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Concerning those controversial .wine domains

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I’ve been watching developments for the last few months concerning these new .wine and .vin Internet domain names. Not closely, just sort of casually. I knew there was some controversy about them, but I wanted to keep an open mind, and besides, who has the time nowadays to research every complicated issue of social, economic or technological policy?

So it was that yesterday’s big article (by my old friend Chris Rauber) in the San Francisco Business Times really grabbed my attention.

“Noted wine regions, including Napa and Sonoma, protest new .wine Internet domain names,” the headline screamed. In addition to the Napa Valley Vintners and Sonoma County Vintners, those opposed to the proposed domain names include the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association and—in other states—the Willamette Valley Wineries Association, the Walla Walla Wine Alliance, and even the Long Island Wine Council.

Pretty impressive lineup. These are power players. I know the California regional associations quite well from my many years of rubbing elbows with them; with the power of their member wineries behind them, they possess clout. And they’ve been joined in their opposition by some powerful Congressional representatives: Mike Thompson (one of the senior Democrats in the House) and Anna Eshoo.

I can’t remember a time when so many regional associations joined forces publicly in opposition (or in support of, for that matter) a pending issue. So I figured I ought to look a little more deeply into what’s going on.

At first blush it makes sense to carve out .wine and/or .vin domain names. We all know the Internet is running out of domains and has been for years.

This is why ICANN, the corporation in charge of domain names, added additional ones to the more familiar .com, .org, .gov, .edu and .net—because “the internet—or .com at least—is running out of space. So many names on .com are taken that people and businesses have to struggle to find a suitable one.”

Enter .wine and .vin.

Two years ago, ICANN, in response to the problem, announced it would accept applications for additional domain names. It got nearly 2,000, many of them contested. ICANN decided to auction off the non-trademarked domain names to the highest bidders; the first auction was a year ago, and brought in over $9 million, through the sale of such domains as .club, .college and .luxury.

So what’s the problem with .wine and/or .vin? After all, even the U.S. government approves of the auction plan, which, after all, is an expression of classic free market principles. Last March, an agency of the Commerce Department declared that “ICANN is uniquely positioned…to develop the transition plan” toward a new set of domain names. Although the department urged ICANN “to convene global stakeholders to develop a proposal” for the transition—an encouragement to compromise and conciliation—the wine associations aren’t buying it.

Rauber writes: They “contend that ICANN’s plan includes ‘non-existent to grossly insufficient safeguards from illegitimate companies’ hijacking their names, histories and legacies. They claim ‘unscrupulous’ bidders could grab web names such as napavalley.wine or wallawalla.wine and in effect hold them hostage.” A spokesman for the Napa Valley Vintners told Rauber, “[H]is organization fears the proposal would ‘provide a new playground for nefarious actors to poach the place names of famous wine regions around the world.’”

These are serious and legitimate concerns. Nobody wants to see a situation wherein some for-profit wine company buys the rights to, say, “napacabernet.wine”, thus misrepresenting itself and its association with venerable Napa Valley. Napa “has had our name ripped off” before, the Napa Vintners spokesman said (most of us remember when and by whom that was!) and isn’t about to let it happen again.

You’d think that ICANN and other legal entities could address the concerns of those opposed by building in rights and protections for stakeholders, and that’s exactly what ICANN has proposed to do. They’ve created a “Legal Rights Objections (LRO)” mechanism by which disputes can be resolved when someone objects to “a third party’s application for a new TLD [top-level domain].” Negotiation is more or less normal operating procedure in our era of contention and litigiousness, but the wine region associations remain unconvinced, and certainly they have a point when they fear they’ll be forced to spend a whole lot of money, either on lawyers or on buying back the rights to names they want.

This is a sticky one, and I have to admit I’m not sure which side I come down on. What do you think? Should .wine and .vin be up for sale to the highest bidder?


Let’s hear it for emerging wine regions

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It’s gratifying to see such a well-written and informative article about Sonoma County written for a Chinese audience (albeit an English-speaking one?).

