Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Debunking viticulture

This is something more people need to read about:

Busting Vineyard Myths :Researchers find some practices may be based on folklore

The first quote we see is from Michael Anderson of UCD, to wit:

"I'm frustrated by viticultural practices based on folklore instead of research."
Amen, Brother!
It doesn't get much more concise & precise than that...

Could it be that a
fter all these years, the public at large might finally be exposed to the dirty secret behind quite a bit of the "standard" viticultural dogma: it's based on superstition and "tradition"...and is incorrect.
Covered are topics such as crop load and dropping fruit, vertical fruit positioning, and deficit irrigation.
Research and science are the heroic tools to help us set ourselves straight!

Arm yourselves with knowledge, people!

Compare the tone of the above article to the following one which touts the "wonders" of the Farmer's Almanac weather forecasting:
Farmer's Almanac out with it's 2008 forecast (MSNBC)

The best tidbits are:
"The forecasts are prepared two years in advance by the almanac's reclusive prognosticator, who goes by the pseudonym Caleb Weatherbee and uses a formula based on sunspots, the position of the planets and the tidal action of the moon."

Last year’s almanac forecast of a colder than normal winter was off the mark at first. Geiger blamed an unforeseen El Nino that made for quiet conditions in the East before a series of heavy snowstorms struck in February and March. Even so, the almanac claims an overall 80 to 85 percent accuracy rate..."

Really? Don't get me started on the astrology components...
I wonder who double-checked their accuracy?
And it's so nice that they can just ignore the fact they couldn't predict the El Niño effect using Jupiter's celestial positioning system...sounds a lot like a Republican/GOP funded science program...

I think I'll stick with NOAA for my weather forecasts, thank you.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Wake up call: red moon rising

So I'm up at 3:45 this morning, and there's no fog...
Dim up in the sky hangs the eclipsed moon, dark red and orange...

I'm wide awake, so I start to wonder what our dear old friend Rudolph Steiner and his creation -Anthroposophy (and "biodynamics")- had to say about eclipses, particularly lunar eclipses. Certainly, it must've been something sublime and insightful, no? Does it portend a decline in the Moon influence and signal a day where we can combat mold & fungi more effectively? Is it a day in which we must exorcise the lunar demons to free the solar influence to be "rayed back" upon us?
Are there ritual to be performed of any type....?
After all, these are the two diametrically opposed celestial powers which somehow influence all life on earth...that HAS to be worth mentioning and discussing with his erstwhile diciples...these two celestial bodies rule supreme over his universe!

Off I head to the internet and to my copy of his 1924 agricultural lectures...

Nothing. Not a peep about eclipses...

Even if they are opposed forces, one would expect the eclipse days to be described as "caution" days, or perhaps days where no activity should take place as the universe was "unsettled", or in "flux" and without clear direction - a "rest day", if you will....

Nope. Nothing. Nada.

What bunk that all is, to ignore what must fit into your philosophical system somewhere...but then again, maybe he was just too busy describing how to skin young field-mice to make a cure all "pepper" to rid yourself of those same field-mice...


Thursday, August 23, 2007

BTG: By the glass wine prices

It was six AM...why was I thinking about wine prices by the glass?

I usually wake up every morning with the clock radio set to the local station with the Bob and Sheri show, a decent morning show - albeit one from the left coast - and occasionally I'm rewarded with some topic which hits home about wine.

By the way, not only is it just nice to hear nationally syndicated radio programs discussing wine, but that venue probably does more for wine sales than many of the stodgy national ad campaigns have ever done...I mean these are "regular" people, and have "wine of the week" picks, which goes a long way towards keeping wine in the minds of the public. And often when I wake they'll be talking about how they were confused in a restaurant by pricing, or a snotty wine steward, etc...
It's all very real and what the "common" experiences of people may be - and that's exactly what the industry needs out there...

