Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Appellation America: work in progress...

I was asked by Tish the other day if I had posted about the Appellation America (hereafter called AppAm) website and mission.

I have visited the site several times over the past year-or-so, and I think the idea is a good one: one site to showcase the multitude of North American appellations - all over the US & Canada, not just the West coast - and provide some commentary and analysis of the different areas.
When I first visited, my initial take was that the site lacked enough specific information for each area to allow consumers to really get into the differences from one to the next, and the maps of the apps - when available - weren't really useful as they were artists concepts, or too vague to be helpful - though the little man climbing Mt.Veeder & the deer leaping over what's supposed to be Stag's Leap are attractive to newbies.

But recognizing the enormity of what they were trying to accomplish and that the site itself not only states it is constantly under construction, and also elicits help from the public for appellations they are familiar with (sort of a Wikipedia for US & Canadian wine growing regions - a Wine-apedia if you will), and sports some well respected wine industry insiders like Tom of Fermentations, and Dan Berger, who is syndicated nationally, among others.

Still, there should be a topo map which would allow people to see what is properly "Napa Valley" [the green area on the topo map portion above], and that which is legally defined as "Napa Valley" [the purple area added to the green area on the topo map]. This sort of detail would allow visitors to make some judgements about where their wines are coming from, and foster more discussion as well...including the near heretical questioning of whether "Napa Valley" means Napa Valley, or might be something outside of what truly IS the Napa Valley...

Note that I have nothing against the artsy renditions of geographic areas- in fact I think they go a good distance towards eliminating wine elitism by making the subject a bit more fun for people who aren't familiar with the concepts, or who haven't traveled through the area being discussed.
But place the artsy picture at the top of the article, and a more detailed map (topo) within the article, so that people may get a better idea for the geography in question. Then add in some specifics about climate, general geology within the area, etc, and you have a way of bringing people into the subject, and giving them the information they need in the end without seeming elitist - and without them feeling awkward by having to ask (which many neophytes are loathe to do fearing they'll look "stupid" merely by asking). Beware though the equally confusing essay/manifesto by Randall Graham regarding terroir...which would be enough to send most newbies heading for the hills...(I'll resist the urge to deflate his "viticultural acupuncture" and "Ley lines" comments for a future date).

There are also a few odd wine reviews here & there on the site which are a bit confusing. Certainly the site isn't designed to be a comprehensive review of wines from all US appellations, but it seems this area has a bit more work to be done on it...[Take for example this review of a 2002 Murphy-Goode wine from the Alexander Valley in Sonoma County:

"...When I first nosed this wine, from four-year old vines, I didn’t know what to think: it smelled like mushrooms, scrambled eggs, and blackberry pancakes all at once. But after six hours, 24 hours, and 72 hours, it smelled exactly the same – the sign of a wine that’s true to something intrinsic, not tarted up. In your mouth, it’s full of sweet black fruit laced with baking spice delivered in a multi-layered texture that’s warm without alcoholic heat and that expands all the way through to the finish. Worth seeking out for both pleasure and originality.
Reviewed June 22, 2006 by
Thom Elkjer."

Hmmm...smelled like scrambled eggs - but that's okay, becuse 3 days later it STILL smelled like scrambled eggs. And I'm not sure what he means by 'tarted up' (for a wine, anyways...I know what it means for women) he talking acidity, or what?
Again, is it that wine's supposed to be 'true' to some impossibly underdefined 'intrinsic' quality, or is it suppsed to be 'good'?
Gimme the good wine any day. Those eggy notes are from various sulphur compounds, and are seen as a fault. That they don't decrease over 3 days leads me to think less of that wine.

Good Lord, there's so much to work yet to be done...
[read the review from
appellation america website...]

But of all the thoughts I had regarding the site, my biggest concern is that they don't bite off more than they can accomplish, and I think trying to provide descriptions of all the different varietals grown in North America, and the entirety of approved appellations (which is a moving target since the list is still expanding) is quite demanding as it stands.
A lot of work is going to be required to bring it to fruition.


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

This is Wine Journalism?

