Friday, September 30, 2005

A perfect year in Bordeaux

Sugars are in °Baume (subtract 0.5 from the reading for a quick approximation to %Alc in the finished wine)...from :

'I am extremely optimistic,' Chateau Margaux director Paul Pontallier – who starts the Merlot harvest today – told 'So far growing conditions from day one have been close to ideal. I have never seen that before.'

[My emphasis on that preceding. Well, so much for their continual claim that Brdx is always 'perfect'...if this is the first time this guy's ever seen it... /huge]

Sugar levels in the grapes are the highest they have been in 100 years, with the Merlot at 14.5 degrees and the Cabernet at 13, Pontallier said.

In St Emilion, Jonathan Maltus at Chateau Teyssier said, 'Nobody's seen numbers like this before. Our Merlot is at 15.2 degrees sugar.' In a normal year Merlot and Cabernet would be picking at more than a degree lower than that.

[The next line explains it all - and exposes the hypocrisy of the EU stereotype of 'New World' wines...again, emphasis is mine/huge]
A summer with only the lightest rain not only means high sugar levels but thick skins and small berries – which will result in wines of a wonderful depth of colour and superb concentration, producers are hoping.

Not only that but most terroirs report a marked difference in day and night time temperatures, helping the ripening process and aroma development. There is no sign of stress, except on very sandy soils.

So again we see that for them it's a perfect year with those conditions...and some Merlot alcohol levels in the 14.0% to 14.7% range.
How come that's OK for them to do but not everyone else?
And in the back of your mind, didn't it sound like he was describing a 'typical' year on the California coast?
But when that happens here in California it's considered to produce coarse & uncultured least by our EU brethern...all of whom now hope that their wines will be big, powerful, and concentrated.

If that IS the case with this vintage, then they can expect to see increased sales, which will help their wine industry out of it's slump - even if it's just for the short term (the larger problems they face aren't going away with a single 'good' harvest - that'll take much more effort and time to correct).

Parker will probably score this year highly. Jancis Robinson, however, will likely find all of Bordeaux on the 'ridiculous' side...

Can't wait to see them both come out from their corners swinging...!

Thursday, September 29, 2005

More North Coast heat

This should really get the harvest pumping - more heat for the North Coast of California (Napa & Sonoma specifically): highs in the high 90's today to help ripen the grapes.

(See this link for a story just today on the harvest progress...High-Anxiety Harvest from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat)

Looks like the Alexander Valley and Dry Creek thru Chalk Hill are going to be nice and warm, as well as the corridor from Knight's Valley thru Calistoga to Yountville.

What's in a name?

Where do we go from here?

Much has been made of late about the use in the US of what have been for the past-century-plus a number of "generic" wine terms. The EU hopes to protect their place names, and thus solve what they think is a sap on their products and dilution of both their reputation and market. This is a very real concern for them right now, imagined or not, since their sales have declined in the recent past, and politicians are probably spurring the fears of the vignerons with a little nationalism for their own gain.

Anyway, we're left witht the question of what do we call our products then, that have been labeled with these terms in the past?
If we can't legally call a California Port a "Port" anymore, what do we label it as?

Well, Port is made by adding spirits to the wine base while it hasn't finished fermentation (the process is called "fortification"), so I'd suggest we coin "Portification", the wine then being "Portified wine"! I can see the ad campaign now -
"Get some Brand X Portified Wine - now portified with 8 essential oils and a full days supply of Alcohol!"...

Well, that's one down. But we're still left with Madeira, Sherry, Champagne (though that one's settled on "sparkling") and Tokay. Those four are the largest potential offenders in my estimate...

One of the reasons that this initiative is moving forward is the touted benefit of US producers having an easier certification process for their products into the EU. My question is "will that create more sales for the US?". So far I don't think it's been that detrimental to US sales, although I think dismantling any trade hinderance is worthwhile from a "market driven" perspective.

We still need to come up with some new product names, and while we're at it, maybe rename some varietals after American heros and areas in the US.

