Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Things that make me go "huh?"

It’s emails like this from my Etoile post that make me go “Huh?!”:

I don't get it

Why break the cork tradition thing with champaignes when these corks are more suited for champaignes than crowns! I kinda like the cork better and crowns are harmful to the environment. Why don't we give mother nature a little respect.
--Posted by lyle to The Zinquisition at 8/17/2006 11:31:42 PM

No, really…
Maybe I’m the one who doesn’t “get it”…as in how do you figure that, anyway?

What about crown caps is hurting the environment?
Yes, they’re metallic and the metal had to be mined at one time…but can be recycled almost indefinitely I believe – so I don’t think crown caps could be construed as really harmful to the environment. Plus he’s kinda missed the point – for most of the production time of these sparkling wines they’re already under a crown cap, and only when finally disgorged and hit with the dosage (if any) do they finally get a “traditional” cork.

So crowns are most definitely suited to champagnes and sparkling wines, especially if you consider that these bottles will be opened and recorked before they are sent off to the consumer…
…and would mean that if you’re using natural cork throughout the process, you’d have to consume twice as many corks…
…and strip twice as much cork bark off of trees…
…and use twice as much wire for the wire baskets they’d need to secure the corks…
…and potentially have twice as much wine spoiled by TCA “corked” wines…
…and wouldn’t have as much room for the yeast sediment to fall into the neck of the bottle for disgorgement…
…and potentially have twice as many closure failures as you would otherwise with just one corking (my experience with champagne corks is that they rarely fail,but I wouldn't want to up my losses during an ageing peiod that may last several years)...
…and more labor and energy being used for the corking & wiring of the bottles, which is a much more complex set of movements than just capping…
…etc., none of which strikes me as being very respectful to Mother Nature.

All of that is bypassed when keeping the crown cap at the final adjustment of the wine and final "dress" of the product for the consumer, as well as the potential problems using natural cork could cause during ageing and riddling mentioned above.

Now the Portuguese cork manufacturers have lately been getting the rabid fringe of the greens to jump to their defense against crown caps and screw caps (and pretty much any closure not made from their "natural cork") by playing on fears that the cork oak forests will suddenly disappear when people start buying wines with screw caps, etc., which I just don't see as a reasonable scenario. [see this peopleandplanet post for details of the WWF position of "...three quarters of the Western Mediterranean's cork oak forests could be lost within 10 years, threatening an economic and environmental crisis, unless the industry took action to support the cork stoppers market."]
In fact the WWF states that in the next decade we'll see "that up to two million hectares of cork oak forests - around half the size of Switzerland - are at risk of desertification and forest fires due to a predicted decline in the cork stoppers market..." which is true speculation and fear mongering.
And certainly they never offered much in the way of proof of that suggested outcome by the cork conglomerates...

Perhaps Lyle could’ve held it to “I kinda like the cork better…”, which would be a perfectly fine statement to make, and would be much more persuasive to any producer reading this blog.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Mechanical harvesting

I've been talking to a few winemakers in the area who might be looking to mechanical harvesting should harvest labor be in short supply due to some immigration bill Congress might pass in the next month - even though the immigration bill is pretty much dead.
(And why wouldn't it be dead? - no politician in their right mind [yes there are a few of 'em] would think that having a statute like that being voted on was actually a good idea in an election year...no , much better to just raise the issue to polarize the voters, then let it die quietly without ever having to cast a vote. Not to mention that big business interests without a doubt put the brakes on it...)

Immigration bills, while a chilling effect to many agricultural labor pools, aren't as likely as problems caused by compressed vintages and weather fluxuations...
Back in '04 there was a heat spike that happened right during the last phase of ripening, which started to dehydrate fruit & caused a pick-a-thon in the North Coast: so many growers/producers were trying to get labor lined up that it was almost impossible to ever really feel like you'd gotten the situation under control...many time you'd have a crew bought out from underneath you by someone else with deeper pockets who could offer more (no names mentioned) - or who had a larger vineyards & could offer more total work to the pickers, making it worth their while to pick at their place & secure more income.