I've reproduced this article from the Telegraph as it made me wonder if it too was sponsored by APCOR.

Screwcaps blamed for tainting wine
By Richard Alleyne
(Filed: 19/09/2006)

Few issues divide wine drinkers more than that of the choice between corks and screwcaps.

Really?!? I can think of about a dozen issues that truly divide wine drinkers (most related to style).

Traditionalists love cork, as do environmentalists, because it is natural and has served the wine industry for hundreds of years. It also has a satisfying pop when the bottle is opened.

Right away, we can see that impartiality has gone out the window. "Satisfying pop"? And as for "has served the wine industry for hundreds of years" - doesn't this fall under the category of "we've always done it that way"? Telegram or horse-drawn buggy anyone?

Screwcaps, on the other hand, are seen as industrial, cheap and lacking the romance of the old "closure" but they have been hailed as the future because there is no danger they will spoil or "taint" the wine, a problem that is said to affect up to one in 10 corked bottles.

"Industrial" "cheap"...sounds like this is coming from the much-heralded survey sponsored by APCOR that lead off with the slightly leading question "Why don't you like screwcaps?"

However a survey by the world's biggest wine competition has added a new twist to the debate.

The tasters at this year's International Wine Challenge, discovered that while cork taint is on the decline, the problems affecting wines sealed with screwcaps have probably been underestimated.

From a blind tasting of more than 9,000 wines they discovered that 4.4 per cent of the corked wine had been tainted in some way while 2.2 per cent of the screwcapped wine had been damaged.

Hmmm....screwcaps were twice as effective, yet the title of the article is "screwcaps blamed for tainting wine". A bit misleading, no?

Faults caused by the latter are mainly a build-up of sulphides which give the wine an eggy or oniony flavour.

So these flaws were present in the wines - got that - but have we established that they were flaws caused by the screwcap or would they have been present regardless of the closure? The conclusion "caused by the latter (screwcaps)" seems like a bit of a non sequitur. Further, it has been long established that corks bring flaws to otherwise untainted wine, so screwcaps have nowhere to go but up from corks.

Sam Harrop, a wine-maker who co-chaired the tasting, said that the problem with screwcaps appeared to be related to their greater efficiency as a seal and that companies who had been using them for a long time had all but eradicated the problem.

Ah, so those with just a few years of experience with the problem have basically solved it, yet cork which has "served the wine industry for hundreds of years" is still flawed. Sounds like a short-term glitch versus a long-term problem.

Jonathan Ray, The Daily Telegraph wine correspondent, said: "In my mind screwcaps are brilliant. They have eliminated almost all cork taint but this shows they are not infallible."

As I've said before, I don't take a real stand on either side of the closure issue, but I'd like to see a fair fight from cork proponents, who just don't seem up to the task.

Monday, September 18, 2006

harvest experiment: minerality & ripeness

I worked it out with a vineyard manager I know this year to harvest 2-rows of a block of Chardonnay in Sonoma County "early" at about 22°Brix, and hold an additional 2-rows until 25°Brix.

The two lots of grapes will be fermented and aged separately, using the same yeast, stainless tank fermented, then each split in half early after primary fermentation, with half of each lot allowed to go through ML fermentation, while the other half will be sulfitted to keep it from going through ML. This will give me 4 wines - early pick, no ML; early, ML completed; later pick, no ML; later, ML completed....

After all is said and done, I plan to have 6~8 people taste them blindly interspersed with other Chards, and use their notes to draw some rough conclusions re minerality and acid levels. I think it will confirm my earlier position of ripeness (less acid due to more metabolism of acids in the fruit with greater ripeness) being the overall determinant in minerality within the same climate. Comparisons between different areas could then be extrapolated to the overall climate & ripeness produced of the crop.

I'll provide lab results of the fruit coming in from the vineyards for each pick, and analysis of the resulting 4 lots as well.
Results to follow...but not until a few months from now...