What if Merlot became "Franklin Red" for example...or perhaps Sauvignon Blanc became a "Washington Blanc"...unless, of course the French object to the use of "blanc" as well...where will it end?
Beaujolais Nouveau could become "Bush Red" (named for G.W.). Think about it, neither is that popular right now, and the number of it's adherents is dwindling. Rose wines for moderates, etc. We could honor past heros and apply a good dose of political satire at the same time...

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

French angry over wine deal

But the Greeks have reason to be happy...
Greece happy that ‘Retsina’ will be protected. But was it ever really in danger from US producers? I seriously doubt it...

However, the
French wine union blasts EU/US wine deal protecting geographic place names and “styles of wine”, but not because it protects place names and what they view as exclusively their styles of winemaking…they’re quite happy with that part.
Vignerons are purportedly unhappy about the US practices which are to be condoned and legitimized (in their eyes) with this accord. Such as, but not limited to, the addition of water to heavy musts to facilitate fermentation, and the use of wood chips instead of barrels to impart oak flavor [see my post on
water into wine here]. As I stated before…
“[if] the French view this practice as fraudulent, it’s mostly a cultural phenomena: in France with its weather, the only reason anyone would add water is just for that – fraud.Just as we in America tend to think that sugar adds are fraudulent, because here they’re not so common (especially in California).”
That being said, the reality of the conflict lies in nationalism, cultural norms, and declining French wine sales in their domestic market as well as world wide. I’ll get into the “authenticity” debate in a forthcoming post, so I won’t address that subject right here…

And this quote kills me: “…US wine producers will provisionally be able to continue using 14 semi-generic EU names, including classic, clos, vintage, ruby and superior for the next three years, though this may be extended.”

VINTAGE! They object to the use of the word “vintage”?! How retarded is that??
And what about “clos”...? Will Clos du Bois become merely "du Bois"? Or is that too French also...???

I had no idea those were some of the terms agreed to.
But WTF! Why don't we just mutually agree to use no flippin' French whatsoever...& we can outlaw their use of any English whatsoever!

The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa) had a great quote from one of the French lawmakers in the Languedoc-Rousillon area where he blasts the US for only having been around for a few centuries, in contrast to the EU which has been making wine since the Romans…we have no “history” and must therefore be unworthy – at least in the eyes of the EU vintners – to improve on how wine is made.

Just where does he think the US vintners came from? Mars?

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Constellation Bids for Vincor

Constellation makes yet another "huge" acquisition with an offer of $900million for Vincor. Not far from the $1.3 billion they paid for Mondavi, Vincor is Canada's largest wine company with approximately 10 million cases sold annually and owns Hogue Cellars in Washington and R.H. Phillips in California.

I, for one, am starting to become skeptical of Constellations acquisition rate. I don't see how they can continue to make this work and have as many products to sell as they do.

More on this as it develops.

Wine Cliches

A funny article by Laurie Daniel in the San Jose Merc discusses "Wine Clichés We Could Do Without". She lists:

  • Our wine is made in the vineyard
  • Our wines reflect the terroir.
  • We pick on flavors
  • We don't make our wines for critics
  • Our wines are hand-crafted

A good start. One of these phrases can be listed in nearly any back label, shelf talker, or point of sale material. Tom at Fermentations also recently mused on how difficult it can be for marketers to use original phrasing.

I agree. Phrases like "hand-crafted" are becoming as ubiquitous and meaningless as "Reserve". It takes some originality to create meaningful wine-marketing phrases when faced with a sea of mediocrity.

In my opinion, since most wines taste the same to consumers (now don't write me hate mails about your favorite Napa Chardonnay vs. $2 Chuck, I'm speaking in generalities here), the key is differentiation, rather than assimilation. Marketers and PR people need to learn to look "outside the box" (there's an original phrase!!) and differentiate their products by not parroting the crap on every other bottle. Read the back of a Smoking Loon label to see an example of a very successful brand that doesn't use ANY conventional wine phrases to sell its product. Cheers to Don Sebastiani and sons for breaking the mold.


Sunday, September 25, 2005

Heart healthy ads?

"Not in THIS country!", or so the cry goes out from the Neo-Prohibitionists...

But I came across the following on a bottle of table red from Croatia (or Serbia? Bosnia?). I can't read the label & haven't been able to find it on the atlas yet...