Anyways, Tuesday morning the radio flips on, and Sheri is explaining that has realized the only time she's ever really using math is when she's trying to figure out how much she'd be paying for a full bottle of wine when she's buying it by the glass. During their banter (I seen to recall) they start to talk about wine prices in general in restaurants, and how they regularly find wines offered which would only be a small fraction of the wine list price if they bought the same bottle at their local wine shop. On top of that - if not to add insult to injury (financial, that is) - they oft find the same wines listed by the glass for more than they'd pay for an entire bottle!

Mon Dieu! How can that be!?
I've broken down the price most people pay for a bottle of wine before, and what portion of that price the winery actually sees on average once the wholesalers and retailers get their cuts, but I haven't really ever expanded on the "by the glass" (aka, "btg") philosophy of pricing...
There is one big reason why: these prices often have almost no relation to reality whatsoever!

To wit, Bob a few weeks ago on this show complains that at a restaurant he enjoys, he goes to buy a glass of chardonnay, only to see the price at $18.50 PER GLASS! and he knows how much the wine retails for - and it's way less than what he'd pay just for having a glass-and-a-half in the establishment...
How does this make sense?

Well, actually it's just as you feared: it doesn't make any sense at all...

As I mentioned in the breakdown of bottle prices for wine, everyone who touches the bottle takes a share by jacking the price up, and restaurants are no different, only they don't seem to care if they sell anything or not. In general, an eating establishment will double the retail price of the bottle before selling it, though I have seen prices which are triple and almost quadruple what I would expect to pay for the bottle in question from a wine shop. The only rule of thumb I can offer is that restaurants with higher prices per entree most likely will charge the most for a given wine...but that's where logic fails, as they paid the distributor the same as everyone else did, right? So why the disparity over prices when you pull the cork -is all that extra cash just for the atmosphere? (..."yes" is the answer...)
But to be fair, I'll list some of the reasons they do charge more - especially by the glass - and why the price you pay btg is more than 20% of the bottle cost:
  • once a bottle is opened, the wine will start to oxidize and loose its flavor, so if it sits around for a while (say 3~5 days for argument) it won't be as pleasant and the customer may send it back
  • opened bottles may go VA (turn to vinegar) if they have any acetobacter in them and they get a hit of air which allows the bacterias to flourish
  • there are times when the customer returns the wine to the kitchen due to the wine being "corked", and that bottle is then a loss to the restaurant (sometimes if the problem is recurrent, the restaurant will contact the distributor to see if they can get a credit on the wines)
  • wine cellars take up a bit of space in the restaurant, and the increase in price is akin to charging you rent to keep the wine there for your convenience
  • expect wines which don't move as fast as others to be priced higher btg as it's likely the owner is taking more of a loss on those items due to spoilage
  • the restaurant feels they have to train their employees on how to sell & serve wine, or pay more to get those employees who know how to do so
These reasons are the primary ones for this phenomenon, but even acknowledging this does little to stop those feelings that you're being ripped off by the eating establishments.
Especially when you're sitting at the table doing the math and realize that not only is that bottle of wine you just paid $19 for at the local CostPlus or BevMo going to run you $38 or $45, but the $12 btg price would relate to $60 if you bought the bottle one glass at a time!
I've sat down with many proprietors on sales "missions" to try to get them to carry various wines as btg or house wine selections, and have gotten the "how can you suggest I take another wine on btg" look from them...and many times that's a fair question -even when the wine is very good: sadly, their expertise and focus is on food not on the wines that go with them...

Is the restaurant right to jack the price up 100% or more for the bottle alone - even when they don't have the risk exposure from pouring it btg? I don't think so, but this culture we live in has allowed them the carte blanc to do so mainly because most consumers don't seem to know what wine really costs to produce and deliver to the restaurant's door (hint: it's the same as the cost for the distributor to deliver it to your BevMo or CostPlus or Costco...only they see volume discounts restaurants won't get...but certainly not on the order of a 100% mark-up...).

And corkage fees?! Don't get me started!
But to touch on that subject, I can see charging 25% of the bottle price to open a wine IF IT'S ON THEIR WINE LIST, as that represents a wine they stock but aren't turning. But seriously, if they're charging more than $10 as a flat rate for wines they don't even carry, well...that seems a lot like robbery to me.


