Friday, January 27, 2017

BRAMBLES: Taste This,...Maybe?

Winds of change in rural Sicily DOC
Looking back, we have left more than a few empty bottles behind in 2016.  There was that delicious wine holiday in Sicily, and some very important family events, which were all richer in part because we enjoyed them with a glass or two of good wine.  It was another year of growth and value exploration with our tasting groups, and the enriching opportunity to improve the experience of wine for hundreds of thirsty consumers.  It was also the year when I closed two tasting rooms.

They were small brands, to be sure, often described as craft, artisan or boutique.  None the less, they offered wine consumers a real choice, and for the savvy, a few authentic local values.  One of the rooms was a collective, that gathering of small producers with no brick & mortar location of their own.  As a result of that limitation(and others), they typically produced less than 3000 cases and swam at their peril in the premium wine shark tank. Each was a slightly different business model, but all had a vignerons' passion fanning their sails.  In the end, after more than 5 years at a prime commercial location, they could not generate enough foot traffic to keep it moving forward.

The other was a single artisan brand, the juicy love affair with a former "Winemaker of the Year", with a recognized name for the informed and a mentor to many in this industry.  This brands business model was different, as it had wholesale distribution contracts with many states wine suppliers, and a greater quantity of premium product to promote in more places.  It has a brand manager, and a marketing manager, and even a direct to consumer manager.  Ultimately, the operating cost of a physical retail location in a new commercial marketplace outweighed its local popularity.  It is a very tough market out there; sadly, the numbers did just not add-up for continued investment in a retail storefront.

By any measure, competition across the retail marketplace is increasing for California wineries, she who produces about 90% of all of American wine.  In Sonoma County AVA alone, the number of wineries has doubled from a generation ago, yet with agri-limits the counties premium growers only farm about 6% of its beautiful, rural landscape.
Winter pruning of vines in the Loire

According to a recent Nielsen survey, the State has held its own; showing a continuing and healthy growth rate in global retail sales. Danny Brager, senior vice president of the beverage alcohol practice at Nielsen announced at the recent Unified Wine and Grape Symposium, " I almost can't think of any other consumer category where there is such a huge choice today.  If (wine) consumers can't get something, they will find something else."

Imports from foreign wineries have also continued to increase in volume and value during the last measured calendar period.  Growth in the bottle marketplace increasingly results in consumers having more choice than ever before, and that is a delicious thing for the informed value hunter. In spite of the wealth of these cheaper, value imports and a growth in national competition, shipments of U.S. wines continue to grow in volume year, after year.  Furthermore, there is an indication that entry level consumers are 'trading up'; last year the average bottle price of a U.S. wine exceeded $10. a bottle for the first time in recorded history! 

Knowledge is power for todays wine consumer

A recently released annual industry $urvey from a prominent lender, the State of the Wine Industry Report, predicted marketplace growth in premium imports in the year ahead.  Additionally, millennial's are expected to move in greater numbers away from red blends and increasingly towards pricier wines(+$10).  The dark umbrella remains as labor issues in the vineyard are anticipated to continue to be of weighted concern for the wine industry, even as the survey predicts a strong sales year in premium wine categories.

Whether the long established cooperative business model, or a singular artisans' passion, or even a modest brand in a broad portfolio managed by a beverage behemoth, it remains a challenging industry even for the optimistic producer. After all, there is a new brand(domestic or foreign) available to domestic consumers almost everyday, a new flavor of the week as consumers follow a trend, new on-line retailers and discount brokers to tempt neophyte wine consumers.  That new favorite may come from Chile or the Santa Maria AVA, from sustainable Sicily or from Rattlesnake Hills AVA of Washington state. For consumers, informed choices make for better wine experiences, and better wines in comfortable price points will increase not only bottle sales, but the broad variety of global values available to new wine drinkers.  Maybe we just have to taste a little more and let the wine speak.

Tasting Values:
Leitz "Eins Zwei DRY"  2015 Rheingau Riesling Trocken(dry): Lemondrop, lemondrop!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

BRAMBLES: Thankfully, Celebrate Something!

Bruno Occhipinti sharing a Marco de Bartoli Marsala

It is routine to look back at the end of the calendar year, something like looking into your car's rear view mirror on the highway.  There you can clearly see what has transpired in the recent past, and as we get older the recent past may be all we can easily remember.  As it has evolved, the year 2016 had many twists and turns, disappointments and regret, enchanting episodes of magic that foil against heartache.  But, if you are reading this, you have made it this far, and we have all that tempered experience to build upon.  It is fortunately that end of year wine time to thankfully raise a glass of cheer and celebrate something!
Beautiful Sonoma County agri-business.

