Budget Wine Review: Mark West Black Pinot Noir Monterey County 2016

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mark-west-black-pinot-noir-monterey-county-usa-10745970tMark West makes affordable and widely available Pinot Noir for Constellation Brands. Weird isn’t in their wheelhouse. But weird this is.

Pinot Noir is typically slightly translucent and ranging from pale rose to light ruby in color. Why do we want one that looks like Malbec?

Blackberry and chocolate aromas are atypical for Pinot Noir but the hint of mushroom had me thinking maybe we’re still in the Pinot universe. But no such luck. It’s a mouthful of promiscuous vanilla, sweet berry and cola tarted up to feel like you’re swallowing a milkshake. Yes, I exaggerate a bit but this takes smooth and creamy to a new level. Thankfully they brought it into balance with enough acidity, although it isn’t quite integrated with the fruit. The mercifully short finish continues the vanilla theme with soft, powdery tannins.

Full bodied, concentrated, and so cumbersome I couldn’t wait to be done with it.

If you like bloated, exaggerated wines with sweet oak flavor, and you’re put off by tart, thin, bottom shelf Pinot Noir, this wine might appeal to you. Anyone who loves Pinot Noir will wonder why it exists. But it’s an excuse to listen to George Michael’s Careless Whisper if sweet and smooth is on the menu.

Score: 83

Price: $13

Alc: 13.5%

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Do Americans Love Food?

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eating in front of tvThe food revolution has come to the U.S. The past several decades have witnessed the emergence of farmer’s markets and a focus on local food sources, high quality cheese and coffee producers throughout the country, a robust specialty food arena, Michelin starred restaurants in most major cities, and entire TV networks devoted to food. Very little of this existed 30 yrs. ago.

Yet:

  • The average U.S. household devotes the smallest proportion of its expenditures on food than almost any other country.
  • As women moved into the workforce throughout the 20th Century, men showed little inclination to take over household chores resulting in a massive loss of cooking skills and food knowledge as convenience foods became the norm.
  • The average U.S. adult spends 75 minutes per day eating, about 35 minutes a day in food preparation and clean-up, and 5 times that amount watching television.
  • We employ nearly 10 million people in food service and preparation—most of these jobs are low-paying, high stress, physically demanding, and insecure.

One might conclude from these facts that typical Americans don’t care much about food as long as it is plentiful, fast, and cheap. The American way of eating is plowing through a bag of chips while watching celebrity chefs on the Food Network cook.

What about the Vineyard?

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prine ridge tasting roomAs this article in Decanter about the changing character of tasting rooms points out, wine is no longer only about what’s in the glass. Wine is a symbol of the good life, la dolce vita or la belle vie depending on your affectation.

The old idea of just tasting as much as you can, at as many wineries as possible, has given way to consumer desire for a way to immerse yourself in romanticised aspects of the wine-country lifestyle.

That world in which wine tasting was a matter of “tasting as much as you can, at as many wineries as possible” is a world well lost.
But, of course, what each of us thinks is a “good life” differs and so wineries are all in on creating a tasting room experience that resonates with their brand image.

The decor of some reinforces the idea of wine as an expensive luxury, while many smaller producers have opened urban spaces in downtown Napa, Sonoma and Healdsburg designed to express their winery’s ‘personality’…

Others opt for hands-on activities or a casual nature vibe to pull in millennials.

This is a good development I think. It helps wineries with their bottom line which, it is to be hoped, they will invest in wine quality. It makes wine less of a commodity by giving people a personal connection with the wine they drink and boosts direct-to-consumer sales—surely a better wine experience than what you find at the supermarket.  And it’s the only way many talented winemakers, who don’t have a vineyard or winery set up for receiving visitors, can flourish.

The down side, however, is that in striving for “personality”, “activities” and downtown tasting rooms, we lose connection with the vineyard and the region. There are few places more pleasant than a winery but it’s the gently sloping hills covered in vines, old stone walls, and rusting farm equipment that make it so. If the connection with the growing of grapes is replaced by “experiences” and “activities” we will lose something essential to the wine experience.

And if wineries are selling lifestyle or experiences how many will continue their dedication to wine quality? (if they have it to begin with) If it’s not just about the wine, I worry that the wine will take a back seat.

At least in the days of standing around an old barrel covered with bottles using a floor drain for a dump bucket, it really was about the wine—there was nothing else for it to be.

