Another Independent Family Winery Goes Corporate

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pahlmeyerConsolidation within the wine industry continued apace this week as the highly-regarded Napa producer Pahlmeyer was sold to wine behemoth E.J.Gallo. These sales of small, iconic family-owned wineries are understandable—the owners want to retire and cash in and companies like Gallo have the resources to make very attractive offers. But I’m always sad when I hear about them.

Of course Gallo, itself a family owned business, can make good wine if they want to. The question is whether they will want to, or will cost-cutting, profit taking and corporate-style decision making take its toll eventually. Someone should do research on the effects of corporate takeovers on wine quality. My guess is that wine quality suffers. Here’s why.

When “big wine”  buys a valuable brand like Pahlmeyer, money flows out. That’s money that cannot be used to make wine. How does “big wine” make that money back? Reducing costs by consolidating employees and production facilities, raising prices, blending in wine from cheaper grapes, using cheaper barrels—none of that is designed to improve wine quality.

But in addition, something less tangible but even more important is lost. Successful, independent family wine businesses such as Pahlmeyer represent vision, hard work, risk taking and a personal investment in wine quality—it’s their baby, their life’s work, and compromising on quality is a painful choice because the family’s identity is bound up with the wine. A wine conglomerate doesn’t have the same personal investment in quality. Gallo has lots of brands. If one isn’t successful, others will be. This is a business decision, not a labor of love. That lack of personal investment makes it easy to cut corners should the need arise.

It’s that personal investment in quality that attracts me to a winery and its products. All things being equal, the product of a labor of love will always have an edge over a bottom line baby. Pahlmeyer wines were never my first choice but I’ve enjoyed them when I’ve had the opportunity to taste them. I no longer feel the same urgency to taste them again.

Wine Review: William Fèvre La Mision Carmenere Gran Reserva Maipó Valley, Chile 2015

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william fevre carmenereInky and deeply concentrated, Carmenere originated in France, a cross between Cabernet Franc and Gros Cabernet. It has largely disappeared from their preferring the warmer, drier climate of Chile where they are committed to this grape.

This wine is caught bobbing between soft and smooth and sharp and unruly. But it all comes together nicely. A highly recommended study in contrasts. Red raspberry and blackberry aromas are animated by a strong dose of jalapeno wrapped in chocolate—a simple but bold nose. That green pepper or wild herbal note is what makes this grape distinctive.

Carmenere is not noted for its acidity. But this wine vibrates with a peppery tang, and a hi-toned mineral seam that draws a contrast with the concentrated, persistent fruit power, rich chocolate and tobacco notes. The initial impression of richness is supplemented by a pointed angularity as the finish unfolds with some bitterness that gives the wine a pleasant but bracing, rustic edge. A dark, burnt wood quality lurks in the background.

Tender and rowdy like Bonnie Raitt Love Sneakin’ up on You.

Technical Notes: 93% Carmenere with a dash of Cabernet France and Cabernet Sauvignon. 13 months in oak. William Fèvre is best known for their Grand Crus vineyards in Chablis but they bought several vineyards in Chile in the early 1990’s.

Score: 90

Price: $22

Alc: 13.9%

Distracted Drinking is a Threat to Your Well Being

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wine drinking at partyAs the holiday season is nearly upon us, two posts caught my eye last week that give really good advice about appreciating wine. At Vinepair, Jameson Fink wonders whether pairing a well-aged wine with food is the best idea for appreciating the wine.

Can food overpower, or even eclipse the pleasures of a well-aged bottle of wine? Pairings are such an enormous part of the lore and baggage of wine that, on its face, this seems a heretical question.

And yet, from Burgundy and Bordeaux to Chablis and Champagne, the greatest aged wines are complex and contemplative. Perhaps it’s better to appreciate their subtleties without disparate, competing flavors spilling across your table.

I agree with this 100%. An appropriately aged wine will give layers of sensations some quite ephemeral that will be overwhelmed and masked by today’s cuisine which often involves bold and contrasting flavors. At the most a bit of aged cheese might bring out some earthy flavors but complex dishes are likely to be a distraction.