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Why the TTB freeze is good

Many industry bloggers have noted the TTB freeze on granting new AVA's within AVA's (they've actually suspended the whole process for the moment), and some have cast it as a reaction to moves by "money" from existing producers in the proposed Calistoga AVA who would be adversely affected by the granting of that petition...and that not withstanding as a possibility, I think of the freeze differently.
[link to Appellation America article]
[link to Wines & Vines article]

As a marketing tool, the idea of an AVA is excellent: it allows producers who can demonstrate climatic, geographical and historical significances in their wine region to differentiate it from the hoards of other producers...
...but the spot where AVA's fall short is in their over-application: if everywhere one turns you find a new micro-AVA, what happens to the publics' ability to distinguish one product from another? And what happens when we create an AVA which doesn't really show any discernible characteristics of place - even when tasted by a panel of respected judges and producers from that area?
[AppAm looks into Carneros "regionality" - finds nothing conclusive]

Logically extending the current swift
creation of 180 AVA's into the future, we come to a point where there are thousands of micro-AVA designations, and the consumer is not served by the vast majority of it...

Those questions and that imagined dark future (hopefully avoided) bring the idea of smaller and smaller AVA's into question, and the TTB is right to try to establish some rules which will make sense not only in the here and now, but into the future as well. [The current list of requirements can be found @ the TTB site as well as the restrictions on how labels can be used]

U.S.Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Napa) sent a letter asking about the delay in the rulemaking process, and you can read the TTB response letter here, but allow me to highlight what I think the best passage is:

It is exactly that "AVA within AVA within AVA" dilution (logically extended
, ad nauseum, into the "AVA within AVA within AVA within AVA within AVA, etc") which begs the TTB to take action now rather than later.

What I mean is that the future as it stands today has the US heading directly into the situation that France is in now due to its reliance on marketing from the nineteenth century appellation and classifications of its industry - which frankly, has done it service when it was the primary player in the world, but have sharply hindered it in the current era of global competition. Do we want to have people buying appellation maps & rote memorizing the viticultural areas of California & the US in general as they currently NEED to do to understand French wine areas?
Is the future world you desire one where you'll need a somellier certificate to be able to understand all the micro - Nay, nano is a better description- appellations which California will be carved into?

This is the time for us to drop back 10 yards and rethink what we are trying to acheive, and while marketing tools are never wasted energy in my mind, I believe the TTB needs a coherent directive for the future. Maybe proposing a minimum acreage for any AVA (say for argument purposes that could be 64,000 total acres in area, e.g. a 10 mile x 10 mile square), and that there then is some industry and consumer consensus that the area in question provides some distinctive qualities from the areas adjacent to it, etc...

And what about noted industry personalities who have challenged the idea of some of the most revered sub- & micro-appellations anyways? [Chuck Wagner of Caymus comes to mind]
...certainly, that might be cited as evidence that we may have already over applied this tool?
And currently the TTB reg's have a process for creation of an AVA, but what happens when everything is carved up and people start to realize that what was created was in fact incorrect - how do we "undo" what is already "done"?
What's the petition system for removal of an AVA once it's been granted?
Do we then "grandfather" those producers who have built brands based on those "previous" and then retracted AVA's?
What a mess that would be...obviously, this system needs a bit of tweaking, and the time to do it is now, before it spreads even further...

Say "NO" to pretension, and "YES" to simplicity...the AVA system needs to augment the consumer's ability to select products, not hinder it with minute designations which in the end will only add confusion...
...the TTB is right and prudent to try to further define what it is doing...

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Mapping your vineyard

Just the other day I'd posted about having NASA and Vestra help map your vineyard site...

Well, that got me thinking about the vineyard I'd brought up as an example, and I'd thought that I should expand upon that...