Wine Review: Winesmith Meritage Lake County 2013

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winesmithFrom Clark Smith’s Postmodern Winemaking laboratory, this wine is a focused study in what is meant by “minerality” in red wine.

“Minerality” is a source of great controversy. It was seldom used to describe wine 20 years ago. Then it entered the lexicon as a way of capturing the “wet stone” or “burnt matchstick” aromas in Riesling or Chablis. Today, “minerality” also refers to red wines with a crushed rock or gravel aroma and an angular, chalky texture which doesn’t come only from the tannins but seems to be carried by hi-toned acidity and sometimes followed by a citris-like snap or electric spark on the finish.

We sometimes describe fruity wines which are fermented to dryness, with little residual sugar, as “sweet”. This is a cross-modal metaphor since sweetness is a taste, not an aroma. The flip side of that is wines that exhibit this non-fruit character which we could describe as having “olfactory dryness” although this phrase hasn’t caught on. Think of minerality as a dry earth character—not wet like mushrooms, barnyard, or freshly turned soil, but earth stripped of organic material.

This Merlot-dominated Meritage with a healthy dose of Cabernet Franc (13%) prominently displays this minerality especially on the palate. It shows deep, black cherry aromas with sage and provencal herbal notes associated with the south of France, yet dry as if desiccated by weeks of desert winds. A subtle background caramel note reminds you this is California fruit.  On the palate, that juicy California fruit provides a soft, rich underbelly that moves and stirs in its prison, then sits quiet as stone quickly succumbing to a taut, ascending line of acidity, which plies the upper register where twangy guitars hang out with sultry sopranos. Sandy, persistent tannins provide context adding to the feeling of a hot night on a lonely desert highway.

Most California Meritage plays in the lower register, basso profundo. This one is all atmospheric twang, the in-betweenness of California and France, which is after all what postmodernism is all about.

Pair with Deep Red Bells by Neko Case, who does dry desert sounds as well as anyone.

Technical Notes: Fruit sourced from Diamond Ridge Vineyards in Clear Lake, pre-malolactic micro-oxidation,  aged 51 months in neutral French oak.

Review based on a industry sample.

Score: 92

Price: $40 (Purchase Here)

Alc: 14.5

Misunderstanding Biodynamics

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cowhornBiodynamics is a rapidly growing method for farming wine grapes, although it is still a small part of total production with less than 11,000 hectares of certified vineyards world wide as of 2017. Essentially it involves viewing the farm as an integrated ecosystem, focusing especially on soil health using homeopathic preparations, and with all vineyard operations regulated by the celestial calendar and phases of the moon.

Yet it has a reputation for being flakey, weird, and unsupported by science. The science behind it is still a work in progress. But many experienced and talented winemakers—from Littorai’s Ted Lemon to Tomas Duroux at Margaux’s Chateau Palmer–are committed to it, so it’s anything but flakey. Weird? Well yes it is. But some of that weirdness comes from misunderstandings about biodynamic processes that look less “weird” when the details are understood.

Craig Camp of Oregon’s Troon Vineyards is one of those talented winemakers committed to biodynamics. His recent post entitled “Biodynamic Fake News” goes a long way toward setting aside some of those misconceptions. His entire post is worth a read but here are the highlights.

— Cow horns filled with manure are not buried throughout the vineyard. They are a container for fermenting manure which is then used to make a preparation applied to humus to increase available phosphorus and stimulate the microbiome. (Micro-organisms in the soil. )

–Moon phases are only one factor in determining the timing of activities in the vineyard and are not rigidly adhered to if weather or other factors must take precedence.

–Neither raw manure nor unusual plants such as yarrow and nettle are directly distributed throughout the vineyard. They are fermented and added to compost which is then distributed in the soil to enhance the microbiome.

–The calendar for winetasting is not a required part of the Demeter certification and may or may not have validity.

There is much more in the original post. But what is evident from Craig’s account is that the treatments of the compost are largely about enhancing the micro-organisms in the soil. There is considerable science that is beginning to show the influence of the microbiome on terroir and wine quality. The scientific credentials of biodynamics may in the end be vindicated by this research.

The “mystical” dimensions of biodynamics are not central to its practice and should not be used to dismiss it as nonsense.

Budget Wine Review: Cavaliere d’Oro Chianti 2017

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cavilieri d oroCavaliere d’Oro is Treasury Wine Estates’ new Italian line, which features  a portfolio designed to bring wines from various regions of Italy under a single brand. This Chianti is sold under the Gabbiano trademark,  the iconic, Treasury-owned brand that is the #1 selling Chianti (by volume) in the U.S.

