Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Parker & the French (v.2005)

Parker’s gone gonzo over the 2005 French vintage. [link to]

This news is going to help the French wine industry – but not overall.
At least the higher end will get a boost from this, which is good when you consider that French imports were down as much as 26% when the US had its un-official “ban” on all things French over the past few years. Though they are now recovering from the "ban", which is likely in response to revelations that there were no WMD's in Iraq at the start of the war, demand is still down from levels prior to March 2003.

Bad news for them (and the EU & French gov’ts which are the ones footing the bills for the excess French wine glut) is that the mid- & low-end wines are the ones hurting the most. High-end French wines have generally maintained their demand (and high prices).
Only the phrase that 'there will be an ocean of very high quality wine available at reasonable prices' leaves one hopeful...
But hearing the caveat that “top wines may be 'stratospheric' in price” is an instant buzzkill.

Unfortunately, increased demand for the 2005 vintage probably won’t do anything extraordinary to alleviate the excess from previous vintages, and it’ll take a few years for these “phenomenal” wines to get beyond the en primeur stage and be available to the public.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Follow-up: Costco Lawsuit

I previously described the important issues in the Costco lawsuit and tried to explain why they are relevant to Joe and Jane wine consumer. Yesterday, federal judge Marsha Pechman issued her ruling in the case: Washington's alcohol policies are anticompetitive and do not promote the state's "core interests". This ruling would allow retailers (like Costco) to receive discounts for large purchases, buy on credit, choose their own profit margins, and negotiate their own prices with suppliers.

Though the ruling is sure to be appealed (probably all the way to the Supreme Court since Washington has liquor distributor money behind it), on its face it dismantles much of the three-tier system and its inherent protections given to distributors. I, for one, am skeptical that this will result in a wide-spread breakdown of wholesaler distribution, but it does have significant potential for change. And in this case, change is good.

Monday, April 24, 2006

India starting to turn to wine?

Indians taking to drinking wines [from]

"India is a young market, and has its share of problems - legal hassles, social taboos related to drinking, general preference for sweet wines over dry wines and sporadic growth within the industry that has escaped formal supervision…"

“[the] Wine industry is at a stage when it needs support and encouragement more than strict disciplining. The recent impetus in Maharashtra to classify wine as an agricultural product and hence segregate it from other alcoholic beverages could soon find takers in other parts of the country…”
- Magandeep Singh, a certified sommelier and author of Wine wisdom: buying and drinking wine in India

Hmmmm, apparently Singh is a certified sommelier, and has a bit to gain by the promotion of both wine and this book. But I think I’ll have to disagree about not having some discipline within their fledgling commercial wine industry: without discipline and legal guards in place the consumer will get very mixed products and ultimately loose confidence in their local offerings.

Yes, support and encouragement are very important to receive from the government.

No, the time to organize and codify is at the start of the venture, not once everyone is doing something different using a hodge-podge of approaches.
Modifications can come later if it’s deemed they’re needed, but for Pete’s sake have a framework in place to start within that encourages cosumer confidence.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Wine innovation

The link provided is to an article on The Australian online ("Hail, the clever country") about how Australian society is content to rest on it's previous inventions (or it's illusions of grandeur in this regard), and how the author deems this unhealthy for the country. I think it's a rather frank evaluation and discussion that more countries need to have with themselves.

I especially think the wine industry should be taking a good long hard look at itself in just this manner. That would be (and is) easier to do in countries which don't have as much "tradition" to wade through to get to the heart of the matter, but even so, one can't discount the fact that innovation in the wine industry comes from all corners - new and old.

Autralians with the bag-in-a-box ("wine cask" in Oz lingo), micro-ox from France, etc.
Everyone's contributing from time to time, but how many stop to look at how it happens or what the chain of events leading to them are...? And if we stop & think we've done enough, doesn't that then stymie the process?

Better yet, can you see this article ever being written by a Bordeaux vigneron? I can' least not without envisioning the resulting tar & feathering they would receive (and I'm not speaking figuratively here)....
Yet sadly, it's the "old world" which needs this introspective the most - not because their wines are inferior (that's not what I'm trying to imply) - but rather because once you gain the position of "King of the Hill" you'd best take a moment to look around and see what you need to do to keep that lofty spot.

