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Alcohol level: In a historic shift, they may be going down

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Throughout most of wine history—certainly from the Middle Ages in Europe forward to our own times—the challenge to vintners in most regions and years was to increase wine’s alcoholic strength, and thus its body.

We had, for instance, Burgundians and the Bordelais blending into their own stuff, not just wines from the more southern regions of France (where warmer temperatures let the grapes get riper) but even from Northern Africa, particularly, following the phylloxera disaster, from Algeria, in order to—as the Globe and Mail says“surreptitiously…pump up anemic bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy.” Bordeaux was called “claret” [“clear red” — my interpretation] by the Brits for a good reason: it often was “a dark rosé” rather than a true red wine.

Why “surreptitiously”? Because tinkering with wine has always been a no-no, and the notion of terroir, however it was thought of a thousand years ago, always has been integral to man’s appreciation of wine. I don’t know who first uttered the cliché, “Wine is made in the vineyard,” but something similar seems to have been understood, at least tacitly, long ago.

Well, the French don’t have to pump up their wines anymore, especially with global warming. Now, for the first time in human history, the problem is exactly the opposite: How to lower the alcohol in wine. As this scholarly article from South Africa confirms, the issue isn’t just limited to here in California (where some groups, such as In Pursuit of Balance, have made it controversial). The article, from the trade journal WineLand, assesses that, “Over the last few years, pressure is internationally applied to produce wines with lower alcohol,” stimulated in part by a U.K. study that found that “28% of the respondents were concerned about the alcohol content of the wines they buy.” The writer made the further distinction—vital, from a production point of view—that, while consumers want to drink lower alcohol wines, they want them made “without the addition of water or using alcohol reduction technology.”

Now, it is patently difficult to make low alcohol wines—let’s say, the “12.5 to 13.5% [that] have…become popular,” according to the WineLand article—in wine regions, like California, that are sunny and warm. You can do it—but then you run into the problem, as Esther Mobley, the wine columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote about last Sunday, of green, pyraziney wines. And whatever else consumers want, they don’t want to drink wine that smells and tastes like cat pee, asparagus, boiled broccoli, green bell peppers or any other of those veggie traits.

What then are these warm areas to do? The WineLand article suggests “certain policy decisions” that have to be made, beginning with a shift away from varieties, like Chardonnay, “which require high alcohol concentration,” to be “replaced by cultivars like Riesling and Malvasia Bianca.”

Beyond that, the article recommended fairly standard viticultural and enological practices, among them terminating the fermentation process “to leave sufficient residual sugar for better balance in the wine with a lower alcohol content.”

These would be pretty drastic steps for a winery to take, especially in America, where Chardonnay is and long has been the top-selling variety. Americans have voted with their dollars that they are not willing to substitute Riesling, much less Malvasia, for Chardonnay. They also don’t want (for the most part) residual sugar in their white wines, at least, any more R.S. than they’re already getting. As for reds, what varieties would compensate for Cabernet Sauvignon, the other top seller? We all know Cabernet needs a certain degree of ripeness to succeed—especially if the winemaker vows not to use intrusive alcohol reduction methods, such as the spinning cone. It’s all well and good to celebrate, say, Corison, but let’s face it, Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles or most other places is not going to be achieved lower than 14.5%–and in general, if that’s the number on the label, you can assume it’s higher. (I always make that assumption.) So I’m not sure how helpful it is for arguments like this to be put forward. It puts winemakers in an insanely impossible situation: literally between a rock and a hard place.

My hunch is that this “pressure internationally applied to produce wines with lower alcohol” is a temporary phenomenon. Consumers are rightfully concerned about the amount of alcohol they put into their bodies, but they also want (or say they want) fruity wines. And fruitiness comes, in California, at a cost. So, as sometimes happens when you poll consumers (or voters), you get mixed, contradictory and conflicting messages. Politicians can split the difference using rhetoric: winemakers, who must actually make wine and not just talk about it, can’t. Their wine either will be ripe, or it won’t: one taste (or sniff) will tell all.

