Tuesday, March 22, 2016

BRAMBLES: Rights of Spring?

Bud break of  a vine Spring

Anticipation in the wine industry can be a wonderful thing.  Spring is around the corner and bud break is erupting from dormant vines with the promise of another fine harvest. Hopefully, soon the sojourn of winter will be a fading memory, and the optimism of the cycle of rebirth in spring will nurture us.  It is also the time of promise with the annual consumer ritual of tasting the future, a young wine drawn from a barrel.  For producers and wine marketing groups, like the Northern Sonoma's Wine Road recent Barrel Tasting Weekends, this industry practice has for many become a 'right of spring'.

Event tasting from a barrel can be found from the Santa Maria Valley AVA to the Lake Chelan AVA of Washington State, and almost everywhere in between.  Locally, we have just drunk thru events that taste immature wines, like 'Savor Sonoma Valley' and the Livermore Valley 8th Annual Barrel Tasting Weekend(March 19-20).  These events obviously are important to expose a small brand to new consumers, bringing wine loving communities together, and may even offer pricing promotions to encourage bottle sales.  Based in traditional wine marketing, these festive contemporary events probably have their origins in a traditional French business practice.

En primeur is the long established practice of offering wines tasted and purchased prior to bottling,  released at prices that are intended to be 'in bond', where their future prices were expected to be higher. Very popular or celebrated wines were certainly going to be scarce. Also known as 'wine futures', since 2008 however, the returns from Bordeaux futures has mostly been negative; for in these cases eventual release prices were less than what consumers paid en primeur!

17th century English and Dutch business relationships with Bordeaux dictated that wines made by its many grape growers were sold to merchants(négociant) who would then bottle and sell the young wines, some were even sold while still in barrel. This relationship was negotiated and managed by a broker who acted as a middleman. Even as it is required today that wines are blended, aged and bottled at the château(farm), the aged practice has remained in place, a current opportunity for more than 400 brokers and 11,000 Bordeaux growers.
Dutch Wine Merchant Guild 17thC

For the wine seller, these transactions aid their allocations by early commitments and importantly improve cash flow. They get the cash now, but don't have to deliver for a year or two.  Once a gift almost exclusively for the gentry, selling "futures" today is still ripe with historical pitfalls. That's because barrel samples are typically drawn from lots that are the most evolved and expressive.  There is no guarantee that the same lot will be in your delivered bottle. As offered in Isabelle Saporta's Vino Business, "...for tasting you offer only the very best, but you'll sell a blend of everything".

Still, these are popular local events that lure us with a novel show of thiefing a young barrel, tempting discounted prices, and a promise of improving quality. For consumers, barrel tastings can feed our anticipation for something new, and give us an occasional rare wine catch. For the wine business, the practice is good marketing; an invitation to critics and consumers to get excited about what is being nurtured for the bottle. Ah, the anticipation. With spring just arriving, it may well be our consumer rite to dream of the future rewarded.
Vitis vinifera in spring flower

Note: A special thanks to any or all who have followed along the lighted path of this page over the last 100+ postings.

Salute' to the Rites of Spring!

*Apr. 22 - 24 Wine Yakima Valley(Washington) Spring Barrel Tasting
 *May 21 - 22 Lake Chelan(Washington) Wineries Spring Barrel Tasting
*July 23 - 24 Anderson Valley-Yorkville Highlands Barrel Tasting Weekend

Sunday, February 28, 2016

BRAMBLES: Tasting the Difference

Tasting diversity-Viewing wine Sideways
In nature competition breeds diversity, the strongest survive.  It is certainly like that for the long history of the domesticated old world wine grape, vitis vinifera. So too for local winery tasting rooms, where the best offer something distinctive/memorable.  With more than 500 local wine brands, there are hundreds of brick and mortar production facilities and many dozens of boutiques that connect daily with hopefully loyal consumers by the virtues displayed thru stylized wines and their winery tasting rooms.

