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Global wine shortage could be good news for struggling wineries

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The shortage of California wine is rippling through the system, causing serious if not quite catastrophic consequences.

Winery principles tell me that when their sales forces fan out across the country, buyers are unhappy at the lack of supply and in some cases are personally blaming the winery!

I’m sure that distributors as well as retailers both on and off premise find themselves in an uncomfortable position when wines they’ve sold for years are suddenly unavailable. Of course, the rational part of them knows that no one at the winery is responsible for short crops: Mother Nature is.

But there’s a vein of paranoia that runs through the end users of the three-tiered distribution system like a low-grade infection, and sometimes these buyers can’t be sure if the winery really is low on supply, or is just cutting them out and pretending to be short.

It’s bad for the winery. If buyers feel the winery is shorting them, they might turn to someone else they can get product from, thus terminating what might have been a long relationship.

We’ve all been reading about a wine shortage, for instance here and here, which cites BofA Merrill Lynch that “Global supplies appear to be tightening simultaneously,” with government policies in Europe and Australia deliberately discouraging production, while bad weather in South America had the same effect.

The problem is exacerbated by increasing demand from China for U.S. and particularly California wineries, some of whom are selling a surprisingly high percentage of their top wines there.

Several highly placed producers have openly fretted to me about the shortage, wondering what their companies are going to do. But the truth is, they have few options. They can’t turn to Oregon because crops there run so short due to natural circumstances. Washington has huge, fertile spaces in the east, but that state’s frequent hard winter freezes intimidate California producers, who aren’t used to having entire vineyards wiped out in a single night.

The 2012 vintage, California’s biggest ever, threw the industry a lifejacket, throwing it into temporary balance, but it probably won’t be enough to overcome the result of prior years of below-average crops, coupled with increasing demand. As Gomberg Fredrickson’s Jon Fredrickson told the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium earlier this year, “California ran out of wine.”

The result? Higher prices. The trend is especially notable at restaurants, where by-the-pour prices are inching up. It’s curious that all this is happening just as the country (and world) seems to be emerging from the Great Recession, putting a little more money into the average consumer’s pocket. Are consumers willing to dig deeper for their daily Pinot Grigio and Merlot? I expect they are–and that’s good news for wineries that have gone through the hell of the past five years, and survived.


Include me as another biodynamic debunker

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I have to agree, strongly, with Tom Wark’s take on biodynamic winegrowing from his blog, although I won’t go quite as far as he did in calling it “a hoax.” A hoax is a fraud or, at best, a practical joke–in either instance, it’s something committed by someone on a consciously false basis. I don’t think the practitioners of biodynamism are consciously doing anything phony. I’m convinced they’re convinced of the truthiness of their commitment. In other words, they’re sincere.

But Tom did nail it when he wrote, “Suggesting that Biodynamics is somehow at the forefront of any movement to capture terroir in a bottle is…insulting to many fine winemakers who would never think of adopting Rudolph Steiner’s snake oil…”.

I first became acquainted with biodynamics in some detail when I wrote about Javier Tapa Meza, who then was (and still may be) Jim Fetzer’s winemaker at Ciego Vinegarden, up on the beautiful shores of Clear Lake. It was Javier–a great guy, with a great back story–who first told me all about the cow horns, the phases of the moon, the dung soups and so on.

I was incredulous, and asked Javier all kinds of questions, to which he had ultimately to admit he had no actual proof these things worked. I left that visit thinking that a commitment to biodynamism was more of a religious conviction than a scientific approach to winemaking. That was about eight or ten years ago, and nothing I’ve seen or heard since then has changed my mind.

There are many talented and sincere people practicing biodynamism in California. Mike Benziger, at Benziger Family Winery, is one. They make very good wine, but there are others who profess to practice biodynamism who don’t. And there are dozens, even hundreds of wineries who don’t stick to 100% biodynamic practices that make wine so good, it blows my mind.

