Friday, April 29, 2016

BRAMBLES: Change is Life!

Renewal of the cycle, Vitis Vinifera
Renewal, it is Spring! A new sunny chapter to be written, just like those that visited many times before.  As my Mom approaches her 85th birthday, I reflected that she must have seen tremendous changes in the domestic wine industry over the course of her lifetime. Change can be slow, it can be seasonal, so looking back over decades we can begin to see the constantly evolving shadows that effect us.  Looking back, so that we can more clearly look forward, we begin to see that in this industry as with ourselves Change is Life!

A first ever German Wine Queen was elected in 1931 to represent the quality region of the Palatinate; by 1933 the Nazi's taken control of the entire state, and the world watched.  In early December of that year(1933), domestic Prohibition was repealed with the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Nationally, less than 100 commercial wine producers had survived; poor quality, cheap table wines were the resulting standard through those turbulent years until the late 1960's.  Wine consumption in the U.S. averaged only about one quart per person, so perhaps that was a good thing!.

During the World War years, domestic consumption by 'the greatest generation' had grown to around .75 gals. per person annually. By 1965, Robert Mondavi had broken away from the families Charles Krug to establish his own winery, becoming the first large scale California winery built in Napa since prior to Prohibition. Importantly, Russian immigrant,  Andre' Tchelistcheff had been producing some of California's best wines for a generation at the valley's benchmark Beaulieu Vineyards.
An era of corporate consolidation of the industry was about to be unleashed, and by 1969 giant Heublein acquired a collection of famed wineries including Inglenook and BV.  By the end of the next decade, Allied Domecq, Constellation Brands, and others with international beverage portfolios had joined the industry takeover.

Celebrating the American Bi-centennial(1976) with a trumpeted international blind tasting, a '73 Stags Leap NV estate Cabernet Sauvignon, and a '73 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay were voted best, surprising established French quality hallmarks for the first time at any international competition.  At home, domestic wine consumption had grown to a new threshold of around 1.75 gals per person.
Growing in the Napa Valley

As defined by the U.S. Treasury's TTB in 1978, the nations first approved American Viticultural Area was designated as Augusta(GA) AVA. Napa AVA would be approved shortly afterward. The early 80's saw dozens of AVA's defined, including the Russian River, Dry Creek and Sonoma Valley AVA's. Today there are more than 230 recognized AVA's nationally.

 A 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision(Granholm v. Heald) struck down a ban on inter-state alcohol sales in states that permit in-state sales, thereby supporting sales of California wines in states that had previously barred its commerce.
By 2006 there were more than 4388 bonded wineries throughout the U.S.; by the close of 2014 the number had grown to almost 8000!

According to Sonoma County Winegrowers, in 2012 there were more than 685 county wineries. It has not stopped evolving. Compared to 2005, today there are more than twice as many wineries throughout Sonoma County. Overall, demand continues to grow; in this new century wine remained increasingly popular and continued to grow in market share, and by 2012 U..S. adults were enjoying an average of more than 2.75 gallons per person.
By 2015, California producers had grown to be the fourth largest region or wine 'nation' in the world, with an export value of more than $1.6 billion.

Increasingly sustainability farmed, today there are over 25,000 vineyard businesses nationally, producing the highest value fruit crop in the U.S. Brick & mortar wineries see more than 30 million thirsty visitors annually, and are employing over 50,000 people. And, that is not even counting the thousands upon thousands of dedicated home winemakers. Even as global consumers are drinking about the same per capita as a decade ago, American wine consumption continues to steadily increase.  Today Americans drink more wine than do the French!

Over the course of more than eight(8) decades, she has seen the Great Depression and its recovery, armed conflicts too numerous to dignify with mention, tremendous social change domestically, and a world today that could not have been found in dreams of the 'Greatest Generation'.  Children were nurtured and raised, to have children of there own who dream.  And when we celebrated, even as we gathered around a simple communal table there was wine to be found.  And wine continued to improve, finding its way into more celebrations and on to more tables. Just like us, this industry would never stagnate, always evolving to new heights, and offering the opportunity for us to do better.  Throughout, just like Momma said, life with its many pitfalls and its unbounded joys, we find that change is life.

Happy Birthday, Momma!
"Once, during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water." W.C.Fields


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

BRAMBLES: Rights of Spring?

Bud break of  a vine Spring

Anticipation in the wine industry can be a wonderful thing.  Spring is around the corner and bud break is erupting from dormant vines with the promise of another fine harvest. Hopefully, soon the sojourn of winter will be a fading memory, and the optimism of the cycle of rebirth in spring will nurture us.  It is also the time of promise with the annual consumer ritual of tasting the future, a young wine drawn from a barrel.  For producers and wine marketing groups, like the Northern Sonoma's Wine Road recent Barrel Tasting Weekends, this industry practice has for many become a 'right of spring'.

Event tasting from a barrel can be found from the Santa Maria Valley AVA to the Lake Chelan AVA of Washington State, and almost everywhere in between.  Locally, we have just drunk thru events that taste immature wines, like 'Savor Sonoma Valley' and the Livermore Valley 8th Annual Barrel Tasting Weekend(March 19-20).  These events obviously are important to expose a small brand to new consumers, bringing wine loving communities together, and may even offer pricing promotions to encourage bottle sales.  Based in traditional wine marketing, these festive contemporary events probably have their origins in a traditional French business practice.

En primeur is the long established practice of offering wines tasted and purchased prior to bottling,  released at prices that are intended to be 'in bond', where their future prices were expected to be higher. Very popular or celebrated wines were certainly going to be scarce. Also known as 'wine futures', since 2008 however, the returns from Bordeaux futures has mostly been negative; for in these cases eventual release prices were less than what consumers paid en primeur!

17th century English and Dutch business relationships with Bordeaux dictated that wines made by its many grape growers were sold to merchants(négociant) who would then bottle and sell the young wines, some were even sold while still in barrel. This relationship was negotiated and managed by a broker who acted as a middleman. Even as it is required today that wines are blended, aged and bottled at the château(farm), the aged practice has remained in place, a current opportunity for more than 400 brokers and 11,000 Bordeaux growers.
Dutch Wine Merchant Guild 17thC

For the wine seller, these transactions aid their allocations by early commitments and importantly improve cash flow. They get the cash now, but don't have to deliver for a year or two.  Once a gift almost exclusively for the gentry, selling "futures" today is still ripe with historical pitfalls. That's because barrel samples are typically drawn from lots that are the most evolved and expressive.  There is no guarantee that the same lot will be in your delivered bottle. As offered in Isabelle Saporta's Vino Business, "...for tasting you offer only the very best, but you'll sell a blend of everything".

Still, these are popular local events that lure us with a novel show of thiefing a young barrel, tempting discounted prices, and a promise of improving quality. For consumers, barrel tastings can feed our anticipation for something new, and give us an occasional rare wine catch. For the wine business, the practice is good marketing; an invitation to critics and consumers to get excited about what is being nurtured for the bottle. Ah, the anticipation. With spring just arriving, it may well be our consumer rite to dream of the future rewarded.
Vitis vinifera in spring flower

Note: A special thanks to any or all who have followed along the lighted path of this page over the last 100+ postings.

Salute' to the Rites of Spring!

*Apr. 22 - 24 Wine Yakima Valley(Washington) Spring Barrel Tasting
 *May 21 - 22 Lake Chelan(Washington) Wineries Spring Barrel Tasting
*July 23 - 24 Anderson Valley-Yorkville Highlands Barrel Tasting Weekend

Sunday, February 28, 2016

BRAMBLES: Tasting the Difference

Tasting diversity-Viewing wine Sideways
In nature competition breeds diversity, the strongest survive.  It is certainly like that for the long history of the domesticated old world wine grape, vitis vinifera. So too for local winery tasting rooms, where the best offer something distinctive/memorable.  With more than 500 local wine brands, there are hundreds of brick and mortar production facilities and many dozens of boutiques that connect daily with hopefully loyal consumers by the virtues displayed thru stylized wines and their winery tasting rooms.