While there are some technical inaccuracies, writer Euan McKirdy largely got the details correct in her story, which was published yesterday in the South China Morning Post. (It’s funny that, there as well as here in the States, wine articles are relegated to the Lifestyle section. What’s that all about?)

We hear often about a certain naivete when it comes to Chinese comprehension of California wine; they are supposed to know the Big Names, and Napa Valley, of course, but in the conventional wisdom, the Chinese are woefully ignorant of the rest of California.

That may have been true in the past, and may still be the case among millions of Chinese emerging into the upper-middle classes. But McKirdy’s article proves that the level of journalism provided to Chinese wine lovers is on a rapid upward trajectory. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you know that Sonoma is not exactly an “emerging” premium wine region; it emerged some time ago. But these things are relative; it depends on your knowledge base. One person’s local wines are another’s emerging discoveries.

I Googled “emerging wine regions” and got interesting hits. From askmen, which seems to be an online pub for all things guy, I got this list: England, Brazil, Canada, Greece, Romania, Ukraine and Switzerland. A few years ago, another online pub, Food Republic, published this list of emerging wine regions: Istria (Croatia), Guerouanne (Morocco), Virginia, Montevideo (Uruguay) and Sopron (Hungary). I like the regional specificity. The International Business Times wrote an article called “Beyond Napa: The Best Emerging Wine Regions in America,” and on their list are Walla Walla, the Texas Hill Country, Traverse City (Michigan), Loudoun County (Virginia) and the North Fork of Long Island. That also is a very interesting list. I’d love to do comprehensive tastings of these regions, if only I had the time!

Are there any emerging wine regions in California? I don’t think so. We know which appellations do the best, which provide good value, etc. I don’t see anything out there just waiting to be discovered. Anyway, it’s wonderful that so many countries in the world are tinkering with wine. It’s also wonderful that consumers are getting interested in them, and writers are writing about them. The world is rapidly shrinking, which is good news and scary news: scary for wineries, because competition, already fierce, is only getting fiercer.


The new Cali acreage report: Chocolate, vanilla and strawberry continue to rule

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The 2012 California Grape Acreage Report is hot off the presses and the most noteworthy fact is that white winegrape acreage is down from 2011 while red winegrape acreage is up, but just barely: a mere 274 acres, about a tenth of one percent over 2011.

This actually continues the trend of the last ten years: acreage of both red and white varieties has remained nearly constant since 2003. To put this into perspective, in the ten years prior to that (1994-2003), white winegrape acreage increased, albeit only by about 5 percent, while red winegrape acreage during the same period soared, nearly doubling, from 142,000 acres in 1994 to 263,000 acres in 2003

What I make of this, in broad sweeping terms, is:

1.   White winegrape varieties have remained fairly constant in acreage for twenty years because growers know that consumers are buying pretty much as much white wine as they’re capable of.

2.   Growers planted a boatload of red varieties from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s because all the evidence pointed to increased consumption of Cabernet Sauvignon, in particular. Between 1995 and 2003, Cabernet acreage increased by 174%, a greater percentage than any other major red variety. (I think we also can assume that lots of white winegrape vines were budded over to reds.)

So why have the last ten years seen a virtual moratorium on new plantings? It’s puzzling. Maybe a closer look at the data will give some answers.

Of the red varieties, all of the following are down in acreage, since either last year or since 2003: Zinfandel, Merlot, Grenache and Barbera. This suggests that growers believe these varieties don’t have a future (although individual wineries, of course, will continue to specialize in them).

These varieties are up since 2003: Cabernet Sauvignon (+12%), Petite Sirah (+103%), Pinot Noir (+89%) and Syrah (+27%). These are the varieties growers feel are likely to increase in consumption.

The only major white variety that significantly increased in acreage over the last ten years is–you guessed it–Pinot Gris. It’s up 380%, although the starting point was low. Pinot Gris now has 12,473 acres planted in the state, and is poised to overtake Sauvignon Blanc (14,911 acres, and dropping) as the #3 most widely-planted white variety, after Chardonnay and (sigh) lowly French Columbard.