So what’s a wine critic supposed to conclude? This: I don’t care how you make your wine. Just make it compelling.

Do I care about the environment? Yes. Do I care about sustainability? Yes. But in the case of wine, I care far more about my actual experience of what’s in the bottle than I do about the political beliefs or agricultural practices of the proprietor. It seems to me that even when wine is made in the “ordinary,” i.e. non-biodynamic way, it’s a pretty clean, green product. Besides, most wine regions have strict local laws concerning runoff, watershed protection, etc., and I know for a fact that growers are loathe to use any chemical insecticides, pesticides or fungicides they don’t have to.

But let’s face it, grapegrowing is farming, and a grower can’t let some religious or spiritual belief prohibit him from saving his crop when mold is about to take it over. That’s the Christian Science way of farming: pray, and hope God rescues your babies. Well, that’s not the way it works.

If there were absolute proof that biodynamic wines are better, I’d be behind this movement. But believe me, there isn’t, so I’m not.


Field notes: Joseph Swan and Jayson Woodbridge (Hundred Acre)

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It’s easy to make a splash in the wine biz in California if you have a few hundred million in spare change to invest in a fabulous winery designed by a famous architect, then hire a famous consulting winemaker, put out a $150 Cabernet that goes on to be the top lot at the Napa Valley Auction or Premier Napa Valley, and then hire a top of the line P.R. firm to spread the word about your fabulosity.

It’s hard to make a splash when your “winery” is a dumpy little wooden barn on “the wrong side of the hill”, you have no budget for P.R. or much of anything else, and you don’t even make Cabernet. But it can be done, and for proof you need look no further than Joseph Swan Vineyards.

I’ve been a Swan fan forever. I began tasting their wines (not for review, for sheer enjoyment) in the 1980s. I still remember a dinner at Chez Panisse at which Swan’s winemaker (and Joe Swan’s son-in-law), Rod Berglund, brought down a bunch of old wines for a tasting, for which Alice Waters prepared a magnificent meal (lamb, if I recall correctly). Those wines had aged perfectly even though some of them were 20 years old. (I covered the winery extensively in my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River.)

I reviewed a bunch of their latest releases yesterday and was again reminded just how good and authentic Swan wines are. Few wineries in California have such a good track record across so many varieties. I’ve given consistent high scores to Swan Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Syrah, Viognier, Chardonnay and even to a Tannat I loved last year. Can you name another winery that performs so well in so many kinds of wine? Off the top of my head, I can’t. The reason, I think, is because Swan is very careful to source their grapes only from the coolest parts of the Russian River Valley, and the best vineyards. It’s also because Rod is a hell of a winemaker. His Pinot Noirs are probably his best wines; I gave his the 2007 Trenton Estate 97 points, and at $52 it’s less than a lot of Pinots that aren’t even as good. You could call it Burgundian because it has such great acidity and a mushroomy thing going on that’s obviously pure terroir, but I think I’m going to stop referencing wines as “Burgundian” because, after all, the correct word to use is “Russian River Valley-an” or “Trentonian” or some other word that’s about our terroir, not theirs.

So kudos to Joseph Swan Vineyards and Rod Berglund. They’re still going strong after all these years.

* * *

I’m headed up to Napa later this morning to hang with Jayson Woodbridge, the owner/winemaker at Hundred Acre, Layer Cake and Cherry Pie. I want to see how his vintage is coming along (and to see him, too. Fascinating guy). We chatted briefly on the phone the other day and he was excited. Now, vintners are always “excited” about the latest vintage, or so they claim when talking with ink-stained wretches like me. I think they’d find something positive to say if an asteroid hit Napa Valley right in the middle of harvest. “The Asteroid Vintage of the Century!” But I agree with Jayson’s take. The rainfall of the first and second weeks of October was a drag and everybody was scared witless by as much as 4 inches that drenched Sonoma and Napa. But they’re dancing in the cellars over the weather that followed: two weeks of absolutely gorgeous, drop dead beautiful weather, dry, sunny and warm. No big heat at all, just mild, breezy conditions that will dry out the ground and the leaves and grapes still on the vine. I think this could be a tough vintage for the coolest coastal locations (Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, for example), where growers could experience mold and unripeness, in addition to severely short crops. But the star of the vintage might just well be Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Meritages, although the best will be produced in miniscule quantities because of this low-yielding year.