How does this new offering differ from the basic Gabbiano? It’s a very close cousin, but a bit more richness in the mid-palate, accomplished by adding 10% Merlot to the blend. It is a classic Chianti with the trademark sour cherry and baked earth aromas but supplemented with a pleasant licorice or anise note. On the lighter side of medium bodied, the palate is spare but juicy with an acid-driven finish which pushes out a citrus-like note as the fruit fades. The tannins are soft but with the angular acidity provide some rusticity familiar to Chianti lovers.

At a slightly higher price than the basic Gabbiano, it offers a bit more flavor and softness without sacrificing character. Nothing revelatory but If you’re a fan of cheap Chianti it is surely worth a try. The sour acidity of cheap Chianti always brings to mind twangy country guitars and fiddles. Dwight Yoakam’s Guitars and Cadillacs keeps me hangin’ on.

Score: 85

Price: $10

Alc: 12.5%

What Do You Sell When You Sell Wine?

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vineyard-3619525_960_720The form of the question suggests that wine is more than wine, more than an alcoholic beverage.  In thinking about the problem of slowing growth in the wine trade and questions about who is buying, who isn’t, and how wineries ought to respond to market conditions, it occurred to me that we can’t answer these questions unless we pay attention to the many things that wine is.

For many people, perhaps the majority of wine drinkers, wine is a commodity, an alcoholic beverage alongside other alcoholic beverages, that is affordable, pleasing to consume and will get you buzzed enough to relax. For others, the pleasant taste and alcohol is a stimulus to conviviality and good cheer, something you drink at parties to encourage a particular kind of social interaction. For these consumers, (call them “buzz babies”), much of what they are trying to accomplish can be achieved via other beverages. One might have a preference for wine over beer or vice versa but substitution is usually an option. And for this consumer price really matters. Alcohol is alcohol and as long as your threshold of drinkability is met, you’re not going to pay more.

But for others, wine is primarily an accompaniment for food. It enhances a meal and the meal feels incomplete without it. The effects of the alcohol matter as well but it’s the food enhancement that distinguishes a good experience from a mediocre one. This consumer (let’s call them “food freaks”) even when looking for an everyday, hassle free experience, will be more selective than the buzz babies. Particular meals will require particular wines. and not just any wine will do. And of course for some interested in food enhancement, choice of wine becomes a carefully managed puzzle to get the pairing just right. For food freaks, substitutability of one type of alcohol for another may not be possible. Although there are foods that go well with beer or spirits, and cocktails can sometimes be precisely calibrated to dishes, wine is widely acknowledged to be the superior food accompaniment. For food freaks, they may be willing to pay more for a bottle because they must be more selective, and a poor choice can have a negative impact on the food.

The next step up on the wine chain is the “casual connoisseur”. She enjoys the alcohol and food enhancement but also enjoys learning a bit about wine, will go to wineries regularly because she enjoys the winery experience, and may join a wine club. She is known to sip wine just to appreciate the flavors, aromas, and textures. There is no substitute for wine for the casual connoisseur, and although not into wine enough to spend big bucks she will splurge on occasion just to enjoy the experience.

The casual connoisseur however is also prone to suddenly falling head over heels for wine and transforming into the “compulsive connoisseur”. This person will study tomes devoted to obscure Italian wine regions, track down rare vintages for which she mortgages the house, and practices blind tasting with vials of synthesized aromas. Vacations are more accurately described as pilgrimages. (Most of you reading this blog will recognize the type). Price sensitivity is determined solely by the size of the bank account and the only substitute for a wine will be a better wine.

Then finally there is the status seeker who buys wine in order to display wealth or cultural capital. Price is not an obstacle but is the point of the purchase.

My point is that wine markets include a lot of diversity and on questions such as ability to raise prices, the profitability of direct-to-consumer sales, and strategies for increasing sales will depend on the category your customers occupy.

Yet operating behind the scenes for most of these wine consumers is a particular image of wine that subtly influences purchases. This image has at least three inter-related components.

1. Wine is a symbol of refinement. It is a beverage that aspires to elegance and requires the recognition of nuances in order to appreciate it. Wine is also typically consumed in contexts where there is an expectation of good behavior and respectful conduct.