Quirky to inspiring, there are all types of tasting rooms. Some have deep wine caves to alter perceptions, others offer beautiful architectural achievements or formal salon settings.  Still others impart historical family legacies, like Gundlach-Bundschu(1858), or Foppiano(1896).  And, then there are wineries that identify with salmon fishermen, with duck hunters, and a few that take local ecology and sustainability so seriously they are painstakingly bio-dynamic certified. Of course there is only one in all of Sonoma county that has the distinction of being first, Buena Vista, California's oldest commercial winery,
Being first in anything certainly helps a brands marketing efforts, so too does consistently awarded quality.  Commonly, all of these wine brands would like to create a wine ambassador from every tasting room visitor, someone to sing their praises in discrete locations far away and in mixed company.  With few exceptions, isn't the job of the tasting room to emotionally connect you with their product, without distraction?  As an affordable luxury item, wine is a product that makes us feel good when we remember the label, or the recommendation of a friend, or the confident opportunity to share it with company.  Tasting rooms that do a good job connecting us to these good feelings are often the public face of successful brands.

I once asked a tasting room host what made their brand distinctive. They spoke of their vineyard sources and their foreign born wine maker, but really their wines were fairly generic. Increasingly, we are blessed locally with the evolution of viticulture; the right vine planted in the right place with a yield that annually would be 'in balance'. With more academically trained and internationally versed wine makers than ever before, wine quality produced by these wizards has never been so consistently high. If this is today's landscape, then there must be something else, something notable that makes a brand 'distinctive'.  Memorable wines, wines of place, I believe, speak to you in a way that other 'generic' wines do not and those are the wines, and the tasting room the visits I remember.
Mustard flowers carpet warming winter vineyards

  • At the recent annual United Wine & Grape Symposium, the largest industry event of its kind in the western hemisphere, continuing domestic consumer trends were identified. Above all of the segmented measures, industry leaders noted that U.S. wine shipments continue to rise, continuing a 20-year trend of domestic growth. At the entry market level, wines under-$9 continue to lose market share.  That trend is also reflected in young adults leaving 'big beer' for more premium craft beers in greater numbers.  For volume grape growers at the lower end of the scale, 2015 saw an additional 20,000 acres of vines reportedly pulled from vineyards of the Central Valley AVA, and that is following a loss of 21,000 in 2014. There then are strong indications that these trading-up trends will continue across the demographics. On the premium side, imports(makeing up about 1/3 of sales) continue to grow, as do sales of higher average priced California wines.
  •  New AVA for  super-San Franciso Bay Area, Central Coast: La-Mor-Inda AVA, composed of the sandy-clay soils and warmer environs of Lafayette, Moraga, and Orinda was recently approved by our federal regulators, the TTB.

For those of us who enjoy the sight, the aromatic swirl, and sip of complex/balanced premium wines that delight, wines found in a setting that inspires, we are now being rewarded with an increasing number of high quality choices.  Our consumer challenge remains in finding something memorable in this crowded vineyard,  and to taste the difference.

Wine Links:


Tuesday, January 26, 2016


Washington States's Wahluke Slope AVA vineyards
Winter. Grey seems to be the predominant color above, and nearby in our moderate climate a green carpet can surface as far as the eye can see(between the raindrops). It is the season of comfort foods and of hearty, full-bodied wines, like Cabernet Sauvignon. But where can a wine lover find value in the king of grapes within a domestic variety that is typically the most expensive wine grape by the ton?

Wine grape prices tend to reflect their land values plus the cost of farming the crop, so within California Napa fruit is more expensive than, say, Monterey county. Down south, Wild Horse of Templeton's Central Coast AVA Cabernet Sauvignon consistently will offer thirsty wine lovers bang for the buck. Regional blending, too, can offer a mixed value, such as Bogle Vineyard's 'California' Cabernet Sauvignon(around $10.). But, what if you wanted to taste identity, to find a value Cabernet that expressed a specific site?  For those values you may need to search foreign soils for this international varietal, such as Chile or South Africa.
Gravel vineyards of Graves, France await spring
Stateside, way further north in Washington state, everyday values there can move to another tier. With more than 50,000 acres planted, supporting more than 850 wineries(10 times more than a generation ago), Washington state is widely represented in the Cabernet value race. With 13 AVA's such as the expansive Columbia Valley, Yakima Valley, Red Mountain, and Horse Haven Hills, Cabernet Sauvignon has become the leading red grape varietal in the state. East of the Cascades, the vineyards sprall, taking advantage of Ice Age soils, ample hours of growing season sunlight and the irrigation richness of the broad Columbia Basin.