Friday, September 15, 2006

Elitism & Scarcity

Skimming through the wine blogosphere is a fascinating experience. The amount of knowledge possessed by amateur wine writers continues to impress me and while my own interest in the generally obscure minutia of the wine world is pretty limited, it fascinates me to see the passion many people possess about this beverage.

That said (you were waiting for the other shoe, weren't you?), I'm deeply saddened to see the continued trend of elitism that pervades many blogs and those who comment on them. Don't get me wrong, I love a great bottle of wine more than the next guy, but as I have mentioned many times before, the elitism of the wine culture creates a real "barrier to entry" for many now-insecure consumers who would otherwise happily drink whatever fairly generic varietal the get on sale from their local megamart. I read numerous comments like "well, I wish people wouldn't drink yellow tail" and "most wine is insipid plonk not worthy of being poured down my drain" and "only certain regions of the world should even be producing wine at all (followed by a highly subjective assessment of climate, topography, and soils)".

I heartily agree that some wine is better than others, but let's just focus for a moment on what would happen if we were to wave our magic wand and eliminate all the "generic" wines that are so hated by wine geeks. We would lose all Vin de Table, all wines with broad appellations (California, Southwestern Australia, etc) and by preventing people from drinking these generics, we would be left with a very, very small amount of wine.

Now let's give the elitists a moment to catch up......okay, I see some lightbulbs coming on.....

Basic Economics tells us that scarcity drives prices up (basic supply/demand curve). If we were to eliminate all "generic" wines, the resulting scarcity would pretty much destroy the wine business for most of us. Why? Simply because the economies of scale in production and distribution would be completely lost. Wines would be $30 and up and would only be available in limited outlets as the now-lower profits from broad market distribution would make it uneconomic to sustain the current infrastructure. Wine would become as popular as soju, sold regionally (not nationally or internationally in the current sense), and be relegated to even greater obscurity.

Think for a moment about how bad the world would be if good wine were hard to get (or just imagine you live in a dry county or control state!). Think about how good we really have it and consider it your duty (as I do) to get more people drinking wine (of whatever kind). Let's all work to both raise the bar of consumption and raise the bar of quality. That becomes a win-win-win.

Do you resent the Franzia wine tap that Grandma keeps in the fridge? Do you gnash your teeth when Uncle Charlie breaks out the Red Bicyclette? You should thank them, because they allow you to be able to stay at the top of the wine food chain.....

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

With a little luck

No morning fog - either yesterday or today! I awoke to "With a Little Luck" by Paul McCartney & Wings this morning on the alarm clock-radio, and couldn't think of a more appropriate theme some for this harvest...not that the song has been too lucky for Sir Paul these days, what with his divorce & all...

Well, despite my upbeat post the other day regarding better potential flavors & ripeness with a slow approach to harvest, there have been a few friends and contacts who have emailed me regarding some botrytis they're encountering in their own vineyards. In a way I'm not too surprised...
Some months ago I voiced concern over the potential for mold issues to come into play this year due to the massive amounts of rain, and the late nature of those rains this spring. Couple the more than normal amount of mold spores present in the vineyards this year with the possibility of a September rain (not all that unlikely), tight clusters this year, and potentially a few days following a rain with cool - maybe even foggy - weather and you've got a recipe for disaster.

I've been trying to shake a bit of pessimism which has crept over me lately...this fog's just been a little too consistent, thick & it's been hanging around far too long into the day. Sugars aren't rising too fast with all this fog, and I may be out in the vineyards dropping a bit of fruit in hopes of getting the rest of the crop in before the weather goes to pot.
However, these last two mornings have had Orion almost directly overhead @ sunrise...a nice surprise, & it's nice to see him again after almost a month straight of foggy mornings. Not that I live my life by the stars - though I think I've made myself clear on that point over the years.


Speaking of stars, interestingly enough, the rumor mill has reports of a large $50MIL+ deal recently closed which supposedly had an Astrological consultation in order for one of the parties involved to make a decision about whether to proceed & complete the deal, or go find another business partner.

Now I'm all for people feelin' good & having whatever sort of business consltation they desire - but it's pretty ballsy to stake $50MIL on that sort of gamble.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Fog's back!...again...

