Crystal Ball Gazing

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crystal ballThis may be the most foolhardy thing I’ve done in awhile. Making predictions just isn’t my bailiwick; my crystal ball is as cloudy as everyone else’s. But Tom Wark posted a serious of questions on his blog about the future of the wine industry the other day, and I found myself thinking about what I thought about each question. So I might as well throw in my two cents.

ONE
Fifteen thousand restaurants have, so far, closed for good across the United States. Undoubtedly that number could double or more. Assuming an effective COVID therapeutic or vaccine in 12 months, what will this loss of restaurants mean for on-premise wine sale after the treatment is available?

Fine dining will return although  with fewer establishments. After all, someone will have to provide restaurant service to the people who have made money during this crisis. The low end of the market will also return—people will want to eat out again although high unemployment will be a severe drag. It’s the restaurants in the middle—the $30 per entree business that will struggle because of high costs and low margins. The high end market—the classed growths, high reputation wines will be fine. But the restaurants selling interesting, pricey, off the beaten track wines to younger people will struggle for customers. Millennials and younger cohorts have been hit hard again trying to get their careers off the ground. Their disposable income will be constrained for years to come. But one silver lining. Thankfully, I would guess premiumization is at an end.

TWO
Both alcohol producers and retailers are selling more online today due to the COVID pandemic. What percent of these online buyers will remain online buyers going forward following a treatment or vaccine and what percent will abandon the shopping cart, so to speak?

A substantial portion of this trade will stay online. It’s convenient and you have the whole world at your fingertips when shopping online. Much of the wine world will follow the Amazon model although I suspect there is room in the market for boutique online sites that do a good job of highlighting interesting wines.

THREE
When will the sale of winery properties and brands ramp up? When will the vineyard sales ramp up?

Once the fantasy of a V-shaped recovery is put to rest and the devastation of the economy becomes clear, small to mid-sized wineries with a good reputation will be looking to sell.  Even if Congress manages another bail-out, that can’t go on forever. My guess is when Covid ramps up in the Fall, many will throw in the towel. Interest rates to finance takeovers will remain low.

FOUR
Will the announcement of successful COVID treatment or vaccine result in a national celebration akin to the announcement of V-E Day at the conclusion of the European portion of World War II?

No. A vaccine has to be produced and distributed before it can be effective, which will be a monumental task, especially with the low levels of trust in society. The hopeful anticipation of a vaccine in this country has been delusional. A successful phase 3 trial, which we may have by winter, is just the beginning of a long process.

FIVE
What kind of response will it take for the anti-racist social justice movement that has touched the wine industry to result in proportional representation of African Americans in the U.S. wine industry and what will be the impact if the various efforts don’t nudge the needle on representation?

Everyone has to consider how their own actions have made racial justice difficult to achieve. The wine industry is no exception. But the problem, it seems to me, is in part cultural. Winemaking and wine appreciation have a white European heritage. African Americans trace their cultural roots through Africa, the Caribbean, and the American south where there are few traditions related to wine. It will take concerted effort by African Americans and a more welcoming attitude on the part of the rest of us to make the wine industry more appealing to African Americans. I worry that the consciousness-raising that has occurred in recent months will fade. We have to make sure that doesn’t happen.

SIX
Is there anything specific about the operating and regulatory structure of the American wine industry that accounts for the underrepresentation of African Americans in the industry?

Wine production happens in rural areas. Except in the South, African Americans tend to be concentrated in cities. I think that means change has to be driven by the restaurant/sommelier/wine education community that is also located in cities or suburban areas. Tasting groups, wine bars, etc. have to be more welcoming to African Americans. Again, we have to think about our own actions and how they inhibit racial justice.

SEVEN
Does a new President in January 2021 impact the health of or trends within the wine industry in any significant way?