Potentially the amount of mechanical harvesting could increase this year, but maybe not so much in North Coast - the terrain is just too hilly in many spots....that and the popular perceived reputation of mechanical harvesters as being more suited to bulk wine producers...
And of course it DOES depend on what kind of trellis system you have: vertical trellis systems are useful for harvesters, but the more intricate lyre-type, or split-canopy trellis types aren't set up for a mechanical harvester. Also, drip irrigation vineyards are preferred to the typical sprinkler type irrigation becaue the drip lines are lower - generally under the "fruit zone" where the shaking really occurs - and are more flexible and less likely to end up breaking.

Now that "bulk wine" reputation may have been deserved 10~20 years ago, but technology has increased quite a bit in the past decade-and-a-half, and they now treat fruit much gentler than in the past (I remember seeing a harvester back in the early 80's that literally looked like it had just been driven over from a walnut farm, and it shook the holy beeejeeezuz out of entire vine like a rag doll in a pit bull's mouth - thank god they've improved...).

Certainly it's useless to pick with one if you're looking to get your fruit into the press still on the stem to ensure freshness (what most refer to as "whole clusters"), or if I was trying for more of a carbonic maceration style - since the fruit needs to be on the stem and not broken open, and by popping it off of the stems & splitting it defeats the purpose. In fact, many times there reallly isn't any reason to put mechanically harvested fruit through the crusher/stemmer, since it was quite literally shaken right off the vine. Well, except for the fact that you'd want to use the stemmer as a way of making sure none of the irrigation sprinkler heads went into your press or must pumps...because that shaking motion of the harvester can really knock them off their stands.
They're still not as gentle as by hand, though most are now ok if you're not taking too long to get it into the winery, or if you're adding sulfur or dry ice in the field to keep it from oxidizing too much. Still I wouldn't make the trip into the winery more than 30 minutes from the moment it's first picked to the time it's in the press.

Some links to companies that make harvesters: Gregoire, Pellenc, BEI...which is just a small sampling of companies...and to GrapeHarvesterUSA which sells use of their harvesters, as well as leasing and service of units...
I had a link to video of one in use...but can't seem to locate it right now. I believe it was of a Pellenc model...

...meanwhile as I relocate the video link, here's a link to a page with some nice photo's of people using one in New Zealand:
[Wine of the Week page]

If I were loking to use a harvester, I'd ensure the weather forecast predicted fog for the times I picked with cool temps, or perhaps by picking at night when I was going to use one (that might also limit the number of people who witnessed it being used too - if you're leery of what it could do to your reputation!). Unfortunately, unless you're thinking along the lines of using a harvester before the fact, it would probably be applied as an "emergency" measure when the weather really started to heat up and you had more fruit to pick than you could manage in a short time, so having your "druthers" as to when and under what weather you were using it probably wouldn't be an option for most people.

As a betting man, I'd be thinking about it as a contingency plan - at least making sure I was talking with someone who had one/access to one, just to ensure I had picking capacity in case immigration becomes an issue when getting people to pick, or when the weather turned against you.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

More "Green" fear-mongering

I just have to laugh when I read articles like these...
[Winemaker Wants To End The Mystery In A Bottle (KCBS)]

...in which Mr. Coturri expreses his concern that someone... "could go to a lab and order a yeast that gives you a certain aroma, a certain flavor. Anything that you're looking for can be pronounced by a genetically modified yeast”...


“If those yeasts get loose in the vineyards, they're going to be the dominant yeast that's going to overcome the natural yeast”

- but his statements are both wildly presumptive and lack anything in the way of evidence to support them.

First, while there are many different types of yeasts available commercially you can't just get "anything". There are a finite number of yeast strains, and while it takes time to develop new items for the market, one could imagine a time in the future where there are many more strains available - even genetically modified ones.
But that time isn't here yet, so the comment is basically just stirring the emotional "pot" of fear...

Second, there's no proof that any man-made yeasts will automatically dominate and "overcome" the naturally occurring yeast populations (whatever he means by that phrase...he makes it sounds like hand-to-hand combat...) other than by sheer numbers on a localized level.