And then the Wine Curmudgeon weighs in on when it’s worth it to buy an expensive wine—on a special occasion, when the wine is credibly recommended, and when you have the time and company to appreciate it. This last point is crucial. It’s pointless to buy an expensive wine if you will be distracted while drinking it or if the portions will be too small to gain a full appreciation of the wine. Wines with finesse don’t mix well with holiday parties. Don’t waste your money.

Wine for the Abnormal

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wine education 2I got into wine rather late in life but once bitten by the wine bug I just plunged into it and I’ve devoted a considerable amount of time over the past 20 years learning and writing about wine. In all of that time I don’t think I’ve ever thought wine needed to be simplified or “demystified”. Wine is rich and fascinating and it’s that richness and complexity that has always attracted me to it. I also must say that since getting into wine I have not encountered many people who were snobbish and unapproachable or who thought of their wine knowledge as something to be hoarded and doled out only to the worthy. There are of course jerks in any endeavor but my experience with wine people from retailers to educators to sommeliers to winemakers has been overwhelmingly positive and when I began to learn about wine almost everyone I encountered was willing and eager to share their knowledge.

And so I am always deeply puzzled when I read commentary like Tom Wark’s interview with Elizabeth Schneider,  who recently published a book called Wine for Normal People. She reports on a negative experience she had with an employee of a winery:

With that incident as an apt example, you note to your readers, “Wine is one of the few subjects I know of in which many people in the industry discourage you from learning yet put you down for not knowing stuff.

She goes on to respond to Tom’s prompt:

When I first got started in wine there was a wave of people who were trying to make wine more approachable. It was great. But then the dreaded certification craze began and I think that brought back the snobbery and the information hoarding that I experienced when I first became interested in wine. Movies like Somm just perpetuated the idea that wine people were some other form of life (what so many consider a higher form, which is so ridiculous), and that created a bigger gap between regular drinkers and wine industry insiders.

I don’t want to dispute Ms. Schneider’s experience. It’s her experience and I’m sure she’s reporting it honestly. But “information hoarding”? I can count on one hand the times I’ve encountered someone interested in hoarding information. In the wine world we’re overwhelmed by information and people willing to share it.  Then she goes on to raise a different issue:

The wine intelligentsia is never happy with wines that are palate pleasing, it seems. And they are extremely judgmental of what other people like. Recently I was at an event with a Master Sommelier, and she declared New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc was a vile starter wine that she would never present to her customers. I was so disgusted but then remembered that this is normal for the industry.

Mencia is great, but there’s a reason Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot remain popular: they are tasty to most wine lovers. I will never understand why it’s popular to shun Bordeaux because it’s passé, or something people like or have heard of.

So now I’m just confused. If wine educators are pointing out to novices newly interested in wine that there is more to wine that Merlot and Cabernet, they’re what? Snobs? Or “information hoarders? It seems they are giving information, not hoarding it. They are explaining what makes wine fascinating. Furthermore, why on earth would we expect people who have engaged in a deep study of wine to be satisfied drinking or talking about entry level New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc? If that Master Somm’s customers were experienced wine drinkers who aspired to get beyond what’s available at the supermarket, why would she present them Oyster Bay?

Of course you have to know your audience. If they’re unfamiliar with “starter wines” then you begin there. I’ve been an educator for many decades. If there is one thing I’ve learned it’s that you have to start with where people are. But you also have to take them on a journey. Flattering their current habits or parroting what they already know is not education—it’s a rip off. And the students know they’re being ripped off.

I’m increasingly fed up with this pandering that treats wine appreciation as snobbish and elitist. The constant refrain that people are intimidated and confused about wine is simplistic nonsense and it’s not doing the wine industry any good. It’s exploring the endless variations of wine that makes it fascinating and if you “dumb it down” you will kill whatever spark of inspiration brings people to wine in the first place. Complexity, authenticity, and a sense of place can be appreciated only through experience and education. There are no short cuts, no easy way to master it despite what these “populists” would have you believe.