Sales of sparkling wine will go through the roof. Getting rid of this cretinous, morally bankrupt, loon and his band of enablers will make our hearts sing. But the reality is more sobering. Every ideal and institution has been shredded, thousands of lives lost, and the economy is in shambles. So the question is, how will this impact the wine industry. Nothing can be accomplished without hope. A new President will give us that. We will need symbols of the good life to help us through. Wine will give us that.

EIGHT
Is it plausible, given the continued expansion of the numbers of small craft brewers, distillers and wineries, that sooner rather than later state requirements that in-state and out-of-state producers sell to wholesalers will be abandoned?

We have made some strides in getting rid of three-tier. If the small wineries and distributors survive, I suspect that progress will grow. But if consolidation becomes rampant we may lose our political clout. The big guys will always try to reduce competition. It’s how they roll.

NINE
Besides the extraordinarily high cost of annual label changes, what will be the impact of all wine sold in America being required to including ingredients on their labels?

95% of wine consumers probably won’t care. But 5% will care deeply about this and will stimulate conversations about what is legit. And it will give us wine writers more to write about. We get to explain what Isinglass is.

TEN
Will FERMENTATION: The Daily Wine Blog make it to its 20th Anniversary in four years?

Yes. Especially if the battle for rational distribution has not been won.

Why We Like Old Wines

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old wines 2What exactly is the appeal of old wines?

I enjoy aged wines, just as they are developing their peak tertiary aromas and soft elegant textures but with plenty of vibrant fruit still available. Quality examples of age worthy varietals can last 20 years or more at that peak of goodness. But eventually they will start to fade ,and when they do I’m not sure I see the attraction. When I hear of people lovingly opening 40 or 50 year old wines I wonder what they get from them.

The oldest wine I have consumed was about 40 years old. My wife and I were dining in a restaurant enjoying a bottle of wine, and a couple at a nearby table got up to leave. On the way out they stopped by our table and said “you look like you really enjoy wine. You can finish what’s left in this bottle.” It was a 1957 Bordeaux (I don’t remember the Chateau but it wasn’t a Premier Crus.) We were grateful for the rare opportunity to taste such an old wine. It was interesting to taste what time and oxygen had done to the wine but I remember saying to myself, I must be missing something. The occasion was memorable but not the wine.

To be honest, I think I’ve had only 1 or 2 wines over 25 years old that provided a remarkable tasting experience unless it was virtually indestructible like a Vintage Port or Madeira.

But perhaps taste and flavor are beside the point. What we get from old wines is not flavor but pathos. We sense the wines mortality and take up its cause. We respect its tenacity, sympathize with its struggles, one codger to another, in solidarity with everything that has seen better days.

The predations of time have their own aesthetic appeal—that’s why the Japanese invented Wabi Sabi—but it’s much more an emotional connection than a matter of taste.

Wine Review: Zind Humbrecht Muscat Alsace Turkheim 2015

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zind humbrechtIt seems each time I sample a dry Muscat I remind myself I should drink more dry Muscat. There are few varietals more aromatically expressive although it can get a bit too perfumed at times. Muscat is actually a family of grapes, with many varieties, and is usually made into a sweeter wine, some lovely, some insipid. So it’s often overlooked as a dry wine.

If you’re going to drink dry Muscat, no one does it better than the Alsatians and the iconic Zind Humbrecht.

The palate is rich and concentrated with the characteristic “grapey” flavor highlighted by lemon. It’s rose on the nose with a focused scent of ripe apricot.

The wine’s journey in the mouth sets it apart. A round, rich greeting of ample fruit features a contrasting top layer of stony minerality, but this lush ensemble is slowly disrupted by textured dry extract creeping under the floorboards like a hungry cat. The result is an active but elegant oscillation between layers that keeps you entertained through the long, crenulated, finish which takes a fetching delicate but slightly bitter turn at the end.

Amiable but with plenty of brio punctuated with periods of passion, grace, and delicacy, Dreams by the Cranberries makes it resonate.