Long story cut short, it obviously touts it's heart healthy ("pro corde") attributes, going so far as to have a EKG heart rhythym logo just below the words - which are conspicuously placed in a red box. Clearly the consumer is being sold on the prospect that this wine is good for your heart.

The wine inside was decent, if not somewhat acidic, though I have no new super heart attributes from drinking it with dinner. As for the medical claim that it's good for your heart, I'd recommend backing up this claim by pairing with a heart healthy meal, and not using the image of health from the wine to justify indulging in some cholesterol laden dish.

In any case, it's indicative of a different view of wine in their culture that we can only imagine here.

Maybe someday...

Friday, September 23, 2005

More on Michigan Shipping Bill

Chris Ward, sponsor of the now infamous Bill 4959 in the Michigan Senate, defends his bill in a new interview in the Detroit News.

Ward claims that the reason wineries are prevented from self-distributing (to hotels, restaurants, etc) is that he's keeping in line with the recent Supreme Court decision. He's slicing it pretty fine to do so too! The SC determined that states can't prohibit against direct shipments (essentially allowing wineries to ship directly to consumers, thereby bypassing wholesalers). Ward implies that "Napa Valley wineries" would be immediately self-distributing to restaurants and retail locations as well as consumers.

This is simply ludicrous, and apparently his sole Red Herring for justifying this ban. One of the many benefits that wholesalers provide to wineries is the distribution function. That is, they get the product to market, bill the individual accounts and pay wineries (albeit less per case than they get if they can sell direct). The important thing to remember here is that no winery wants to self distribute nationwide (unless they are the size of Gallo). You might be talking about 10,000+ customers rather than 50 customers! A logistical nightmare of shipping and billing that small wineries are not equipped to deal with. Wineries want to do what they do well (make wine), not get into the distribution end of the business.

Basically, this is more protectionism for the Michigan wholesalers who bought and paid for this bill. Ward makes no qualms about taking money from them and then submitting their legislation for them too....

"Q. Do you feel guilty about accepting money from the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association, who stand to benefit from the bill you introduced?

A. No, because their original bill (banning shipping for all wineries) was rewritten to allow unlimited direct shipping to consumers. They (Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association) weren’t happy about the changes.

Q. Can you sleep at night after taking money from PACs (i.e. Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association) and supporting legislation they stand to benefit from?

A. Yes. PACs are part of the process. Nearly every lawmaker takes PAC money, including the governor. If we abstained every time money was given, we could never have a quorum in the House or Senate. Every member of the House and Senate, other than a handful, take PAC money. It’s part of the process. That’s how we fund campaigns in the state, like it or not. That’s how we do it. "

ugh.....I feel ill.......

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Smell update

Secrets of Smell

"No two people will ever smell the same thing in the same way," says Professor Patrick Mac Leod, president of the Institute of Taste in France and former director of the sensory neurobiology laboratory at the
Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes.

Mac Leod has shown that teeth give the brain nearly half the information it receives related to taste, and that the nose collects most of the rest via the mouth. The tongue is rather useless.

[This must be shattering news for Riedel and their outdated tongue model!! And I'm not sure how he came up with the amount of information that teeth gather - or even what that would be beyond 'textural' info. /huge]

He also says there are no intrinsically bad odours. If dirty baby nappies make us wrinkle our noses, it's only because we have learned to dislike the smell.

[I’ll have to disagree…there are plenty of smells which are universally considered “bad odours”: putrid rotting flesh (cadaverine), skunk odor (made chiefly of sulfur compounds and aldehydes), stinkhorns (a pungent aromatic mushroom which attracts flies), the “corpse flower” (Amorphophallus titanium - which also attracts flies), durian (a really stinky fruit), etc… /huge]

Others senses also contribute to our perception of odours.

"The colour of a wine - which is visual information - can truly change the taste of the wine," says Mac Leod, who has conducted experiments showing that the perception of smells is multi-sensorial."This is not an illusion. A white wine that has been tinted red with a odourless dye will taste different" and create a different pattern of neural activity in the brain, he says.

That’s something most serious tasters have picked up on. And it's why some tastings are now really held "blind" by tasting from opaque black glasses to avoid those extra visual inputs. But, it makes me wonder - is there a place for people reviewing wines when they're hypersensitive to something?

