Predicting the Future of Wine Programs and the Restaurant Trade?

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Why is a cartoon commenting on the impact of changing technology showing up on a wine blog… I selected it, because a changing landscape is all too familiar where technology is concerned. Wine consumption is changing in the U.S.. Can the industry adapt?

Predicting the Future of Wine Service

I have been meaning to write this post for a couple of weeks now, since Shanken News Daily published some interesting data. It appears a changing U.S. consumer profile is transforming the wine industry. Shanken recently published information from the U.S. Wine Market Council. It holds some fascinating insights into the challenges coming for wine marketing in the very near future…

  • Frequent drinkers (>1/week) are now 13% of all U.S. wine drinkers and 35% of all wine sales.
  • Millennials now comprise 36% of all U.S. wine drinkers nationwide compared with Baby Boomers at 34%.
  • High-end wine buyers (defined as those regularly purchasing bottles above $20 retail) now account for 36% of frequent drinkers, compared with just 21% five years ago.
  • Frequent drinkers are consuming 18% more wine now than they were two years ago, while occasional drinkers are consuming 8% less.

These are trends to note and they carry a clear message ( I believe):

  • Millennial consumer data shows them to be more adventurous and willing to explore wine more thoroughly (previous Shanken News data).
  • Frequent drinkers now comprise more than 1/3 of the market.
  • Frequent drinkers are spending more per per bottle.

Looks like a recipe for major change…

Can On-Premise Food & Beverage Adapt?

Mark Norman (industry consultant)  recently wrote a nice piece (link: Sales at Restaurants Plummeting?) regarding this and it had me thinking. Restaurants will definitely be hurt. Per site beverage revenue must increase to support lower margins and increased inventory. There will be no other choice, if they wish to maintain a successful beverage service. This changing consumer demographic is a clear indication: wine distribution’s typical approach to restaurant sales will need to change AND restaurateurs will need more training and knowledge to cater to this new group of consumers. The pressure will be on and it won’t just be about improving wine knowledge and acquiring a broader cellar with a more diverse price offering. The more important differentiator is likely to be business skills. Better marketing, inventory management, ROI and cash flow analysis will be key indicators of quality restaurant wine programs. Interesting times are coming!

Future of the Certified Sommelier

I don’t have a crystal ball, but I don’t think it is too far-fetched to think we will be seeing CS, MBA on biz cards in the coming decade. Somm exams should start including more business related content. As this new group of consumers starts driving larger restaurant wine inventories, more sales volume and lower profit margins, it will justify the need for improving business operations and accounting skill-sets. I like where this is going…

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Filed under Business, Restaurant, Sommelier, Wine Education, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting

Winemaker Interview – Billo Naravane of Rasa Vineyards

Please follow my winemaker interview series! You can find this and other interviews at the following link:

 

Winemaker Interview Series – Billo Naravane

 

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Filed under Cool Climate Wine, Walla Walla Valley, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting, Winemaker Interview

2012 Reynvaan Syrah In the Rocks

Reynvaan Pic

 

Reynvaan Family Vineyards – Walla Walla, Washington

Walla Walla Valley AVA

Wine Tasting Note

Do you enjoy Syrah from the Northern Rhone region? Cote Rotie AOC perhaps?

If you have enjoyed a quality bottle from the Northern Rhone and added it to your “wines of distinction” list (like I have) seek out a bottle of Reynvaan Syrah and experience a domestic producer that understands this style well. Everything about the Reynvaan wine speaks “Northern Rhone”… meatiness, earthy, floral. Many casual wine drinkers I have introduced to this style have had a difficult time wrapping their heads around it. My wife tasted this wine tonight and immediately said, “this is good… wait, I don’t think I like it.” This is that kind of wine – soft, supple, appealing… until the complexity shows on the palate… and you wonder, “is wine supposed to taste like this?”

Tasting this wine in the first hour after opening is a shame… the real wine doesn’t reveal itself and open until the 3rd and 4th hour. Tasting note after 4 hours open:

The nose carries strong raw meat aromas, with blackberry and mulberry fruit, floral violets and a touch of nail polish. The wine is fruit forward on the palate with blackberry and black currant, has a dark chocolate mid-palate and a floral violet with oily tar finish. After four hours, some of the freshness of the fruit is lost, but the classic Northern Rhone profile is revealed… that oily texture and tar finish. Wow, for 25% – 50% less than Cote Rotie, this wine can be acquired in the U.S. The wine has medium-high acidity, but only medium tannins. The lack of tannins throws the balance off a bit, but the plush, oily texture is right on. This is a well-made wine from a vineyard managed to produce fruit to match this style. The evolution of flavors and textures in the last four hours leads me to believe you should give this some time in the bottle to realize its true potential: peak drinking window 2017-2018. This is not a wine I would choose to experiment with for extended bottle aging.

Well done! If Matt Reynvaan could have squeezed a bit more tannins from the skins/stems, this would have been world class, at the absolute pinnacle of wines made in this style.

