Friday, November 30, 2018

BRAMBLES: As the Bottle Turns...

Personal bottle cellars can offer discovery at times.
Day after day of unhealthy air in the recent skies of wine country prompted locals to stay indoors, and probably had many investing in long put off house chores, like re-arranging furniture or finally going thru stacks of old wine magazines.  Such is not unlike 'cellar spelunking', where you can re-discover forgotten treasures and contemplate past vintages.  It was little more than a year ago when these same skies were again tainted with the weight of heavy smoke, when local wineries and growers paused to consider what they would do if everything was lost due to an invasion of nature's 'disasters'.  Yet, many of these industry veterans also may have reflected that in these cycles of nature, 'we've seen it all before', and will probably do so again.

Back in 2004 there were numerous headlines teasing of a packaging revolution with innovative units of polyethylene and aluminum, of screw-cap closures invading with the wave of Australian wines and of the demise of the un-reliable traditional cork stopper.  This packaging metamorphosis is today still displayed on our retail shelves.  It and can be found across the lower end and bulk products that anchor most retail displays.  But, it also still appears that the traditional cork bottle landscape has not changed all that much, as it continues to dominate the mid-to-upper tiers of wine merchandising.  By most assessments, cork producers have markedly improved their standards and reliability, and there are more unique glass bottle designs on display to attract consumers than ever before.  As the bottle turns...

A 2005 Wine Spectator news feature alerted consumers to the acquisition of one of the largest alcohol-beverage companies in the world by a rival who would now "quadruple" their wine volume. One of the newly acquired wine brands, Callaway, of Temecula AVA, was sold to a private investment group months later.  That earlier headline sat above an important notice of fraud allegations of mis-labeled wines by one of Italy's internationally prominent and Tuscany's most historic brands.  It seems that the fruit came from southern Italy.  Later that same year, a news capsule shared that French authorities will break with steadfast tradition, allowing the Malbec producers of the historic Cahors appellation to begin labeling their wines with a varietal designation(most AOC wines can only carry region/sub-region names). The varietal has become the consumer-loving flag-ship and the most-widely accessible wine from Argentina, where it was introduced in the mid-19th century.
Traditional packaging continues to change
Headlines in a worn 2002 Vineyards & Winery Management publication displayed the name(s)s of early local pioneer(s). Robert Pepi, the story goes, acquired Napa cabernet property in 1966 and re-planted a vineyard with cuttings he brought from Italy in 1983. As it turns out, he may have planted the first Sangiovese vineyard after Prohibition, and is recognized as a pioneer in a marketing movement(?) that is known as, 'Cal-Ital', or California grown indigenous Italian grape varieties. Following his retirement in 1994, Robert Pepi sold his property, his brand, to a much larger emerging wine company.  Almost immediately, the new owners enjoyed success with Willamette Valley(Or) Pinot Grigio, and a natural, crisp-style Chardonnay.  Today, the once-Pepi ranch is the home of an ultra premium wine estate, and the Cal-Ital excitement slowly fades. After more than 50 years, there's little exhilaration about California Sangiovese, yet, those good quality Italian imports remain a persistent, growing category.  And, consumers will have a very hard time finding the once notable Pepi-brand anywhere.

A more recent Wines & Vines issue headlines the continuing growth trend of mid-premium wines, and growing concerns over newly devised global trade disputes.  Those notable industry articles were found sandwiched between full color advertisements for attractive packaging, for shiny tanks and eye-catching labeling. Other media sources announced the formally requested urgent federal disaster relief assistance for crops lost to this years wildfires, just prior to the WHIP programs's December cancellation. And, there's even a Napa Valley AVA winery who is having a declarative product labeling problem with its Oregon sourced fruit.  How can it be an Oregon AVA declaration, if it is not produced there?
It's a time to celebrate...anything!
As the bottle turns, so does our wine industry.  There will always be another story, always something new that echos the past.  Looked at from a distance, with glass in hand, you can see a pattern, a cadence, or even a rhyme as this ag-industry passes one vintage on to the next. These are recurring farming stories, tales of dreamers and consumerism, its regulation and our protection.  In the end, the industry is consistently trying to offer reliably better, confidently innovative products that display a distinctive identity and are more readily available for consumers. It is then in this season of traditions that we should all raise a glass to the pioneers, those dedicated grape people, and to all of the wonderful things that bring us with increasing convenience and standards a good wine to enjoy.

For all the trends ahead,

Friday, October 19, 2018


Even as Munich's annual bier party, Oktoberfest, is a groggy memory,  Austria's 'heurigen' tavern culture continues to invite visitors as long as there's local bulk wine to quickly ferment.  Locally, weeks of favorable sunny and mild conditions have produced by most accounts an 'average' harvest of good quality that is nearing its uneventful resolution.  Unless, that is, you factor increasing seasonal wildfires across the North Bay and the western U.S.  It is a period of change; a period that we now routinely measure.  Farming is certainly seasonal, with demand vs. supply in its landscape. Yet, for the wine industry, with all these environmental changes, grape by grape, it is a new world.