Grand Coulee Columbia Basin Project transformed this land, making water management and industrial scale farming a way of life. From its origins in the early 20th century, it remains the largest water reclamation project in the U.S., producing not only power, but hundreds of millions of dollars of agricultural crops each year. Here, pioneer Chateau Ste. Michelle farms more than 3500 acres of premium wine grapes in the Columbia Valley, consistently producing high quality to value table wines. Perhaps equally impressive is venerable Columbia Winery, sourcing oceans of fruit from multiple AVA's, including the Columbia Valley. Yes, children, size does matter.

At a recent quality to value tasting event Washington state was well represented in the under $20 value category. After tasting a broad selection of quaff-able cabernet, a few selections rose like cream to the top. Among them was Columbia Crest H3 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon from Horse Haven Hills. A gamey, dark stone fruit was its aromatic introduction, with dark currant, vanilla and rich earth notes giving way to berry and cocoa.  Within the Washington state value selections there was an almost industrial refinement here, allowing those that were strikingly different to stand apart.

Even Bordeaux shows a value worth seeking out, where bottles of Cru Bourgeois, are grown on a single estate."What distinguishes them from the best classed growths is that they rarely improve much beyond 15 years..." , notes author Jancis Robinson, but who can wait that long? Fronsac AOC and Haut-Médoc AOC remain the most consistent value appellations, but surprises await in some of Bordeaux's outlying regions. After a long history of recognizing merchants and craftsmen(bourg), it was in 1932 the French authority classified 444 of their distinguished properties, but the politics of the era did not allow ratification. Using a basis of consistent quality production and testing, 246 properties were finally awarded the unique classification in 2003, only to be annulled in 2008.  Finally, following a qualitative, non-partial selection procedure, Cru Bourgeois was updated, officially recognized and published in late 2010.
Values can be found in red Bordeaux

Look for quality to value estate selections like Château Grivière Médoc.  One of our tastings favorite selections was Blaigan Cru Bougeois Médoc, a Merlot/Cabernet blend, exhibiting a dark plum hue, with a smoky dried red fruit nose that held some winter spice, and rendered depth and complexity across the pallet to a finish that continued to flavor evolve as it warmed and disappeared in the mouth. Ah, a sense of place, and perhaps the king of values, too!

Wine Links:  http://www.washingtonwine.org/


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

BRAMBLES: Home Wine $ellar

Go to the small basement cellar(it is really just racks of stored bottles); find an appropriate bottle of wine(requires inspecting several labels); open found bottle of wine with anticipation, and share with prepared plate; and(hopefully) feel moments of contentment. Especially because wine is at our family table almost every day, it is an earned joy to pull from our home stored bottle inventory for just about every occasion. Included are a small selection of high acid whites and reds, brooding vin rouge of depth and tannic structure, and even a few bottles of viscous nectar's that pair with rich appetizers or desserts. Typically, when visiting a local retail bottle shop or virtual store I will collect several bottles of the same quality wine. Over time a small collection grows across a spectrum of types of wine that are allowed thru bottle aging to develop a more mature character, escaping the thinness and pitfalls of youth. Admittedly, as I have no fondness for most young red wines(Beaujolais & Dolchetto being an exception), and also find a real satisfaction in being able to provide wine for almost every meal without leaving the home.  Gradually, over the years I have afford-ably built a conservative, but diverse home wine $ellar.