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Filed under Cool Climate Wine, Syrah/Shiraz, Walla Walla Valley, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

A Tale of Two Red Cities

In the USA, Walla Walla Valley AVA is fast approaching premier status as a red wine producing region. The highest accolades are coming from Merlots and Syrahs, but the area produces well-made Bordeaux Blends too. From a critic’s perspective, this area is a serious alternative to the Napa Valley region… especially, if you prefer the Napa wines produced before the mid-to-late 90’s.

The over-arching theme in Walla Walla is the pursuit of Old World styles of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. If you enjoy the popular New World style of heavily-oaked, fruity Cabs coming from Napa (like Caymus and Silver Oak) very few of these Walla Walla wines will find their way into your cellar. Syrah aside, I have chosen three of the oldest producers in Walla Walla as effective examples of the diverse styles of Bordeaux Blends that represent this growing region: Walla Walla Vintners, Seven Hills Winery and L’Ecole #41. I visited all three last month and was fortunate enough to do a deep-dive with each.

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Walla Walla Vintners

Walla Walla Vintners was the exception for the entire area. I met with Bill Von Metzger the winemaker and we discussed the winery founded in 1995 in-depth.  Their growing area on the East side of the valley (closer to the mountains) contains the only sites I found that have managed to dry-farm in the region. They prepared their estate vineyards for irrigation, but have not needed the system. Although, if the drought continues, they expect that may change next year. These wines validated once again the impact of dry-farming. All the wines I tasted tended to be more concentrated and textured, perhaps squeezing more out of the terroir.

Bill is a locally educated and trained winemaker. In my experience, this can be an impediment to good winemaking. Exposure to a broad sampling of world winemaking styles tends to develop better winemakers. Although in this case, Bill transcends his background… I think, primarily due to his keen curiosity and desire to experiment. I thought Bill showed a deft hand at pursuing the Napa Valley style… at half the price. Of my twenty some-odd tastings in Walla Walla, this was the only winery embracing the challenge and successfully producing this style in their cooler climate.

If you enjoy Napa Cabs, try these wines. They may not quite reach the level of the premium Napa producers, but my goodness, not at $75+/btl either. The quality is good and the value is undeniable.

SHW pic

Seven Hills Winery

Seven Hills is THE Old World French Bordeaux style producer in Walla Walla and one of the first wineries founded in the area in 1988. I met with Erik McLaughlin, an executive and manager at the winery. Erik and I discussed the history of wine growing in the region, their growth and philosophy. Seven Hills produces wines that compare very favorably to Bordeaux labels. All their wines have a lighter, sometimes silky texture with a good acidic and tannic backbone. Refined, balanced and built for aging, but approachable enough when young to be an excellent companion to a steak dinner. The tasting room is at the winery in a very urban setting, but the atmosphere from the 100+ year old building enhances the tasting experience.

We talked briefly to Casey McLellan the winemaker and founder and I heard from both of them their total commitment to this style, even in the face of New World style California wines achieving their popularity over the last decade. A great story and I believe a good business decision. These wines are some of the best of what I call “restaurant style” wines, made to accompany food and at the right price to be fairly affordable after the three tier distribution system delivers it.

If you enjoy red wines originating in Bordeaux France, try these wines. Again, these do not quite reach the level of premium Bordeaux producers, but comparable quality is sold at half the price (or less) of their Old World competitors.

Schoolhouse photo

L’Ecole #41

L’Ecole is the most notable example of a winery in the region that best walks the fence between the two styles. Founded in 1983 in an abandoned school house, they have grown substantially into a large commercial winery. I have been drinking their wines since the early 2000’s and do miss the hometown, small business atmosphere from those early days. Is it OK to be nostalgic for the old building facade, before the face lift? Then again, I also preferred the previous cute label too. Yes I understand the idea – “Time and Tide (progress) stops for no man”. I met with Ben Dimitri the tasting room manager and we talked about L’Ecole history and past vintages.

It was interesting to discuss the story of the 2004 vintage in Walla Walla. It was the coldest growing season in memory for the area and few local vineyards were able to produce ripe fruit at harvest. 10+ years ago, Washington State was still a fledgling wine region and the largest producer in the state (Chateau St. Michelle) offered the early Walla Walla producers the opportunity to source fruit from their warmer Columbia Valley vineyard locations. What a generous and smart move…  Missing a vintage year back then would have seriously hurt the local industry and slowed the momentum being built with consumers. The topic arose, because I mentioned that my wife and I drank a 2004 Ferguson (lost in my cellar somehow) last year and it was good. The bottle handled the 10 years of age well, but was at the outside edge of its drinking window.

If you enjoy red wines originating in Bordeaux France, but would prefer an easier drinking more approachable style… L’Ecole is your ticket. Once again, think half the price.

Diversity and Value

If you notice, there are two common themes here: diversity and value. Try these Walla Walla wines. If you are more than an occasional, casual wine drinker in particular, seek them out. These can easily become your choice for the value section of your cellar.

Wine Tourism

This area has a long way to go as a wine destination, but it was significantly more welcoming than my last visit seven years ago. Any sous chefs reading this post looking to start a premium cuisine restaurant, please consider Walla Walla. A well-run, properly promoted gourmet restaurant will be successful here, without the competition you would find in other top wine regions. Currently, the food is only slightly better than average at the local restaurants, even at expensive establishments. With all the fresh fruit and veggies grown locally, this would be a perfect location for a farm-to-table concept. Producing world-class wines right in their backyard, Walla Walla has to be the next wine destination to hit the foodie scene. I look forward to my next visit and enjoying a much more vibrant restaurant scene.