Quirky to inspiring, there are all types of tasting rooms. Some have deep wine caves to alter perceptions, others offer beautiful architectural achievements or formal salon settings.  Still others impart historical family legacies, like Gundlach-Bundschu(1858), or Foppiano(1896).  And, then there are wineries that identify with salmon fishermen, with duck hunters, and a few that take local ecology and sustainability so seriously they are painstakingly bio-dynamic certified. Of course there is only one in all of Sonoma county that has the distinction of being first, Buena Vista, California's oldest commercial winery,
Being first in anything certainly helps a brands marketing efforts, so too does consistently awarded quality.  Commonly, all of these wine brands would like to create a wine ambassador from every tasting room visitor, someone to sing their praises in discrete locations far away and in mixed company.  With few exceptions, isn't the job of the tasting room to emotionally connect you with their product, without distraction?  As an affordable luxury item, wine is a product that makes us feel good when we remember the label, or the recommendation of a friend, or the confident opportunity to share it with company.  Tasting rooms that do a good job connecting us to these good feelings are often the public face of successful brands.

I once asked a tasting room host what made their brand distinctive. They spoke of their vineyard sources and their foreign born wine maker, but really their wines were fairly generic. Increasingly, we are blessed locally with the evolution of viticulture; the right vine planted in the right place with a yield that annually would be 'in balance'. With more academically trained and internationally versed wine makers than ever before, wine quality produced by these wizards has never been so consistently high. If this is today's landscape, then there must be something else, something notable that makes a brand 'distinctive'.  Memorable wines, wines of place, I believe, speak to you in a way that other 'generic' wines do not and those are the wines, and the tasting room the visits I remember.
Mustard flowers carpet warming winter vineyards

  • At the recent annual United Wine & Grape Symposium, the largest industry event of its kind in the western hemisphere, continuing domestic consumer trends were identified. Above all of the segmented measures, industry leaders noted that U.S. wine shipments continue to rise, continuing a 20-year trend of domestic growth. At the entry market level, wines under-$9 continue to lose market share.  That trend is also reflected in young adults leaving 'big beer' for more premium craft beers in greater numbers.  For volume grape growers at the lower end of the scale, 2015 saw an additional 20,000 acres of vines reportedly pulled from vineyards of the Central Valley AVA, and that is following a loss of 21,000 in 2014. There then are strong indications that these trading-up trends will continue across the demographics. On the premium side, imports(makeing up about 1/3 of sales) continue to grow, as do sales of higher average priced California wines.
  •  New AVA for  super-San Franciso Bay Area, Central Coast: La-Mor-Inda AVA, composed of the sandy-clay soils and warmer environs of Lafayette, Moraga, and Orinda was recently approved by our federal regulators, the TTB.

For those of us who enjoy the sight, the aromatic swirl, and sip of complex/balanced premium wines that delight, wines found in a setting that inspires, we are now being rewarded with an increasing number of high quality choices.  Our consumer challenge remains in finding something memorable in this crowded vineyard,  and to taste the difference.

Wine Links:


Tuesday, January 26, 2016


Washington States's Wahluke Slope AVA vineyards
Winter. Grey seems to be the predominant color above, and nearby in our moderate climate a green carpet can surface as far as the eye can see(between the raindrops). It is the season of comfort foods and of hearty, full-bodied wines, like Cabernet Sauvignon. But where can a wine lover find value in the king of grapes within a domestic variety that is typically the most expensive wine grape by the ton?