Fog's back...and again, and again....

Generally we see a 6-day fog cycle during the summer: 3 days of heat where the fog doesn't enter Wine Country, followed by 3 days of progressively thicker which point the fog has cooled the area enough to stop the cycle, and we wait another 3 days for it to start again. Temps usually drop ~10°F on the foggy days from the otherwise highs, with extreme thick fog maybe plunging temps 20°F lower than normal.

August saw so much fog that the hot (100°F+) weather we had in June & July seems like only bad dreams. And the usual fog cycle is a thing of the past...with weeks straight of fog in August...

Looking at the data for Santa Rosa, June had an avg high temp of 83.2°F (102°F max temp, with 5 days above 90°F, and a minimum of 45°F which occurred on one of the foggiest days), and 13 days had fog, with 3 of those days fog so thick visibility was just 1/4 mile.

July produced an avg high temp of 89.4°F (108°F max temp, with 13 days above 90°F, again a minimum of 45°F ), 11 foggy days, but only 1 of those days had that really thick wet fog.

August saw an avg high temp of 89.4°F (97°F max temp, with just 2 days above 90°F, a minimum of 44°F ), and a whopping 22 days with fog, 5 of those days with thick fog and reduced visibility to a 1/4 mile.

September has started with fog every day so far, and that crisp golden glow in the warm afternoons that signals the arrival of harvest and "Indian summer" as it's locally called - cool gray mornings with sunny afternoons and highs peaking in the mid 80' to 90's.
Perfect for sneaking up on those perfect combinations of acids, sugars, and ripe flavor.

Now the last time I remember a string of foggy days that lasted this long it was back in th eearly 90's, and the fog was so thick & wet it brought some "bunch rot" ("cluster rot") to the Carneros area white grapes - especially the Chard. I haven't seen anything like that yet, so the conclusion I'll draw is that it hasn't been as thick & wet, and that the daytime temps & winds have kept the clusters from being wet too long into the morning & promoting mold or rot.

What effect will it have?
It delays harvest slightly, but produces wines with crisper acidity and more pronounced flavors (all other things being equal). Another bit of good news is that it tends to stretch the harvest out a bit and keep everthing coming into the wineries at a regular, methodical pace...
So while harvest has certainly started, it doesn't look to be one of those massive-everybody-picking-everything-at-once type of years, and will allow everyone to take full care of the vintage without getting too bogged down.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Another one bites the dust

The word from one of my Sonoma Valley contacts at a local wine release party the weekend before last: a local Sonoma organic Syrah grower was overheard saying they were going certified Biodynamic (BioD)...

If all went to plan as the conversation was related to me, then a Demeter rep was on site Thursday of last week (8/31) to inspect the vineyard and give the growers an assessment of their progress so far.
But that's not all that was reported from the conversation...

The grower stated they were moving to BioD for 2 main reasons: 1) they felt being "organic" in the wine business still has a negative connotation [some segments of wine drinkers still remember and equate all "organic wine" with some of the truly horrid experiments of the 70's & early 80's], and 2) they feel BioD will bring them out into the vineyards more often, forcing/allowing them to spot any potential problems before they get out of hand.
When I asked if the grower really believed in the BioD preparations and their "cosmic influences", my informant replied- "No, but they believe the change will bring them a step closer to better stewardship and more sustainable agriculture..."
They also reportedly stated flatly that they didn't believe that BioD would produce better wines.

One of the key ingredients for this change also appeared to be the respect the growers held for the Benzigers, and their conversations with them over the past several years - though my source reports that they were embarrassed for all the zeal the Benzigers use to promote the more "esoteric" and "wacky" aspects (that's how it was told to me) of the BioD regimen.

All I can say is that better stewardship & sustainability are the real goals - and if they can be reached organically, then even better! But the inclusion of some mumbo-jumbo from the 30's isn't needed to get to that end, and in fact may hinder & hamper us from attaining it.

Plus I just can't see PAYING someone - no, make that ANYONE - for suposedly "magical" bullshit.