2. Wine is  symbol of the sweet life of conviviality, good food, and good taste–a simple life of everyday pleasures where the benefits of community and romance are acknowledged and acted upon as a matter of routine.

3. Wine is an expression of place. Artisanal wines are rooted in the geography and culture of a particular people and are an expression of their sensibility.

When you sell wine you are selling the image of wine as well. Discussions of the future of the wine industry, prospects for growth, and strategies for overcoming obstacles have to take this image into consideration. Strategies that undermine this image are unlikely to be successful.

For more on the philosophy of wine visit my Monday Column archives at Three Quarks Daily

Are We Prematurely Panicking about Selling Wine to Millennials?

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millennialsThe Internet is abuzz with discussions about the latest report from Rob McMillan of the Silicon Valley Bank on the current financial state of the wine industry. According to the most recent data, baby boomers are aging out of the wine market and millennials, short of cash and more focused on cannabis, cocktails and beer, aren’t picking up the slack. The result is slowing growth rates for wine consumption in the U.S. The worry is that millennials (age 22-37) are turned off by wine and its sometimes stuffy image signaling a long-term trend that will harm the industry.

No doubt wineries face an immediate problem if consumption is slowing. But I’m wondering if it is realistic to expect millennial consumption to be the solution.

I doubt that wine has ever been the drink of choice for most young people. It’s expensive and less efficient as an alcoholic delivery system than beer or spirits. Cheap wine is one dimensional and not very interesting. Yet appreciation of better quality wines is not only expensive but requires some experience, education and appreciation of nuance. Wine’s charms are often best appreciated with fine food consumed at a slower pace, and it’s a symbol of the good life and for some people elevated social status.  In other words, the wine experience is more likely to appeal to people as they mature.

This is not to say that wine can’t appeal to young people. Only that as a statistical generalization it is less likely to appeal to them. The median age of the millennial cohort is about  29 years old. That’s a bit young to be jumping wholeheartedly into wine.

The wine industry for the past few decades has enjoyed rapid growth largely supported by baby boomers. Yet the baby boomer generation got a late start in appreciating wine. I didn’t have a lot of time to dig for data today so I couldn’t find an analysis of how much wine was consumed by baby boomers when their median age was 29. Buy I’m quite sure their consumption was meager.

The baby boom generation today is aged 54-72 so they were born between 1947 and 1965. The median boomer was born in 1956 and so she was 29 years old in 1985. It is highly unlikely that 29 year old was supping much Chardonnay.

Why? Well, we know that in the 1980’s alcohol consumption, including consumption of wine, was plummeting. These were the Reagan years, “Just Say No to Drugs” was  the message, and hedonism wasn’t on the table. All of that changed in 1991 when 60 Minutes aired an episode on the French paradox—the French were notorious wine drinkers with a diet high in fat and cholesterol yet they enjoyed low rates of coronary disease. The hypothesis was that red wine was the source of their good health. (It probably wasn’t the cause but it was a good story)

As you might imagine, the French wine industry promoted the hell out of this story, rates of wine consumption skyrocketed even while alcohol consumption continued to diminish, and the rest as they say is history. Obviously, we cannot draw secure conclusions from one historical case. But it does show that 29 year old behavior is not destiny. The boomers were late to the party but when they arrived it became a celebration.

What seems stuffy at 29 can seem exciting at 35. When I was 29 I believed you couldn’t trust anyone over 30. It’s funny how that changed overnight.

There is little reason to think millennials–who after all pursue experiences rather than things, love to travel, and have already shown an interest in authentic food–will not embrace wine when they become more settled. That is, unless the neo-prohibitionists persuade them otherwise.

 

The Art of Wine: Coturri Winery Petite Sirah Mendocino County 2016

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coturriToday, natural winemaking is the avant-garde of the wine world. That’s ironic since prior to the 1950’s most wines were made without pesticides in the vineyard, cultured yeast, or any of the additives now common in the wine industry. Located in the rugged hills behind Glen Ellen, Tony Coturri started making wine with his father on this property in 1963. Even then they were bucking the trend toward industrial winemaking,  growing organically, using natural yeast with no added sulfites, and no fining or filtering. Tony told me it was cheaper and easier to make wine the old fashioned way—just crushing, pressing and bottling. He’s now an icon of the natural wine movement since he was doing it long before most of the current crop of natural winemakers were in diapers. coturri2

Selling natural wine before there was a natural wine movement was not easy. In the 1980’s Tony would often hide his production methods from potential buyers lest they worry about exploding bottles from revived fermentations. But eventually that art of making natural wine that appeals to conventional tastes earned him plenty of customers along with the respect of none other than Robert Parker, who in the early 90’s gave Coturri wines good scores on several bottles.