Walla Walla Premium Bordeaux Style Producers

Leonetti Cellars and Woodward Canyon Winery are the two oldest wineries in the Walla Walla AVA. I have tasted their wines and they are excellent, but priced to match, or exceed their Bordeaux and Napa competitors. These wines are every bit as good, but I find it hard to see the value. Frankly, I would rather drink the established producers I know from Bordeaux and Napa, with much larger production and greater availability. This post was meant to highlight the value in Walla Walla. These producers do not fit into that category.

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Filed under Bordeaux/Meritage Blend, Cool Climate Wine, U.S. Wines by Region, Walla Walla Valley, Wine by Varietal, Wine Tasting, Wine Travel

Is There a Standard for Quality in the #Wine Industry?

enjoy pic

Many wine consumers and industry professionals would assert that a “good” wine is any wine you enjoy. So, with a product where individual taste influences demand so heavily, is the concept of “quality” relevant? As I hear from consumers quite often, “I like, what I like”… I read and hear this point discussed often, but in direct contradiction, both the industry and consumers generally accept the role wine critics play as the arbiters of quality. The question has to be asked, if there is no generally accepted criteria with which to make that judgement, is attempting to assess wine quality a complete waste of time? Is there any value in professionals establishing standards for quality in the industry?

Is Measuring Quality Necessary?

There are three major sources* in the world wine industry for education: Wine Critics/Writers, The Court of Master Sommeliers and well-respected University Degree Programs (i.e. UC-Davis). By definition, in order for these sources to write, serve and teach wine, they must clearly establish generally accepted ideas defining quality and recognize trends in the industry supporting it. Are established quality standards really necessary, or even appropriate? I see so much vehement commentary on discussion boards regarding this topic – the idea of general consumer preference versus professional palates driving the industry…

slope

My recent posts have generated comments from within the industry suggesting I am on a slippery slope in asserting that one producer makes better wine than another. I don’t agree. Wine Critics do this everyday. Although effectively, this can only be justified if you establish a consistent, understandable criteria. Somm training does define a generally accepted wine profile for quality. This is based on an important premise: “in an assessment, it is not possible for one wine to taste better than another, but it is possible to be of higher quality**.” Learning to recognize and emphasize structure and balance as the major components of wine quality is emphasized over and over again.

On a personal level, I do enjoy wines that show these characteristics. You could argue that the training influenced by wine service professionals has fashioned my palate, or it may be that as my palate became more experienced, it naturally turned to these types of wines. In the industry, we have a responsibility to bring perspective, educate and in-turn help enrich the wine experience for wine enthusiasts newer to the calling. So, being a passionate wine enthusiast and having some professional training under my belt, I feel a responsibility to act as an industry ambassador in this regard.

There is so much variability and diversity in wine that there can be no absolutes. Consumers can and should drink what they enjoy, but there must also be a generally agreed upon model for quality that the industry can aspire to. Is it fair that Critics, Somm training organizations and Universities establish that model for the general public? I suppose it would depend on your point of view… Although, if personal preference were the only criteria, there would be no common point of reference.

I would be in favor of exploring another model, but I would hope demand would not establish that criteria. So, until we find another way, please don’t kill the messenger… Some wines simply ARE of higher quality than others, regardless of whether they have a large following, or not.

Fairness and Perspective

In deference and respect for all the hard work and commitment from everyone in the industry… I always attempt to be even-handed and often do agonize over fairness. All types of wine should be made for all the different palates in the world and my perspective on wine quality is simple: please, just offer a vision that is true to your product.

(* In the U.S. there is a fourth recognized source: The Society of Wine Educators.)

(** My effort to paraphrase an important principal in formal wine training)

Footnote: I find it fun and interesting that recent opinions expressed on this blog have rubbed a few people the wrong way. In response – I am not willing to assess wine like a kid’s soccer tournament… where win, or lose, everyone receives a trophy. I am offering the following disclaimer for those who want to believe I presume to be a formal authority on the wine industry… No, I am not an MS, but I certainly have received more formal training than many wine critics I have met. This website reflects MY study, personal thoughts, opinions and experiences regarding wine. I hope you enjoy my perspective…

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Is a Trained Palate Necessary to Produce Fine Wine?

old-new world

Old World Wine Styles

I have been doing interviews and visiting with several Washington State wineries this week and the discussion struck a chord, providing an interesting personal realization… not all Owners, Winemakers and Growers have developed a broad understanding of world wine styles. Over the last several years writing about wine along the West Coast, I had assumed I was speaking with professionals that had all spent time developing  a palate and tasting styles from around the world. I now understand, this is not a formal requirement for a degree in Enology and the Somm training I received is really quite a different area of study. This week brought the issue to light for me and helped me to understand why being familiar with world wine styles can be an important element in producing quality premium wines.