When you relax, sit down and stop observing what everyone else is doing, you're just allowing everyone else to sneak up and topple you.

Thursday, April 20, 2006's all about the minerals...?

Who the heck IS this guy - and who let him post this drivel?
(Mind you I'm not disputing his right to appreciate 'minerality' in wine, or his elevation of that aspect to such lofty heights...but could we get a little accuracy on the mechanics, PLEASE?)

The beauty of wine: It’s all about the minerals

"...depending on the variety,(?) there are suggestions of spices and herbs as well as vanilla (in some whites) and chocolate (in some reds). Oak aging contributes to these tastes and also gives American chardonnay, for example, its typical buttery quality, whether you like it or not. "
No, butter notes (diacetyl) is from the ML you dweeb! Vanilla comes from the oak!

"When young, some distinguished red wines, such as cabernet sauvignon and nebbiolo (the great Italian grape of Barolo), show varying amounts of tannin, the remnants of the solids of the grapes that give red wines "structure" and make them "chewy" and sometimes harsh before they soften with age, a process that can take from a few years to more than a decade, as with great Bordeaux."

Ha! Really, has he never heard of racking & filtration? Tannins are NOT sediment...

"For me, one of the more subtle and interesting components of wine, especially whites, is minerality, which, as the word suggests, is the presence of minerals. They come from deep in the soil as the vines suck up water that carries nutrients and minerals to the grapes. But how do you detect them? There are a few clues."

No, actually that's not how it happens...
(see these previous posts [Minerality mythos] [Dan Berger on minerality])

"When you breathe in certain white wines, you may notice a smell, separate from the fruit, that will remind you of wet rock, like slate or granite or limestone. In the mouth there's a bit of texture — again, a slightly "chewy" quality."

I don't think so...Dino's comment on the other post leaves that very much in doubt.
And minerality providing "chewiness"? That's not the case...

"Now, it's important to realize that not all wines have this distinction. You're less likely to find it in cheaper, mass-produced wines than in smaller-production wines from choice vineyard areas whose soil is rich in minerals. But price itself isn't always a barometer. It's not hard to find excellent, mineral-laden wines for $10 to $20, such as muscadets and many sauvignon blancs and chenin blancs from France's Loire Valley; rieslings from Germany; pinot grigios and other whites from northern Italy and chardonnays from the Mâcon area of Burgundy, among others."

Dear God, that's sooooo pretentious...

Read the article, it's almost funny - but ultimately just depressing with it's inaccuracies.


Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Winning Back Joe Corkscrew

"France remains a reference for the world. But when it comes to marketing and packaging, we need to clean up our act.”
- Xavier de Eizaguirre, president of the management board of Baron Philippe de Rothschild

That attitude deserves a standing ovation!
As Xavier has “become a realist” and is now advocating rounder riper flavors, and investigating such moral taboos as wine boxes and screwcaps, I can now safely say that this guy “gets it”. Unfortunately, he'll probably get tarred and feathered for his troubles as well...

From the article:
“The attempt at restoration, fittingly, began with the wine, starting with the 2003 vintage. Priced at $6 to $8, Mouton Cadet rouge went from an oak- finished cabernet sauvignon-dominant wine to one that's unoaked and 65% merlot. The result is a fruitier, less tannic wine created in direct response to Australian and Spanish reds.”

Constellation has agreed to carry the Mouton Cadet line apparently because Rothschild actually did some consumer research to find out what people were looking for…!
(The most telling quote in the article about Rothschild [and a social commentary on the French wine industry as a whole] is from Leslie Joseph, Constellation VP of consumer research: "They listened to consumers, which was refreshing, especially coming from a French company…")

Unfortunately, the article also reinforces my point earlier about the flood of mediocre low end wines: there’s quite a bit of it, and it’s trying to get the attention of many middle-America consumers already drinking more flavorful [yellowtail]’s, etc, at or below the same pricepoints…
Even scarier for them is that many larger distributors like Pernod Ricard aren’t including any French wines in their portfolios...