Perhaps, but maybe that wouldn't be good for the general public which isn't sensitive at that same level.

I'd disqualify myself on the hypersensitivity I have to Brettanomyces (just so I can avoid appearing a hypocrite), while I'd discount someone like Laube on his over-sensitivity to TCA.
I discount Parker's notes when it comes to Brett, but not because he's too sensitive...actually, he's not very sensitive to it at all - or perhaps more accurately - he doesn't find it a fault since he grew up on a dairy farm, and can "tolerate it".

While it doesn't discount those who are hypersensitive reviewing for their own peer group of sensitivity, I think it makes a good argument for wine writers and reviewers to have "average" palates, and not some super-special tasting ability (read as "smell sensitivity") when reviewing for the majority of people.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Cheers for the Sofia Mini

Consumer Reports recently gave a pretty lukewarm review of the Sofia Mini. An excerpt can be found here.

"However, the consultants did note that the wine tasted better from a glass than it did straight out of the can. But if you don't want the hassle of a bottle, Consumer Reports says Sofia Mini might be just the thing."

Consumer Reports misses the point here. The success of the Sofia Mini is in its packaging. One of the problems consumers have long had with becoming wine adopters is the packaging. What if one wants just a glass with a meal? Does he open a bottle and possibly let the rest oxidize before he can finish it?

I say cheers to Niebaum-Coppola for this innovative approach to younger consumers and alternative packaging. Single servings for everyone!

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Bohemian: BioD Berries?

North Bay Bohemian: Biodynamic Berries (article)

Anyone who’s read this blog knows I think that the philosophical clap-trap of biodynamics is ludicrous. But discounting the negativity I might view this subject with, objectively speaking - this article has some serious problems with it.

Many of these claims attributed to the Benzigers are wild and entirely unfounded. In fact, their claims really remind me of the “snake oil” purveyors of old.

The first problem is one which runs through all the Biodynamic articles that have been written: ideas are presented as fact, with no objective proof that they are true.
Second is that these ideas (or “theories” if you will) are contrary to scientific evidence generated to date.

Let’s start with the idea “that some of the most well-known and respected winemakers in the area…open up the floors in their barreling rooms so the earth's gravitational forces can better meld with the wine's energy”…
That’s patently false. Think that a layer of concrete 4~6” deep is going to cut out gravity? NO.
In fact gravity is higher above more dense strata, and substituting a rather less dense substance such as gravel for it would lower the gravity below the barrels (theoretically – if you could measure it to that miniscule degree), not increase it.
And here’s a link to pages about gravity – with the REAL story, not some back-label clap-trap.

Color map of the SF Bay Area's Gravity (USGS)

(click pic to enlarge)

Also there’s the statement that BioD “is consistent with France's Appellation Origine Controlée, the benchmark of excellence in France.
Well, then… Whoop-di-dooo!
“So,” you say, “so what? The AOC in France hasn’t stopped that nation from putting out quite a few sub-standard wines in years past, and won’t again in the future.”

Then there’s the implied suggestion that BioD is the only way to create habitat for predatory insects, or even that BioD is a closed system – which it’s not. (If it were a closed system then there would be no wine flowing out of it, would there? Not to mention that sunlight is an input only, as are mechanical movements of soil, etc.)
Try this one on for size: “The treatments are considered homeopathic, because they "initiate the release of energy, and not matter.""
Einstein had it wrong all those years ago…and I guess the laws of conservation of energy and matter can be thrown out the window at will…

"In biodynamics, spring equinox is for bud break; summer solstice, for bloom; fall equinox, harvest; and winter solstice, the silence of dormancy."
"It's amazing how we change; we transition with the solar cycles." says Bob Benziger.
No shit Sherlock...and how is that different from any other farming method? Tried harvesting peaches in January in Napa County? It just doesn't work.
That's the default way plants grow - tied to the solar/earth seasonal cycle. In fact it's nearly impossible (other than greenhouses) to contradict that natural cycle. So what's it being brought up here for? best...

I've beaten the Horn Silica horse to death, but I'll say again - burying silica for a few months won't do was buried for millenia long before we got to it. But because we put it into a cow's horn...suddenly the stuff is imbued with magical properties?