The inescapable conclusion is that California growers are conservative. They plant what has been selling and what they believe will sell. Of course, the public doesn’t necessarily listen to growers; consumers, always a step ahead of the experts, drink what they want. Growers didn’t see Moscato coming, which is why plantings of the various Muscat varieties in California shot up from 2011 to 2012. Nor did growers see Pinot Noir coming before 2004’s Sideways. After that phenomenon, they planted it ferociously.

Still, there’s no escaping the fact that California continues to be basically a chocolate-vanilla-strawberry state when it comes to red and white wine. And that’s a situation unlikely to change anytime soon.


Appellating an area tends to restrict the range of varieties grown there

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Was chatting yesterday with Matt Dees, the talented young winemaker who’s doing such a great job with Bordeaux varieties (as well as Syrah) down at Jonata Wines, in the Ballard Canyon part of the Santa Ynez Valley. A handful of local wineries and growers have petitioned the TTB for a Ballard Canyon appellation (which they tell me they expect to be approved pretty soon). They’ve formed a Ballard Canyon Wine Growers Alliance whose website says “…the Alliance feels that the focus of the AVA will be Syrah and its Rhone counterparts, such as Grenache, Mourvedre, Viognier, etc…”

 Well, Jonata also makes Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, not to mention Sangiovese and Sauvignon Blanc, which are hardly Rhone varieties, so I wondered how Matt (who’s an integral part of the Alliance) felt about promoting it as a Rhone zone. Pretty good, as it turns out. “We’re making our own history, writing our own rules, learning what that little AVA does best,” he told me, adding, “and it’s obvious to me it can do a lot of things well.”

No doubt most appellations can do a lot of things well. Napa Valley used to make everything from old field blends to Johannisberg Riesling, Gamay and Pinot Noir, and from what I remember, most of them were pretty good. It’s fashionable today to say that Napa is “inappropriate” for many varieties, but that’s not really true. What’s true is that the conventional wisdom has shifted from “We can grow everything in Napa” to “Napa’s only good for a narrow range of varieties.” So the majority of the varieties Napa used to grow are long gone.

Who wins and who loses under such a scenario? I suppose you could say the consumer wines, because she has access to some of the greatest Cabernets in the world, now that Napa’s become a virtual monopole. But this has come at two costs: (1) the world will never know what a properly made Napa Valley Pinot Noir tastes like (with certain exceptions, like El Molino), and (2) the monopolization of Napa by the Bordeaux family of varieties has sent prices sky high, well out of reach of the ordinary consumer.

I’m certainly not saying that the Ballard Canyon people shouldn’t specialize in Rhone-style wines. That horse is out of the barn, the wines are very good, and prices will probably be going up. I do wonder at all the wines we’re not able to taste anymore in California. How about Russian River Valley Cabernet Sauvignon? There’s never been much, but Longboard did a fine job. How about Sonoma Coast Sangiovese or Grenache? I bet there are fabulous sites up on those ridgetops, but the Sonoma Coast is becoming a Burgundian monopole (with Burgundian prices), so it’s not likely a vintner or grower will have the audacity to plant much beyond Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.


Napa Valley Cabernet, Russian River Pinot define California greatness

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I love Wine Enthusiast’s database. It’s my brain, with memory: I can barely remember what I tasted 2 days ago, but that database remembers every wine I’ve reviewed since the 1990s. Not only does it remember them, it knows the date of my review, exactly what the score and text were, and–if I entered the data in the first place–what the alcohol was and even the case production.

Those are powerful tools to discern patterns and trends, which are different: A pattern might be, say, that Paso Robles had a particularly good year with Zinfandel in 2010. A trend would be for Paso Robles to have good Zinfandels year after year after year.

If I look at my top-scoring wines over many years, it’s evident that two varieties, clustered into growing regions, really define California at its greatest. Those would be Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (including the Sonoma Coast appellation) and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blends, including all the valley’s sub-appellations.