There are very specific reasons why different Old World regions in France, Germany, Italy, Spain (etc.) have developed these famous regional styles. The obvious one is to produce wines that pair properly with local foods, but I wanted to explore one other in particular more carefully:

  • The 100’s of years of trial and error with local varietals, learning to accommodate local growing conditions and make the best wine possible.

This is the reason why the world views the best expression of Syrah to come from the Rhone, or the best expression of Nebbiolo from Barolo / Barbaresco, Chenin Blanc from Vouvray, Riesling from the Mosel, etc. These varietals have been produced in these regions for generations and for the wine enthusiasts out there who have not taken the time to explore them, start now! Your imagination will be awakened and you will discover whole new horizons you never realized existed. (back on topic though) Take a minute to think about how this issue should impact domestic wine production… you can present the argument that New World wineries are pioneers, working in new regions and developing their own unique styles, but since when is this done in a vacuum?

The best analogy is fine cuisine. Chefs travel all over the world to taste different styles and then return to the U.S. to introduce what the industry calls “fusion” cuisine. These chefs forge entirely new dishes by taking classic styles from around the world and “fusing” them to create new, unique dishes all their own. Understanding the “classic” wine styles of the world is equally as important… to compare and contrast how our New World terroir can be the same, or different, and to blend the best of both worlds to achieve the best expression from each of our domestic wine regions.

the-different-types-of-wine-by-style-and-taste

Is Wine Style Important?

Having interviewed quite a few winemakers over the last couple of years, I have come to understand how important wine style really is. Having a working understanding of tasting fruit in the field and selecting a style of wine that best complements that vintage is critical to producing a quality product. I tasted a Mosel style Riesling on this Washington trip from a winemaker who obviously understood how that should taste and how to achieve it. Has he traveled to the Mosel and studied with winemakers in the region? No. Does this winemaker have a large cellar, a trained palate and have regular exposure to taste aged wines from around the world? Yes.

Terroir Influence

The new Rocks AVA here was made famous by Christophe Baron and his Cayuse label. He persevered through the jeers and disbelief of local winemakers when he planted these vineyards, because he recognized enough similarities between this appellation and the Northern Rhone region to fuel his certainty that this area would produce world class wine. The local industry has come around to his thinking slowly, but the results have been hard to ignore. Tasting other local wines from this AVA, it strikes me as amazing that some of these wineries are not producing wines that express the interesting terroir of this place. Why else make wine here? I wonder, have they not taken the time to train their palates to recognize the Northern Rhone profile this area can produce? Or, is it they haven’t taken the time to research the winemaking techniques that can help to achieve it? Or, will it require the generations of wine experience (like in Europe) to realize it fully? On the other hand, maybe it is a simple lack of belief that this style of wine can sell out every year… Most of these Rocks AVA Syrah’s have a funky, meaty background that enhances the rich fruit-forward character of the wine. I realize this is not for everyone, but I would venture to say, a small AVA like this could never produce enough of this style of wine to exceed the world-wide demand for it.

Conclusion

I am thoroughly convinced, having a winemaker with a BS in Enology is not enough alone to make premium wines. All the involved parties (Owners, Growers, Winemakers) should be able to taste the impact of regional vineyard management and winemaking techniques in the wine. Tasting that impact is a start. It can help to hone a palate. The next critical step is the commitment to study and compare similar wines produced in their classic region of origin. Each and every vintage (warm, cold, or moderate year) has to start in the vineyard tasting the fruit and fine-tuning the vision for the style of wine that will be made. The revelation here is:

  • To make premium wine, it requires more than just enthusiastic commitment to its production. You must have a passion for its consumption!

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Differentiating the Premium #Wine Category

(Ongoing series of posts regarding Walla Walla AVA wine tour)

Unfortunately, I hurt my knee on this trip and had to visit the local walk-in clinic today, but it turned into an interesting experience. The attending doctor was a big wine enthusiast and he said something that resonated for me, “a winery can’t just say it is an ultra-premium winery, they have to earn it!” Can a winery just raise its price and call their wine ‘ultra-premium”? Is it possible to get away with this as a marketing strategy?

Wine_preference

My wife and I visited Va Piano Vineyards today, a next door neighbor to Pepper Bridge Winery (a well-known ultra-premium cab producer). First we were presented with two single vineyard estate Cab Sauv’s (Va Piano & Octave Estate Vineyards) that were only available through their wine club – establishing a $60-$70 price point. These were $40-$50 in real value (IMO), in comparison with other growing regions. They were reasonably well-made wines, but a touch watery, had limited mouth-feel and a weak finish. So, here I am thinking, if you can establish that higher price point to begin your reserve wine offering, when you pour the really good stuff at the end, it will invite an unfair comparison… Guess what? The last wine (De Bruhl Vineyard Cab) was a beautiful wine and the retail price was $95/btl! Unfortunately, I can buy a similar beautiful Cab in Napa for $75/btl. As a counterpoint, we drove down the street to Sleight of Hand Cellars and they were selling Bordeaux Blends WITH a nice classic structure for $40-50/btl. Definitely more rustic than the Va Piano, but complete, balanced wines. A different style, but well made also and close enough in quality to make you sit back and wonder…

So, what is going on here? Just because a wine is more expensive, is it better quality? Not even close! The concept at work here is not as simple as poor value… it is “buyer beware” thinking. Instead of comparing the less expensive Va Piano cab to their more expensive, an educated consumer should be comparing wines to other producers in the same price category. I came to Walla Walla AVA looking to understand the region and part of that process has to be an evaluation of how the “value” compares with other wine producing areas.