Get real!

It finishes with the same repeated "wisdom" of the different plant matters used in the BioD system - yet again without a shred of evidence or reference to research.
Do Dandelions really increase photosynthesis? Chamomile stabilizes Nitrogen? How?

How stupid to just throw these statements about without any support.


Friday, September 09, 2005

How Far We Still Have To Go.....

Results of a survey published today by Wine Colleagues shows how very far wine education has to go. Wine Colleagues report that consumers do not understand what vintage dating means on a label (i.e. whether it refers to the year the grapes were harvested or the year they were bottled), that most consumers believe that an older wine is better than a younger one, and that vintage date lags behind varietal, price, and brand when it comes to selecting a wine purchase.

Now I for one would not have lost much money wagering on the lack of knowledge of the American wine consumer. Frankly, this stuff is complicated and you can't learn it by drinking supermarket wines and reading non-wine publications. To make matters worse, the industry myopically overestimates the knowledge of the average consumer. You have to make an effort to educate yourself as to what the terms on a label mean and that usually doesn't happen.

This is, of course, the industry's challenge and it has become more difficult than necessary. We have recently defined (legally) what "Napa" means on a label, but oddly, that decision doesn't apply to Sonoma, Champagne, Chianti, etc. We are spending tremendous time and effort defining what the "vintage" date means when its clear that (even to "core" consumers), the meaning is unclear to begin with.

I have said before that there are few wine writers writing for the entry-level consumer and this data just confirms for me that this education process is being skipped. Many consumers are probably nodding along as they read wine writing, pretending to understand the terms and subtle nuances, when in reality, they need to have a basic reference guide handy so they can truly understand what something as seemingly simple as a vintage date really refers to.

Wikipedia has a nice entry for wine with definitions of related terms. A good start, anyway.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Screwed in Michigan

Check out Tom's update of the unfortunate result of the bill recently passed in Michigan House. Looks like the bureaucrats bent over for the distributor lobby after all. Let's hope the Michigan senate can be more reasonable.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Blend Your Own From Jelly Beans

Okay, I've crusaded here for taking the pretension out of wine, so I would be a hypocrite to mock any such attempt (though its sorely tempting to do so with this one).

The folks at Jelly Belly, DeLoach and Wine X Magazine have come together to create taste combinations descriptive of many different wines. If you've ever done a component tasting or a wine sensory evaluation you'll understand what they're after with their Jelly Bean Wine Bar.

Using jelly beans in various combinations to describe the flavors of different wines, you can compare a French Champagne to a New World Sparkling Wine (add caramel, buttered toast, and toasted marshmallow to convert New World Sparkling Wine into proper Champagne).

I haven't tried these, so I won't comment on their accuracy, but I did get a chuckle when I noticed that the components for French wines suggest adding a "dirt" jelly bean to the flavor profile....

Perhaps the jelly bean food scientists can work on a Brettanomyces bean for proper authenticity.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

How the Wine Press Drives Style

If you read any wine-related writings, whether on the web or in print, you doubtless have noticed that more and more articles have been written recently decrying the trend toward more alcoholic wines. These barrages are invariably leveled at new world wines and typically disparage them for their inability to pair well with food. Some laud the low-alcohol wines of the old world (somehow skipping the fact that "earth" and "barnyard" notes are equally hard to pair) and hold them up as the standard-bearer.

latest example makes me think that we've reached the point where all wine writers have now jumped on the bandwagon (I'll give him a free pass on his habit of serving burgers with ketchup - how gauche! and vermouth in a Martini, ugh! I'll take mine dry, thanks.).....Ok, has everyone now pointed out that alcohol is increasing? Jancis? Berger? Laube? Have we heard everyone voice the same opinion? Are we all in synch now? Good.

Regular readers of this blog know that I'm more than a bit of a "market forces guy"... Why make wines that people don't want? I'm not suggesting pandering here, but if people want fruit-forward wines that have a flavor profile reminiscent of their origins (the GRAPE!) then give them what they want! There will be plenty of market niches for all kinds of alternative wines (Hell,
Bonny Doon has done very well doing just that).