I do think the moment of pushing the high alcohol envelope has been reached. Winemakers have gotten the message: This high and no higher. I also think vintners should be thinking of ways to get lower alcohol while still preserving ripeness. But I don’t think Malvasia or Riesling (or Beaujolais) are wave-of-the-future wines in America, good as they can be. The taste of consumers goes in cycles. Wineries that pander to the cycles usually don’t survive. Wineries that stay the course, do.


Chalone Doldrums

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It has been terribly sad, for a veteran wine guy like me, to witness the trials and tribulations of Chalone Vineyard over the years. When I first got into this racket, in the late 1970s, Chalone was respected as one of the pioneering Pinot Noir houses in California. Bob Thompson, in 1980, gave it four stars—his highest ranking—and said the “splendidly isolated winery…under direction of Richard Graff” was producing “one of California’s closest challengers to red Burgundy.” That same year, Olken, Singer and Roby, in The Connoisseurs’ Handbook of California Wine, praised this “much revered winery” whose “best [wine] continues to be superb.” Even fifteen years later (1995), Jim Laube, in California Wine, was praising Chalone’s Pinot Noirs as “great wines, capable of long aging,” but a hint of critical negativity was beginning to creep in: the wines, Jim added, “are also austere and often tannic to a fault.” The cracks in Chalone’s reputation were showing.

That accorded with my own experiences of the wines; the highest score I was ever able to give a Chalone Pinot Noir was 90 points, for the 2004, although I always found the Chardonnays richer and better. It’s fair to say, I think, that by the new Millennium, Chalone had firmly fallen out of favor among critics as a producer of great California Pinot Noir, eclipsed as it was by dozens of top houses extending from Santa Barbara County on up through the Anderson Valley (and, beyond California, to the Willamette Valley).

What was the problem? My own suspicion always was that Chalone, located politically in the Monterey County town of Soledad (think: Salinas Valley chill) but physically situated 1,800-2,000 feet up in the eastern Gavilan (or Gabilan) Mountains, was too hot a place for Pinot Noir. It might have been thought of as a “coastal” growing region, but it really wasn’t; Chalone’s own website describes the vineyard as “Region IV” in warmer years, a temperature span that U.C. Davis defines as measuring up to 4,000 degree days per year, which is suitable, says the website CalWineries, not for Pinot Noir, or even Zinfandel for that matter, but for “Malvasia [and] Thompson Seedless.”

On the plus side, the Chalone AVA soils are pockmocked with limestone (as they are at Calera, not too far away), and the nights are quite cool, with a diurnal swing of as much as 50 degrees. But those summer daytime high temperatures can be brutal. To my way of thinking, the hot climate and exaggerated U.V. sunlight at that altitude make the grapes develop thick skins—hence Laube’s “tannic to a fault.” The wines lacked delicacy and charm. And over the past twenty years or so, rugged tannins—once the darling of critics, whether in Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay or Pinot Noir—have fallen out of favor.

Poor Chalone suffered, too, in its ownership. Long held by Diageo, after the original founders passed from the scene, Chalone seemed to descend into a netherworld of three-tier doldrums. It maintained a visible presence in the marketplace, not, unfortunately, by dint of quality, but through the force of Diageo’s marketing and advertising budget: most of the major wine and food magazines ran frequent “advertorials” on Chalone (and Diageo’s other California properties, including Beaulieu and Sterling); I should know, because I wrote some of them. When a wine writer is paid to write an advertorial (which never reveals the writer’s byline), he must think of pleasant things to say about the wines: not so easy, in Chalone’s case.

Therefore it was not surprising to read, yesterday, that when Diageo sold a portion of its wine portfolio to Treasury, Treasury “turned down the offer to buy Chalone.”

Why? It’s true that Treasury didn’t want or need tons more Chardonnay, which Chalone produces plenty of, to add to its portfolio. Still, the snub added insult to injury. Now, Diageo, which pretty much wants out of the wine business, is seeking to sell Chalone to someone else.

Exactly who that someone else might be cannot be known until a buyer steps forward. Chalone is a large winery (166,000 cases last year), making it difficult to absorb if not indigestible; and, as Shanken News Daily also reported, given that it has “lost steam over the last few years,” why anyone would want it is a good question. Chalone does still have a strong brand presence, particularly in off-premise markets such as supermarkets. Throw in some recipe cards and manager’s specials, and the cash flow would seem to be there, provided the retail price is right. So I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Chalone by any means.