What Coturri seems to be advocating in this article is the labeling of all ingredients used to make a wine - even if they're innocuous. That's really a different argument than the anti-GM yeast he's espousing above, especially in light of the fact that there are very few GM yeasts even available much less even being used at this time.
In fact, as you read through the article, it becomes apparent that he really wants to turn this into a game of "who's got the shorter list" on their label as a way for him to further differentiate his product from other products on the market. And really it's the same argument that was brought forward by Roger Voss some months ago... [ingredient-labeling-is-there-issue]

I just can't see his comments as anything but hyperbole and smokescreen.


Just the other day I was pointed to this article on awesternheart blog which is worthy of a reading. Some nuggets include these points which dispell some of the fear...

As a result, the new biotech yeast is getting a wary reception in a wine industry that sells itself on its artisan reputation and is anxious not to ruffle export markets touchy about genetically modified foods. Experts also say the new yeast alters the flavor of wine. "As an industry, we're definitely interested in research when it comes to genetic engineering. But I don't think we're prepared to look at genetically modified products yet," said Paul Dolan, a winemaker and chairman of the Wine Institute, the California industry's leading advocacy group.

California wine exports totaled $625 million in 2005, according to the Wine Institute. Six of 10 California winemakers contacted for this story knew of the new yeast, but none said they were using it. Outside the United States, only Moldova, in Eastern Europe, allows its winemakers to use the new yeast. Regulators in several other winemaking countries are reviewing it. The yeast's manufacturer, Lesaffre Yeast Corp. of Milwaukee, did not return calls seeking comment.

Wait - isn't Lesaffre a company started back in 1853 in Northern France? And don't they own both SAF and RED STAR yeast products?
So again we see the French marketing a product HERE that they wouldn't be allowed to use THERE...pretty slick...

Monday, August 21, 2006

Byron, Arrowood & Freemark Abbey have just been pruchased by Jess Jackson and his wife for ~$96 MIL. [See release here]

Good for them.

But that price seems a bit on the high side.
Now years ago when Byron & Arrowood were sold together for $40 MIL from Mondavi to Legacy it was widely regarded as being overpaid for...but even IF those wineries had stepped up to the plate & were now worth what was paid then ( which they really haven't)...well, that means that they just paid ~$56 MIL for Freemark Abbey ALONE.
Byron shares a property line with one of the Santa Barbara wineries they own, and that might make it more attractive, but really, $20 Mil for Arrowood (when it hasn't stepped up it's performance since the last time it was purchased) is kinda funny.
And I guess this means ol' Dick Arrowood won't be buying his namesake winery back as I had hoped at one time.

So why'd they do it?
Wish I knew that one, but probably the Jackson/Banke camp is the only place to find the reasoning behind it. I can't make much sense of it - it just seems like it's waaaaay over priced for those brands...

Thursday, August 10, 2006

WSWA & Statistics

"There are two kinds of lies - damned lies and statistics!"

Interesting that the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America think 2% is statistically significant as they are touting new research conducted by TRU (Teenage Research unlimited) that shows that just 2% of teens have obtained alcohol via the internet. Looking to play Chicken Little, WSWA has concluded that this means "millions of teenagers have ordered alcohol online". Interesting that USA Today turns it around to say that "teens not rushing online to buy wine"! Also interesting that the TRU survey says nothing about where the other 98% of teens buy their alcohol. My guess would be from a store, supplied by a WSWA wholesaler member, no?

Who's really creating the alcohol problem here?

Friday, August 04, 2006

More AVA confusion

This from the Sun-Sentinel (syndicated from Bill Daley of the Chicago Tribune):

"Lord knows wine lovers have a lot to think about when they go to the liquor store. Red or white? Sauvignon blanc or chardonnay? Oaked, unoaked? How much? It's enough to make you reach for the Scotch.
Well, add another question to the purchasing process: What AVA?
AVA stands for American Viticultural Area, and it's more than just more label clutter to confuse consumers.
The federal government established AVAs in 1978 to help set wine-growing regions apart. Think Napa and Sonoma in California. This system is similar to the French Appellation d'Origine Controlee (AOC) system, notes The New Wine Lover's Companion, the big difference being that the AVA is purely geographical and the AOC governs how French wines are made."