Technical Notes: from mostly Muscat a petite grains harvested from the Herrenweg vineyard on the valley floor, planted in the 1950’s

Score: 92

Alc: 12%

Price: $19 (Purchase here)

The Book is Written

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jumping for joyFour years ago, I decided to start working on a book on the philosophy of wine. This weekend, I finished the draft. (Celebrated with a nice Vouvray on a very hot Sunday afternoon). Notice I didn’t say the book is finished. It won’t be finished until I hit the publish button. There are still tweaks and editing to do, but all the heavy lifting is accomplished.

Entitled “Beauty and the Yeast: A Philosophical Exploration of Wine, Life, and Love”, the book explains why some wines have the appeal of great works of art or life long friends. The thought that wine is expressive in the way that complex living beings are expressive is the foundation for a new aesthetics of wine, which I work out in the book.

Of course writing the book is only half the battle; it must also be published if people are to read it. I have made the decision to forgo the conventional route to publication. I will publish the book myself.

Conventional academic publishing moves at a glacial pace even in the best of times; and these are not the best of times. Using a conventional publisher, it would likely take 1 1/2- 2 years for the book to appear and it might sell for well north of $40 per copy depending on the publishers marketing strategy.

That is too long and too much. It will take me about 3 months to self-publish the book and I can set a reasonable price that will encourage more readers.

That means I will have to hire my own book designers and editors with many upfront costs, but after careful consideration, at this late stage in my career, I think the benefits of self publishing outweigh the costs. I’ve set a tentative publication date for November 10.

Here is the table of contents.

Introduction

Chapter 1 Wine’s Promise

Chapter 2 Vinous Vitality

Chapter 3 Winemaking and Creativity: The Slow Art of Wine

Chapter 4  Ambiente: It Takes a Village to Raise a Wine

Chapter 5  Wines of Anger and Joy: Vitality and Expression

Chapter 6  Wine Criticism and Appreciation

Chapter 7  Wine and Aesthetic Experience

Chapter 8   Metaphor, Imagination, and the Language of Wine

Chapter 9  Beyond Objectivity and Subjectivity

Chapter 10 Beauty, Pathos, and Rhythm

Appendix: Tasting Vitality

More Silliness About Natural Wine

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stomping wine grapesAn article entitled “Is Natural Wine a Millennial Con? is bound to be silly, an opportunity for the author to show she’s “down with the zeitgeist” while giving it the old side-eye.

Sure enough this article from Vogue in the UK offers a clueless explanation for the increasing popularity of natural wines. Quoting the infinite wisdom of the founder of a new wine club, we get this gem:

With natural wines, there are two or three things converging to cause its popularity,” Lachkovic explains. “Firstly, wine has become quite homogenised. Secondly, there’s a general consumer shift towards authenticity – to what wine traditionally tasted like.” Authenticity, as we all know, is one of Generation Y’s favourite buzzwords. Furthermore, the packaging of much natural wine is designed, as if by algorithm, to set our pulses racing: from folksy labels, to wine in cartons as opposed to boring bottles.

Huh?

First of all wine has not become homogenized. Quite the opposite. Of course supermarket wines taste the same—they are designed to taste that way. But large, commercial wineries are a tiny fraction of the number of wineries in the world, most of which are striving for differentiation. New wine regions are sprouting like weeds. Wine is now made in every state in the U.S., and most of those states have their own indigenous wine cultures with distinctive varietals and unique terroirs. Throughout the world, emerging new wine regions from Great Britain to China promise to add to the stock of diverse tasting experiences. Wine grapes are increasingly grown in extreme environments—from high in the Andes, to the deserts of the Golan Heights, to the chilly lake sides of Canada. Projects such as Vox Vineyards in Kansas City, Bodegas Torres in Spain, and Randle Grahm’s Popolucham Vineyard near Santa Cruz, California are rediscovering lost or ignored varietals, while the University of Minnesota develops new varietals that can survive Northern winters.