What has developed down below is an ever changing global selection of quality to value(sub $20.) wines, perfect for everyday enjoyment that I admit are the joyful result of wishful procurement. Additionally, among the sleeping bottles are a few of advanced age, with many, if not most of the great wines that I have been privileged to enjoy over the years having been offered to me by good friends.  These have been special wines that have changed the way I look at wine as a living thing; the perceptive wine aromas and especially their taste present an ambrosia of the gods beyond what is outside commonly standardized vino perceptions. They have changed the personal lexicon of wine description due to an unfamiliar reminder in what a mature wine can become. These are wines of evolution, bacchanals of breeding and nurturing which many times are like nothing else that routinely graces our table.
Winter pruning in the Loire

Our use of a wine quality assessment, I believe, is based on collected quality experience. To appreciate any wine it is important to know what you are drinking. It is not just the perceived distinction in the profiles of, say, Sauvignon Blanc compared to Verdejo.  Both are influenced by zippy acids and a bright citrus personality, both a complement to light dishes of a little acidity. It is also important to have had the taste 'experience' that would enable an identification of a particular flavor, aroma or perceived secondary trait as a clue to unique character in the glass. It was not until 2007 that I had tasted fresh red currants, thereby offering a memory of the taste distinction from cranberries or tart cherries.  Many grape varieties, too, are chameleon in personality, a reflection of the environs where they were natured and nurtured. Within a comparative single varietal, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is different when tasted against a Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc in large part because they reflect differences in where they are grown.  Any cellar would benefit from both food friendly selections.

As we begin to collect bottles for our cellars, our goal needs to be wines that display harmony and balance in the glass, and I have found that aged wines can offer these qualities more seamlessly. Typically, the recognizable personality traits are there, as you may perceive a reflection of honeysuckle in that golden glass of mature Chardonnay or a hint of plum pudding in an opaque red Merlot, bonded to its structure. Well aged wines of quality will offer those notes in a stream of many other flavor impressions, all offering for your attention.  The characteristic bitterness or astringency of youthful wines will have faded, blending into a more harmonious chord of a mature and developed wine. Sublime and inspiring, a properly aged wine rewards the patient taster, and can challenge to reassess our general perceptions of what wine is, even our everyday wines like those waiting on our expanding racks.

Many of these regional and varietal portraits have been offered in earlier posts here, such as a viewing of Gamay(11/25/14) where you may find a use for the 'red currant' descriptor. A quaffable bottle at a time, acquiring a broad selection of wines in a personal cellar that is dark and cool offers the easy opportunity to have on hand an accessable stored bottle of Chardonnay when it can really dance with a meal like a pasta carbonara, or a planned pairing of the food-friendly Piemonte Barbera with an impromptu antipasti plate. Favorite bottles will wait patiently to be shared with good friends who stop by, whatever their personal flavor preferences for wine may be. Rather than leaving a good time with dear friends, a personal wine collection allows the collector to spend more time enjoying fellowship, and the pride of just walking downstairs to produce a wine that may be savored and talked about in the future.  As collected for future occasions, wine as a living, breathing liquid mystery capable of maturation, is best enjoyed with food, and becomes even greater because your home $ellar is always better when shared. And, that makes it a collection of values, too!

Cheers to a Happy New Year!

Tasting Values:
NISIA Verdejo, 2013 Rueda Old Vines, fresh summer fruits lift from the glass;  zippy, citrus and green melon with a kiss of mineral that dances and lingers.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

BRAMBLES: Integrated Nature

Old World BioDynamics

A broad field of gold and bronze with scars of crimson carpet the seasonal Dry Creek Valley landscape. Soft sunlight bathes the dormant vines as swarms of starlings dance waves in the cool air streaming above. It is autumn, and the premium grapevines of this American Viticultural Area reflect the green loss of chlorophyll across their acres of canopy that are today increasingly sustain-ably farmed. At around 1 million acres, the county of Sonoma has targeted being the nation's first 100% sustainable farm region by 2019!  Further, its environment specific programs, such as the approximately 20,000 acres certified as Fish-Friendly Farming, and the growing Demeter certified farms and vineyards utilizing BioDynamic practices, such as Benziger Family Winery and Dry Creek's Quivira Vineyards establish even higher standards.

