Thursday, June 30, 2016

CHENIN BLANC: 'Put me in, Coach'

Royal vineyard landscapes of the Loire
 Multi-faceted, adaptable and generous.  It certainly helps if there is a high standard of recognized quality in your arsenal as well.  These are exactly the qualities of the taken for granted utility player, quietly dependable, just like in the pass time that is baseball.  These same qualities apply to a noble white grape variety that is truly under appreciated, Chenin Blanc.  From its earliest chronicles in the 9th century, reliable Chenin has been the workhorse of the Loire, where it is utilized to make a broad selection of often taken for granted, delicious wines.  And yet, sitting at the end of the varietal bench, it on occasion needs to stand up and declare, 'put me in, Coach', for I have something uniquely special to offer!
Carbon dioxide rising from traditional method Chenin Blanc
An aromatic varietal, Chenin offers lactic notes of clotted cream or buttermilk, or whiffs of straw flowers to roasted nut, dancing with fruit characters that readily appear apple to melon to citrus. Its high acid promotes its longevity, evolving to a continued production of yummy esters that produce a rich, increasingly aromatic bouquet as this varietal ages.  Additionally, its ancestral homeland of the riverlands that are the royal Loire, promotes conditions that invite botrytis, the fungal attack that ushers a concentrating of flavors and sugars to produce glorious, viscous late harvest wines.  As a true workhorse, Chenin also produces amazing dry to off-dry sparking wines from the time honored traditional process, known outside of Champagne as Cre'mant or Mousseux; acid driven wines that are offering more than visual, but also a refreshing sensory impact from the released CO2(carbon dioxide).

Perhaps to re-affirm its overlooked bench position, there today is much more Chenin planted in the old soils of South Africa, where the variety is known by the synonym Steen, and is also planted widely in California's Central Valley AVA, where it adds substance to many generic white blends and typically is not identified by its varietal name at all. In the Loire, various levels of grape ripeness create a spectrum of styles with versatile Chenin, so still wines can be identified as dry(sec) or off-dry(demi-sec), where increasing amounts of residual sugar create a more weighted body and richer styles. Allowable AOC minimum levels for designations(sec vs demi-sec), complex soil profiles(sandstone to clay, schist to chalk) and a moderating influence of the numerous rivers all combine here in the meandering Central Department to produce a broad variety of Chenin wines from the same general region, so it becomes important to know the producers. All we need to do is put a little Chenin in the game(on the table or picnic blanket) to be refreshed by its substance and personality.

Consistent Chenin Blanc can hit for a tasty average, offering high quality stylings that can be counted on.  Its versatility finds it covering many different field positions wherever it is cultivated( AOC's Anjou, Saumur Blanc, Savennie'res, Vouvray, and southern hemisphere locales), and reliably produces wines of distinction, of substance and charactrer that can reflect their unique environment(terroir). As a high acid chilled wine, the utility of Chenin continues to shine when paired with a spectrum foods like roasted chicken or chilled asparagus.  This season it may be time to put a little Chenin in your life, and savor the greatness that was on your bench all along.

Tasting Values:
  M-A-N Coastal Region Chenin Blanc(Steen) 2015 South Africa


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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

BRAMBLES: Get Out & Taste!

Beaujolais Nouveau promotion in Japan

Seasonally warmer weather brings not only shorter sleeves, but also a broad selection of regional hospitality events.  Invitingly, this casual season encourages each of us out to explore the beauty of our landscape and the generosity of numerous social events that can seem on the surface to be revenue drivers for their respective winery venues. Visitors can be exposed to a head swirling number of choices at such events.  Which trending food truck to visit? Is it reasonable to stand in the longest line to sample a popular libation, or is time best served by quantity(visit as many as possible)?  Shall I leave my circle of friends and search out brands that are of no interest to them?

Wine sampling events have almost always been part of the business of wine.  Today, these popular festivals create the opportunity to expose your product(s)(brand) to many qualified new consumers in a controlled environment; to reduce the tasters broad, diluted market restrictions of choice; and sometimes even the restriction of a buying decision.  Consumers can enjoy them all!  But, ultimately a rewarding choice needs to be made by a consumer among a short list of visited brands. By virtue of their event pass consumers can feel, of course, that they paid for all of them!  But, if it is barrel tasting weekend or an AVA (American Viticultural Area) weekend pass, consumers are often guided, even encouraged, to try new brands that they have not previously enjoyed. Encouraged consumers at these wine events seem to be quite happy being in the select company of many others who appear to be really into the same thing: celebrating local wine.

Creative brands can actually maximize the events positive brand impact; being so distinct from their neighbor winery or offering an environment that is simply more fun.  Nearby, there are producers who get the reputation as being a 'party central' venue, or providing a most memorable wine experience. Other brands cultivate new business, collect valuable marketing information to begin a 'dating' period, promote their wine club sign-ups, and some even sell more wine than on a typical weekend. What we know is that a great consumer hospitality experience will typically encourage return visits to the brand, thus increasing the opportunity to bond lasting relationships between brand and consumer.

On a recent weekend, a small brand participating in an area event would have brought on more than twice the usual staffing, poured thru cases of their wine in sampling, and shared the brand with ten times as many visitors.  But, at the end of the day in most cases, the revenue generated by this grand exhibition would only be slightly above average.  And yet, expenses were far beyond what would normally be offered to daily operations.  Hopefully, there is reward as future customer contact information was retained, a few new wine clubs were signed up for long term sales gains, and those happy consumers who left you to visit another nearby venue will remember how special your wines and your hospitality really were.  This seasonal culling can only happen here in Wine Country if wine savvy consumers jump into the pool, to get out and taste the choice of diversity! 

Wine event venues in all varieties

Wine Links:
June 11: Sonoma County BEERFEST -
June 17 - 19: Gay Wine Weekend -
July 14 - 16: California Wine Festival Santa Barbara -

Aug. 05 - 07: Outside Lands(WineLands) -
Aug 25 - 28: Los Angeles Food & Wine Festival -
Summer events: Dry Creek -
Summer events: Sonoma County -

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.

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