That said, I think the high-alcohol claims are mostly full of sound and fury, but signifying little. If the public wants lower alcohol wines, they will find them, buy them and turn the tide on their own. There are many techniques that producers can utilize, from the
spinning cone to reverse osmosis that will bring down alcohol without changing ripeness or fruit levels if that is what the market truly wants.

Personally, I'd rather have two glasses of a 16% wine that I love rather than suffering through three glasses of a 12% wine that I dislike, just so I can drink "more"...

That, at the end of the day, is all that matters to me - the pleasure in the glass.

The wine press, although they need something to write about (let's face it - that's what they do, right?), should come off their high horses and acknowledge that it's the public who ultimately choose what wines are sucessful, and that they (the public) aren't fools. The market will change when it gets the appropriate signals from those who are buying wine.


Can we move onto the next non-issue please?

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Sugar, sugar...

Gerhard H. from the Nederlands writes:

The last part of your comment on "sugar clarification" [link back /huge] intrigues me:
"Second, concentrated grape must adds some flavor and aromas as well as sugar, and most....".

Since I am tasting wine for many years professionaly (wine buyer) I cannot escape from the impression that quite some, mostly South-American, basic red wines have an excessive flavour of black-currant and other red fruit. According to their price these wines must be produced on high-yield vineyards (15.000 - 25.000 kgs/hectare)which, by classic vinification, should not lead to such an extra aroma; if normal concentration techniques are used one can concentrate the harvest up to 20%, but, to my opinion, that doesnot explain the overwhelming (but in most cases one-dimensional) aroma. This leads to my hypothesis that in making "cheap" but intensively couloured and flavoured wine (I don't mean the use of oak chips)the winemaker uses concentrated must (not rectified!) to a larger extend than regular EC-wine rules allow. I can imagine that winemakers buy e.g. "Merlot-concentrate" or "Malbec-concentrate" to enhance significantely the flavour of the wine. To what extent this is allowed in local laws I don't know, but as far as I understand the EC-law these wines would not be called "wine" but "wine product". I realise that this is quite a complicated matter ánd delicate. But somehow it should be clear to the consumer what he gets: wine or a wine-related product. If you, or other readers of this message, would react on my suggestion, it might open an interesting discussion.


Gerhard H.

p.s. we have met about 10 years ago at a presentation at Schiphol Airport for Ven Versmarkt (a Dutch wholesaler on delicatessen and wines).


First, I should point out that I am not the person – Hugh Johnson, the world famous wine writer – but I thank you for the compliment. I don't think we've ever met, but you're not the only one to ever make that mistake.

Second, labor and land costs are much lower in South America, which is part of the reason you see them at such a low price. It probably IS NOT a case of over-cropping (excessively high yields) to drive down the price per ton. That they are also somewhat “one-dimensional” is yet another reason that they didn’t garner a higher price.
[for those challenged by the metric system, (15.000 - 25.000 kgs/hectare) = 6.68 ~11.13 tons/acre...the lower end of this scale doesn’t really phase me too much…but the scale’s higher end is certain to be excessive for wine production. Incidentally, grapes from over-cropped vines generally don’t ripen all that well, and would have less fully developed flavors, and therefore less cassis - which is the topic that underlies your question. So that's not likely to be the problem.]

Thirdly, grape concentrates are not all that cheap, and would add to the cost of the final wine produced, as well as add alcohol content in a finished "dry" wine.

Fourth, and most importantly, these wines are being grown in a very different climate than the “Old World”, and "classic vinification" - as practiced in France - will have to take a holiday.

But just like in the "Old World" additions of concentrate are used in years when sugar levels in the fruit don’t reach minimum levels, which is not very often at all in the New World – and certainly are not used on a broad scale or as casually as your question might suggest. Those cassis and ‘other red fruit’ aromas are the result of wines produced from riper grapes than those generally possible in France (or the EU in general). In fact when wines like that ARE produced in the EU, they tend to be very polarizing and controversial in nature.

In support of my last remark, I’d ask you to recall the recent fracas between Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker concerning the 2003 Chateau Pavie. This
link to an article on SF Gate (San Francisco, California) has their respective tasting notes along with it…

Gerhard, I hope that helps bring it into focus for you.