It’s not hard to see why Parker liked these wines. The current trend among natural winemakers is to pick early before the grapes get too ripe, keeping alcohol low and emphasizing fresh fruit flavors. But Tony bucks this trend as well. His wines have plenty of fresh fruit but most of them, like this Petite Sirah under review, are explosive with massive, ripe fruit flavors and great depth.

coturri3But before I get to the Petite Sirah we should consider the issue of ageing natural wines. Natural wines with no added sulfur to act as a preservative have a reputation for not ageing well. There are of course many natural winemakers who don’t make their wines to age. But Tony opened a 1984 Pinot Noir and I brought a 1985 home—both were still vibrant and delicious. The 1985 was loaded with dried porcini mushroom aromas, good fruit power, clean, bright acidity and just a whisper of tannin. So much for the assumption that natural wine won’t age.

As for the Petite Sirah, it’s a glorious melee of generous berry aromas, fig, coffee, cinnamon and a prominent scent that hovered between sassafras and licorice—very intense and striking.

The palate opens with bold, dense blackberry progressing to a rather gentle, elegant midpalate with port-like flavors, and a penetrating finish that is surprisingly acid-driven. Petite Sirah is known for mouth-ripping tannins, but two years in barrel have tamed the beast. The tannins are broad and chewy with good length yet supple and fine grained. All this textural refinement happens beneath persistent, hi-toned acidity that gives the wine a tense, taut line from the opening through the citrusy punch on the finish.

The beat of dark blood–powerful, elegant, edgy, funky—it has an volatile, apocalyptic personality, fiercely euphoric with the mood shifts of a diva. Pair with the relentless, post-punk, otherworldly atmospherics of The Clash, London Calling

Technical Notes: From Poor Ranch Vineyard, vines average over 30 yrs. old, certified organic, elevation is 1176 ft., aged in used French oak.

Score: 93

Price: $35 (Purchase Here)

Alc: 14.5%

To Attract Millennials Try Offering Real Value

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sticker shockBusiness of wine guru Rob McMIllan, founder of Silicon Valley Bank, published his annual summary of the state of the U.S. wine business last week. Despite record breaking sales capping off many years of steady growth, according to the report, the rate of growth is slowing and the future looks challenging. The basic problem:

Baby boomers, who control 70 percent of US discretionary income and half of the net worth in the US, are moving into retirement and declining in both their numbers and per capita consumption.

and:

Millennials aren’t yet embracing wine consumption as many had predicted. Damaged financial capacity is a major contributor, but cannabis legalization is another factor explaining their slow adoption of wine.

Recent negative reports about wine and health, consolidation of distributors making it difficult for some wineries to find a market, the continued emergence of Big Box stores’ private labels, and the increasing cost and declining supply of labor are among the additional factors dragging down growth rates.

But the main issue is aging baby boomers and disinterested millennials, who seem to be embracing craft beer, cocktails and cannabis rather than wine. The Great Recession of 2008 delayed the career prospects of the millennial generation just as they were entering the job market. That loss of income and job experience, coupled with massive student debt and expensive housing in urban areas, will limit their disposable income for many years thus creating strong headwinds for sales of premium wine.

That trend runs up against the pricing strategies that wineries have been using the past few years. Consumers have shown they are willing to pay a bit more for a bottle of wine. Sales of wine under $10 have been flat or negative for some time, while sales have increased in the premium market. So what did wineries and retailers do? They raised their prices without necessarily improving quality. The wine that used to cost $8 now might cost you $12-$15. Of course, not every winery was able to raise prices but enough of them had sufficient market clout to do so and the strategy acquired a name—premiumization.

But that doesn’t seem like a wise strategy if you’re trying to sell wine to cash-strapped millennials. Might that have something to do with their reluctance to embrace wine? $15 is a lot of money to pay for the simple, sugary cough syrup that the big distributors are putting on supermarket shelves. Allegedly, millennials are into experiences rather than things. The only experience many so called premium wines offer is boredom.

Rob McMillan predicts premiumization has run its course and wineries will struggle to raise prices. A return to real value might be a good idea if it’s not too late.