It’s important for a wine region to have top exemplars. It sets the bar higher for all other varieties and regions, which is vital if a region is to advance, as not all do. Big scores also help to convince skeptics that the region is right up there with the world’s other top wine regions. And they affirm the efforts of those hard working zealots who have labored for so many years. Nobody likes to work hard and have their achievements go unrecognized.

Why Napa should produce such great Cabernets is easy to understand. They’ve been working at it for 150 years. Even if you discount the period during and immediately after Prohibition, when everything was on hiatus, Napa Valley really started getting serious about Cabernet in the 1960s. So they’ve had the better part of 60 years to work at it: figure out the best places to plant (and the inferior places not to), to analyze the soil (which can take decades to properly understand) and combine the right rootstocks and clones to the right blocks, to tinker with canopy management and cropping levels and figure out the most beneficial way to sort their fruit and get it to the winery. And that doesn’t even begin to address the improvements in enology.

Napa’s climate is ideal for the ripening of Bordeaux varieties. Being an extra mountain range (the Mayacamas) inland from the sea than Sonoma County, it has that extra bit of heat. But Napa also has what all inland California coastal valleys have: a pretty fierce diurnal temperature swing. That means that, regardless of how hot it gets during the day, nighttimes cool off rapidly. That’s what Cabernet (and Merlot and Cab Franc and Petit Verdot) need to maintain acidity.

That the Russian River Valley should be so hospitable to Pinot Noir is the surprise of a lifetime, I think, even to the pioneers (some of them no longer with us) who planted it there in the 1960s and 1970s. I mean folks like Joe Rochioli, Jr., Joe Swan, and a couple of others. I don’t think they really understood what they were doing. No disrespect, but they were working more with hopes and fingers crossed than with any foreknowledge of guarantee. But look what they did!

What’s so spectacular about Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is the breadth and depth that it’s achieved in only 40 years. The variety is now widely planted there, from Fort Ross way out (and up) on the coast, through the Goldridge soils of the southerly Laguna Ridges, all the way on up to near Healdsburg, in the northeast. We thus have a wide spectrum of terroirs, with enough wineries in each to make solid generalizations, mostly concerning temperature variations, soil being (IMHO) less important in the Russian River Valley than geographic location relative to the maritime influence.

(I’m still reading and enjoying Allen Meadows’ new book, The Pearl of the Côte, and if I had a dollar for every time he expresses irony or surprise that a particular vineyard performs well despite its soil [i.e. in unexpected, unstereotypical ways], I’d be a rich man. The point being that while much is made of soil and its effects, climate is a much more reliable predictor of wine style.)

No other Pinot region in California besides the Russian River Valley possesses these factors of widespread plantings over a wide region, with a density of producers and a history of production. Not Santa Rita Hills, not Santa Lucia Highlands, not even Carneros. Anderson Valley is beginning to, but it will take a few dozen more wineries to really let us figure it out, and that may never happen, given the peculiarities of doing business in that far-off region, so remote from San Francisco or any other population center.

I feel like Napa Valley and Russian River Valley are California’s Bordeaux and Burgundy. I don’t think that’s too far-fetched. We’re blessed to have such markers to calibrate everything else.


Ever confuse wine varieties? “Not since lunch”

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I’m sure it used to be true, in France, that there were major differences between the tastes of Bordeaux (mainly Cabernet Sauvignon), Burgundy (Pinot Noir) and Hermitage (Syrah). The old wine books, our only and most trusted sources of knowledge of the wines of 100 years ago, tell us so. That heritage–that each region specialized in a different variety or varietal family, and thus the wines they produced were loyaux et constants to their type (in the old jargon, as Allen Meadows reminds us in The Pearl of the Côte)–was handed down to the New World, and particularly to California, where most winemakers from the mid-20th century were devoted to the ideal of being as Europeanized as they could be.