Quality

I am torn on this topic. I can see both sides of this argument and I realize I am being a little unfair appearing to make an evaluation based on tasting at two wineries, but the issue is much more broadly relevant and does deserve more discussion. Smart marketing (pricing strategy) exhibits a savvy that I can appreciate in business, but as a consumer… it makes me slightly distrustful of the producer. Let’s say, I am interested enough in these wines to take advantage of their limited availability now. That question of realistic value will always be running through my head, when evaluating my next purchase from this producer… Not the kind of relationship I would want with a preferred winery.

As a consumer, how do YOU establish the price points you are willing to pay for various styles of wine? Without an experienced palate, this question is difficult to answer and the reason so-called “ultra-premium” wineries can develop traction with the buyer through perceived exclusivity. For a formally trained Sommelier, the answer is easier and I have introduced most of these criteria in my last post, but here it is again, and more…

  • Balance, balance, balance! Did I say balance? (enough emphasis?)
  • Structure… (sparing the emphasis :-) ): Acidity, Tannins, Texture (mouth-feel), Phenolic Development and a long Finish
  • Complexity: Layered flavors – separation between the Attack, Mid-Palate and Finish. Intriguing flavors – for example, minerality, herbal (i.e. mint), or floral notes. Quality of Tannins – fine, coarse, etc.
  • For individual buyers, value can even represent something as simple you prefer cinnamon, floral violet, or vanilla flavors and you are willing to pay a premium for your preference…

I had several comments relating to this topic in response to my last post and all emphasized the idea that expensive wines ($40/btl and above) had do be properly balanced and structured. What makes a wine worth more to you?

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Making #Wines to Drink Now, or Cellar?

The sun barely illuminates the land under a thick fog of red smoke as seen from Highway 97 just south of Okanogan Friday August 21, 2015.

What a crazy week to have scheduled a wine tasting adventure in Washington State! Forest fires everywhere! The entire state is one big campfire… Flying into Spokane, we descended through a wall of billowing smoke. Driving down to Walla Walla the smoke cleared somewhat.

Later this week, my wife and I will be joining trade tastings and interviewing winemakers, but today we wanted to relax and stop at a couple of wineries of interest – as wine tourists. We stopped in first at K Vintners and then Five Star Cellars today and two interesting questions came to light: (tasting notes coming in future posts)

  1. Should winemakers be producing wine to drink now, versus wines to bottle age?
  2. Does making wine specifically to be drunk with food play well in the broader U.S. market?

I will tackle the first question now and the second in a follow-up piece.

Drink Now?

I was floored today. These were two respected Walla Walla producers recognized by critics and neither was focusing on structured wines more capable of aging in your cellar.

K Vintners

After one tasting experience, I am quite sure I could recognize any of their wines blind. This is not meant to suggest I did not enjoy a few of these wines, but more to emphasize their singular dimension. All of the wines are quite clearly made in a single style, utilizing similar techniques: noticeable French oak, high to very high acidity, very light and a minimum of mouth-feel, minimal finish, low to medium tannins and fruit forward.

Five Star Cellars

We tasted two vintages of their flagship wine, a Bordeaux blend called “Stellar”. The 2008 was good, showing high acidity, medium tannins and a palate of plum, blackberry, apple pie spice, graphite and touch of earthy minerality… but the 2009 was so much better, similar to the 2008 – but adding higher tannins and a fuller mouth-feel. The owner David Huse actually apologized for the additional structure. After a few minutes of conversation, it was obvious he believed their goal was to make easy drinking wines and that 2009 just didn’t fit into that focus.

Price Point, Wine Quality and Structure

I get it. Wineries have to sell their wine and in case you haven’t seen the numbers, somewhere between (depending on the study) 80 to 95% of all wines purchased in the U.S. are drunk within a week of purchase. Since we are throwing out statistics, how about this:  90% of all bottles purchased in the U.S. cost less than $12 USD. The wines we were tasting today all retailed for $40-$70/btl. Where am I going with this? Are these wineries correct in thinking that the majority of wine drinkers spending over $12/btl. want drink now, easy drinking wines? I have spent the last 20 years listening to feedback from wine enthusiasts and while very few are looking for the other end of the spectrum – rustic, cheap Chianti style wines, MOST do prefer red wines with good structure. How else could Napa Valley be able to sell so much Cabernet Sauvignon at an average price of $64.77/btl (2014 Wines & Vines) direct-to-consumer? It is certainly not because these wines are easy drinkers!

Winemaker’s View?