Winemakers in all of these regions are constantly experimenting with new techniques in the vineyard and the winery. Natural wine is part of this mix, part of a general trend toward diversity, not a lonely outpost in opposition to the crowd.

And “authenticity” may be a buzzword but it has little to do with “what wine traditionally tasted like.” Which tradition are we returning to? Wineries started using sulfur to preserve wine in the early 1900’s. So he must be referring to wine in the 19th Century. We don’t really know what wine tasted like in the 19th Century, but I doubt it resembles today’s natural wines. For one thing, refrigeration wasn’t widely available until the 20th century. Controlling temperatures through the whole process of winemaking is crucial for all wines including natural wines. Those funky flavors would be really, really funky without it. Secondly, natural winemakers may not use much technology in the winery but they use a host of modern improvements in our knowledge of viticulture to keep their grapes happy and healthy. Bio-dynamics, after all, wasn’t invented until the 1920’s and all modern winemakers benefit from our knowledge of clones, soil drainage, and vine balance along with the widespread use of leaf pulling and crop thinning which are modern developments.

Furthermore, I can tell you from several decades experience in the classroom that  generations X, Y, or Z care little for historical authenticity. They care little for history period.

As to the packaging of natural wines, I have yet to taste one that wasn’t in a “boring bottle”.

The natural wine phenomenon is interesting and remarkable. But like most changes in the wine world it’s about variation. Natural wines taste differently than conventionally made wines. It’s about tasting the unexpected, respecting the land, and living with what nature provides as much as possible. It is part of the modern wine world not in opposition to it.

Wine Review: Petite Sirène Bordeaux Blanc 2016

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petite sireneWhite Bordeaux seems like an afterthought in the wine world since it hails from a region better known for its reds. It lacks the popularity of Chardonnay or the cachet Riesling enjoys among professionals. But the blending of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon (with occasionally a touch of Muscadelle) is a righteous match. The Semillon gives the wine weight and warmth, properties that Sauvignon Blanc usually lacks. And they sell most of them for a reasonable price.

A faint scent of fresh asparagus blended with lemon scent and white flowers makes an attractive fragrance, simple but unusual enough to hold your attention.

Up front the wine quickly launches a crisp crescendo of swelling acidity but emerging midpalate creaminess reigns it in giving the wine shape and tension. Scintillating, bristly textures from ample dry extract begets a mild tremor in the joints, an unexpected frisson from an everyday wine. The fruit power fades too quickly so the finish is tart and thin, but this is a modest yet thoroughly pleasing summer drink. Great value.

Understated, warm-hearted but a bit naughty, shyly sensual. Which pairs perfectly with the shyly sensual Wonder by Natalie Merchant.

Notes: Petite Sirène  is made by the winemaking team at the highly regarded Chateau Giscours. The blend is 60% Sauvignon Blanc, 40% Semillon

Score: 88

Price: $13 (Purchase here)

Alc: 12.5%

Wine is a Vital Force

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motion artTo me, what matters most about a wine is whether it moves the mind and the heart. Does a wine send thoughts on a quest for new territory, seeking something not quite present, exploring multiple meanings, inspiring speculations, and promising more provocations to come? Wine commands our attention because it generates a unique sensation, something out of the ordinary, and we become open to what more it might have to say. The alcohol is a necessary part of this. It modifies our mood and allows us to engage the world sympathetically. Once achieved, that sympathetic engagement makes us fully available for what the wine can express.

That remarkable sensation sympathetically engaged uncovers a  wines spirit, it’s vitality. A delicate Pinot Noir not only tastes and smells differently from an Australian Syrah—it feels different to taste it. The wine reveals an energy that seems to track human feeling states and we begin to construct a concept of the wine’s personality.

The essence of wine are these garrulous tides, the nerve and pulse, that give wine its rhythm.

A Puzzle about Pairing Wine and Barbecue

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burnt endsAccording to the standard rules for pairing food and wine, there should be no dry red wine that will pair well with sweet barbecue sauce. Food that is much sweeter than the wine you’re drinking will typically make the wine taste thin and sour and will do nothing for the food. But this is why pairing principles should be thought of as guidelines rather than rules. There are always exceptions.