...the situation’s pretty bleak when even your own countrymen pass on carrying your products…

Yet more monkey biz...

Ok, can we say we've been saturated with the 'animal' or 'cute critter' labels?

What we have here is a wine which appears to be imported in bulk containers from France and bottled here in the states. It's the right varietal (Pinot Noir), has a cutesy 'animal label', and a clever brand name pun - 'Pinot Evil'.

The price point won't hurt your wallet either (you'll probably find it at the $4~$5 range).

Is there anything wrong with it? Absolutely not...though you might have to adjust your expectations downward borders on the watery-thin side, and doesn't have much to offer in the way of fruit intensity or depth - in fact it's pretty damned one dimensional. There is the very-slightest-note-you-may-ever-detect of bandaids and phenol which evolves when the glass has been standing after emptied, but I think most everyone would miss it, and it doesn't stray into the 'barnyard' descriptors, so it gets a 'pass' on that point.

On the good side, you can count that this is yet another avenue for the French excess to be absorbed (and I think everyone worldwide would be happier to see the French NOT rioting), it trades on Pinot's current high demand (so impulse buys will be strong), it's got an attractive price tag, and...Susie & Jake Midwest can say they're drinking French wines.

On the bad side...? This is already being done (Two-buck-chuck, [yellowtail], etc.), and quite frankly being done with more concentration. For some of the new drinkers experimenting with French wines it really isn't going to sell them on the 'classic' wine country if it's all they ever try (hopefully this will not be the case).

If this is to be anything more than just a short-term effect to shore up the French industry it will have to have more 'IT' in's a little obvious why this wine is in excess right now, and the preliminary impulse buys will probably not be repeated.

But again, it IS drinkable, and at $4~$5 /bottle, who could really get upset about it.

One thought to leave you with: have the French tasted their 'excess wines' againt the Indian domestic wines? Might be worth a look to them.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Napa outsourced to India?

It’s our own Napa Valley
"Did you know Bangalore is giving California competition with our own desi Napa Valley? ‘Appalachian conditions’ have been found by the Grover Winery at the foot of the Nandi Hills where nine varieties of French grapevines have responded well to growing in Indian conditions. The 20-year-old vineyard could give the best vineyards in Europe a run for their money."

No! I honestly didn't know Bangalore was competing with Napa's rep...
And when did Napa get moved into the Appalachians? Yes, the writer was looking for 'appellation' and had a near miss. Damned spell-check!
Hmmm, I wonder if they were to use commercial yeasts that were collected from California, and...naw, perish the thought...I wouldn't want to be accused of 'promulgating the international wine style' - now would I?

But on the other hand if the Indians were trying to gain acceptance into the already tradition laden world wine scene (which they are) and they are essentially learning how to mimic the styles of Europe from the rootstalk selection upwards...I mean what's wrong with that?
Given that it's mostly the climate and viticultural practices which determine what type of fruit intensity you have to begin with...even then, wouldn't the Indian industry choose a uniquely Indian style? They have after all been making wine for some 4~5 thousand years on their own...I doubt they'd throw everything out the window in favor of just one or two styles just to please the international wine writers.

Also, though they are trying to keep their tonnages around 4~5 tons/acre, their vineyards are producing 2 crops per year, so even though they have but 1,230 acres producing grapes for wine they're producing as if they had 2,460 acres. That will be interesting if they start to convert more of their 400,000 total vineyard acres from table grapes to wine varietals.
(...and where did they get the 4~5 tons/acre number to start with? Trial & error? Or was it a tactical move in thinking the INTERNATIONAL wine critics would want to see the Indian industry 'striving' for quality not quantity, eh?)

Two harvests at each winery? What does that do to your 'vintage' designations - do you then have to have a "Year X, Early Season" vs "Late Season" (or pre-monsoon vs post-monsoon) harvest designations?
And what does that do to your workforce, having to essentially work harvest continually throughout the year? Yikes!


India still has a long way to go to get their population on the Wine Bus...
Currently their consumption centers on distilled spirits (annually 37 MIL cases of whiskey, 11 MIL cases of brandy, and 9 MIL cases of rum) -though I haven't been able to locate a consumption figure for beer yet.
Watch out when they get it together!