Of course not everyone who drinks wine will be so curious as to want to explore it. That’s fine. People have different interests and limited resources. Not everyone has the time, attention, or money to take an interest in wine. These are the barriers, not snobbish somms, information hoarders, or timid, confused consumers quaking with fear that someone will disapprove of their taste.

There are many levels of wine knowledge and people will naturally find the level at which they are comfortable. But this discourse that assumes you can gain genuine expertise by reading a book that “demystifies” while sharing entry level wine among friends is an insult to people with genuine expertise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.cgcw.com/databaseshowitem.aspx?id=80647

The Wine World’s Culture of Expertise

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wine scholarFor everyone who thinks wine expertise is bullshit, that there is really no difference between everyday wine and fine wine, and nothing worth knowing about wine that can’t be learned from a $6 bottle of Chianti and a pizza, you should go read Noelle Harman’s post about her experiences studying for her WSET diploma. Noelle spent ten years as a tax attorney before getting the wine bug and she compares her experiences  studying for the bar exam with her new pursuit of a wine education. The bottom line:

The day of the bar exam, I remember being a bit nervous. But I also knew that I’d studied as best I could to prepare for it: 3 years of school, a couple of legal internships, an intense bar review course, and hours of self study. Any jitters I had went away once the exam started – because my confidence kicked in. I wrote my heart out (hardly anybody typed their exams back then!) and I didn’t second guess myself.

You don’t see what your “grade” is on the bar exam, just pass or fail. I passed. And I practiced tax law for almost 10 years.

So far, my Diploma exams have been a different experience. And no, I’m not just talking about the tasting portion (which unfortunately WASN’T part of the bar exam).  My confidence level simply isn’t as high – I second guess whether I’ve studied enough, or studied the right things. During my exams, I’m jittery to the point of uncontrollable hand shaking (seriously!). And when I’m finished, I worry whether I’ve answered the questions as thoroughly as possible.

As she points out, in law school you have to read lots of cases. But all of those cases are subject to a fairly standard analysis. Find the fact pattern, identify the issue, choose the appropriate rule that governs that fact pattern, analyze how the rule applies given the precedents, and draw your conclusion. Rinse and repeat. The law is complex but highly specialized. Since law students haven’t chosen a specialty and because a bar exam couldn’t possibly cover the details of all areas of the law, the focus is on learning how to do legal analysis regardless of specialty. Passing the bar is hard—I watched my son bust his but to do it—but it is a focused domain covered by an analytical procedure. If you do the prep work you will know what you have to do on the exam.

The wine world is organized differently. The facts are diverse and don’t always fall into a pattern. Rules, general principles, are sometimes applicable but there are always many exceptions and special cases with new precedents arising with every shift in the weather or clonal variation. The wine world is made up of a vast number of particular facts about varietals, chemical compounds, soil types, regions, vineyards, viticultural and winemaking techniques, and individual winemaking styles. The only way to know it is to memorize those particular facts. The wine world doesn’t lend itself to a standardized procedure.  And on the advanced certification exams you’re expected to know it all. You never feel confident that you have your arms around it.

The people who have mastered it have mastered something of enormous complexity. Thus, the heart of the wine world is an impressive intellectual culture that constitutes genuine expertise.

The cynic might ask whether any of this knowledge sells wine.  The vast majority of wine consumers know nothing of this intellectual culture and couldn’t care less. But that’s the wrong question to ask. It’s like asking whether literature students made Danielle Steel rich. Obviously not. It’s about culture, not business. But when wine sales continue to plummet and prices retreat because consumers have moved on to some other hot product, it will be that culture that keeps the wine flame burning and the quality producers afloat.

Wine Review: Quinta De Fafide Reserva Tinto Douro 2016

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quinto de fafideIn wine and dating, first impressions can be misleading.

My first impression of this Portuguese blend was that it showed good aromatic intensity and depth. Black Cherry, raspberry, clove and cinnamon surrounded with a penumbra of dark toast were almost intoxicating—but the more I sniff the more I get blasts of tire rubber that come and go.

