Thursday, April 17, 2014

BRAMBLES: Small in a BIG Way

No, it is not what you may be thinking!  This is not about Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and intoxication.  In Greek mythology he was named Dionysus, the last god admitted into Mt. Olympus, as he was the god of merriment, the grape harvest and ecstasy.  As an important figure in historically important cultures, this god represents what some may propose as one of the important traits of being human.  Years ago, 2005 to be precise, I started a long journey to reach a much coveted goal, becoming a Certified Wine Educator.  Throughout, Bacchus was there as a reminder of what patience, dedication, and the intoxication of success can bring.  I realize that this was a single humanist dream, a small thing really, that impacted me over the many purposeful years in a very big way.
PIGEAGE: punching down the cap of fruit solids
Domestic wine production, too, is about small things that have big impact.  The trade publication, Wine & Vines recently noted that three-quarters of all U.S. wineries sell less than 5,000 cases per year. Even as the volume of the industry is dominated by a handful of multi-brand behemoths, it is the small producers that continue to offer so much passion and dedication into everything that they tastefully do. Dedicated to preserving the broad diversity of such California wines, Family Winemakers of California, founded in 1991, supports over 550 members, 90% of whom produce less than 10,000 cases annually! Thousands of industry and wine loving participants gather each year to enjoy the merriment of this dedicated craft during their wonderful tasting events; the next FWC celebration will be August in San Mateo to launch yet another years' grape harvest.

On a more intimate and local level, tasting venues like the wonderful Family Wineries Cooperative of Dry Creek Valley, or hip & sip LOCALS of Geyserville( with 9 local brands ) offer concept destinations that showcase the high quality wines produced by some of the North Coast's best small producers. Wine producers who go it alone try to create destinations where they can build those important relationships with commonly ecstatic consumers. Grower-producer and negociant wines can be made on their modest production sites or at a community cellar: think custom crush. While exploring Sonoma County, some of our favorites are the consistent quality of Christopher Creek, the passion of John at Viszlay Vineyards and the enthusiastic craziness tastily found at Mercury Wine in Geyserville.
What can these small producers do to have an impact in the internationally crowded domestic wine marketplace? Industry experts typically recommend advertising in regional publications and localized direct mail strategies, combined with internet advertising for a broad based marketing plan.  But, not everyone of these small guys has the necessary financial ability to mount such a sustained effort. A tasting room and direct to consumer(DTC) retailing are generally reliable and profitable, and need to be combined with those ever present wine clubs to generate the significant cash flow on which so much depends.  Ultimately, direct relationships with your 'brand ambassadors' are vital, reflected by numbers that indicate industry DTC sales increased Feb '13 to Feb'14 by 7% to a record value of more than $1,598 million(Wines&Vines).

For consumers there is an ocean of wine across price-points in the domestic marketplace, and naturally, small producers look for creative ways to get their products into the mouths of a thirsty public. In recent years there has been terrific growth in 'flash marketing' retail web sites. The sustained shake out has left a handful of players, notably: Wine Woot, Wines Til Sold Out, Last Call Wines, InVino, Cinderalla Wines & Lot 18, to compete in getting discounted wines directly to a growing consumer base. Having improved selections, streamlined direct shipping and discounts ranging from 21-53%, these virtual retailers are giving the small producer another important vehicle to get their wines in the hands of consumers.
For me, this journal has always been about my journey, the musings of an aspiring Wine Educator.  Writing gave me an opportunity to creatively display all the world wine details I was consuming, and a chance to explore below the pedestrian surface of global viticulture and the wine industry. Recently, the Society advised that I had passed all segments of the testing requirements, and awarded me a CWE lapel pin and a long sought after certificate.  It felt like the end of a quest, the Holy Grail as it were. But, I have only now come to realize that it is the beginning of a professional commitment to continue to explore & share the fascinating world of wine.  My reflections will continue to post here, but with a renewed purpose to uncover quality, value and the truth that is wine.