Sunday, April 16, 2006

(East) Indian Sauv Blanc

Granted, India's wine production is an area I'm personally very inexperienced with.
But after reading years of press and having met a few Californian winemakers who have had a hand in developing their domestic industry, my interest continues to be piqued.

Indians it seems have a preference for Sauvignon Blanc, at least as far as their white wines are concerned. I guess that makes some sense, as I think they'd want a varietal which kept more acid during the hot growing season, and also a wine style that preserves acid during fermentation and aging (probably no malo-lactic fermentation).
That also implies few if any barrels used for the white production, which would help keep down the cost of the wines as well.
See this link for a short article about Sauv Blanc in India...where we find the following regarding prices of imported wines in India:

The huge difference in prices is largely due to the impact of the high customs duties on imported alcoholic beverages in India, which at 256 per cent to 145 per cent (inversely proportionate to cost) are the highest anywhere in the world.

Undoubtedly those tariffs will drive the local industry as demand rises - if their government doesn't drop the rates on imports - as the new upwardly-mobile Indians start to consume more wine.

I had posted a few articles about the awakening of Asian wine markets in August last year...
[Côtes du Riveière Kwai]
India pushes improved wine image]

India, in the last year or so, has been in the news off and on regarding it's wine industry. Here is an article about some of the Californian winemakers who have traveled to India to join in their efforts.
[The link has a few errors in the story (Dry Creek is a sub-app of Sonoma COUNTY, and NOT Sonoma Valley; ISO certification is not the "stamp of a world-class operation", but rather certification that they use a standardized tracking and paperwork system...), but otherwise is very informative.]

Some of the viticultural techniques are very eye-opening, including the need to prune twice a year to force dormancy! Quite an interesting system...

Here's a nice site with some info on the Indian wine industry, with a telling description of what's to come if Indians wake up their wine taste buds:

"For those who curl up their nose at Indian wines, the advise would be not to write off the local offerings. The consumption is increasing though ever too small. Sham Chougule, the chairman of Chateau Indage puts it succinctly, " It's about half a teaspoon per head. The day it becomes one litre, the market will be one billion litres." "

That's it! India needs some sort of campaign to bring more awareness of wine to the population. In fact, it seems to me that this is yet another perfect opportunity for the WINE BUS! And I think we should get one custom painted for just such a drive...

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Take a Wine final you thought school was over...
Get your #2 pencils out and a scantron sheet¹
and take the test here! [link]
(it's an online final from the UCD Winemaking for Distance Learners class...)
Some of the highlights from the test:

7. A sort of snobby friend brings a bottle of red Burgundy wine and one of a red Bordeaux wine to dinner. She proceeds to tell you what the differences will be.
Which is the correct statement?

a) the Burgundy wine will be berry/fruity because it is made of Pinot noir
b) the difference between the two is that only Bordeaux will have been in oak
c) the Bordeaux wine will have a higher alcohol level
d) the Burgundy wine will probably not have been chaptalized
e) the Burgundy wine will be vegetative because it is made from Pinot noir.

8. The same lady comes to dinner again, this time with a bottle of 2000 Chardonnay from California and one from Australia. Which is the correct statement?
a) The California Chardonnay is made of 51% Chardonnay
b) California Chardonnay winemakers rarely age their wines in oak
c) The big difference between the two wines is the country of origin
d) California Chardonnay winemaker never allow malolactic fermentation
e) Australian and California Chardonnays are most typically aged in oak but
do not under go malolactic fermentation

So the next question is "why do I keep inviting my sort of snobby women friends over?"
Obviously it's a) you're a college aged guy looking to score, so you'll put up with her snobbiness - that's why.²

I can't wait to see all the different answers!
(¹ scantron sheet not supplied by Zinquisition)
(² that really IS the right answer folks. A good follow-up question would be "are you inviting her to the Tri-Delta kegger on Tuesday night? Discuss why or why not...")

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Merlot's bad rap...