On the palate it’s full bodied and round up front and when the tannins emerge they are unexpectedly soft and fine-grained, almost cashmere like, which is unusual for Douro reds. But acidity becomes really prominent on the finish pushing the prominence of stony mineral notes just as the fruit power is dying. The final gasp is a disappointing mélange of powder and sour berry. The wine shows good tension from the persistent seam of acidity but its quite linear until the bottom drops out. Firmer tannins on the back end would have given the wine more balance.

The personality of this wine doesn’t come together. Its spicy and flavorful, soft and tender, but then turns irascible as the finish unfolds, like a person eager to charm but just too cynical to pull it off, an attitude captured well by Jenny Lewis on Red Bull and Hennessey.

The price is all over the map on this wine. At the average of $15 there are better options available. For the $23 I paid it’s not good value.

Technical Notes: A blend of Touriga Nacional (60%), Tinta Roriz/Tempranillo (25%) and Touriga Franca (15%), 12 months in new and used American oak barrels.

Score: 87

Price: $15 (ave.)

Alc: 14%

Has the Debate Between Terroir vs. Varietal Been Settled?

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clos de vougeotIn going through some notes for a book on the philosophy of wine I’m writing, I came across an old debate that once defined the difference between new world and old world wines—the relative importance of terroir vs. varietal in explaining the character of a wine.

For much of wine’s history in Europe, especially in France, Italy and Spain, wines were labeled with the region and sometimes the vineyard from which the grapes were harvested. A varietal was never mentioned (except in Alsace) and many of the wines were blends of many varietals. But that presented marketing problems for European wines in the U.S. where Europe’s geography was not well known and the names were hard to remember. As the U.S. began to make its own quality wine in the mid-20th Century, wineries began listing the varietal on the label along with the region, and the rest of the new world followed that practice. The consumer might not know much about geography but at least she knew she was buying Cabernet or Chardonnay. Today even Europe is labeling their wines with the varietal at least for their less expensive bottlings.

Thus, a debate ensued about which was more important—varietal or region? Has the debate been settled? In a word, Yes! Both varietal and region are equally important.

Everyone knows a Pinot Noir from Michigan will taste differently from a Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands. Even Pinot Noir from Santa Cruz will be quite different from SLH even though it’s just down the freeway. Famously, different blocks within Burgundy’s Clos de Vougeot Vineyard make quite different wines. All the evidence suggests that site matters. However, if Chablis were to plant Riesling instead of Chardonnay it wouldn’t taste like Chablis (as we know it). Plant Syrah in Napa and you might get a nice wine but it won’t taste like Cabernet. Most varietals have distinctive characteristics that when properly grown and vinified show their character even when subject to different interpretations.

Of course things are not quite this simple. Production and viticultural decisions from crop load to aging regimen matter as well. You can erase the signature of terroir and with enough effort erase the varietal character as well. Thankfully most artisan winemakers think it’s important to preserve both.

The old world practice of labeling by place rather than varietal was sufficient to sell wine because regulations (when they were followed) guaranteed only certain varietals could be used in specific regions. The consumer didn’t need to be informed that a red wine from Chambertin was Pinot Noir because it had to be by law. That method of marketing would not work in the new world where such regulations are non-existent. But these peculiarities of labeling and regulation tell us little about the relative importance of terroir and varietal. The fact that France, the standard-setter for fine wine for centuries, ignored varietal labeling doesn’t make it a superior practice—it was fine for the French context but inappropriate elsewhere.

As with most things in wine, everything matters at least potentially.

Does Wine Have a Rhythm?

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musical notesThat sounds like a curious question at first. Rhythm refers to the placement of sounds through time. But an ordered pattern of blinking lights might also have a rhythm. Sound is not essential to the concept; anything that displays an ordered sequence through time could have a rhythm. So what is the ordered pattern through time that a wine displays? A wine’s features aren’t displayed all at once. As the wine moves across the palate we sense some of its features sequentially. Usually the fruit appears first, flavor and aroma notes emerge and disappear, at some point we begin to sense the acidity, and then the tannins, and as the wine evolves in the mouth these components expand and contract, jostling for our attention, their relative degrees of prominence fluctuating with differing degrees of duration and acceleration.