But we have seen the last of its glory days, which are rapidly disappearing in the rear view mirror. Could someone come along and resurrect Chalone to greatness? I really don’t think so, and it’s not just the terroir. Like Beaulieu, like Sterling, like so many other once-boutique wineries that got caught up in the corporate shuffle, Chalone made the decision to go for quantity over quality. That decision, once made, tends to be irreversible.


18 tips for wineries on better communication

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I’ve been doing weekly tastings at Jackson Family Wines for a while now, and part of that is buying non-JFW wines to include in our [blind] tastings, and preparing printed information for my fellow tasters on technical matters about the wines.

For this, I turn to three sources: the front and back labels, the winery website, and any tech sheet the winery included in the box.

The labels are usually pretty useless. The one piece of data they do offer—because they’re required to by law—is alcoholic content by volume. I don’t know why so many wineries make this so hard to find. Often, they print it in light-colored ink so it barely registers on the label, and then they use the tiniest type size possible. You should see me twisting and turning the bottles, holding them up under a bright light, trying to find that magic number. Another, related problem is that, if there is an alcohol number listed on the website or tech sheet, chances are 50/50 that it’s different from the number on the bottle. (I always go by the number on the label.)

Maybe most people don’t care about such stuff, but I do, and I think most other critics do. I think also that people who are serious about wine, and are willing to drop a bundle on a good bottle, like to know about the wine’s origins and winemaking. So here are 18 tips, respectfully submitted, for wineries that actually care about their customers, rather than simply making a few bucks.

  1. Always have your new vintage wine/s on the website. Always. No exceptions, no excuses. There’s nothing worse than a website that’s out of date. It’s disrespectful to your audience.
  2. Have a link somewhere to “technical information” or “more information about this wine” or whatever you want to call it.
  3. Don’t make users search for that link like they’re kids looking for the Passover afikomen.

Put it upfront. Lots of winery websites put the link on their “buying” or “shopping” page. I don’t like that. A critic/writer who’s looking for that information shouldn’t have to click all over the place to find it. Every winery website should have a link right at the top of the homepage about “Wines.” That link should lead directly to a listing of the wines, with the tech info connected to them, or just a click away.

  1. What technical information should be there?
  2. Suggested retail price
  3. Alcoholic content [and it should be the same as on the label]
  4. Case production
  5. pH and acidity
  6. Grape sourcing. If it’s a single vineyard, tell us where the vineyard is: Not just “Russian River Valley” (we can see that from the label), but where in the valley? Situate the vineyard. Don’t say just “a cool corner” but exactly where? Sebastopol Hills? Green Valley? Occidental? Westside Road? East of 101? It matters.
  7. If the wine is a blend, tell us which vineyards contributed, and where they are.
  8. Describe the vineyard/s. What is the elevation? The orientation? What are the soils?
  9. What clones or selections constitute the grapes?
  10. What is the age of the vines?
  11. Fermentation techniques: tell us about your regime: barrels, percent new, malolactic, time in wood, stem inclusion, the precise cépage. I don’t need a laboratory analysis, but these above details are helpful.
  1. Who owns the winery? Include a bio.
  2. Who is the winemaker? Include a bio.
  3. What is the full contact information?
  4. How may the wine be purchased?
  5. If you send someone a bottle of wine, especially a writer, include a tech sheet in the box. I don’t want to hear that your fulfillment center won’t do that. If they won’t, hire another fulfillment center.

I have particular annoyance with wineries that try to convey the impression of snobby exclusivity by having a website that offers nothing but an email form to contact the winery. Too good to talk to us? Remember, fame is fleeting. What the right hand offereth, the left hand snatcheth away.

All of these are commonsense things to do. The wine industry is a service industry: we serve the public, not the other way around. It’s a mark of respect for your consumers, for wine writers and for the industry in general to be open, informative and transparent, both on your website and on your tech sheet.


The struggle of small wineries

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This is a sad story, told by the Vancouver Sun, about a small British Columbia winery’s legitimate fear that it may get squeezed out of the market. It’s the same old story: Getting harder and harder to compete with the big wineries in shelf space, distribution and price.