"...I'm not drinking any f*cking Merlot!" - Miles, Sideways

I can't help but think that the poor reputation Merlot has garnered in the last 10 years is due to the climate effects I spoke about in the last 2 posts.

When Merlot really started to take off, many producers started to source the fruit from anywhere they could...with some of the massive producers really pulling all the stops out of California's San Joaquin valley.

Now fruit from Merlot vines grown in really hot areas are known to be a problem in their acid profile. Where other vines may not metabolize all their malic acid in hot climes, Merlot seems to be subject to even more degradation. This makes for really flabby fruit, and in the drive to get more product to market, those insipid wines from that fruit found it's way into the main bulk of the market. People found it dull, boring, flat...etc., and they found it by the bucket-full on the supermarket shelves.

That avarice shot the varietal in the leg, and it continues to stagger forward, diminishing the reputation of other good Merlot's in the state.

Rich Cartiere's WMR (Wine Market Report) has a report on the troubles that the San Joaquin valley faces now, and by contrast, how rosy the picture looks for California's North Coast wine industry. I've opined on the southern end of the valley's situation before [Thompson seedless post] [Temecula post] and I'm not sure that there's really anything that's surprising in it to me.

I'll have to check the 2005 acreage reports, but I'd be surprised if growers down there were actually planting MORE vineyards after the troubles they've had selling their crops in the past. When they were able to sell them it was at a price that seemed little above the cost of producing it in the first place...but that's also to be expected when the area you're growing in doesn't produce grapes of good wine quality, and the market is driven by producers who are selling the product for a bottom-basement price (arguably Gallo has the most influence in the area as far as crop prices are concerned)...margins are so close that there's really no room for growers to breathe. So why go back in that direction - especially with the flood of Aussie wines on the doorstep?
Wouldn't apricots, peaches or pears make more sense...?

Planting more grapes after seeing prices crash and hundreds upon hundreds of acres of vineyards being ripped out in the past few years doesn't make good financial sense for the growers, or the reputation of California's wines in general.
People have labeled me as insensitive to the So.Cal. viticulture plight before, but frankly, I think I'm just telling it like it is.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Minerality: mythos and reality

Mineral notes in your wine - minerality, if you will - what causes it? Classic viticulture states plainly that it's due to the soil type your vineyard is situated upon. But is that true?

Mineral content of the soil is largely inconsequential to perceptions of 'minerality' in the finished wine. Take the variations in mineral content in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties for calcium (Ca)[8~23 ppm], potassium (K)[1~3 ppm], and magnesium (Mg)[1.5~16 ppm] from vine growing areas. At first we see what looks to be a rather large range of these minerals, but when looked at on larger scales aren’t very significant at all...

That calcium range, the largest of the 3 minerals mentioned, is just 0.008 g to 0.023 grams per kilogram of soil...which really isn't much variation at all, as well as being very low levels initially. How can such a small range for that mineral be responsible for such a large variation in the resulting wines? - the grapevines would have to be phenomenally responsive to those minerals, as would our taste buds (neither of which is the case).

Couple that fact with what has to be a very inefficient translocation mechanism of the minerals into the fruit, and you have even lower variation in the fruit than you do in the soil to start with. Also on point is that there are similar soil compositions in areas of Sonoma and Mendocino Counties which produce such different finished wines, in regards to minerality, that it leads one away from the (romantic) notion of soil as the defining factor in the finished character of a wine. This again is one of the reasons I feel that appellations based on prevailing climate are more important (read 'accurate') than those based predominantly on soil types (Tom, please forgive my love of the 'Sonoma Coast' appellation!).

Historically soil was linked to blood lines, nobility, ancestry & heredity, etc., and it was an easy extension to apply those ideas to wines as well...even though only anecdotal reasons were available to do so. (Witness the use of the term "Noble" varietals when discussing grapevines...more popular vines were thought to have better qualities, more 'pure' and 'noble' in nature than the 'coarse' 'common' varietals...)