In support of the next wine chapter, I have launched a professional consultancy, Your Wine Guy, and support it with a web site:  Ultimately, we have closed a foundation chapter, and moved further into the wonder that is a world of wine.  A small step really, but it is expected to effect me in a big way. Maybe it really is about Bacchus, for the gods are a happy crew!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

ITALY: Foothills of the Alps

Monferrato Barbera vineyards
Everyday, it is the mystery of wine that has always drawn me in.  A planned Spring holiday touring Italy has me drawn into the wines of the northern region of Piemonte, that highway of Hannibal and the realm of the regal House of Savoy.  It would be hard to deny that this was a proud and strategic landscape, surrounded by mountains on three sides that give birth to the fertile Po Valley. It declares itself nobly, Piemonte, sitting at the foothills of the mountains(Alps).  Notably, the large region is ancestral home to one of the world's great vitis vinifera varieties, Nebbiolo.  This journal, however, reviewed that ethereal grape back in 2011, so I decided to explore the region's widely popular indigenous everyday varieties, dark-skinned Dolchetto and Barbera.

Piemonte is home to more defined and regulated growing regions, called DOC's, than any other Italian region(more than 40).  The classification system of Denominazione di Origine Controllata was introduced in 1963, and in theory identifies wines at a higher quality designations to conform with the French AOC laws, which subsequently were adopted by the EU.  Further sub-classifications of Classico, Superiore and Riserva present more stringent qualifications for viticulture and production. At the top of the rankings sit the limited wines designated as of  'Controlled and Guaranteed Designation of Origin' or DOCG, from specific designated areas and having not only passed strict analyses, but also tasting requirements.
Vineyards of Langhe hills

Due to the fact that tannic Nebbiolo wines traditionally take so long to be drinkable, it is said that widely planted Barbera, with over 50,000 acres planted and Dolcetto(little sweet one) are the everyday wines. Juicy, savory Barbera(Roberto Ferraris, Ettore Germano, Vietti are favorite producers) with its opaque skins, offers a grape that is high in acid strength, with remarkably low concentrations of bitter tannin.  As a vinified product it can give the ripe impression of being tart, yet fruit forward; waves of dried red and black fruits with herbaceous notes. Ever evolving Barbera, where typically large Slovenian oak or chestnut barrels were used limitedly, produced friendly wines with oak nuance not a big part of it's ripe, approachable personality. Today, quality producers who integrate smaller, new oak barrels in longer production schedules are offering structured wines of stronger oak flavors and firmer tannin, producing an everyday wine that is actually capable of aging.

Grown in the broad swath of rolling hills of Asti and Alessandria provinces, tart Barbera d'Asti DOCG dominates here in soils of clay, silt, sand and limestone.  From its ancestral origins, Barbera del Monferrato DOC is today grown in a broad zone covering over 200 nearby communes. When upgraded with even more restrictive production requirements, Barbera del Monferrato Superiore DOCG, represents some of the best examples of this regions most popular varietal. Heading southwest, even fuller bodied (+value priced) Barbera d'Alba DOC grows along the warmer south-facing hillsides that are inching closer to prestigious Barolo.
Barbera at harvest

Early ripening, Dolcetto has been described as 'grapey' or fruit-forward, thus questioning its aging potential. Curiously, this fruity, low-acid varietal is naturally high in tannin, leaving an impression of bitter cherry in the mouth.  The easily grown varietal has found its place in less prestigious vineyard locations here, grown in soils of calcareous clay and limestone. Combined with its slightly lower minimum alcohol and aging DOC requirements, this varietal historically too has seen little or no oak.  Fortunately, contemporary producers are beginning to experiment to the betterment of this much loved native varietal. In southern Cuneo province, Dogliani DOCG(Luigi Einaudi, a consistent quality producer) with its calcareous or siliceous clay soils has long been thought to be the varietals ancestral home. Here it can evolve, with a longer minimum 12 month aging requirement and higher minimum alcohol levels to attain Superiore status.