When I read a tale like this, my heart goes out to the proprietors. It’s never been easy to sell wine (in either Canada or the U.S.), but it’s getting more difficult. I can’t imagine how emotionally upsetting it must be to put your heart and mind into building a small family winery, then find yourself in danger of losing everything, through no fault of your own.

There are a couple ways small wineries can fight back. One is, obviously, to focus on direct sales. Everybody I know is doing that, but it’s an uphill battle. DTC is trickier than it sounds. You can’t just build a website, start tweeting and Facebooking, and expect customers to flock to your door. It takes years of continuous effort, and even then, there are no guarantees. Of course, if you’re located on a busy road in a popular wine region, you can sell a lot of wine out the door. But not everyone is, especially in a place like British Columbia.

Nor is getting shelf space any easier, particularly in smaller cities and towns and more rural parts of the country. I suppose there’s some motive for a store to sell the local wines, but there’s probably more profit for them to sell distributor’s wines from large wine companies. Here in California wine country, I know that local markets do try to stock the local stuff. But the fact is that small family wineries generally have to charge more for their wine than a big wine company.

Here’s a shocking statement from the Vancouver Sun article: it costs [small wineries] somewhere between $10 and $12 to produce a bottle of wine. If the price point drops below $17, a lot of them are going to be squeezed out of business.” It’s not clear to me if that “below $17” price point is wholesale or retail, but either way, those little wineries up in B.C. seem like they’re facing almost insurmountable odds against them.

In California, small wineries can get away with charging a higher price than they can in British Columbia, but even so they face a dilemma: Do they go up against the popular premium-priced wines from big wine companies (which is virtually impossible, and would probably mean they’d have to sacrifice quality)? Or do they produce a quality wine that costs more than a comparable wine from a big company? There will always be consumers that prefer to buy a wine from a smaller winery, even if it’s more expensive than they want to pay for, simply because it’s a small winery.

But the majority of American wine drinkers are looking for something affordable, and that’s exactly where the big wineries have the upper hand. With their economies of scale and ability to sink their profits into better farming and technology, the big wineries seem destined to grab more and more of the profits.

The only way out—and fortunately, it’s not a complete fantasy—is this current “artisanal” or “craft” movement we see that happened first in beer, then spread to spirits and, finally, wine. It’s wonderful that consumers, mainly younger ones, are committing themselves to products they sense are authentically made by smaller producers. This is not entirely a guarantee of quality, of course, but there is a sense in which small producers understand that the only way for them to compete with the majors is to make wines so good that consumers will happily pay a premium price for them. Of course, there’s an equivalent challenge for big wineries: they, too, have to be artisanal, or at least present the image of homegrown.


When it comes to wine, why do we think less is more?

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In reading about the great Eastern religions, I’m struck especially by the Taoist notion of wu-wei: “inaction.” Joseph Needham, the British sinologist, defined wu-wei as “refraining from activity contrary to nature.”

When I read that I thought of two things: First, it reminded me of the maxim, so popular today in some winemaking and critical circles, of minimalist technique. The allegedly artisanal, or natural, method of winemaking stresses a less-is-more school in which winemaker interventions are kept to a strict minimum. Many wineries promote the concept as part of their marketing. Google “minimalist winemaking” and go through the search results: you’ll see many familiar names.

The other thing I thought was that the concept of “natural law” has been used wickedly by ideologues and religionists for years in order to persecute behaviors which they find objectionable, because they think that such behaviors are “contrary to nature.” Whenever I hear that, it makes my blood boil. Who defines this “nature”? What is the source of this “nature”? Who’s to say what’s “contrary” to it and what isn’t?

Call me skeptical. Many things that are uttered sound good on the surface, but when you scratch below the surface you begin to see the contradictions pile up. A winery may boast of its “minimalist approach” but—not only do we have no real way of knowing what goes on in the cellar—we also have to wonder what’s so minimalist about pruning, using commercial yeast, barrel fermentation and aging, sur lie aging, pumping over, sulfuring, racking, and so on. Tom Wark, some years ago, blogged on this topic, remarking that “Those currently pushing the idea of ‘Natural Wine’ think they may be on to something transformational and important when in fact what they have done is mistaken the tail of the dog for its snout.” (The quote is courtesy of John M. Kelly’s blog.)