"Kevin Zraly, the wine educator and author, writes in his new "Kevin Zraly's American Wine Guide" that an AVA is not a guarantee of quality but it identifies a specific area "well-known and established" for its wine."

Now both of those passages are true, but what's left unsaid tells volumes.

First, as I have pointed out many times before, the AOC system does not guarantee quality EITHER. AVA's are also based upon prevailing weather and climate, not PURELY geographical in their nature. The statement that the AOC also governs HOW French wines are made is true, as is the regulation of which vines can be grown in each district.

He continues noting that the number of AVA's has increased by 32 in the past 5 years (16 new ones in California alone), and observing that...

The danger is if the wine industry goes too far in delineating AVAs. Just think of the nightmare of appellations that bedevil Burgundy, making it one of the hardest wine regions for budding oenophiles to understand. In California, especially Napa Valley, there are a number of AVAs within or overlapping each other. One Napa AVA, Carneros, even crosses into Sonoma.

Yeah, the Carneros AVA starts on the Napa side of the county line, then travels into Sonoma County [read it here if you really want to...] - and one might expect that AVA's wouldn't be confined to a single county, wouldn't they? I mean WHY would a geopolitical boundary that was created before viticulture really took root be applicable to where the conditions are best? In fact, it'd be much more suspect if the boundaries followed some arbitrary line created in antiquity rather than a line created with the end idea of defining a fairly uniform & distinctive area where grapes are grown... so in a sense who cares where the county boundaries are?...

An interesting observation to make is that most county borders on coastal & mountainous land is defined by ridges and mountains, where county lines fall in flatter areas they are frequently defined by streams and rivers. Notice how I didn't use any agricultural production criteria for that statement - and neither did the settlers who first came out to California...
After all, it's pretty difficult to know exactly where you are without a GPS, and visual references (rivers, mountain peaks, ridges) are key to those definitions of where one jurisdiction changed to another. That's the reason Judge Roy Bean was "the law West of the Pecos [river]", and not something like "the law where the cottonwoods grow".
You KNEW when and where you crossed the Pecos, even if it was out in the middle of nowhere in relation to towns or settlements.

Anyway, I've touched on the idea of what would happen if producers started to market multiple single vineyard wines, and I think the resulting confusion & dilution of brands would also occur if there is an over proliferation of AVA's [Single vineyard wines].


Quoting Diana Hamann of Wine Goddess Consulting in Chicago -"Our AVAs aren't inextricably linked to their best potential grape varietals," Hamann said. "We're getting closer. We've realized Oregon's greatness with pinot noir, Napa's with cabernet sauvignon and, increasingly, Santa Barbara's excellence with syrah to name a few. Who knows, maybe someday our AVA system will emulate the French AOC system, which may be confusing to some, but really is a tremendous crutch in deciphering the good wine from the masses."

Oh Dear GOD NO!

Why emulate the AOC when we have a chance to refine & correct it...and certainly to avoid the pitfalls the French have hobbled themselves with?
Her statement makes me think she's yet another of the "masses" who've equated AOC with Quality...which it isn't - at least not beyond controlling the fruit source and techniques that can be applied. It doesn't really mean "jack" regarding the wine's quality as a finished product...that's up to the producer.

And "Wine Goddess Consulting"...? Really now...

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Follow up

Thought I'd post a link to the Underdog Wine Merchants site, not only for the fact that they just got 2 Bonny Doon labels added to their portfolio, but also because they're trying to make wine "fun" and "hip" as you can see from their website's construction.

While I think the "Killer Juice" label visually looks a bit sophmoric, I think it has great potential appeal to the Orange County Chopper fans who might want a bottle of wine with flames like a '57 Chevy - certainly a niche under marketed to.

I mean, if you ever wondered just what kind of wine might be on Paul Sr.'s table this would probably be it (Okay, Mikey's more likely to have wine in my opinion, but what the heck!).