  • Thankful for a memorable wine tasting in Sicily with the veritable patriarch of the Occhipinti cantina in Sicily's only DOCG.
  • Following a short-supply 2015 grape harvest, this year saw many premium local grape growers able to charge more for their quality fruit in a year of premium quality. North Coast spot markets increased significantly, according to our Allied Grape Growers cooperative.
  • 2016 offered a relatively even growing season statewide, producing a normal harvest of exceptional quality fruit(Wine Institute).
  • A new university graduate in the family, and a new lawyer in the family, who happen to be the same talented individual. 
  • Domestic wine lovers continue a familiar trend, with annual per capita consumption at around 10+ liters, so we can at least sit at the table of other established wine cultures.
  • Consumer market minor grape selections continue to show growth away from leaders Cabernet and Chardonnay; Beverage Dynamics reported impressive 2016 sales growth in Red Blends(10.1%) and Sauvignon Blanc(13.3%), as trends indicate buyers continue to trade up.
  • My Mom got to embrace a new grandson, and then visit with a few of her favorite major league ballplayers in the stadium clubhouse.
  • Direct to consumer wine sales continue to grow, according to Beverage Dynamics, up 8.1% over 2015, as more Prohibitionist states relax regulations and more consumers find confident selection, quality on-line.
  •  At home, our best Thompson Seedless grape harvest ever, and then drying to wonderfully sweet raisins.
    Traditional method cavas and cremants offer celebration value.
  • Fine wines, those above the declining table wine sector, are continuing a positive trend of a growing number of consumers trading 'up' to higher priced quality wines, as quality domestic & import selections improve.
  • With thanks to our premium grape farmers, there is more than twice as much quality Pinot Noir crushed around here compared to just 10 years ago.
  • U.S. wine consumption is at an all time high(more than 750 million gallons), as new wine lovers(mostly women) increasingly come to the table(or bar, or bottle).
  • Thankfully, I can still stand and share the delicious mysteries of wine with friends, old & new, and on occasions find a nectar that authentically inspires.
Looking back in the mirror that is 2016, we see many things that are a reflection of who we are as a culture and as people, yet our history is not yet written for our future.  Certainly, here then is our opportunity to raise a glass, and to celebrate something!  Cheers!
"what matters is the countless small deeds of unknown people, who lay the basis for the significant events that enter history". Howard Zinn

Wine Links:

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

SICILY; Lost & Found

Sun-baked, wind swept vineyards of Occhipinti, Vittoria DOCG
 Everything on this sunny, wind swept Mediterranean island seems to have seeds; the eggplant, the tomatoes, the prickly pear, and certainly the grapes.  The nucleus of life, the seeds of Sicily are a reflection of the native spirit and passion, a time capsule of its long history of cultural occupation that creates a wonderfully unique confluence.  Grillo and Catarratto, white grapes that are the basis for fortified Marsala DOC, as well as sea food-friendly table wines, combine here with reds Frappato and Nero D'Avola to create a uniquely native wine grape palate, distinctively Sicily.

Greeks may have introduced the vine here almost 3000 years ago, followed by the Phoenicians of the Fertile Crescent, and the cultivating, wine loving Romans.  Goth's, the Byzantine's, the Arabs and the Normans followed in rapid succession, creating a broad stroke of multi-cultural influences and instability. As the unity of Norman rule influenced language and religion, creating the Kingdom of Sicily in 1154, it eventually would fall under the influence of the Crown of Aragon in the late 15th century. Even as this period would usher wealth and influence for the strategic island, the 18th/19th centuries would again create instability, culminating in a constitution that initiated the end of feudalism and eventually a unification with the Kingdom of Italy in 1860. Neglectful governing would then give way to powerful networks of organized crime and radical left-wing peasant labor, the popular fascist rise of Mussolini, and eventually the Allies devastating Invasion of Sicily in 1943.  It would be then a miracle that any Sicilian identity would persevere, or even survive, for to be Sicilian was to be under the influence of others.
Amphora of Sicilian antiquity
In post-war reconstruction, sweeping land reforms of the 1950's gave new rise to the workers small farm cooperatives, and for its survival, Sicily became the undistinguished volume wine producer for all of Italy.  A national launch ushered in 1963, established an official system, regulating the wine industry, and creating important categorization and guidelines.  Over the following decades the Italian DOC(Controlled Designation of Origin) system was updated, creating top-tier DOCG and the regional typicity of the IGT categories in 1992.  Even as it was presented with its lone DOCG, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Sicily remained a source for mostly simple table wines, or Vino di Tavola produced from its unique native grapes. 