Playing with the Grape and Crush reports

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My intern, Chuck, was telling me about a certain Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon we’re both familiar with that, while pretty good, could be better. He said the owner was looking for some Merlot to blend in, to improve it.

“Why Merlot?” I asked. “For softness,” Chuck answered. The Cabernet’s tannins were too raw.

“Why not Cabernet Franc or Petit Verdot?” I said. Based on my experiences, and some reporting I’ve been doing, both these varieties are increasingly popular, especially in Napa Valley, to blend in with Cabernet. I personally thought that Merlot was less resorted to, because it is such a difficult grape to grow right.

Well, in bridge they talk about taking the guess out of the finesse by peeking at your opponent’s cards. In wine, instead of guessing about what’s up, what’s down, and what’s sideways, we can always look it up in the two guidebooks the California Department of Food and Agriculture puts out each year: the Grape Crush Report and the Grape Acreage Report.

I predicted that I thought Petit Verdot was the most expensive red grape variety in California. We looked it up: weighted average dollars per ton: $1,192. A glance of the rest of the list shows that that isn’t even close to being the most expensive. Twenty varieties cost more, including Pinot Meunier, Lagrein and Counoise!

Okay, so my predictive powers as Chuck’s boss were proven to be a total sham. But wait! “Let’s look at District 4 instead,” I said, that being Napa Valley. “I bet Petit Verdot’s the most expensive grape there.”

Flip to page 63 of the Crush guide, and there it is: average price, Petit Verdot, District 4: $4,919. That’s higher than Cabernet Sauvignon ($4,456), Merlot ($2,518), Syrah ($3,015) and Pinot Noir ($2,473)–but not higher than Cabernet Franc, whose average Napa price last year was $5,238.

Still, I could just as easily have pulled a switcheroo with Chuck and said that I bet Cab Franc was Napa’s most expensive red grape, so I considered myself vindicated. The point being that Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot increasingly are being relied upon to complexify (is that a word?) Cabernet Sauvignon. Cab Franc gives, I think, aromatics and sometimes a lovely green note of olives and herbs (in contrast to Cab Sauv’s blackberry fruit), while Petit Verdot adds an elegant structure; it seems to have tannins that are at once smoother and denser than Cabernet’s, which can be prickly despite modern tannin management.

Next I turned to the Acreage Report to see if it jived with the Crush Report. There was in fact a big spike in plantings of Petit Verdot in 2010, but it wasn’t in Napa, as I’d expected; only 18 new acres were non-bearing last year. No, the big increase in California Petit Verdot (59 new acres) was in San Luis Obispo, of all places. It took me about 3 seconds to make the connection: right before meeting with Chuck, I’d been with Scott McLeod, who left Rubicon last year to consult and, possibly, do his own thing one of these days. Scott was telling me about the Adelaide Hills region of western Paso Robles, where one of his clients is located. He predicted, confidently, that this area will become known as a prime source of Bordeaux-style red wines.

So is western Paso Robles where all that Petit Verdot is going? I looked up Cabernet Franc. Only 21 non-bearing CF last year in SLO county.  Where’s most of the new California Cab Franc going? The Sierra Foothills, is where. Once again, it took me only seconds to realize what was going on. Many years ago, more than 10 and possibly even 15, after my first trip to Amador, El Dorado and Calaveras counties, I’d returned home convinced that the best grape and wine up there in the mountains wasn’t Zinfandel, as most would have said. No, based on my tasting, it was Cabernet Franc. I said so and wrote as much. Evidently the growers still believe in it, because between those three counties they had 130 acres of non-bearing Cab Franc last year, about as much as the rest of the state altogether.