This past weekend I was smoking Kansas City style burnt ends which needs the classic Kansas City style, molasses-based sauce, to which I added honey and brown sugar for complexity. This is a really sweet sauce and hot and spicy as well.

Zinfandel is the standard recommendation for wine with barbecue. I wanted to put this recommendation to the test because there is no way this should work.

I picked up an ordinary supermarket Zinfandel from Cline Cellars—not bone dry but not sweet enough to be considered off-dry. Yet the result was outstanding.  The sauce brought out fruit notes in the wine; the wine seemed to blend with the sauce adding depth to the overall experience. The wine suffered no loss of flavor or texture.

So what is going on here? What is it about Zinfandel that enables it to stand up to and enhance sweet barbecue sauce?

The wine was very spicy with lots of pepper on the nose and palate. So there was a flavor match with the barbecue sauce. And this particular Zinfandel had unusually robust acidity (for a Zin) which matched the acidity of the sauce, to which I had added cider vinegar and lemon juice. Matching the acid levels is always a crucial element of good food and wine pairings. I’ve noticed that when the acid levels in the wine and food are roughly equal the perception of tartness recedes making other flavors more salient. But neither of these factors explains why a dry wine would go with this sweet food.

My hypothesis is that the crucial element was alcohol. The Zinfandel was 15% and the alcohol was quite obvious on the palate. For some reason we sometimes perceive alcohol as sweet.

There is in fact evidence that some people are genetically disposed to perceive alcohol as sweet. But this genetic variation is not common and in other contexts I haven’t noticed perceiving alcohol as particularly sweet. Thus, I’m not sure genetics is the right explanation.

Perhaps the answer lies in this research:

A lot of research has been done on the effect of ethanol in wine, especially since trends in the industry have come to favor alcohol-heavy wines…. the immediate effect of increased alcohol content in wines is enhanced bitterness, slightly increased sweetness and a somewhat increased burning sensation. On top of that, researchers have also found ethanol to decrease sourness in these contexts.

Perhaps the sweetness of the barbecue sauce masks the bitterness of the alcohol allowing the sweetness of the alcohol to become more salient while reducing perceptions of sourness. I have no idea how plausible this is but it’s the only explanation I can think of.

Does a Novice and an Expert have the Same Sensory Experience?

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wine glassSome philosophers hold the position that wine tasting (or any kind of tasting for that matter) is a purely sensory experience. No input from the mind—thoughts, knowledge, or use of language—has any impact on what we taste.

Thus, a novice with little experience tasting wine and a highly educated wine expert, when they taste the same wine, are having the same sensory experience, assuming they have similar biological capacities. The expert can use her knowledge to compare the wine to other wines and evaluate it according to criteria which the novice cannot do. And the expert will get intellectual pleasure from her knowledge of how the wine was made or where the grapes were grown. Knowledge may contribute non-sensory pleasure to the experience.

But with regard to the sensory experience itself, no cognitive input is necessary.

This strikes me as implausible. In the transition from tasting novice to expert, I imagine we all have experienced our tastes changing as we gain more knowledge of regions, varietals, winemaking styles, etc. The increasing expertise seems to be having some impact on what we are able to taste.

It has also been firmly established in countless studies that our beliefs about, for instance, the price of a wine influence not only our judgment about the wine but the properties the wine is perceived as possessing.

Furthermore, I think it is rather common to be puzzled about what aromas a wine exhibits until someone says “that’s baked apple” at which point the baked apple becomes crystal clear. It seems to me the suggestion doesn’t merely give me a label to assign to the aroma. It makes the aroma more salient thus changing the experience.

On my view, beliefs, knowledge, and linguistic signs regulated what is salient—what stands out from the background—and thus directly influences the sensory experience.

The novice and the expert are not having the same experience at all.