What perseveres is a love of this land, a dedication to the life it gives; from the broad, fertile soils of the Mt. Etna wash, to the clay & limestone jagged profile of the rugged south. In the most recent generations her wine producers have moved towards an increasingly sustainable landscape, to smaller vineyard yields that enhance indigenous grape characteristics. Experiments with IGT blends that include recognizable international varieties, like Cabernet Sauvignon, are also becoming increasingly marketed.  And, global recognition for its diverse quality wines grows daily, from innovative and contemporary producers like Hugues de la Gatinais, Marco de Bartoli, and the dedicated enterprises of the Occhipinti family. Today, from their ancient and indigenous vines, Sicily is generating new and vibrant life from the seeds of its resilient past. And for the generations to come, a Sicily which was so often lost can once again be luminously found. Salute'!

Sicilian palmento in an 18th century farmhouse(restored)
"If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change."
The Leopard, Guiseppe di Lampedusa

Tasting Values:
  Stemmari Nero D'Avola, Sicilia DOC 2014
  Tenuta Rapitala 'Nahar' Nero D'Avola-Pinot Nero, Sicilia IGT 2013

Wine Links:

Monday, October 17, 2016

Post Harvest Sonnet

Late season bush vines of Roussillon

Yellowing leaves increasingly blanket
rolling parade grounds without its sweet fruit,
Crimson peppers in scatter break monotony
across many broad Sonoman vineyards.

Autumn in Beaujolais
Clear, crisp skies present starling swarms that cut
swirl sounds over a field settling to rest,
Green pigments absorb no more of its sun,
their cycle evolved as days now grow short.

Post Harvest in Burgundy
Phenolic compounds and sugars matured,
make the seasons wines that we must now vend.
Toil with sweat chase the last rays of autumn sun,
create the circle that I gladly drink!

Raise your glass then to celebrate harvest;
toil now rests in rays of soft fading light.

Cheers & Salute'!
Autumn in hills of Langhe,

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

BRAMBLES: September Harvests

Industrial harvesting the norm in New Zealand

An historically early start to the 2016 premium wine grape harvest of the North Coast continues as we move into the shorter days of autumn.  Seasonally, our local bounty presents itself at local farmers markets and displays colorfully across the produce departments of our favorite markets.  Harvest annually gives each of us an attachment to our local landscape, to its rich, nurturing environment and the sustainable talents of its many dedicated local farmers. Here in Sonoma county, recent Harvest Fair Awards annually offer a marketing boost to many a small to medium sized winery; often presenting an all too brief, fleeting opportunity that can reward the tireless production efforts, the demanding work that occurred long ago in their respective local vineyards and cellars.

Effects from sustained drought and recent years of above average winegrape yields combine with ever increasing costs of farming to consistently challenge these local grape growers. Not only a surplus suppression of the spot market grape pricing, but also the vanguard of vineyard pests such as the european grapevine moth and the glassy-winged sharpshooter continue to keep growers ever vigilant, even as combative efforts continue in many research labs such as those of UC Davis & Fresno State.  Current mergers and real estate acquisitions now trend across much of the premium wine sector, spurred on by the rise of premium retail wine sales, allowing bigger wine companies to strengthen their positions as consumers 'trade-up'. Even as growers here increasingly move towards ecological vineyard sustainability under the sun of this unprecedented environment, our local grape farmers still continue produce some of the finest winegrapes in the world.  It is their collective efforts, this rich annual bounty that we celebrate!
Cap of red grape skins from CO2 production

With this year's early fruit set due to fair spring conditions, generally cooler nights across most regions, and a longer than average vineyard hang-time that allows the phenol and flavor developments that characterize a higher quality vintage, most growers will currently be satisfied with their results. "While crop loads are down, the vines are very focused on the remaining fruit. It should be another high quality year", according to Santa Lucia Highlands grower, Steve McIntyre.  "It's been a nice, relatively even season without extremes", noted Russian River Valley winemaker, David Ramey.
A new grape pomace hill in Carneros, Napa
As wine lovin' consumers we often pull a bottle to share, to enhance a meal or to celebrate an event.  That wine can fulfill or exceed thirst-driven expectations, it can impress our fellow tasters with its prominence or its rich complexity or its terrific value.  While it has long been simply said that great wine is made in the vineyard, in most of those bottles it is simply the rewarded efforts of September harvests.  Thank you California premium grape farmers!

Cheers & Prost!

Tasting Values:
Sherwood Estate; Sauvignon Blanc; Marlborough 2014 - a green straw hue introduces generous  aromas of green wet mop with jalapeno, then presents searing acid and lime pith extending to a long finish.

Ribeauville; Riesling Vendanges Manuelles Alsace 2015 - light golden tone offers confined aromas of under-ripe stone fruits, and then wham!; glorious body of focused acid carries stone fruits, citrus and mineral across a viscous body to a finish that I am still tasting.