In Dolcetto d'Alba DOC(Mirafiore, Giuseppe Cortese, Francesco Rinaldi) food-friendly bitter cherry values can consistently be found for under $25. Typically, these are easy drinking wines produced from 100% Dolcetto.  Throughout the region, wines of higher minimum alcohol would be qualified for Superiore status, an increasing evidence of the producers challenge to master the little sweet one. Grown in the clay, tufa and limestone soils of Alessandria province to the east, Dolcetto di Ovada wines must be of Superiore status to qualify for its DOCG status. Beyond, sitting on the hills between these preferred Dolcetto zones is Diano d'Alba DOCG, consistently producing some of the varietals best examples.
Vineyard dominated Piemonte hills

Under the broad Langhe DOC appellation that covers Cuneo province, the DOC's roll off of the tongue with names like Canavese, Gabiano, and Valsusa. These high standard everyday wines contribute to the Piemonte volume, giving it today more quality wines than any other Italian region.  Natives have often known these and many other everyday values above the simple Vino di  Tavola designation in the cafes and osterias of Piedmont.  The food-friendly regional wines of Dolcetto and Barbera can here enhance the sweet life, the dolce vita, as patrons sit to converse and watch the late hours of the day pass. Even as their mystery unfolds in each glass, perhaps the greatest mystery is why so many American wine lovers have yet to discover them!


P.S. Society of Wine Educators results for our submitted Presentation Skills Demonstration have not yet been released, but are anticipated shortly.  Hopefully, we'll soon have another reason to celebrate la dolce vita!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

BRAMBLES: Waiting for Winter

Mission Ridge, Santa Clara County
Drought seems on the surface natural for grape vine 'dry farming', the sustained use of residual moisture in soils accumulated during the rainy season for crop production during the dry season.  Local grape growers had a relatively dry Winter in 2012-13, so water tables and reserves were already low.  January and February here were without significant rainfall, and saw to it that our hills and vineyards stayed golden brown. Now almost in mid-March, we here are still waiting for needed Winter rains, as rainfall amounts are about half of what they were this time last year.  Dormant grape vines store water during the Winter, but this year there is again, not alot to go around.  Recently, after the storm door had opened slightly, we took a short needed road trip to a drier, warmer climate south into the Livermore Valley AVA.

Just over the San Francisco Bay hills, the east-west oriented Livermore Valley was basking in sunlight. Spring bulbs, early season wildflowers and flowering shrubs splashed color across the backdrop of newly green hillsides. It was beautiful!  The valley is home to about 50 wineries in a ten(10) mile stretch, dotting an increasingly suburban landscape.  Early names like Wente, Concannon and Murietta's Well are prominently part of this areas California viticultural history from the pioneering 1880's. The AVA is today part of the larger Central Coast AVA, and its sub-region, San Francisco Bay AVA, as the Bay's influence can be felt by the cooling winds that race across its rolling hillsides.

Here the smaller producers open their doors and get by with direct to consumer sales and retail placements in local restaurants and bottle shops, but our first stop was at a large, nationally distributed brand, Concannon.  Recent investment into the brands production and visitor facility brings out the family picnics to their expansive and creatively landscaped grounds, as well as the limousines of younger wine lovers who toy in their tasting room. Creatively, the long established brand also has a restaurant and wine bar that serves local & import brands in addition to their own.  During our recent tasting, our favorite was the Concannon 2008 Petite Sirah with its mouth-filling black fruit and fine grain tannins.
Way back in the early 1880's, a nursery-man from southeastern France, Dr. Francois Durif, crossed a workhorse variety, Peloursin, with a late-season ripening indigenous grape, Syrah.  He named his grape progeny, Durif.  James Concannon planted the new variety, now commonly known as Petite Sirah, on his estate at the turn of the 20th century, and the rest is as they say, history.