This is super-geeky stuff, and I wouldn’t blame anyone from hanging themselves if they even got one-third of the way through reading it. But for some of us, it’s what we thrive on.


Going Rhône in Cabernet country

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I interviewed the great musician Boz Scaggs yesterday, and something he said made me think about how, sometimes, serendipity in the wine business pays off.

My full conversation with Boz will appear in an upcoming issue of Wine Enthusiast, so I don’t want to steal its thunder. The only part I’ll reveal is what Boz said when I asked him why he didn’t plant Cabernet Sauvignon instead of Rhône varieties on his property on Mount Veeder, a Napa mountain famed for the quality of its Cabs and Bordeaux blends.

“I wasn’t aware that it was!” was Boz’s reply. Instead, he put in the Rhônes, and I have to tell you his 2008 Scaggs Vineyard Montage GSM is an absolutely fabulous wine.

I imagine if someone had advised Boz that Mount Veeder was Cabernet country, he might have planted it instead, and the resulting wine no doubt would have been excellent. His property has great terroir, and Boz’s winemaker is the talented Ken Bernards (his brand is Ancien). We then would have had one more good Mount Veeder Cabernet, in addition to other great ones from Kendall-Jackson Highland Estates, Trinchero, Atlas Peak, Yates Family and Cuvaison. But we would not have had Boz’s Montage.

Who’s to say what other varieties could perform well on Mount Veeder, if only they were planted? Sky, a small winery on the mountain (I haven’t reviewed their wines for many years), made an outstanding Zinfandel; I hope they still do. So did Chateau Potelle; their VGS Zin off Veeder was absolutely one of the best in California. I don’t imagine there’s much Zin left on Mount Veeder, though, because it’s a tough sell.

There also used to be a winery, Veedercrest, up there that made one of the best Rieslings in California. It was so good, I bought it by the ton in the Eighties; it was a house fave. I don’t think Veedercrest exists anymore, and I seriously doubt anyone’s growing Riesling on Veeder; in all the years I’ve reviewed for Wine Enthusiast, I’ve yet to see a Veeder Riesling (although I’m sure if there’s any out there, someone will let me know!). If Americans cared about California Riesling, more people would grow it, and Mount Veeder would be a natural home. But that’s not the case.

Chardonnay, by the way, does well on Veeder, as evidenced by the likes of Mayacamas, Y Rousseau and those old Chateau Potelles. They’re steely, minerally Chardonnays, not fat, unctuous ones like you get from, say, Alexander Valley or Santa Rita Hills…the kind of Chardonnays that can take some bottle age and actually improve.

It’s true throughout California wine country that grape varieties that performed perfectly well have been ripped out and replaced, generally by Cabernet, Chardonnay or some other popular wine. I’ve struggled over the years about what to think of this. On the one hand, it’s sad. But on the other, the focus on Cabernet, Chardonnay, etc. has led to amazing progess in the quality of those wines. And if we look at every wine district in the world, they tend to be focused on one variety or family of varieties or, at most, a few families of varieties. Back in the day, Napa Valley had 20, 30 varieties or more, all intermingled. In some ways it was a more interesting period than today, but the wines weren’t as good.

And then along comes a Boz Scaggs, unaware of Veeder’s reputation for Cabernet, so he plants the Rhône varieties he loves instead, and voila! turns out a magical wine. (His Grenache rosé is no slouch either.) It’s wines like those that are so much fun to discover.


Supporting our farm workers is NOT political

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My readers have asked me to kindly refrain from politics here at steveheimoff.com, and I generally do, reserving that kind of stuff for my Facebook page (where we frequently get pretty fierce!). But an article I just read in the Dec. 18 issue of The Economist has got me thinking about the plight of undocumented farm workers (including vineyard workers), and that, combined with the unfortunate refusal of Senate Republicans earlier this month to even consider the Dream Act, has me riled up enough to politicize, just a bit, on my blog.