So I think wines do have rhythm. The question is does that matter. Is their some relation between rhythm and quality? Music of course has rhythm but there isn’t some type of rhythm that is preferred by listeners. What matters is not the type of rhythm but the cohesion of the rhythmic elements and especially of the musicians playing the rhythm. Yet, in any reasonable complex piece of music, the musicians are not playing the same rhythm. Cohesion is not based on sameness but on variations that seem to communicate with each other. (Listen to Ron Carter and Tony Williams on Miles Davis’ Seven Steps to Heaven for an example.)

That gives us a clue about how a wine’s rhythm matters. As the various components of a wine are displayed through time they do not appear in unison but diverge sharply and may appear to be in tension with the acidity straining to be noticed, the tannins relentlessly becoming more prominent, the fruit power trying to hold onto its dominance. Some wines display a great deal of tension; in other wines the struggle for attention is more reserved and full of finesse. But in any case, in a wine of high quality the various elements are constraining each other, working together at key moments to reign each other in, each providing an anchor that the others play off of. Even a display of searing acidity or chewy tannins seems to hit the mark. Wine critics used to call this the “knit” of a wine which is helpful but doesn’t describe the dynamic element. In the end, great wines have a sense of effortless resolution. All that tension finally settles on a direction with all the contrasting elements finding a balance point that seems complete. No component failed to deliver, but nothing was left exposed and the dominant elements feel properly limited by contrasting elements. The final movement settled into its pocket.

If I had to choose one property of a wine that is the most reliable indicator of quality it would be this sense of effortless, rhythmic resolution. There is no single word to describe it. “Elegance” or “gracefulness” is appropriate for some wines but there are some wild and wooly beasts—a great Amarone for instance–that nevertheless achieve this resolution.

Should We Care if a Warming Climate Changes the Taste of Wine?

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nordic grapesBritt Karlsson in BK Wine Magazine asks “Should we lament that the taste of wines have changed?

That the wines we are accustomed to drinking will eventually change is probably inevitable in the wake of climate change. Some regions may need to change the grape variety, the heat may cause the acidity to drop, etc. This is especially a problem for the winegrowers who may be facing more unpredictable weather.

But for the wine consumers? Is it a problem for us that the taste of the wines we drink changes?

Her answer is no. I’m not so sure. Her argument is based on the fact that the taste of wine has always changed throughout history and we’ve come to accept that.

How did the wines taste before phylloxera hit during the second half of the 19th century? Nobody knows today. …

Those who started drinking wine in the 1970s and 1980s know that there has been a tremendous change in quality and variety since then. And thus, also of taste and character. We drink totally different wines today. Even the wines that come from the same regions that we drank at the time taste quite different today.

In fact, wine consumers easily accept new tastes. Remember when the New World wines emerged in the 1990s. People quickly became accustomed to (and liked) the more powerful and alcohol-richer warm-climate wines.

All of this is of course true up to a point. The vast majority of wine consumers probably won’t care if ripeness and alcohol levels increase because of climate change. They will be happy as long as the wine is drinkable. But connoisseurs and serious wine lovers who support the premium, fine wine market might care if ripeness levels wipe out the distinctive variations that classical wine regions produced. Sure we are happy to drink ripe Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands and inky Shiraz from Barossa. But that’s only because we can always return to Burgundy or the Cote Rotie if we want a different expression. New World wines expanded the variations we can enjoy. Climate change threatens to reduce variation and that will be something to lament.

Of course it may be that as Burgundy gets too hot for quality Pinot Noir we might find satisfaction drinking Pinot from Scandinavia or Iceland. But there is no guarantee that emerging wine regions in the north are capable of producing wines of such transcendent quality as the best from Burgundy, Bordeaux, or Barolo. The fact is that even at the accelerated pace of the modern world it takes decades to develop a wine region. We won’t know for a very long time whether the classic wine regions are replaceable.

The issue is not whether the taste of wine will change. Of course it will. The question is whether the changes enhance or inhibit variations and overall quality. We simply don’t know the answer to that.

So we should probably not be too sanguine about the effects of climate change.