We did not have to travel very far to find the down-home Mitchell Katz winery; a horse-drawn surrey was in the gravel parking lot and locally made sausage were on the grill.  Our tasting included several adequate white & red selections, but the consensus favorite was the fruit driven bing cherry notes in the 2010 Abbout's Acres Merlot. Here we conversed with a local vineyard owner who was staking his sweat and fortune on the minor variety Sangiovese planted nearby. He announced that he had just returned from a much needed vineyard pruning, only to find that his freshly cut cane's did not weep a drop. "They need a good soaking", he cautioned. As the afternoon winds picked up we drove a short distance into the hills and across another gravel lot to the McGrail Winery.  Easily the best reds of the day were found here with the 2008 Picazo Proprietary Red(a Bordeaux blend) and a solid rockstar of a young, herbaceous Cabernet Sauvignon.

Gravel is big here; you can see it in the log row vineyard soils.  But most noticeable was the advanced new leaf growth in row after row, a sign that bud break occurred very early here in this warmer inland environment. Just as in the wine valleys above the Bay's north shore, we are all waiting for Winter. With no rain in the regions extended forecast, it would seem to be a good time to plan a visit to a few more of these down-home vintners.  Livermore Valley Wine Country's 6th Annual Barrel Tasting weekend is on March 29/30, with 32 open-armed venues ready to sample and to entertain winelovers.
Awakening Bud Break
With Spring just a few weeks away, I'm also waiting for the much anticipated results of my submitted teaching video to the Society of Wine Educators.  Waiting seems to be the constant theme for this Winter.  We are waiting for the rains, waiting for the seasonal chill, and waiting for consequence of our many years of wine study.  Perhaps that is the wonderful and curious thing about Winter; it is the sustained anticipation of a renewed growth season... just like the dry farming of our winegrape crop.

Salute' and Cheers!!

Friday, February 28, 2014

BLENDING: Truth in Plurals

Tradition is a wonderful thing because it takes time. So much time in fact, as it cannot be the latest or a nouveau trend.  In wine traditions, balance becomes harmonious when more than a single note is played. But are two notes enough?  Wouldn't three or four or a dozen be richer, more interesting. Complexity in wine is also a wonderful thing when found as by expanding the palate of flavors, and even textures, as well as its structure. Yin and yang, Merlot ripens earlier in the vineyard; its feminine roundness is there to balance out the course, in your teeth structure of late ripening Cabernet Sauvignon. Blending then sees that a sum is greater than its individual parts. Early ripening Sauvignon Blanc is lean and brightly acidic. Semillon is richer, its late ripening berries almost waxy in its stone fruit textures. Together they make a more interesting, a fuller white wine. It's a vino scored correction, and I love the music.
Drinking outside of school, Bordeaux
On a cool and rainy evening, I recently presented an informational Bordeaux seminar to a small group of dauntless and supportive wine lovers.  They attentively listened as I hemorrhaged dusty detail after (hopefully)intriguing detail of the serendipity that is the story of the evolution of Bordeaux white wines. As its tale unfolds, it is not just a few events strung together over the long course of history, but rather a series of actions and re-actions, geography and politics, necessity and innovation, that harmonize into the engaging wines of Bordeaux.

This white Bordeaux presentation also included a few examples of fascinatingly blended wines.  As is my nature, these products with 'Bordeaux' on the label were not expensive by contemporary standards. For less than the price of a lunch at a local diner I was able to enjoy centuries of harmonious evolution in a thirst quenching glass!  They presented aromas and a texture that altered my memory of Sauvignon Blanc, because it was a wine of beautiful complexity.  Sure the characteristic herbaceous was there in the nose, but it was not alone, sharing each wiff with yellow tree fruits, an almost familiar tangerine pith, and a hint of vanilla.  Round on the palate, it rolled over my tongue and presented reinforcements of its aromas, but now on the back of racy minerality. Its marriage to Semillon and its textured flavoring with oak created a sensation in the mouth that gave me pause.  It was quite unlike what I had tasted in recent memory.
And, it lingered.  Another sip followed a bite of a waterwafer smeared with L'Ami du Chambertin, a soft cows milk cheese, and the wine's expression was transformed.  There was that herbaceous personality, now sharing palate space with a refreshing, mouth-watering tartness. This wine had changed. With dairy fat its texture was diminished, yet it refreshingly made me thirsty for more.  Blending estate grown Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, combined with a little oak aging, composed in this wine a richness and balance that I have rarely found in a white wine.

Throughout its long wine production history, Bordeaux has had an evolution of quality.  Native varietals, long known as the components of the 'Bordeaux blend', have been tested, acclimated and composed, to present a standard of quality found today in few other places in the wine world.  Whether a product of a historical estate(chateau), a negociant, or a local rural cooperative, the blended wines of Bordeaux(rouge or blanc) continue to reflect a long tradition of quality in blending.  It is truth in plural, from the most generic Bordeaux AOC, to the higher standards of sub-regional and village appellations.

Sauvignon Blanc harvest Ch. Couhins-Lurton, Graves
With our seminar video recording currently received by the Society, it is now a waiting game.  I've got a few Old World bottles and some unread wine books in the home library to keep me occupied.  The SWE will critically evaluate our submission for its educational merits and its continuity to our accepted production outline.  If approved, the video should satisfy the Presentation Skills Demonstration advancement requirement for my long awaited CWE certification. It is exciting to be near the end, but daunting to look forward into the unknown.  How will the Certificate, the initials after my name and a lapel pin translate into secure revenue or professional opportunities?  Perhaps I should explore another wine industry specialty, because as we know tradition tells us that there are truth in plurals!


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

BORDEAUX: Great White Sighting

Vineland(Vinland) is how Leif Ericson described berry-bearing North America after sailing west about 1000 years ago.  If he had sailed south instead on to the Franc shores of Bordeaux, he would have discovered grapevines in much greater abundance in the gravel soils of the long established Roman outpost of Graves.  The Holy Empire had long since collapsed centuries earlier, and his fellow Viking raiders had already plundered Bordeaux and Gascony by the mid-9th century. But the vines and the wine culture had already been well established by Leif's time, their quality reputation increasingly galvanized from the English gains in the Hundred Years War. It was a succession of thirsty English kings who began exporting from the Right Bank of St. E'milion as early as 1302. The international business of Bordeaux took further steps in the centuries to come via the Dutch engineered drainage of its swamp water and the emergence of their many wine loving negociants.

In Bordeaux, the largest winegrowing area in France, almost 300,000 acres of vineyards support more than 13,000 grape growers and more than 10,000 producers. Annually, more than 960 million bottles, produced under 5 broad classifications, within 63 appellations continue to define this important commercial region. By comparison, all of California produces about 207 million cases of wine from more than 500,000 acres and 5000 grape growers. Bordeaux is a perfect place for the vine, vitis vinifera.  A maritime climate, its mild ambient temperature, combine with the natural drainage of its poor soils, the prominent influence of the numerous waterways(Aquitaine: land of many waters), and the protection from its western Landes forest to make Bordeaux a very unique vine land.  Here, the years can start out cold and wet, as they did in 2013, slowly producing drastically reduced yields from poor fruit set(coulure). Disappointment was compounded by record hail in August of that same year.  But, in Bordeaux, when one hand is soiled the other typically raises in triumph, as it did when the fungus botrytis(noble rot) broke out early enough to take advantage of good October weather in Barsac and Sauternes in the south.
'Noble Rot' fungus, botrytis cinerea
Its this on-the-edge environment that created a need to historically blend varietals, where the sum of the parts are greater than the whole. Unlike Burgundy, Alsace or the Rhineland, the Bordelaise have become the masters of that art; blends that optimize the unique ripening schedules and essential personalities of companion grape varieties. Combined with their growing export demand and commerce, regional quality controls were increasingly necessary. At the broad base of the stringent quality control pyramid Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Supe'rieur AOC represent slightly more than 50% of the Gironde department's annual production and can be produced from anywhere in the Bordeaux region. Cotes de Bordeaux,  a more limited & elevated designation is available to producers in the eastern banked hills above the river Garonne, and balance stringent regional AOC's of Me'doc, Graves, Saint-E'milion, Pomerol and Fronsac which straddle both sides of the important waterway.  Under this umbrella of locale there sits the sub-Me'doc classifications: Crus Artisans, and then Crus Bougeois which recognizes about 250 prized properties belonging to the Cru Bougeois Alliance.  Crowning the pyramid are the 61 chateaux ranked Grand Cru Classe's, spawning from the famous 1855 merchant ranking required by Emperor Napole'on III.  Historically, the commercial ranking was the first of its kind.
Gravel topsoils dominate vineyards of Graves

Within the 5-tier classification, only Chateau Haut-Brion in Graves was outside the northern region of the Me'doc.  Additionally, sweet white wine(27) properties from Sauternes and Barsac were ranked separately within three(3) Crus; with long revered Chateau d'Yaquem sitting at the top. Almost 100 years later, sixteen(16) properties south of the city of Bordeaux were classified as, Cru Classe' des Graves; established in 1953, it was revised in 1959. Geographically, these chateau were clustered in the north of this region, resulting in its world class reds and whites breaking away in 1987 to form the Pessac-Le'ognan AOC, as a more prestigious appellation. Although these regional siblings produce more white wine than red, it is the only place in Bordeaux where red and white wines are equally regarded, per wine historian Oz Clarke. Stemming from the 1959 administrative decree, quality semi-sweet and sweet wines were regulated under AOC Graves Supe'rieures.

If Entre Deux Mares, the land between two seas(rivers), is on the label the wine must be a white varietal blend from its sandy and clay soils.  Here, the large production regions best reds are sold as Bordeaux Supe'rieur. To the southwest, the white wine 'superior' appellations of Barsac and Sauternes produce luxuriously fine sweet wines of honey, fig and dried yellow fruit character in the viscous, rich body that makes the perfect match for foie gras, a rich cheese or a decadent fruit dessert.  Importantly, some of the greatest white wines in the world are produced in these regions, south of the city of Bordeaux.  At thier base is Semillion, an easy to grow thin-skinned variety is easily effected by botrytis, offering musky notes of apricot and oily honey; one of the most widely planted Bordeaux grape varieties a few centuries ago, but of late its vineyard march has reversed.  Much of its acreage has been taken by blending partner, noble Sauvignon Blanc, with its aromatic freshness, bright acidity and traces of minerality.  Together they are brilliantly yin and yang. In a support role, Muscadelle, is a minor white grape with bright floral tone, although it too is easily effected by the noble rot.

Every region needs a work horse.  Here, it is the ubiquitous Ugni Blanc(know as Trebbiano in Italy), where it produces aromatic though simple, everyday white table wines when it is not blended with other Bordeaux whites.  However in Cognac to the northeast, and in Armagnac to the south, this everyday worker is the varietal basis for the areas internationally famous fortified wines. Although not typically part of the Semillion-dominated blend that makes some of the worlds best sweet wines, Ugni Blanc does make its way into the beautiful, rich discoveries we so often called White Bordeaux.  Their body, their texture and aromatics make them richly different from Sancerre or a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.  These wines can be refreshingly complicated and multi-faceted, yet offer great examples of  food-friendly whites that marry beautifully with light seafood dishes or a light lunch. Should room be left for dessert, a Sauternes or a Barsac would be the perfect partner for a decadent fruit tart or creme brulee.

Great whites have been sighted in Bordeaux, and when found they offer us a discovery that would even make Leif envious. Cheers!

Recommended: Chateau Tertre de Launay Entre-Deux-Mers 2012