More quality and affordable wines are available to more consumers from more places than ever before. That is a fact. Like the 'heurigen' hospitality, we here have bulk wines(it's most of what our industry produces) in lots of places. We may never run out. And, we recently have had a long series of good harvests, combined with the strength of steady consumer demand. Plus, the bulk market is getting better fruit from more sustainable growing practices and quality vineyards than ever before.  So today, our 'vin ordinaire' is so now consistently good it may actually hurt the theory that domestic consumers will eventually move up the price ladder. Plus, domestic consumers are increasingly enjoying more quality imports at the sub-$12 than ever before, like French rose' and New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

Old World vineyard traditions remain after generations
Yesterday for today's wine industry is the foundation of tomorrow, where almost everyday there surfaces another important environmental alert.  Just in the past few weeks there have been quite a number of important notices that will continue to impact industry and consumer alike for years to come.  Importantly, at a recent Paris conference, International Energy Agency head, Faith Birol, told the audience that after 9 months of surveys our planet is on pace to break a record for increased levels of global carbon emissions!

Our 'average' harvest here(a new normal?) differs drastically from what is being reported elsewhere, as England this season produced it's biggest wine grape harvest, and perhaps their best pinot noir crop ever!  Beneficially, much of the isles sunny southeast is blessed with well-drained, high-calcium soils similar to those in Champagne, France.  Domestically, vineyard smoke taint is for us now such a prominent and persistent issue that UC Davis is currently testing its effects on all stages of wine grapes development, even as current fruit contracts from effected local growers are being cancelled by large wine-grape buyers.

And, there are domestic market reports that indicate we may soon have an oversupply of fruit for a sluggish marketplace, a popular segment where reserves of bulk wine are already quite heavy.  On the consumer-plus side, 'direct to consumer' shipments to out of state customers continues to expand, and was most recently upheld by a Michigan court.  Where there were once a handful of 'reciprocal' states for wine interstate commerce, at present consumers now have just a few states where such is prohibited.  Overall, it continues to be a strong decade of development, consolidation and growth for the U.S. wine industry, and that continues to benefit all consumers.
'Battle of Wine' festival in Haro, Rioja DOC
Among a world of values, a delightful surprise may be in store for consumers who search out the white wines of Rioja, Spain.  Originating from about as far away from the sea as you get in Spain, with the Pyrenees and Cantabrian ranges to the north, and a dry, continental climate, Rioja is traditionally dominated by red grapes, notably noble tempranillo. However, current improvements in the prominent region's viticulture and their vinification have allowed its white wines from viura(macabeau), malvasia and garnacha blanca(grenache blanc) grapes to now present clean, bright blends and single varietal wines vibrantly stainless fermented and without excessive aging. Consumers who search out wines like Cortijo's Rioja Blanco(100% viura) and Muga's Blanco(blend) will find zesty wines with inviting aromas and mouth-watering citrus and apple-skin notes that are food friendly at under $15. These are fine examples of what was once tradition now turned on its head to the favor of consumers in a New World.


-Liquid Update Links:
 Brit Pinot:




Sunday, September 30, 2018

BRAMBLES: Nothing else Like It!

Vitis vinifera, a self-pollinating berry-fruit vine native to Europe and Asia Minor, with a domesticated history that goes back thousands of years, is once again in the Northern Hemisphere harvesting season news.  A venerable agri-industry, global wine is now on a grand international scale that continues to impact its growing consumer demands by testing those ever-changing market forces. From growers to producers to marketplace, today's wine meanders thru a complex, cosmopolitan web to get its products on the tables of thirsty consumers.

With a reported widespread French vineyards return to a  'new normal', and a locally declared "vintage year" sitting on one side of our current harvest; opposing local Lake & Mendocino county grape farmers who are having their vineyard contracts now cancelled by large, regional wine producers(corporations) that now reside on the weighted other.  We are a market driven industry; 'it was the best of times, it was the worst of times', to borrow drinking a phrase.