Actually, I don’t really consider the issue of undocumented farm workers to be a political one, in the sense of partisan politics. I mean, whatever your politics, you have to eat, right? And with at least 40% of all of America’s crop workers being undocumented, mostly Mexicans (with other estimates ranging up to 90%), that means most of what we eat (and drink) has been processed, at some point in some farm, orchard or vineyard, by someone who is sin papeles (without official U.S. papers). (Note: just about all the facts I state here are from The Economist article.)

It has been more or less proven that American citizens will not perform agricultural labor. Only the blindest and most cynical opponents of immigration reform argue to the contrary. Studies show that, of those Americans who are willing to stoop down, bend over, work in unendurable heat and cold, skin their hands to bleeding, break their backs and do other uncomfortable and unhealthy work connected with crops, most of them demand wages and benefits (such as health insurance, pension contributions, paid vacations and so on) that are so high, the price of a head of lettuce would skyrocket to $10, and Two Buck Chuck would cost $8. I think the most disingenuous argument in politics (and there are some pretty disingenuous arguments) is that, if we sent all the undocumented farm workers back to Mexico, their places would be taken by grateful unemployed Americans willing to work for minimum wage. Ain’t. Gonna. Happen.

The Economist article illustrates vividly and compassionately why these people cross the border illegally to come to America. It’s not to “come and dump” babies, as some Republicans have crudely and hatefully stated. Children born on American soil, regardless of their parents’ status, have been considered citizens at least since the 14th Amendment was passed, in 1868; it is true, also, that there are serious rumblings in the Republican Party to undo the 14th Amendment supposedly in the interests of “national security,” but, since “national security” can be used as an excuse for almost anything, you have to wonder why the same people who want to deport all the undocumented workers also want to deny their American-born children citizenship. Can there be other, less respectable motivations going on? Yes, there can.

My main problem with ideologues is that they are so addicted to what they perceive as the correctness of their ideas that they fail to consider the implications of what would actually happen if their ideas were implemented into law. Who exactly is going to tend the fields and pick the crops if the right wing of the Republican Party succeeds in frightening Americans enough to actually legislate some of these wild concepts (not that I believe President Obama would sign them). As for the Dream Act, well, it makes so much common sense, and seems so compassionately the right thing to do, that it was absolutely right for President Obama to vow to continue pushing for its passage in 2011.

As I said earlier, I can’t for the life of me see why this issue of undocumented workers and their children has become politicized to the extent it has. You’d think that a country with the I.Q. of a doorknob would figure out that (a) the undocumented workers aren’t going anywhere, (b) there’s no way to make them leave, (c) most of them just want a better life as do we all and as did our ancestors, (d) our food economy would collapse instantly if they did go back to Mexico (and who would clean our hotels and office buildings?) and (e) if their kids satisfy all the Dream Act’s requirements (brought to the United States before they turned 16, are below the age of 35, have lived here continuously for five years, graduated from a U.S. high school or obtained a GED, have good moral character with no criminal record and attend college or enlist in the military), they’re more likely to be model citizens than a good many kids who were born in this country to legal citizens.

Every time I travel to wine country, I see and meet the workers. The wine industry could not possibly exist without them. I would not presume to ask an owner or winemaker if he or she knows whether all the employees are legal; but I have to assume that some of the workers are not, especially the ones who get hired by the day. The situation as it stands is lousy. These people live with fear and stress of arrest and deportation even as they pick our grapes and radishes and beans. I hope that each one of you, if you agree with me, will contact your Senator and Congressperson, find out where they stand on the Dream Act, and urge them to support it, if they don’t already. And I hope you’ll also find it to your practical advantage, if not in your heart, to support some kind of path to citizenship for the millions of these sin papeles who sweat, bleed and hurt so that we may eat and drink.


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