So how does the winemaker feel about this issue? I ask this question during interviews all the time. The answer too often is: “business sometimes dictates we make a wine for broad appeal”. At some wineries, this discussion is a non-issue. The winemaker makes a wine profile focused on quality in the classic sense and they find their market. Others I have interviewed, spend time with their customers and really understand the product their clientele wants… and then there are those that “think” they know what the average consumer wants. The perceived pressure to produce easy drinking wines in the U.S. is huge. For large volume wineries over 50,000 cases of production this discussion is irrelevant, but for the 60% of wineries in the U.S. that produce less than 5,000 cases, it is THE discussion to have. There is a place for all styles of wine in the market. My surprise came from visiting recognized, critically acclaimed wineries with this kind of thinking.

Wolf howling

Howling at the Moon!

If there is one thing I can definitively take exception to in the industry, it is this idea that wine enthusiasts (spending more than $12/btl) want flavor in red wines and don’t care about structure. Okay, I agree there are not many folks like me in the U.S. who will maintain a large enough cellar to buy young structured red wines and regularly drink 5-10 year old vintages. At the risk of boring readers by saying this again: STRUCTURE is what differentiates good wine! Red wine can taste like black, red, or blue fruit, have earthy minerality, or even exotic flavors like tobacco and tar, but these matter little without the primary structural components: Acidity, Alcohol, Tannins, Phenolic Development, Mouth-Feel (texture) and Balance. When wines are missing any of these elements, they can be unpleasant to drink, or more commonly – just boring.

Tasting note for the Five Star Cellars 2009 Stellar (Bordeaux Blend) that was supposedly not as “good” as the 2008:

The nose hints at the level of extraction with blackberry, plum and currant fruits, a touch of alcohol, fresh tobacco and earth. The palate follows with a dense fruit-forward attack that is very lively in the mouth, with high acidity and high tannins.  The vanilla comes through from the oak, but doesn’t overpower. The tannins have a plush, granular texture producing a big mouth-filling wine with a very long finish. This wine is fast approaching its optimal drinking window of 2016-2018. It is only missing a defined mid-palate… a 91 score without. This would have earned a 94-95 score with more complexity.

A grand effort by a small Washington State winery. I sincerely hope they change their focus to making more wines like this…

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Why Do #Wines Taste Different? Part 2d – Vineyard Management

Vineyard Management

'We only produced 50 cases this year. Most of our competitors spill more than that.'

The effects of Vineyard Management are critically important, but not always easy to recognize. They usually impact wine structure: Acidity, Tannins, Alcohol, Complexity, Phenolic Development and Mouth-Feel. Choosing one practice, over another… often has little to do with science. A limited amount of empirical scientific data is available on this topic and terroir differences often demand widely different approaches. It is difficult to settle on universal best practices. These are the reasons wineries often depend on individuals with extensive experience in the local region. Does implementing these ideas have a direct observable connection to quality? Perhaps yes… at the very least, these ideas can impact the character of wine from individual vineyards. Here is a very recognizable example:

Pergola_Vineyard     (Pergola Trained)

Guyot trained 1     (Guyot Trained)

Italian producers have been converting old pergola style trellising (photos above) to head-trained systems (i.e guyot). This has been a major factor in the on-going improvement in consistent quality across Italian vintages. Head-trained vines make it much easier to employ pruning strategies throughout the growing season. A major factor in accommodating annual climate variation.

Harvest Yield Management

Vineyard managers typically have experience with enough harvest variation to get a feel for the tonnage of quality fruit their vineyards can produce. Too big a yield, and the vines don’t seem to focus on producing concentrated flavors and complexity. Too small a yield and the vineyard is not financially viable to farm. In some locations, the government dictates the yield, if the winery wants to put the appellation name on the label. Yield is a reasonable indicator of basic quality. Anything over 4 tons per acre will be approaching bulk wine territory. Most premium wineries drop anywhere from a quarter to half the berries in the field every year.

Soil Supplementation

Fertilization and soil prep is a scary idea in a vineyard. Grape vines are highly efficient at growing successfully in very poor conditions, so any small change tends to have a big impact. The idea here is NOT for the vines to grow more vigorously. The optimum conditions desired for increasing harvest yield is the exact opposite of what is desired. Although, soil prep before planting vines is very common and usually deals with soil pH and plant metabolism. For example, in many wine growing areas in Arizona, it is critical that calcium carbonate and/or magnesium carbonate be mixed into the soil. So called “liming” of the soil is a vineyard tradition that has been practiced for hundreds of years. Higher pH soils tend to add acidity to the fruit, a critical component in quality wines.

vine-rows

Pruning Strategies and Row Orientation

This approach is more recent. Canopy management as a criteria for producing quality fruit is a strategy that requires a significant amount of pruning labor (high cost) and therefore is mostly employed in the premium and ultra-premium wine categories. A few years ago, I interviewed Jim Duane, winemaker and vineyard manager at Seavey Vineyards in Napa Valley. With a BS in Biology and a focus on botany, he spoke passionately about meticulously pruning the vines and modifying the canopy to match each vintage’s growing conditions. The row direction decision is now made based on optimizing drainage and improving direct sun availability. Vineyards planted on relatively flat acreage in the last 20 years are almost always planted with North-South facing rows to maximize consistent sun exposure. The vineyard in the photo above is planted down the rise and is unusual in recent times. Rows today are usually planted across the rise to facilitate optimal drainage. These ideas have become common practice in the U.S., although not as pervasive in Europe.