In production and marketing: That mysterious cork-taint problem was never in the Old World's natural corks, however, it was found to be the human process that followed; and a passed U.S.Senate resolution(HR766) that says uniqueness is defined by our AVA's, created legislation that now acknowledges distinctiveness and its considerable value for America from our growing national wine industry.  Our first AVA was defined way back in 1980 to ostensibly position the nation's wines for an international market, to regulate production and to advocate for consumers. Who knew it would take almost 40 years(my drinking years) for its inherent value to be recognized?
Vineyards of Columbia Gorge AVA
If you stick your nose in a glass, you may find that wine smells truly like nothing else(even with muting cork-taint).  Fruit and spice, pronounced or composed, it's a note here and there, perhaps even framed by toasted wet wood, or lingering dried fruits.  Prominent aromatics tend to originate from the namesake wine grape, as it carries personality from the vineyard to the consumer glass.  It has collected the characteristics of place and varietal; and even its gender can be considered an 'inherited' quality.  In this social equality era, it may be wine-reasonable to ask: Is it feminine or masculine that consistently engage with us in that glass?

For me the sauvignon(savage), either white or red(masculine, having an effective untamed leverage) reflects strongly where & how it is grown.  Conversely, grenache(feminine, but fiesty) presents less assertive amicability, but always willing to join in. When compared to cabernet sauvignon, the companion merlot grape has historically been seen as the more feminine of the two: approachable early, its tones softer, rounder. Minor whites, verdicchio and muscadelle and melon de Bourgogne, and even richly perfumed and queenly chenin blanc, express feminine virtues for me; where noble riesling and pinot gris/grigio suggest qualities that let them sit with the boys.  It is, of course, a personal relationship. Yep, male and female do exist in the world of grapes, but because it is nature- evolved there can even be a neuter or two.  It is something that for each of us remains an intimate and unique experience to savor.
Bulgaria harvests
Today's European Union has grown cooperatively to 28 member states, with wine-loving republics Bulgaria and Romania joining in 2007.  Once among the largest wine producing regions in the world, modernization supported by EU investment over the last decade has improved vineyard development, wine quality and has revitalized more than 6000 years of wine history across these Balkan States.  With growing production and exports, Old World regions here in the cradle of wine are now being globally promoted as 'symbols of quality wine' and 'modern wine destinations'.  What was once old is now new again.  In the composite, the ever-changing world news of wine, there is nothing else like it!


Liquid Update Links;



 Old World:   romania-and-moldova/#4ac3bdcf270f

Wine Links:

Friday, August 31, 2018

BRAMBLES: Harvest Dreams

Inspiration surrounds us.  We see it in the glory of our environment, hear it carried on the wind across the seascape, and find it in the abundant humanity of to soon departed beacons like sister Aretha,  John McCain and Neil Simon.  It's imagination absorbed, raising our own aspirations, prompting us to dream.  As this years annual winegrape harvest gets underway across our Northern Hemisphere, whiffs of the incentive are once again found in every vineyard and cellar.  This is the year many dedicated artisans will make great, definitive examples of their unique proprietary wines.  Those are dreams that they actually harvest.

Another harvest cycle now gets underway, so it is a good time to sneak a peak at marketplace changes.  As recently reported in the drinks business, a Jordan survey found that Zinfandel remains a popular 'gateway varietal'(one that is getting newbies into wine), because we generally like wines that are perceived as smooth and fruity. Yet, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon remain the 'go to' leading varietals for most returning consumers. Even as direct to consumer market segments continue strong sales growth, and new packaging such as wines in cans still gains momentum in our markets, red Zinfandel is sadly languishing.  Like most popular, flavor-of-the-week varietals today, most of the flat Zinfandel volume is being produced by large industrial producers of one note selections, while richer price points continue to deter inquisitive neophyte consumers.  And, we are drink more wine per capita than ever before(thank you)!

Perhaps its association with sweeter white Zinfandel(white outsells red), or the lack of distinctive flavor designations have influenced consumers to look to other more popular varietals.  Yet Zinfandel, proudly California's grape, remains a mystery to even the most regular of consumers.  We've heard of its genetic relationship to Italy's Primitivo, and perhaps marveled that Croatian sibling Crljenak ancestry goes back almost 3000 years(think Greek), but today's Zinfandel is just not growing in our markets.

Uneven ripening and sugar levels
In spite of a string of outstanding premium California  vintages, in the Sierra foothills, in Sonoma and in Lodi, uneven ripening Zinfandel still has most of its volume and acreage in the bulk fields of our Central Valley.  When dry farmed and in lower production yields found in Mediterranean climates from vines that grow like trees, Zinfandel produces wines that are multi-faceted and memorable.  Back in 2012 I noted, " when ripe, it can be an exotic walk through a berry bramble, almost savory and sweet at the same time.  Aromas of ripe berries and spice are common, along with the brambly undercurrent of flavors that offers hints of herb and pepper spice". 

These terrific food wines complement and contrast a range of dishes, and particularly like tomatoes as long as its alcohol is in balance. Look for Primitivo's from Italian producers like Luccarelli or Cantine san Marzano, or to Amador County AVA's Cooper or the Jeremy Wine Co.  Sonoma County's Seghesio or Carol Shelton or Cline Cellars continue to produce fine value Zinfandels at modest price points.  And, Ridge, Ravenswood and Rosenblum, know as the '3r's of Zinfandel', continue to produce very fine premium products that echo the unique places they are from.