Traditional bio-diversity in agriculture evolved dramatically in 1924 thru a series of lectures offered by Austrian philosopher and esotericist Rudolf Steiner, promoting chemical fertilizer, pesticide-free farming. Seen as an entire self-sustaining organism, BioDynamics proposed an integrated, closed nutrient system; essentially a whole farm organism with a close personal connection to the land. Beyond rotating beneficial cover crops, it required beneficial predatory insects, the recycling of nutrients, an integration of livestock, and employing the phases of celestial bodies to positively influence planting and harvesting. Extended to the wine cellar, certification now requires fermentation from native yeasts only, with no adjustments to sugar or acid allowed. It is a holistic approach that at its core is integrated nature.

As may be expected, the philosophical practice is strongly anchored in the Old World, and today there are more than 450 certified viticultural practicioners world wide.  There are currently six(6) BioDynamic vineyards within our Central Coast super-AVA, stretching roughly from San Francisco to Santa Barbara which in total farms than 100,000 acres of vines. Blanketing six(6) counties, it had contained 27 smaller AVA's, as diverse as Santa Cuuz Mountains AVA and Carmel Valley AVA. In the Spring of 2007, numerous petitions from a local 59 member wine industry group began to be filed with the U.S. Treasury Departments Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau requesting changes to the existing demarcations established in 1985(amnended in 1999 & 2006).  Back in 1990 there were fewer than 20 wineries in the region of Paso Robles AVA, and the petitioners were arguing for change.

Historically, it was easy for most consumers of the regions wines to recognize the distinction of the differences from the Costal Range coolness of the western side of the Salinas River as compared to the warmer rolling hills that made up the eastside of the AVA. The bureau's final ruling was published in October of 2014, and the existing Paso Robles AVA of San Luis Obispo county(now home to more than 200 wineries) was sub-divided into eleven(11) defined regions to 'better describe the origin of their wines' or to 'better allow consumers to better identify wines'.  The established divisions are intended to better reflect the areas diverse soils and variations in daily temperature swings and annual rainfall. Jason Haas, general manager of organicly certified Tablas Creek Vineyard(sibling to Perrin's Ch. de Beaucastel of the Rhone valley) and Paso Robles AVA Committee member noted that “ultimately, the new AVAs will allow these newly created sub-regions to develop identities for themselves with a clarity impossible in a single large AVA.”
One AVA has become Eleven
 Downtown Paso Robles is today home to more than 15 winery tasting rooms, and on a recent wine escape there was opportunity to taste many fine efforts,  but I found it difficult to discern what was nouveau regionally distinctive. Certinly world class cuvees were to be found westside in the Adelaida Hills AVA at refined estates like Justin Vineyards & Winery(Wine Enthusiast Winery of the Year) and the stunning DAOU Vineyards(SIP Certified).  Extreem comparison took us to top-rated and fun-loving Tobin James Cellars eastside in the new Geneseo District AVA, where they are sourcing premium fruit from literally dozens of local independent grape growers, but no mention of their 'distinctive' AVA was offered by engaging hospitality staff or even their web site.
Tablas Creek Vineyards, Adlaida Hills AVA
On appearance(the first way we taste), many of these wineries seem distinctive by general location and capital investment. Points of differentiation ultimately will begin to sort out the Paso field, offering inevitable comparisions in the spirit of the TTB guidelines that will 'set it apart'. Consumers will increasingly have recognized broader choices from this area, something that Sonoma County to the north is still figuring out how to market.  Until then, we have the truth in advertising that appears on govenment approved wine labels, and the pledge from an increasing number of sustainable viticultural efforts to produce wines that are distinctively integrated with nature.

Certified BioDynamics of the Paso Robles AVA:
  •  AmByth Estate, Templeton
  •  Pine Hawk Vineyards, San Miguel
Salute', and a Happy Thanksgiving!