Harvest Strategies

Single pass harvesting is the standard in the industry, but in the premium and ultra-premium category that is changing. Paloma Vineyard is an estate winery in Napa Valley that takes this idea to the extreme. Harvesting over extended periods of time, tracking rows and blocks for ripeness, or desired character. They have planted different clones of Merlot and vary the harvest timing as necessary for each. In addition, they bring in blocks early to improve structure and others later to enhance flavors. This is very labor intensive and must be a challenge to manage every year… but the results  are hard to argue with… Paloma achieved a Wine Spectator #1 wine in the world rating in 2003 and regularly earns 95-100 scores every vintage. By the way, if you are lucky enough to catch a visit with the owner Barbara, you will get an in-depth peak into the life of a winemaker as farmer and the lifestyle that comes along with it!

Gobelet vineyard

Trellising

This is an Old World versus New World discussion. Many vineyards are still planted and grown the old traditional ways in Europe, i.e. Pergola (Italy), Gobelet (Spain), etc. I have seen 75 – 100 year old Zinfandel vines in Sonoma County trained in the Gobelet method. See a photo of a Gobelet trained vineyard in Spain above. These Old World style methods make no sense to me for fine wine. Head training (Guyot method & similar) clearly provides better opportunity to employ detailed pruning strategies. Oh well, I am sure THAT will start an argument with a winery in Europe somewhere…

Spring Mtn Vineyard

Terra-Forming, Terracing and Vine Spacing

I love the photo from Pride Mountain Vineyards above… Let me describe why this vineyard is so different:

This is a terra-formed terraced vineyard with a double row planting across the rise and a tight vine spacing layout. The vines in the front of the row produce riper fruit. Those in the back struggle and the fruit is more austere and structured. Everything in a Bordeaux varietal vineyard you could ever want, all in one place. This vineyard produces amazing wine. I doubt many vineyard owners would go to the expense of preparing a vineyard site this way.

Irrigation and Dry Farming

This is another one that will get me in trouble… This is one idea where I agree with the Old World thinking. In my experience, having tasted thousands of wines… There is a noticeable difference in wines from dry-farmed fruit versus irrigated. Why is there a difference? Is there verifiable science behind it? Not likely, but if I were to guess… dry-farmed vines struggle more, the roots drive deeper into the earth and build additional complexity in the wine?

The End

I have had quite enough of what has turned into a very lengthy discussion. There were literally too many contributing factors affecting wine flavors and structure to even scratch the surface in these few pieces. I hope the examples provided and the recommendations offered made the information a little less dry and I apologize to the Old World Wineries in advance for representing their growing regions poorly. I just haven’t interviewed enough European winemakers to understand their local wine growing practices in this kind of detail. It is my hope to rectify that someday :-) Anyone interested in subsidizing an old Sommelier to make a trip (or two) over to wineries in Europe? Strictly in the interest of discovery and wine research to educate a U.S. wine industry thirsting for knowledge…

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Why Do Wines Taste Different? – Part 2c: Soil Types

“Voodoo Magic” in Wine?

Voodoo Juice

(Unrelated Copyrighted Trademark used to illustrate the idea)

Winemaking can be complex chemistry, artistic expression, or a mixture of the two, depending on the winery. That first “science-based” option is certainly the most accessible and also the reason so many winemakers have chemistry degrees. This approach (topic of the first piece in this series) utilizes empirical processes that have a direct, identifiable impact on the wine. Climate (topic of the previous piece in this series)  is another easy to recognize factor when tasting wine (with training), but these last two pieces in the series are about the “voodoo” in the wine: soil type and  vineyard management. I doubt many consumers would recognize the importance of this topic and most high-production bulk wineries rarely care, but for an estate winery under 50,000 cases of production… it is the key to differentiating an individual wine label . That is why you see so much maneuvering in the U.S. to establish new AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas). Winery owners are trying to attach special significance to the fruit source (vineyard location). Developing a unique wine profile is critical to marketing strategies for these producers. As a consumer, I am usually only interested in the “voodoo”, if I have visited that vineyard at the estate. Analysis of soil and vineyard management is just too dry a topic to review without some sort of personal connection. Does the appellation factor into your choice in wine? Do you look for “Rutherford”, or “Margaux” on the label, before you select your Cabernet Sauvignon/blend?

Soil Types

I am reasonably sure no one is interested in a chemistry primer on soil composition, so I will try to move this discussion towards general soil categories. These vineyard site characteristics can have recognizable effects on quality and flavor. Let’s bypass mineral composition and move directly to key factors affecting the vines. There are many different vineyard soil types: Silt, Sand, Loam, Clay, Gravel, etc. There are even more specific sub-types: Calcareous, Schist, Shale, etc. Although, these soils all have just a few tangible characteristics that have well-known effects on the vines.

Water Drainage and Free Organic Matter – Soils that do not drain well, or are too fertile produce horrible wine. When vines grow vigorously, the berries are larger, the juice after press is less concentrated and the resulting wine is one dimensional. Examples: Poor Soil – Loam, Silt. Better Soil – Gravel, Sand.