DO NOT wander around into people's vineyards without advanced permission to do so! As someone with vineyards, I can tell you that there's no better way to piss off a farmer than running through their property without even the slightest regard for all the hard work they've done over the years, and you may also be putting yourself in harm's way - especially if the vines in question have been sprayed recently (many times there are 10~14 day periods after spraying some compounds when NO ONE is allowed to go back into the vineyard), so if you don't know what's been done to the vines, don't enter! Of course, you can ask the owner if it's safe when you call them to ask if you can have permission in the first place (hint, hint!) - Ok, end of public service message!)

Since I know where the vineyard is, it was easy enough for me to provide an overlay of the Vestra/NASA data onto the real (visual) image so that everyone else could get an idea of how this information is used. As I'd mentioned, the vineyard is ~500 acres, in the Carneros AVA in southern Sonoma & Napa counties (it straddles the County line)...and it is just south of HWY 12/121 between Stornetta's Dairy and Domaine Carneros.

The vineyard has a high point of ~320' and a low point of ~40' above sea-level, and has portions which are well drained and parts which are near the creek which runs to the east side of the property. That point is important when selecting root stock to use for the vines: one which is less vigorous and doesn't mind "wet feet" as they say, for the areas with more water, one with higher vigor and more drought tolerant for the dry areas...
Anyways, enough! Let's look at what we can see when we overlay the information from the web onto the visual satellite image (Google Earth used for the background image)...South of the vineyard lies the San Pablo Bay, and the land become much more saline as you approach that, and there can be higher levels of boron in the soil as well as sodium.
For the following view, I've tilted the angle a bit so that you can see the differences in elevation a little more easily, and I've added the Sonoma-Napa county line to illustrate the fact that the vineyard lies on both sides of it...
...on the lower right hand of the image, you can see the lowest point of the vineyard along the creek (just above the Google tag), while the highest point lies on the county line towards the left hand side of the image. Then I've repositioned us a bit to the NNE, and looking towards what would be San Francisco off on the horizon you can really start to appreciate the variation in elevation and terrain...
This vineyard is interesting in that you can see the vigor of the blocks from the overlay data, as well as the geographic data, and helps convey to the winemaker and vineyard staff what directions they may have to go in the future to get the best possible wine. It also is of interest because it helps illustrate some points I made a while ago regarding single vineyard designated wines: it's large, not really homogenous with various exposures, drainages, and elevations, etc.
Yet by the TTB reg's this whole vineyard could be vinted and bottled as a "single vineyard" which may or may not be what the publics perception of "single vineyard" might be. Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you, as it is the same rule which applies to all vineyards from all producers in the US...but the public has to understand that what we are presented with when purchasing a wine of that type is in all honesty the closest example to a specific
terroir as we may ever get...
Indeed, it also points out that what we call
terroir is more likely an effect of specific microclimate than anything else...

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Warbirds flying overhead

I was reminded yesterday morning of the upcoming "Wings over Wine Country" air show @ the Charles M. Schulz airport in Sonoma County (put on by the Pacific Coast Air Museum, August 18 & 19th this year)...
...specifically, I was alerted to this fact when at about quarter to 9 AM, I was buzzed - no, "strafed" is a better word - by a military jet while out in a vineyard near Olivet RD...

Actually, I guess that was an improvement over last year when I was surprised in a vineyard to see a huge-ass plane flying right over my head and couldn't really put my hand on exactly what it was that made the plane so weird-looking...turns out it was the 60's U2 spy plane taking off & heading for parts unknown...supposedly that's going to be heading back here this year also...
It can be kind of loud for the weekend, but it is kick-but cool, and it does keep the birds out of the surrounding vineyards for a time, and that's not such a bad thing overall.
Sad thing about the air show...even though it has a cool name, ans really cool planes, it has damned little to do with wine itself. Such a pity!

I do suppose you could head to the air show after you've hit a few of the local wineries...
(following are a few cool snaps of the last surviving flying wing prototype they had out there in 2005!)

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Warming video from KQED

Thought I'd pass this link to KQED's Quest website where they have a nice video segment on global warming and how it may affect the Napa and Sonoma counties winegrape production...
(or click on pic to follow)

Of course this raises the question "how does a winemaker pick what varietal to plant in the first place?"...which is a fairly complex subject...

