Wednesday, January 30, 2019

BRAMBLES: Drinking In the Changes

Unseasonably mild, the mustard cover arrives early. 
Drink. Drink it all in. Go ahead, and try something new.  But, importantly, drink what you want. The choices are as limitless as imagination because today wine consumers are seeing more small, exotic brands, more unique varietals, from more distant places than ever before.  Who knew that today you can search and find a nice bottle of the Italian red varietal Vespolina on our local retail shelves, or even secure an austere, small production award-winning New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from a web-universe on-line site?  Can't get to New York's Finger Lakes' AVA wine region this year?  Well, that coveted small production Cabernet Franc can be shipped from the producer direct to your door!

Recently released Direct to Consumer Wine Symposium data announced that DtC grew to a value of more than $3 billion in 2018(over 6,000 million cases!). Sure, prices have gone up, but that's still a number 6 times larger than 2011 when this blog started.  Just a few decades ago, California wine producers were limited to shipping consumer direct to just 13 reciprocal(tax) states(wineries would show a color-coded U.S. map, and then turn disappointed visitors away). To date, only five(5) states now prohibit direct-to-consumer wine shipments: Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and Utah.  Of course, that's not without increasingly complicated and burdensome bureaucratic regulations for the small wineries.  And, on the bright side, it has given birth to a new integrated industry: Compliance.

It has also given thousands of small producers an effective alternative to local on/off premise retailers, and those limited placements with out of state wholesale distributors. In the current Direct to Consumer Wine Shipping Report, almost half of 2018 shipments were from small producers(less than 1000 cases), and only about 1% were generated from large producers(over 500K cases, annually).  But, the increased opportunity to sell more wine effectively in more places to more wine loving customers comes increasingly at a cost.

Texas(a big market) is currently tightening regulations and required reportings' for wine shipments originating from out of state. Remote wine sellers with shipments into Iowa with revenues above a new threshold must now collect state and local taxes, and apply for permits; also its applicable to shippers with more than 200 state transactions. Also starting this month, North Carolina requires producers holding wholesale and direct-to-consumer permits to report more sales(and customers) frequently and now use a newly revised annual excise tax form.
Discover & celebrate along the Texaswinetrail
Locally, our Wine Institute reports above average yields of good quality fruit across our sunny California wine-grape growing regions in 2018. And Sonoma wineries and grape growers continue to make great strides in their target of responsible, environmental sustainability.  To date, almost 89% of vineyard acreage has been 3rd party certified. Demand for our wines remains steady across the domestic marketplace, in part due to increased consumer opportunity.  In 2018 Sonoma AVA wineries sold over $655 million thru Direct to Consumer channels, an increase of 21 per cent above the previous year. With about half of the DtC domestic volume originating in Napa AVA's, our Cabernet neighbors saw a comparative increase of only about 8 per cent over 2017.

Their average bottle price reached more than $36 above an average DtC Sonoma wine. According to Chet Klingensmith of Wines Vines Analytics, "Napa County seemingly priced itself out of the market(DtC) in 2018."  While we wait for those prices to correct, we can still find values abounding from throughout the diverse marketplace.  It may be that El Dorado AVA Zinfandel, or a newly discovered Loire Muscadet(white), or even an obscure Piemonte's Brachetto(red). All we have to do is search and inquire and take a chance to drink in the changes.



Saturday, December 29, 2018

BRAMBLES: Holiday Surprise!

Baby, it's cold outside, but winter pruning awaits
 Lucky boy. Over the course of these current holidaze, there are always surprises in store for the domestic wine lover.  It could be that long lost friend found at a local party, with a chance to catch up on the time that was missing.  Or, that surprise gifted bottle, festively dressed, for which you find yourself unprepared to reciprocate at that particular moment.  And, it may also be that discovery of taste, something fantastic in your wine glass that you have never before had a chance to explore.  Indeed, this time of fellowship and good will, a time of seasonal joy and warming fires, may just offer the wine lover who has gathered with good natured friends an unexpected and eye-opening surprising wine holiday.

In the north of Italy, framed by the alpine foothills and the lakes Como & Garda, lies the ancient Lombardy vine region of Franciacorta DOCG. In spite of making wine here for thousands of years, this important region has a relatively young sparkling wine tradition of producing traditional method sparkling wines(second ferment in bottle, just like Champagne).  Only designated DOC for its wines in 1967, it became the first Italian region to regulate the laborious bubble process just back in 1995 when elevated to DOCG status.  Only regional chardonnay, pinot blanc and pinot noir are permitted, and the minimum 18 month lees contact in bottle is greater than that required in the traditional sparklers of Champagne AOC.  This typically results in fine bubbles, and a yeasty, but refined, mouth-watering signature.

Like soldiers on a parade ground, the stemmed flutes were lined up as the cork escaped from the celebratory bottle of non-vintage Franciacorta.  In the golden glass, beads of tiny bubbles streamed to the top.  With anticipation, upon our first whiff of its bouquet it was apparent that this wine was faulted by TCA(trichloroanisole), a natural chlorine based compound that mutes the nose and mouthfeel, promoting a flat and musty character akin to damp newspapers or 'wet dog in a phone booth'. Despite its appearance, the 'corked' wine had lost its magic, and as a result, muted the hopeful celebration.  As such, it was again a reminder, a holiday surprise that we are always hopeful to avoid in such gleeful company.  Faults can occur when our excitement and our spirits are high.
Summer Chardonnay of Franciacorta
With shopping bags at your feet, sliding down the restaurants' wine list, one may dismiss selections that are more than twice the cost of any entree, until finding a familiar name.  So it was with an Anderson Valley AVA pinot noir selection from a quality boutique producer, Phillips Hill. Perhaps it was the warm hospitality found inside the old apple barn off Hwy. 128, or the distinctive, artsy labels, and certainly, the high standards of quality enjoyed across the winery's portfolio selections. But, it resonated a trust and anticipation that was rewarded when a 2016 vintage Boontling Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley is presented at table.

Shimmering garnet in the glass, its pronounced aromas fill the head with the scent of racked dark seasonal fruits.  On the palate, it was a broad, but refined range of cherries, red currants, and a hint of baking spice that evolved across the mid-palate to a deliciously lingering finish, all held together by its brisk acidity.  The wine represented all that's grand about this cool region; the diversity of its soils and micro-climates, it's high standards of expression from a blend of local pinot growers'.  Bites of the rabbit casserole at table sang harmoniously with the pairing, lifting spirits bright.  Oh, what fun it is to find in one's glass a delight that is so much more than just a beverage.  It's a warm memory, a whimsical escape, a dinner companion that's a joy to share, and, a delicious Holiday Surprise.



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: