Thursday, April 27, 2017

BRITISH COLUMBIA: Beautiful Bottles Too!

Okanagan's Gray Monk invites
Way up north in neighboring Canada, skirting the 50th degree parallel north from the Niagara escarpment in Ontario with its calcerous soils and continental climate, to British Columbia in the west with its distinctive alluvial soil landscapes stretching across its more than 600 miles, Canada is making world class wines. Near the northern edge of where the vinis vinifera will ripen, recent generations are making tremendous advances in producing what can be the very best examples of established wine varieties. The grape varietals are dominated by Pinot Gris and market pleasing Chardonnay; you'll find Merlot and Pinot Noir, and those typical international varietals are here too....Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Riesling and Gewurtztraminer, etc.

Regulatory control comes in the form of the industry's  1999 Vintners Quality Alliance, or VQA; wines so declared have a minimum of 95% of the grapes coming from the region(GI) stated, and an 85% minimum from the declared harvest year(which is important when northern weather suddenly turns).  The board controls grape varieties and ripeness, applied winemaking standards, established sensory and chemical criteria, and consumer labeling. Standards have not been established for vineyard density, yeast types for fermentation or wine aging, thus allowing for continuing experimentation and innovation.  Wines labeled VQA are distinguished as typical of their grape variety and recognized growing region.

Today's British Columbia wine industry has grown from a handful back in the 1960's, to more than 350 province wineries today, producing an annual economic impact of around $3billion.  The vine acreage in the province has grown as you may expect; more than 10,000 acres planted to more than 75 varietals.  Those established quality national standards, the broad diversity of the B.C. landscape and cuisine, and growing consumer demand have helped to promote this emerging wine region.

Within the most productive of wine Canada provinces, there are boutique wineries of the southwesterly Gulf Islands;  the maritime climate challenged by the pioneers of Vancouver Island so close to an international metropolis; there's the mixed soils of the fertile, east-west oriented Fraser Valley that follows the great river; heading east to the emerging border region, the Similkameen; and further eastward to the bountiful, semi-arid Okanagan river valley with its alluvial soils.  British Columbia would seem to have it all.

One of the warmest regions in all of Canada, it lies in a broad rain shadow of the Cascades;  the Okanagan Valley is blessed with hot long days during critical ripening cycle. This world-class growing region today overwhelmingly produces most of the wine from a most picturesque and outdoor lifestyle province, with wines increasingly recognized on the world stage for their acid-driven purity and resonate qualities.  Hours from metro Vancouver, it is one beautiful region for eco-tourism, too.

Keelowna Okanagan Lake
Ice wine may be the historic marketing tool for the wines of these provinces, and as historically accurate as it is, this too is changing. World-wine producers in the extreme northern latitudes have long found something special about picking frozen berries left on the vine thru the depths of winter. Freezing dehydrates reducing water content, sugars concentrate, in frigid conditions the fruit is laboriously picked berry by berry.  Here, without varietal restrictions, these wines are sugar heavy, but strive for an acid balance, drop by drop, to create a delicious nectar, one (expensive) bottle at a time.  Unfortified, Canadian ice wine tends to be low in alcohol, with broad flavor profiles that invite experimentation even in this historic category.

Even with their Prohibition-era alcohol laws there is evidence that the industry is growing in a progressive, positive direction, Oh sure, they have the same problems of expensive land and expensive labor, and strong, physically-separated provincial identities.  But, they also have climate change increasing chances for reliable, regular ripening, and sustainable farming the new norm.  There is the increasing fame of their world-class wines, and the increase in foreign investment, as well as sustained overtures for more favorable trade & tariff laws . With a current measure to regulate beer sales at fast food restaurants, can a chilled glass of British Columbia Riesling at the local Canadian Taco Bell be so far behind?  Those would be some beautiful bottles.
Vancouver, a City of Glass, or two!

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Thursday, March 30, 2017

BRAMBLES: April AllReady in Central Europe!

IT is spring and perhaps more than ever my personal vision of the world of wine seems a little out of focus. Maybe it is just the time invested or the true nature of cycles, or even the lack of personal critical success, but it does give one pause to reflect. By the way, above is a photo of the old vineyards in Hungary's Soproni Borvidek. It sits in the border foothills of the Alps in the southeastern region of neighboring Austria.  As early as the XIV century, this former Roman colony was classified as the most important wine region in Hungary. Talk about wine history!  Its old soils have seen the shift in empires, numerous wars and an Eastern Block trade restriction, yet today there is the new promise of a wine renaissance here as investment and more international markets expand opportunity. In 2004 Hungary was admitted to the European Union and its spectrum of wine-lovin' customers. Current results here display hundreds of these unique vineyards increasingly planted to 'international varieties'. And to perhaps anchor its history, Hungary also produces the botrytized amber nectar, Tokaji.
Mechanical harvesting in lower region Hungary
Perhaps our vision of the wine world becomes clearer if we continue to step back, away from the consuming game that is the contemporary wine business. On those northern shores of misty Lake Neusiedler in neighboring Austria, the vine has also been cultivated for thousands of years, and survived across many a regional cataclysm. Today, the principal grape variety is Grüner Veltliner, which finds itself in classification systems defined by its regions, not nationality. Following the creation of the important Austrian Wine Marketing Board in 1986 and its admission into the EU in 1995, the Austrian wine industry has continued to produce some of the greatest wines in its long viticultural history.  Its evolving regulatory system assures consumers of high standards in quality(red/white bandolier capsule) and regional typicity for each varietal, and this former home of reform philosopher Rudolf Steiner continues to be among international leaders in vineyard sustainability, organic and bio-dynamic practices.  From disaster to contemporary eco-poster child, Austria has created a model of what is possible in the contemporary international wine marketplace.

Wine Folly graphics(nice!)

Heading northwest to focus on the current commerce engine of the EU with its diverse economy, neighboring Germany shares a lot of the same central European culture. This is white wine country, increasingly dominated by the noble Riesling grape, a native varietal which has hardily adapted to its northern climactic extreme vineyards.  Just as in the time of the Romans, here it is about a vineyards proximity to the river. A historically challenging landscape, the river valleys are dominated by many small hand-working growers. The vine has followed the rivers moderating influences along the mighty Rhine, and the Mosel, above the Elbe, the Saale and the Unstrut in the southeast. Its sweet fruit is harvested late in the grape season, sometimes a berry at a time;  the vines make it thru brutal winters and awaken annually with bud break again in the spring.

Hardly anything says spring quite like acid-driven Riesling, which is found in each of these three countries. Its greatest heights surely are found in Germany, but most of what is produced is from the broad category labeled Landwein, or ubiquitous table wines.  The best of the varietal most often come from a specific place.  Upper tiers of the German Wine Law offer first pick, mostly dry Kabinett; fuller, off-dry Spatlese; and textured, sweeter Auslese. Even with their confusing labels and language, the industry has advanced to simpler, user-friendly label declarations(trocken=dry) and friendly consumer symbols displayed. It is just another example of Old World producers staying true to their nature, yet acknowledging growing consumer trends, such as food & wine pairings.
Replanted vineyards above the Mosel in Zell

Again we ask ourselves why would a wine educator continue to spend time & resources to do this month after month.  There is little independent financial gain in its present form and I am not motivated to be the family 'wine expert'. Revived, it remains these new stories like those coming out of central Europe, seeped in history and turmoil. Step back, and you can see that wine history is our shared history.  It is the continued exploration and non-stop development of an agrarian life, the search for a unique expression of site, and stories that in ways define what it is to be human.  Wine Educators often times then become the oracle of this truth found in the cultivation of the vine.  Each of these countries with their common wine roots and independent cultures has grown, evolved with the ever-expanding international marketplace. And, even in a world filled with turbulence and strife, wine itself can be for many of us a return of focus.  It is all ready happening, for in wine there will always be truth.

In Vino Veritas & Cheers!
Vine renewal

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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

BRAMBLES: Climate Changes, Values Found

Under a bright sun the thermostat displayed around 70 degrees that cloudless afternoon.  To take advantage, I gathered lunch for the deck, a lean seared steak salad with kale, peppers, and tomato, and presented it to a personable glass of 2009 Ribera del Duoro from a reliable Old World producer.  As the ruby jewel shimmered in the sunlight, I thought things were just about perfect at that satisfying moment.  It was the end of January, and I was not in the Southern Hemisphere, but in the North Bay's wine country!  In the days that followed temperatures again dropped and the skies clouded. And then it poured; contributing to one of the wettest January's here in recent recordings.

That wet pattern continued thru February, taking the region fully into the season of power outages, flooded roads and mud slides.  Even as measured rainfall is currently better than twice seasonal average here, throughout the state our generous snow pack may finally be signaling the end of the current cycle of recent years of statewide drought.  Importantly, a lesson for our agriculture will have been the cumulative benefit here: agrarian efficiencies to produce more with less water. Residential users too have now had years to practice conservation, training the habits of our once water wasters. During a few brief, but sunny breaks, vineyard workers were able to prune vines to direct seasonal growth, and recently a sea of wild mustard has advanced on many beautifully neat vineyards throughout this muddy region, offering the returning promise of spring.
A dry/off-dry Riesling pairs nicely with Asian dishes
Even on these dark winter nights, we can escape to a favorite restaurant in search of a wine value.  Restaurant(on premise) ringers can usually be found in the middle of the wine list.  Here are, not the cheapest, nor the most expensive wines;  often listed as an 'alternative' or as 'interesting' selections.  Many times they are varieties or blends that are under the radar, from regions that don't have the marketing clout or prestige of, say, Bordeaux or Chianti Classico.  Selections from food pairing varietals like Albarino, Arneis, or Chenin Blanc rarely disappoint.  So too, red Rhone blends, Monastrell(Mourvedre) and Garnacha(Grenache) from Spain's Alicante or Jumilla regions(DO) can offer an expressive marriage with regionally inspired foods without breaking our bank.  Additionally, a wine-by-the-glass can offer diners an inexpensive way to test ride one of these hidden gems. Or, ask for a taste. After all, restaurants should be in the business of introducing you to their food-friendly wines which were orchestrated(in theory) to support their menu.

You may not even have to leave your easy chair to find a current wine value.  On line, flash marketing sites are a growing and increasingly competitive commodity. Some flash models will typically just move the featured sales paperwork that allows an individual brand to ship direct to consumer(where shipping is allowed).  Others will pop a notice on your phone or e-mail and then ship from their own warehouse inventory to control the efficiency of selection and process.  These numerous sites offer discounted wines that move from a secondary market, like a wine outlet virtual store, where some discounts can exceed 50%!  Shopping around to find the best daily value and service is recommended, as site inventory, vintages, shipping costs and discounts can change quickly.

At our local retail shops(off premise), knowing that the middle tiers are the volume shelves fought after by large corporate wine distributors and their big, volume brands, values can be found if look at the top and bottom shelf selections.  Smaller shops seek customer relationships, and often assist consumers in searching out values with knowledgeable staff from their recommended though limited selections.  But, that can be a good thing. The more often we visit these valuable merchants the greater opportunity to access their individual and unique wine world palates.  Even brick 'n mortar wineries can offer values to the visitor with annual end of vintage sales and event discounts.  Plus, it is a good way to identify if the character of the wineries stylings excite our unique tastes.

Today, after a few days of returning sunshine we're beginning to dry out, as the invitingly bright outdoors warm up.  It is going to be a great day to visit a local wine shop, or perhaps enjoy a patio lunch to search out the ever changing sea of wine values.  Even as our seasonal climate continues to change here, the wine values found remain a deliciously adventurous constant.
Cheers and Salute!

Tasting Values:
Cantele; Salice Salentino DOC Reserva 2013 - blackberries and spice feels rich in the mouth.

Bon Temps Roulet!

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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

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