I think most people would agree that “doing nothing” is a silly idea, both in winemaking and in one’s life in general. Wu-wei has, of course, been exaggerated in the Western mind over the last century or two (ever since sinology arose as a serious pursuit) into the image of the robed monk sitting in full-lotus on some Himalayan cliff, subsisting on a teaspoon of rice a day. (Who cooks the rice anyway?) In order to live, you have to do things, and doing implies making judgments about what you ought to do, what’s the right thing to do, and how to prepare yourself for the consequences of your action.

These things are obvious. So why are we so attracted to this idea of “minimalism” in winemaking? We would not trust an automobile manufacturer that bragged of its minimalist approach to production. We might have a taste for minimalist art, but we would not condemn a highly-articulated painter—Renoir, say—for his acute detailing. I, myself, enjoy a film or television show that is decidedly not minimalist: True Detective, for instance. And minimalist restaurants that charge $150 for a decorative configuration on a huge plate? Not my style.

But when it comes to minimalist winemaking, people get all wet. I wonder why that is?


Not all small wineries are cool. Not all big wineries aren’t. Read on.

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When is a “big brand” not a big brand? Is Apple a “big brand”? Sure it is, but everyone loves it. We don’t hear complaints about Apple not being “craft” enough to satisfy the most demanding of users. Somehow, Apple has managed to be a financial behemoth while still retaining the allure of the brilliance of the garagiste creativity that the two Steves, Wozniak and Jobs, embodied.

I think about such things because for a long time I’ve thought that some critics and tastemakers celebrate “small” for the hell of it, and by the same token bash “big” because they think anything big has to be corporate junk. Well, as I just tried to point out, Apple lends the lie to such thinking. Now, I get paid by a big wine company, Jackson Family Wines, that occasionally comes under criticism from some gatekeepers who say that a big wine company can’t produce fine artisanal wine. I think you know where I stand on that. Then I read this article in The Spirits Business talking about Diageo’s contention that consumers are not necessarily rejecting spirits produced by big companies (such as Diageo) just because they’re produced by big companies! Diageo makes such spirit brands as Barterhouse, Old Blowhard [love that name] and Lost Prophet which, I suppose, their marketing people want customers to think are made in a garage by a couple of bearded wild guys who take no prisoners and insist on the most artisanal processes, which, to judge by the impression I get from the coverage of wineries, breweries and spirit producers in magazines like The Tasting Panel, is all the rage these days among Millennials who insist on “authenticity.” The designation “craft,” whatever that means, seems to imply just this sort of little guy David fighting against the gigantic monster of corporate Goliaths. What Diageo replied is this, in the words of their CFO: I don’t think Millennials are that bothered [about craft labels], but they do want authenticity. I do not see people rejecting big.”

Nor do I. Purists and ideologues might reject “big” for its own sake; consumers clearly don’t. A “big” wine company can also produce limited-quantity “artisanal” wines; what’s so intellectually indefensible about that? This raises the question of “transparency” which, alongside “authenticity,” is one of the two reigning monarchs of our marketing era. If somebody buys Old Blowhard, do they know it’s from Diageo, which also owns Smirnoff, Tanqueray, and Ketel One? I don’t know and I don’t care. What should Diageo do, put a giant skull and bones warning label on the bottle and say, “Beware, this is from Diageo”? If consumers care about such things, they can find out anything they want to know about anything in about 30 seconds using the Google machine. But most people want simply something great to drink that they can afford.

Which leaves us with the definition of “authenticity,” as used by Diageo’s CFO. What is “authenticity”? I don’t know. Do you? I like this quote from a Diageo guy who works on the spirits side: “As for what is or isn’t a ‘craft spirit’, that’s up for debate… not all small distilleries are craft, and not all craft distilleries are small.”

Amen. I’ve had awful wines made by tiny little producers. I’ve had fabulous wines made by wineries owned by giant corporations. I think this distinction between “artisanal” and everything else is a fabrication concocted by some people with agendas, and picked up by a gullible media looking for something cool to write about.


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