Soil pH – Basic soil (higher pH) is the key here – think regions like Champagne, Loire, West Paso Robles and other locations with calcareous soils high in calcium carbonate. All the anecdotal evidence for this shows basic soils produce acidic wine – a key component to the structure of quality wine. I won’t bore you with the theoretical chemistry, but evidence seems to confirm this idea. Better Soils – Calcareous, Chalk, Marl.

Soil Depth – An impermeable layer should not be less than 40″ below the surface for dry-farming of the vines (dry-farming should be the goal).

Water Retention – This may sound contradictory, but the best vineyard sites have both good drainage at the site AND good water retention in the soil. These characteristics exist and are excellent for dry-farming vineyards (no irrigation).

Varietal Soil Preferences

Interestingly, when specific varietals are grown in an area over long periods of time (decades+) successfully, the vines seem to adapt to the terroir. This optimization has never been formally studied, but general observations abound in the world wine community supporting this idea. Currently, vineyard root stock for each varietal is available in many slightly different clone options adapted to different climatic and soil conditions. The growers choice of which clone to plant can be a make, or break business decision. Areas like Burgundy, where Pinot Noir has been grown for more than 500 years, have allowed the vines to adapt naturally and you can tell the difference in quality.

Grape varietals often have their own soil preferences:

  • Cabernet Sauvignon produces the best wine when grown in Gravel and Volcanic soils.
  • Merlot produces the best wine when grown in Sandy Clay.
  • Chardonnay and Pinot Noir produces the best wine when grown in Chalky soils.

Some varietals seem to do well in many different soil types, but manifest radically different flavors:

  • Sauvignon Blanc has tropical fruit flavors when produced in Marlborough (New Zealand) and lemon and/or grapefruit flavors when produced in Napa Valley (California).
  • Zinfandel tends toward Strawberry flavors when from Dry Creek (Sonoma County), but can have strong jammy blackberry and blueberry notes when produced in West Paso Robles (Central California Coast).

Vineyard - Larkmead Vineyards

Estate Wineries Embracing Vineyard Variation

A few years ago the head winemaker Dan Petroski at Larkmead Vineyards offered the best explanation I have heard for optimization of variable growing conditions at a single vineyard site. In recent years, Larkmead has invested heavily in their belief that soils and micro-terroir make a difference in the quality of the wine. Their estate vineyards (108 acres planted) have been separated into 40+ separate vineyard blocks, some quite small (against typical industry thinking). Some of these vineyard sections were re-planted to change row direction and take advantage of improved sun orientation and drainage characteristics. The blocks were separated based on soil testing and observation to define clearly different growing conditions. Where this gets really interesting is their further investment in numerous smaller stainless steel fermentation tanks. For those who say terroir impact on wine is a fallacy, they need to taste the lot to lot differences side-by-side at an estate winery using this vineyard strategy. This system of wine production allows the winemaker to take advantage of distinctly different wines and offer them as separately bottled vineyard designate releases, or blend the individual blocks to achieve a better, more complex product.

My Previous Recommendations

Now, let’s put this information to use (remember the “voodoo”). In past pieces, I have suggested that certain growing regions tend to generally produce better quality over-all. Let’s explore a few reasons why…

Valley Floors (in the flood plain) – These locations tend to have a high percentage of silt, but not always. For example, the right bank of the Garonne River in Bordeaux has sandy clay soil (premier Merlot region in the world). Putting aside complex locations like Bordeaux and speaking in generalities, valley floor locations produce simpler wines that often are missing structure… especially when grown in warm climates, examples: Puglia, Italy or Inland Valleys, California. There are some interesting exceptions though. Certain varietals (like Tempranillo) can grow in these locations (i.e. Ribero del Duero) and thrive, but I would be careful if you are searching out quality. Know your varietals and their optimal growing regions, unless you are comfortable experimenting with hit, or miss results.

Mountain/Hill Sides – These locations tend to be virtually barren, with well-drained schist, slate, granitic (etc.) topsoils. In many cases, wine grapes are the only crop these soils can support. Again, this seems contradictory, but these regions can offer perfect conditions for many different wine grape varietals. Examples of Mountain/Hill type optimal growing regions: Syrah – Northern Rhone, Nebbiolo – Barolo, Riesling – Mosel, Cabernet Sauvignon – Spring Mountain.

Examples of a few optimal growing regions by varietal: Cabernet Sauvignon – Napa Valley, Left Bank Bordeaux; Merlot – Right Bank Bordeaux, Spring Mountain; Pinot Noir – Burgundy, Willamette Valley; Syrah – Rhone Valley, Barossa Valley; Malbec – Mendoza, Riesling – Mosel, Chenin Blanc – Loire Valley, Swartland, Stellenbosch.

Magic-pot-witchcraft

The Voodoo

No one really knows for sure what specific chemical composition is changed due to these soil factors. Neither is it known the process by which these soils change the character of the wine, but I can tell you, a trained palate can taste wine blind and describe the type of terroir it originates from.

Next…

Is this topic never-ending? Yes! The potential for exploring variability in wine character is quite literally endless. Although, I will endeavor to finish this series in my next piece with an evaluation of Vineyard Management and its impact on wine.

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