Sunday, May 20, 2012

CALIFORNIA: Thirsty Work

Cruise ship Old World wine selections
Cruise ship winelists are not unlike the average to below average restaurant wine lists in my Sonoma County neighborhood, except the limited choices are large production wines of national or international distribution.  So cruisers should expect to find Bogle California Chardonnay for around $32, and Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio for a little above $42.  My wife and I recently returned from a much needed and sunny Caribbean cruise, making wine choices that included better quality to value Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc($33.) and Melini '06 Chianti Classico Riserva($42.). Our wine holiday was a celebration of sorts.  Over the past four months we have seen the passing of each of our family pets, as well as the end of a long-term and courageous battle from my wife's only brother. On a brighter note, I was advised that I had earned a passing score on yet another portion of the Wine Educator's certification exam, the worldly blind Varietal/Appellation Varietal Identification. It was time to take a break and re-set.

Grape flowering promotes Fruit set

It is not surprising that in our absence our garden and in the surrounding vineyards things continued to grow in the Spring sunshine. Premium grape growing is farming, and as such is subject to many of the same factors and influences as those shouldered by apple or soybean growers.  Here in California's North Coast, over the last 50 years premium grape growers have endured many cycles of supply and demand, threatening vineyard pests, and flavor-of-the-week consumer trends. In Sonoma County, every harvest following 2007 has been smaller than the one before, with harvest wild fires, critically wet Springs and irregular growing seasons thrown in along the way. With the nation's economy in recovery mode, wine bottle pricing at retail has for consumers has fortunately remained generally stable, if not stagnant. But now the winds of change are blowing across these vineyard lands.

Recent surveys from wineries and grapegrowers offered stark indications of what consumers should expect in the years ahead. Can you say 'domestic wine price increases'?  My overview understanding is that the California bulk wine market(they buy unsold left-overs & lower end fruit) has very shallow inventories currently, and that grapevine nurseries have very little inventory for needed replanting or vineyard expansion. Industry symposiums in this part of the state have reported that wineries are working hard to secure long term grower contracts now after a succession of marginal volume harvests. To confirm,  recent reports have indicated that many Lake County Sauvignon Blanc contracts have increased by as much as 50% for premium fruit that only last year could not find buyers. Here in Sonoma County we are seeing premium Cabernet Sauvignon fruit contracts now approaching double what they were just last year at this time!

Fruit set
Land(vineyard) costs, labor costs, quality costs combined with production costs each contribute to that bottle price of California wine.  As a result, we have a broad range of price points from the generic to the very specific(vineyard).  But, what about the prestige of the brand name? “For something like Poppy(Pinot Noir), it could be a wine that is very well made, but it's made from Monterey County so the vineyards don't have that prestige,” wine consultant Fred Daniels explains. "While the(higher) $46 bottle comes from the Russian River Valley. “The wines there are typically run in this price range. If I go to Russian River and buy grapes from that area, the wines automatically will be priced in this price range.” And consumers should expect to pay more for these 'prestige' wines, as well as many more generic wines in the near future.  The current supply and demand challenges are just another reason that savvy wine consumers are looking to the quality wines of foreign producers: from New Zealand to South Africa, and the Languedoc region of France or the Dao of Portugal.

Domestic wine consumers do have, of course, domestic options. In a recent addition of Wine Spectator (April 30 '12) more than 100 West Coast value wines were reviewed and rated. Noted were more than 25 Sonoma County wines, and another 20 Central Coast wines rated very good to excellent at $20, or less. Widely distributed California brands like Estancia, Dry Creek and Kenwood made the annual value list. Not to be outdone, Washington State offered more than 20 value wines in this review, anchored by venerable Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest wineries, contributing to the sub-$20 'Smart Buy' parade. For my part, I'll continue to pursue certification as a Wine Educator and continue to search out these and other quality international/domestic wine values.

The Society of Wine Educators annual conference in July will be yet another opportunity for me to measure my wine knowledge. One of the last hurdles in my quest, the Faults and Imbalances Wine Identification  has always been a big challenge for me.  But, with a new perspective after my re-set,  I look forward to re-focusing my attentions once again to the wines of the world. It is just another reminder that this is globally thirsty work!