Wine grape prices tend to reflect their land values plus the cost of farming the crop, so within California Napa fruit is more expensive than, say, Monterey county. Down south, Wild Horse of Templeton's Central Coast AVA Cabernet Sauvignon consistently will offer thirsty wine lovers bang for the buck. Regional blending, too, can offer a mixed value, such as Bogle Vineyard's 'California' Cabernet Sauvignon(around $10.). But, what if you wanted to taste identity, to find a value Cabernet that expressed a specific site?  For those values you may need to search foreign soils for this international varietal, such as Chile or South Africa.
Gravel vineyards of Graves, France await spring
Stateside, way further north in Washington state, everyday values there can move to another tier. With more than 50,000 acres planted, supporting more than 850 wineries(10 times more than a generation ago), Washington state is widely represented in the Cabernet value race. With 13 AVA's such as the expansive Columbia Valley, Yakima Valley, Red Mountain, and Horse Haven Hills, Cabernet Sauvignon has become the leading red grape varietal in the state. East of the Cascades, the vineyards sprall, taking advantage of Ice Age soils, ample hours of growing season sunlight and the irrigation richness of the broad Columbia Basin.

Grand Coulee Columbia Basin Project transformed this land, making water management and industrial scale farming a way of life. From its origins in the early 20th century, it remains the largest water reclamation project in the U.S., producing not only power, but hundreds of millions of dollars of agricultural crops each year. Here, pioneer Chateau Ste. Michelle farms more than 3500 acres of premium wine grapes in the Columbia Valley, consistently producing high quality to value table wines. Perhaps equally impressive is venerable Columbia Winery, sourcing oceans of fruit from multiple AVA's, including the Columbia Valley. Yes, children, size does matter.

At a recent quality to value tasting event Washington state was well represented in the under $20 value category. After tasting a broad selection of quaff-able cabernet, a few selections rose like cream to the top. Among them was Columbia Crest H3 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon from Horse Haven Hills. A gamey, dark stone fruit was its aromatic introduction, with dark currant, vanilla and rich earth notes giving way to berry and cocoa.  Within the Washington state value selections there was an almost industrial refinement here, allowing those that were strikingly different to stand apart.

Even Bordeaux shows a value worth seeking out, where bottles of Cru Bourgeois, are grown on a single estate."What distinguishes them from the best classed growths is that they rarely improve much beyond 15 years..." , notes author Jancis Robinson, but who can wait that long? Fronsac AOC and Haut-Médoc AOC remain the most consistent value appellations, but surprises await in some of Bordeaux's outlying regions. After a long history of recognizing merchants and craftsmen(bourg), it was in 1932 the French authority classified 444 of their distinguished properties, but the politics of the era did not allow ratification. Using a basis of consistent quality production and testing, 246 properties were finally awarded the unique classification in 2003, only to be annulled in 2008.  Finally, following a qualitative, non-partial selection procedure, Cru Bourgeois was updated, officially recognized and published in late 2010.
Values can be found in red Bordeaux

Look for quality to value estate selections like Château Grivière Médoc.  One of our tastings favorite selections was Blaigan Cru Bougeois Médoc, a Merlot/Cabernet blend, exhibiting a dark plum hue, with a smoky dried red fruit nose that held some winter spice, and rendered depth and complexity across the pallet to a finish that continued to flavor evolve as it warmed and disappeared in the mouth. Ah, a sense of place, and perhaps the king of values, too!

Wine Links:


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

BRAMBLES: Home Wine $ellar

Go to the small basement cellar(it is really just racks of stored bottles); find an appropriate bottle of wine(requires inspecting several labels); open found bottle of wine with anticipation, and share with prepared plate; and(hopefully) feel moments of contentment. Especially because wine is at our family table almost every day, it is an earned joy to pull from our home stored bottle inventory for just about every occasion. Included are a small selection of high acid whites and reds, brooding vin rouge of depth and tannic structure, and even a few bottles of viscous nectar's that pair with rich appetizers or desserts. Typically, when visiting a local retail bottle shop or virtual store I will collect several bottles of the same quality wine. Over time a small collection grows across a spectrum of types of wine that are allowed thru bottle aging to develop a more mature character, escaping the thinness and pitfalls of youth. Admittedly, as I have no fondness for most young red wines(Beaujolais & Dolchetto being an exception), and also find a real satisfaction in being able to provide wine for almost every meal without leaving the home.  Gradually, over the years I have afford-ably built a conservative, but diverse home wine $ellar.

