wasn't made to be collected, hoarded, kept on a pedestal or elevated beyond everyday use.

It was made to be consumed.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Do Wines Under $10 Really Need a Vintage?

It ocurred to me recently that since most wines in the sub $10 retail category are from larger producers and broader appellations (California, Central Coast, Southern Australia, etc.), and often have multiple blends for a single vintage, of what value is knowing the vintage for most sub $10 wines? If I've got a choice between the 2002 Ravenswood VB Zinfandel and the 2003 edition, am I going to notice a significant difference between them? Replace Ravenswood with [yellow tail], Sutter Home, Fetzer, Stone Cellars from Beringer, etc. and you have the same answer. Wines at this price point are intentionally made to taste consistently across vintages. There was a great article a few months ago about the trials and tribulations that the $2-Chuck winemakers go through to make each blend (which is about every month!) integrate seamlessly with the prior blend.

It is not required for a wine to have a vintage date, but if it does, 95% of the wine must come from the stated vintage. There are examples of wines (like Rosenblum Zinfandel Cuvee) that are quite good, and quite successful and don't use a vintage date (rather a consistent style), however non-vintage wines are more commonly in "jug" or "boxed" wines.

Now granted, I do want to know what the year was for a Napa Cab or a Santa Barbara Pinot, but does it make a difference to the majority of consumers at the sub $10 price point? Wouldn't it be easier to just allow the wineries to voluntarily show the vintage date or, as an alternative, use a "born on date" to prevent consumers from getting 5 year-old Sutter Home White Zin?

It seems to me, that like the recent controversy over vintage dating, this will be opposed by grape growers. The reason is that, during a period of oversupply (as we have just gone through), wineries can use cheap bulk wine still sitting in tanks instead of having to buy grapes from the current vintage. The result of this would be that the bulk wine market and the grape market would have similar pricing - during 2002-2004, you could buy Chardonnay wine for a fraction of the equivalent price of grapes - and this would be very unfavorable to grape growers.

Personally, I think the two should stay in balance and that over the long term, it would actually buffer these huge swings in under/oversupply, thus making the growers much happier, with more stable income. Alas, this will probably not be the case....

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

TCA, corks, and other things...

Professor Bainbridge’s site has an open thread regarding cork and synthetic wine closures.
I’m also of the opinion that Mr. Laube is hypersensitive to TCA, and that I think to him the situation is much more dire than others think. (Am I being a hypocrite regarding Brett? Maybe…) But my experience is that certain cork producers may have large batches of defective cork from time to time, and pass that – sometimes knowingly- through to their customers.

On the one hand, a vintner wants to produce a wine free from any defects. But vintners also want to produce something that will sell, and some markets (high end reds, most high end markets in the EU and virtually all of Japan’s markets) are culturally biased toward traditional cork closures…anything less seems out of place and suffers in terms of sales & consumer acceptance. So it seems to me that we are stuck with the natural cork closure for some time to come, even IF a perfect closure is created.

The following link is from New Zealand, and discusses the touted benefits of super cleaning the cork particles to remove TCA before the corks are formed…,2106,3188835a7775,00.html

This is a high TCA taint rate in the NZ report. Defect rates are reported to run ~5% normally in New Zealand, and up to 25% on one vintage of Pinot! Ouch!
Previously I’d
blogged a note from a tasting in Australia where it was reported that 8% contamination by TCA was experienced (1-in-12 chance). Generally, 2~3% failure due to TCA is seen in the States.

None of these product failure rates are acceptable in any other industry, and shouldn’t be tolerated in the wine industry. I mean if somebody went to a new car dealer, and there was even a 1-in-20 chance that you’d walk out with a lemon…well, I think you get the picture…there’d be no purchase.
If you don’t get it, think of buying train tickets, with a 1-in-20 chance of the train running off the tracks…! Or airlines, boats, bungee-jumps, roller coasters, etc.
Really, who’d bother with buying it anymore?

Ideally there would be zero % contamination, though as realists I suppose we must concede that some failures will occur.


What is this deal with synthetic corks: why the lower free SO2 than with real cork?
Potential reasons include absorption of the SO2 into the polyethylene compound that the synthetic corks are made from. Perhaps it’s from oxygen trapped in the matrix of the synthetic cork during manufacture. The filling process itself doesn’t change with synthetics, and the same equipment can be used regardless of the type of cork closure employed, so it’s doubtful the difference occurs there.

The following links are to a Virginia Tech site where Prof. Bruce Zoecklein (a noted enologist & researcher) has some interesting notes on closures & oxygen in wine:
enologynotes#97 enologynotes#98

Of most importance I think is that there is still some debate – even among the researchers – of whether oxygen plays some role in the aging process of wine, and if it’s even desirable at some level or not.

Natural corks are reported to pass approx 0.0179 mg/l of oxygen into the wine, while screwcaps passed only 0.0005 mg/l of oxygen (or about a 35:1 ratio). If indeed oxygen is needed, then screwcapped wines should be nearly immortal from that perspective. I haven’t experienced any wines or closure trials that indicated any true immortality of the wines involved, and my estimate is that any difference in longevity would be around 2:1 at best in favor of screwcaps.

Can there be a plastic aroma in screwcapped wines? I haven’t encountered any as yet, but will continue to look for it in the future.