Perhaps it might have been true, once, that California Cabernet, Pinot Noir and Syrah could have been as different from each other as were Bordeaux, Burgundy and Hermitage. If that had been the case, it would have occurred in an alternate universe. For historical reasons, only Cabernet Sauvignon has had enough time on the ground (roughly 150 years) to develop a true style, and that almost exclusively in Napa Valley (as it did in Bordeaux). Pinot Noir is getting there fast, in our accelerated society where everything happens at warp speed (except peace in the Middle East), while poor Syrah still scratches its head, wondering where it belongs, both stylistically and geographically (which may amount to the same thing). But then, in France, too, Syrah has an identity crisis.

I am thinking along these rather incoherent lines because I tasted a lot of wine, blind, on Friday at the Napa Valley Vintners. Although the whites and reds were in separate flights, they were all mixed up together, so that I did not know what variety I was tasting with any given wine. It was pretty easy to tell the Sauvignon Blancs from the Chardonnays, but the Viogniers were more difficult to identify; in some cases, they could have been either. Far more difficult, however, were the reds.

To begin with, they were all good. But the Cabernets, Pinots, Merlots and Syrahs were intermingled, and although I tried to ID what variety each was, I wouldn’t say I scored any better than a “B+” (all right, on the 100-point scale, I’d give myself an 87). Yes, it can be a little embarrassing, especially for a critic (even though I was alone and my blunders were unwitnessed), to unbag the bottle and see that the Merlot I’d liked so much was actually a Pinot Noir; or the Cabernet I found so rich and delicious was actually a Pinot Noir.

But then, this is 2012, not 1922. “We live in a wine world where, for the first time, there are wines that do taste like blackberry jam and are instantly intoxicating…I mean all the wines of the ‘Southern’ regions, the New Zealand Pinot Noirs and California Zinfandels and Australian Shirazes,” writes The New Yorker writer, Adam Gopnik, in his 2011 book, The Table Comes First. He might have added Cabernet, Merlot and Pinot Noir to his “California Zinfandels” that “all taste like blackberry jam” (although I think California Zinfandel is a lot more identifiable as Zinfandel than Cabernet or Merlot are as themselves). If you read into Gopnik’s remark a bit of a back-handed compliment, I don’t think he meant it that way. He was just making a point about the International Style. Still, there is a school of thought that criticizes New World wines for this very sameness that Gopnik describes.

I have never been part of that school, but having an experience like mine at the Napa Vintners does make you think. The fact is, California red wines are becoming more and more alike, across varieties. This is particularly true at the high price end (which is what I was tasting at Napa Vintners), because the alcohol levels tend to be higher (even with the Pinots), because the wines tend to be more extracted (by virtue of all the magic tricks vintners can apply) and because the quantity and quality of new, mainly French oak tends to be greater. Alcohol, extract and new oak: these mask inherent varietal character and push the wines toward one central point of richness and body.

My mentor, Harry Waugh, has perhaps the most famous quote in all of winedown. When asked, in his old age, over a long and illustrious career (among other things, he was on the board of Chateau Latour), if he had ever mistaken Bordeaux for Burgundy, he replied, “Not since lunch.” (Harry’s generation were heavy drinkers, starting early in the day and going all night. Don’t forget Winston’s Churchill’s penchant for brandy upon awakening.) This perhaps suggests that Burgundy and Bordeaux were not all that different even 80 years ago, as the writers said they were; but then, wine writers are trained, with the determination of Pavlov’s dogs, to point out differences between wine regions. At any rate, I always figured if old Harry could own up to confusing Burgundy with Bordeaux, so could I between Pinot Noir and Cabernet.

Nor does it bother me particularly that these red wines are conspiring toward a central point, as long as that point is so complex and delicious. We will, however, see if things are changing. If there is a trend toward lower alcohol wines (a product both of Mother Nature and conscious winemaking choices), then I might go to a Napa Vintners tasting in, say, the year 2018 and actually have my score for properly identifying varieties rise to 95 points. On the other hand, if global warming hits France as hard as it seems likely to, the differences between Bordeaux, Pinot Noir and Hermitage–whatever they used to be–will be further narrowed.


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