Saturday, December 17, 2011

BRAMBLES n' BUBBLES: Celebrate the Season

It is the time we celebrate; the time of year when most of the world's sparkling wine is sold & consumed.  We celebrate the joyful gatherings of friends and family.  There are festive parties that toast the achievements of the recent past, and glasses raised to the rare, fleeting opportunity of feeling hopeful about what may lie ahead.  In my case, I can celebrate finally passing the Combined Theory section of the Wine Educator's Certification exam, which was composed of broad Multiple Choice/Essay components and now focus on the practical elements of this exam, like a tasting rationale.

In the exams Combined Varietal  testing there is a blind Varietal Identification of eight(8) wines, a tasting rationale of a control sample, and a Component Identification for common faults. My recent attempts have been close to passing in the Combined Varietal testing, in fact, on this last attempt I thought I had nailed it.  But, I continue to be challenged by distinguishing the seven(7) of eight(8) wines that have too much acid, or too much alcohol, or a heavy dose of sulphur dioxide that would make-up the exam's Component Identification.  To that end, I have purchased a 'Wine Essence Tasting" kit and a small vial of concentrated tannin so that my tasting palate may gain some measure of fault memory.  The next opportunity to test is in February, but at least I don't have to spend the countless hours going over the wine regions of the world, from Austria to New Zealand. Instead, I can drink the wines of the world.

With celebration in mind, a recent spring-stepping trip to my favorite local wine retailer was met with a wonderful Holiday surprise.  Premium bottles of non-vintage Champagne AOC, such as Mumm, Perrier-Jouet, and Piper-Heidsieck, were all priced lower than last year(around $30.)!  These and others represent a terrific value for such standards of quality in this Holiday Season.  At lower price-points traditional method Cremant's can also be found from producers surrounding France's Champagne region.  And the Spanish Cava's, made from typically blended native Xarello, Macabeo and Parellada grapes,  continue to offer consumers great entry-level quality and values for second fermentation in bottle sparklers. Even northern Italy's sparkling Prosecco DOC from the Veneto and Friuli-Veneto-Giulia regions, which is made from the neutral and native Glera(Prosecco) grape, and produced by the Charmat-method where a second tank fermentation is used, represent great holiday celebration values.
Wishing to get away from the Autumn chill in Sonoma County, I recently spent a few weeks exploring the Big Island of Hawaii. I know that everything is supposed to be more expensive here because of its isolation and higher shipping costs, but prudent wine buyers here can still find quality and value in sub-$20. wines, if only they know where to look.  The obvious values come from Argentina and Chile producers who are making wines for the international markets better than ever.  But even as I visited four(4) major island wine retailers(FoodLand, Island Gourmet, KTA and Sack N'Save), I found that they had the same limited selections with almost the same pricing. According to Randy Nunokawa, proprietor of Grapes a Wine Store in Hilo, there are only a hand-full of wine distributors for the Islands, and these volume retailers all purchase wines from the same few wholesalers.  Small retailers such as Grapes, need to carve out a path not traveled by the larger stores and offer consumer services that are uncommon with these volume retailers. To Randy's credit, he maintains a internationally wide value selection of quality wines in the $12-30 price range not found at the big stores, and provides passionate, insightful wine knowledge with every visit to his store. Mahalo!

If ever there was a state that can demonstrate the benefit from allowed direct wine shipping to consumers, it is isolated, monopolized  Hawaii. We should also raise a glass to celebrate this years legislative direct shipping victories in Florida and Maryland, as well as the pending pro-direct shipping bills in Massachusetts(HR 1029) and Pennsylvania(SB 790). In addition, this may be the year when vocal consumer support will defeat the pending Congressional HR 1161, a wholesale cartel effort to limit or repeal legal winery and retailer direct shipping to consumers.  Conscious consumers may need to do more than raise a glass on this one!
Traditional method has smaller bubbles!

As our unseasonably-dry Sonoma County autumn cycles towards the shortest day, residents gather in the relative safety and warmth of numbers. Local tasting rooms here are offering numerous Holiday wine specials and a spectrum of festive events, including wine and seasonal food pairings.  This then is the Season; an opportunity during the longest cool nights to be warmed by the company of good friends, both new and old.  A celebration of everything that is good, like a greater global value wine selection for savvy consumers than ever before. Least we forget, our current wine marketplace was forged by many inspired visionaries, and by the guidance of unheralded wine lovers, like Randy. Our glasses are raised in a Holiday toast to one and all!

Mahalo nui Loa, and Cheers!
Cremant d'Alsace

Warm & Happy Holidays to All!