What has developed down below is an ever changing global selection of quality to value(sub $20.) wines, perfect for everyday enjoyment that I admit are the joyful result of wishful procurement. Additionally, among the sleeping bottles are a few of advanced age, with many, if not most of the great wines that I have been privileged to enjoy over the years having been offered to me by good friends.  These have been special wines that have changed the way I look at wine as a living thing; the perceptive wine aromas and especially their taste present an ambrosia of the gods beyond what is outside commonly standardized vino perceptions. They have changed the personal lexicon of wine description due to an unfamiliar reminder in what a mature wine can become. These are wines of evolution, bacchanals of breeding and nurturing which many times are like nothing else that routinely graces our table.
Winter pruning in the Loire

Our use of a wine quality assessment, I believe, is based on collected quality experience. To appreciate any wine it is important to know what you are drinking. It is not just the perceived distinction in the profiles of, say, Sauvignon Blanc compared to Verdejo.  Both are influenced by zippy acids and a bright citrus personality, both a complement to light dishes of a little acidity. It is also important to have had the taste 'experience' that would enable an identification of a particular flavor, aroma or perceived secondary trait as a clue to unique character in the glass. It was not until 2007 that I had tasted fresh red currants, thereby offering a memory of the taste distinction from cranberries or tart cherries.  Many grape varieties, too, are chameleon in personality, a reflection of the environs where they were natured and nurtured. Within a comparative single varietal, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is different when tasted against a Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc in large part because they reflect differences in where they are grown.  Any cellar would benefit from both food friendly selections.

As we begin to collect bottles for our cellars, our goal needs to be wines that display harmony and balance in the glass, and I have found that aged wines can offer these qualities more seamlessly. Typically, the recognizable personality traits are there, as you may perceive a reflection of honeysuckle in that golden glass of mature Chardonnay or a hint of plum pudding in an opaque red Merlot, bonded to its structure. Well aged wines of quality will offer those notes in a stream of many other flavor impressions, all offering for your attention.  The characteristic bitterness or astringency of youthful wines will have faded, blending into a more harmonious chord of a mature and developed wine. Sublime and inspiring, a properly aged wine rewards the patient taster, and can challenge to reassess our general perceptions of what wine is, even our everyday wines like those waiting on our expanding racks.

Many of these regional and varietal portraits have been offered in earlier posts here, such as a viewing of Gamay(11/25/14) where you may find a use for the 'red currant' descriptor. A quaffable bottle at a time, acquiring a broad selection of wines in a personal cellar that is dark and cool offers the easy opportunity to have on hand an accessable stored bottle of Chardonnay when it can really dance with a meal like a pasta carbonara, or a planned pairing of the food-friendly Piemonte Barbera with an impromptu antipasti plate. Favorite bottles will wait patiently to be shared with good friends who stop by, whatever their personal flavor preferences for wine may be. Rather than leaving a good time with dear friends, a personal wine collection allows the collector to spend more time enjoying fellowship, and the pride of just walking downstairs to produce a wine that may be savored and talked about in the future.  As collected for future occasions, wine as a living, breathing liquid mystery capable of maturation, is best enjoyed with food, and becomes even greater because your home $ellar is always better when shared. And, that makes it a collection of values, too!

Cheers to a Happy New Year!

Tasting Values:
NISIA Verdejo, 2013 Rueda Old Vines, fresh summer fruits lift from the glass;  zippy, citrus and green melon with a kiss of mineral that dances and lingers.