Subject to the whims of Mother Nature and the sites on which it is nurtured, Zinfandel can be a haunting mistress for wine lovers in search of inspiration. It remains a true canvas for the gifts of talented winemakers who adopt an intimacy with the varietal and its place.  One advantage to our diverse and competitive marketplace means that minor varietals like Zinfandel tend to hold their price points compared to popular varieties, and offer consumers a chance to search out quality values.  When they are found, label-loyal consumers can return to those complex, satisfying examples that are a true reflection of so many harvest dreams.


September is California Wine month!

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

BRAMBLES: Almost a Case...

A glee, that could be described as like a kid in a candy store, had overtaken, and almost an hour had eclipsed.  Joyfully filling empty rack spaces and re-arranging sections in a modest, pine-racked wine cellar had produced a few additional rewards, as well.  There was discovery: almost a mixed case of wonderful 2012 Rioja's present, as well as the big-fruit 2015 Beaujolais' collecting dust in that dark, cool space.  And, even as our small medley of cherished 2010 Bordeaux remained undisturbed, we found that our broad collection(1 of this, 2 of that) of Italian values had actually expanded, with odd lots picked up here and there.  It was time well spent for any disciple of wine.

Although there are a few exceptions(mostly generous gifts), the collection of bottles in this particular hoard has been put together having an average price of less than $15 per bottle.  In and of itself, a good quality wine of modest price that can actually enhance a meal is worth celebrating.  Adding the patience to naturally develop that wine, allowing it to mature in a living cellar for its surprising debut around a loving table is just that much more fulfilling.  As all wines have the capacity to benefit from aging, these selections from trusted producers and revered locales provide much more of a reward for those of a little cellar restraint.  You also need to have an idea of what you have, and importantly, what you may be missing for variety.
Variety, the spice of life, even in a modest cellar
In the game of value collection, bottle by bottle the wine cellar slowly grows until there is not a simple space left.  But, then, these are not simple wines. We can buy more storage space, or plan a string of meals that our oldest wines can complement to provide the needed capacity.  With any 750ml bottle perfect for sharing, it does not take long to begin to see vacancies in any humble wine cellar.  Market researchers tend to measure we regular wine consumers at a bottle a week or more, but for those who love this type of delicious research a few bottles a week is so much more likely.

A couple of Rieslings, one from an Alsace domaine, the other from Anderson Valley AVA, an award winning Gamay Beaujolais from the remarkable 2015 vintage, a white-Rhone blend from the Central Coast, and a few rose' bottles graced our table over a recent week.  Not one cost more than $20.  Each of these dry selections offered typical varietal characteristics, some even echoed the season and unique place they were from. Each was intended to either complement or contrast the principal flavors and strengths of most of the delicious preparations they would dance within the mouth.
Wine & food pairing, an insightful art
Repeat. Then, every once in awhile at even the most modest of tables, a wine from the cellar explodes.  It exceeds any expectations; it offers a unique, compelling experience that our routine and evolved standards fall behind. Those occasional wines produce a liquid reward that makes the game of collection quality value wines richly validated, and affirms the joy such a delicious hobby offers. From another typical week, a Malbec from the southwest of France, a 2015 Cahors AOC, over-delivered on its promise of spice and dark fruits.  But it was its texture, its weight, balance and tremendous length in the mouth that made it such a contemplative pleasure to drink.  Days later, an award-winning 2010 Rioja DOC Crianza(minimum one(1) year oak cask, two(2) years aging) made a simple al fresco meal a culinary event to savor.

For neophyte wine collectors, referencing vintage charts and reading labels from known producers can help, but a trusted importers' label may be more valuable.  Those ubiquitous shelf talkers, if accurate, can encourage, but most are just typical marketing fluff.  Most wines available from volume retailers are just that, produced by the vast industrial wine complex, and not much beyond vin ordinaire.  Search out small shops and smaller regional producers that along with heritage, have lower costs of production to supply your value wine cellar. More valuable may be the insight offered by the independent wine merchant and a relationship that is built over time.  And, as always, the information we gather independently to nurture our wine hobby, weather by tasting or reading is a valued base for any collector.  Shopping local wine sales and on-line flash sites will only add to the liquid adventure. Ultimately, for the price of a single movie ticket, a surprising and delicious bottle of value vino can be acquired, matured and pleasingly shared.  If, by now any remain unconvinced of the hedonistic pleasures offered by such a frugal wine hobby, at the very least it is almost a case.
Wine from the cellar, a special treat regardless of price!