In the past it was part experience, part voodoo and hunch, part market forces...
But this process is now becoming the subject of much research and technological tools once only dreamed of are now available for commercial use. As you can see in the video segment from KQED, NASA satellites are being utilized by scientists looking at warming trends and weather patterns, weather forecasting models are "lightyears" ahead of where they were 30 years ago, IR cameras are readily available, etc...
The vineyard map below is a commercial production of a large vineyard which straddles the Sonoma-Napa county line, created with the help of NASA imagery (2001 press release).
When the map was produced, the vineyard was owned by Mondavi, and was later sold off to KJ after the Constellation purchase of Mondavi (to date, I think KJ still is the owner)...most of the vineyard is (was?) Chard and Pinot, with some other varietal blocks thrown in for experimentation.
The map shows what the resulting vigor of those blocks was after the vineyard was established.
Winemakers can then see what the effects of different rootstock and scion clonal selections are, and make some adjustments later to improve their crop yields, maturity date, irrigation and other vineyard practices...
I'm not sure what the price is to get NASA and Vestra to map your location, but it sure would be a nice tool to see what's happening from an overhead vantage point.
(follow this link to the Vestra interactive map of this site!)

Much of the success of the coast of California (areas with the maritime fog affect) is due to just that: the cold Californian fog which moderates the summer temps we experience, and allows the fruit to keep its acid while developing full ripe flavors. To wit, you can see the fog from yesterday (8/6/07) from this CA visible satellite view:
And this closer detail of the Californian coast (centered roughly over Monterey Bay)...
...if this fog is eliminated by warming ocean temps, then indeed we will be planting a different vine to accommodate that change. If it results in too much change to the summer patterns and we start getting rains, then the vintages will become much more like the EU (France especially) where the winemakers and fruit is under much more stress from the elements.
(Google the news this year where wide swaths of Bordeaux have had several weeks of rain...)

Monday, August 06, 2007

Red wine from Umbria

I had a nice Italian red table wine from Umbria this weekend, which was remarkable on a few points that recently have been hot topics...

It was fully "food friendly" in that it had a very nice level of acid still in it, which allowed it stand up to a rich dinner (salad w/ balsamic vinegar dressing, meat & potatoes), while at the same time had plenty of ripe flavors to please the palate...
...and it also sported a solid 14.5% alcohol though you'd have never guessed it from tasting it alone! And no headiness after a glass - though that was likely more an influence of having it with a meal and lively conversation...
Certainly it wasn't anywhere near the over-ripe category, and although some may point to it as an example of how the EU producers are vying for riper wines to please the critics, I say perhaps they are drifting in this direction because consumption is down within the EU, and this is what their new market demographic is demanding.

Overall, an excellent red table wine offering from Paolo Bea of Montefalco.
I've been told I sometimes come off as being against any organic wine philosophy (which is NOT the case) due to my public cynicism about Biodynamics, but this wine would be enough to prove anyone wrong on that point:
  • produced using only "natural methods" (though no definition of that term is agreed upon)
  • started the harvest on October 1st, 2002 (so no extended hang time)
  • no "industrial yeast" used
  • no sulfites added
  • unfined
  • a blend of wines from three different red grapes (I'm going to guess that one was sagrantino since this was made in Montefalco)
  • matured 2 years in stainless steel and 1 year in wood
  • 18,000 bottles produced, so certainly not a "mass production" item
One question still runs through my head: if they didn't use sulfites, what'd they use - velcorin? Even though the label states it wasn't fined, it doesn't say they didn't chill it, filter and hit it with velcorin (DMDC)* to make sure it wasn't going to go "off" in the bottle...
Certainly that'd have been prudent given that they're such a small production. However, the equipment needed for velcorin is expensive, so they probably don't have their own set-up.

*Velcorin (DMDC) is allowed for use in wine by the USA, OIV & the EU, so it wouldn't be that surprising to see it being used as a preservative in lieu of sulfur.