The following is from Jamie Goode's
Wineanorak [2003 Harper's article] regarding the 'minerality' of the soil being deposited into the fruit:

...Scientific views of terroir
While in some circles it is quite common to hear such literalist explanations of terroir, they are treated with a degree of incredulity by many new world viticulturalists. I asked viticultural guru Dr Richard Smart what he thought of popular notions of terroir which propose direct translocation of flavour molecules from the soil to the grapes, and hence the wine [which is exactly what would have to happen for the 'minerality' of the soil to be tasted].
‘This is an absolute nonsense’, he replied. ‘I have never heard this, yet you say it is popular. Who on earth postulated this?’
[Damn, that quote just kills it! Think back again to the romantic notions of land and 'nobility'...hmmmmm, where could that idea have come from?]

Dawid Saayman, a South African viticultural expert known for his work on terroir, adds that, ‘I don’t believe that the minerals taken up by the vine can register as minerality in the wines. Minerality appears to me to be more the result of absence of fruitiness.’ But it’s pretty much a given that wines that [are] made from grapes differing only in the soil in which they were grown taste different.
[True, but what's not 'a given' is that those differences are soil derived...too many variables are involved for a fermentation to be reduced to just a difference in the soil...and this ignores the fact that if one splits those grapes harvested from a single block, picked on the same day, by the same people, and fermented by the same winemaker & crew into two tanks right next to each other, that more often than not they have somle differences between can that be? Why aren't they the same? They were grown on identical soil under identical conditions, no? Also I think that minerality is not necessarily due to the 'abscence of fruitiness', but rather it's a subtle effect which is sometimes swamped by wines with more apparent fruit aroma...and is therefore easier to detect in less 'fruity' wines.]

So just what is the scientific explanation for these terroir effects? It is an important question, because providing a sound scientific footing for terroir is a worthy cause. Not only will it lend credibility to the concept in the eyes of sceptics [sic], but it will also help the already converted understand and therefore better utlilize [sic] terroir effects....

I just can't see the argument for soils affecting 'minerality' as a plausible explanation.
And unfortunately for terroiristas everywhere, if the soil portion of the terroir argument falls, then so a good portion of the foundation of the current definiton of what terroir even IS is weakened nearly to failure...

delenda est terroir...?


Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Berger, minerality, terroir...

Dan Berger penned an article about terroir after attending the UCD Terroir 2006 confrence last week. [read it here]

Problems I find within it? Well, for starters he...

  • suggests soil minerals affect the aroma & taste of the finished wine [those differences are on a parts-per-million level, and these soil mineral influences are so inconsequential, minor and ephemeral in nature that they essentially aren't part of the tasting experience for human beings]
  • suggests larger geographic app's don't deliver terroir, while smaller apps DO [Helllooooo! can you spell "pretentious"...?]
  • suggests the recent terroir conferences were partly about how irked 'professors' were that terroir was being 'ignored' by critics [a tacit acknowledgement perhaps that terroir is currently of more 'academic' interest than usefulness to consumers]
  • suggests the problem is the 100 pt scale for rating wines [say what..?]
  • claims that more extracted wines 'ALWAYS SEEM' to garner higher ratings [is it possible - just slightly possible - that people might actually prefer these wines? And does he not read Jancis Robinson? Or Clive Coates, etc?]
  • suggests that critic's don't bother with subtle influences - such as he claims that Terroir influences are [a wild suggestion since weather and climate are included in his definition] when rating wines with a 100 pt system
  • WTF?! And who gives a shit about what Randall Graham thinks? He's made some good wines, but I'm not about to follow him around - the guy's made some pretty loopy statements in the past [not to mention Randall's new found love of Biodynamics, which is pure bunk...]
  • why does he start out by saying that it's "true that each grape-growing plot of land has it's own unique mineral content, which impacts aroma and taste

I appreciate climatic and weather related differences in wines, and have come to expect them. But listen, just 'cuz someone rates a wine using a 100 pt scale doesn't mean they rate wines from Tasmania the same as they would a wine from Texas [climate and winemaking techniques COUNT people!]...

For Dan to prove his statements he would have to reveal why grapes picked on the same day by the same people, from the same vineyard block and fermented in identical ways by the same vintner & crew still turn out different from each other.

Without being able to do that, he leaves the door wide open, and his premise seems to escape from him.