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Time for a new sparkling wine AVA in California


The last few months have seen the usual Fall influx of sparkling wines coming in for review, as the wineries try to get their scores posted in time for the holiday season. So this time of the year always gets me thinking about California bubbly.

As good as it is — and it’s become quite good on a world-class level — California sparkling wine suffers from an identity crisis. As everybody knows, sales for years have been flat or down (as they are for sparkling wines of all regions, including Champagne), and if you ask the average, or even the semi-knowledgeable, wine lover what they know about sparkling wine, he or she would probably run out of things to say, beyond “It’s bubbly.” That’s compared to, say, Cabernet Sauvignon, which would likely elicit something about Napa Valley, or Pinot Noir, which might bring forth comments about cool climates and could even turn up references to specific regions, like Russian River Valley or Santa Rita Hills.

But California sparkling wine? Does anybody even know where it’s grown? Does anyone know if it matters where it’s grown? Granted, some might surmise — if they knew — that, since it’s usually comprised of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, it ought to be grown in cool regions. But someone else, equally knowledgeable if a bit mischievous, might remind them that, since the grapes that go into sparkling wine are picked less than ripe, it hardly matters where they’re grown. This is, of course, a specious argument, but it underscores the point that one of the reasons California sparkling wine doesn’t do better with consumers is because they’re unable to associate it with a region or appellation, and if there’s one thing consumers can get their (already information-sated) minds around, it’s appellations.

In Spain (as I was reminded re-reading Tom Stevenson’s wonderful “World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine”), when Spain was told by the EU that the regulations demanded that appellations be linked to specific growing regions, that country shrewdly gerrymandered their various Cava production areas so that all of them, scattered across the nation, can now officially be called Cava. That ploy was taken due to the eccentricities of the EU system which we, in the States, of course, don’t have to care about. But it set me thinking: Why couldn’t California create a new appellation (or American Viticultural Area, as they’re called in America) that would encompass the best sparkling wine-growing regions?

Would it be legal? Well, I think so. An AVA is only an indication of geographic origin. If we drew up a sparkling wine AVA that ran from, say, Anderson Valley (Roederer, Handley) through Sonoma County (Iron Horse, J), Napa Valley (Schramsberg, Mumm) and Carneros (Gloria Ferrer, Domaine Chandon), then down through the Arroyo Grande (Laetitia), it would constitute a defined geographic area. And since AVAs are allowed to cross county lines (e.g. Carneros), that’s not a problem.

One potential problem could be a clause in the TTB’s statutes (the TTB is in charge of granting AVAs) that requires “Evidence that the name of the proposed viticultural area is locally and/or nationally known as referring to the area specified in the petition,” but I think that could be dealt with. It might not be easy, but it could be done, probably using the (admittedly politically-fraught) word “coastal”. Other than that, TTB’s additional requirements, such as evidence of distinguishing geographical and climate features, should present no difficulties. The band of any sparkling wine AVA would probably include U.C. Davis climate regions I and II or (in the case of Napa), lower III, and lie within a 5-30 mile distance inland from the Coast.

Imagine if there were a sparkling wine AVA. The marketing and P.R. firms, and the wineries themselves, would have a ball promoting it. Think of the maps, the brochures; there could even be a special seal on the label. Of course, sparkling wine producers from outside the appellation would howl, but there’s nothing wrong with a little controversy (or buzz, as the case may be). This might even be a good opportunity to get the message across, at long last, that sparkling wine is not just something for weddings and New Year’s Eve.

From the consumer’s point of view, wine buyers really would be the utmost beneficiaries of a new AVA, because they would have one more powerful piece of information at hand when making a buying decision: the best sparkling wines really do come from that narrow coastal strip between Mendocino County and San Luis Obispo County (and I suppose Santa Barbara County could get into the act if they wanted to, if someone in the Santa Rita Hills got serious about sparkling wine, which, of course, they’re not likely to, since a SRH Pinot Noir is worth so much more than a SRH bubbly would be. But that’s another story).

I can’t think of single case in which getting an AVA didn’t help promote its grapes and wines, especially those along the coast that make superior wine anyway. Look at the history of AVAs in California, from Napa Valley through Santa Lucia Highlands and Santa, err, excuse me, Sta. Rita Hills. So, all you coastal sparkling wine houses, how about it? You have nothing to lose but your, uhh, lack of sales. (And maybe TTB would let you continue to use your existing appellation along with the new one, e.g. “Anderson Valley/California Coastal”.)


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Dept. of What were they thinking?

Got a nice holiday greeting postcard from the “Sweet and Fortified Wine Assocation” wishing me best wishes, etc., which was very nice of this trade group I’ve never heard of. I’m always happy to hear from a wine association I can learn more about, but in this case the postcard had no contact information at all. Not a website, not an address, not a phone number, nada. Just the group’s name.

As it turns out, they have a website, but it’s perhaps indicative of the weakness of sweet and fortified California wines in America that they would send a postcard to a critic, without any way of finding out who they are except through Google.

Outlying regions, and their wineries, face uphill odds


Having visited a few “outlying” areas lately — including Suisun Valley and Lake County (twice in the last 6 weeks) — I’ve been thinking about what it takes for a wine region to bust through the clutter and establish itself, favorably, in the consumer’s consciousness.

I call them “outlying” because they are, in two senses of the word: Suisun Valley lies just outside Napa Valley, within Solano County but literally just cross the street from Napa. And Lake County is one mountain range (the Mayacamas) away from Napa Valley, although, as a Lake vintner laughingly told me, when he told a visiting French winemaker that the Mayacamas were mountains, the Frenchman replied that, in France, they would more properly be called hills. And, in fact, when I drove early yesterday morning from Langtry/Guenoc winery, outside Middletown, along Highway 128 to Rutherford, I saw once again how close southern Lake County really is to Napa. A short hop, skip and jump across the Mayacamas and you’re at Pritchard Hill, which is one of Napa’s high-rent districts (Colgin, Bryant, Chappellet).

So how can a new region become known? What conditions must it fulfill in order to hit the bigtime? In my experience, the region must:

– attain a critical mass of wines that have been highly-rated by respectable writers
– be close enough to major transit routes to be easily visited by writers and tourists
– develop an infrastructure of amenities (restaurants, lodging, tasting rooms and other recreations) to provide hospitality for visitors

If you look at California’s best known regions (Napa Valley, most of Sonoma County, Santa Barbara County, San Luis Obispo’s Edna and Arroyo Grande valleys), all three conditions have been met. Even meeting two out of the three conditions can be enough, as the Sierra Foothills shows. It’s close to transit routes (various highways over the Sierra Nevada, and Highway 49, which winds through Gold County). And, of course, there are tons of restaurants and nice places to stay in El Dorado, Amador and Calaveras counties, as well as things to do besides visiting wineries. So even though the wines may not be as good as they could be (IMHO), the region is doing just fine.

Take away two of the conditions, though, and it’s much harder. Mendocino County makes pretty good wines, but it’s a schlep from the Bay Area, and the areas around Hopland and Ukiah lack the fine dining and lodging and overall excitement that wine country tourists seem to want.

Lake County is trying very hard to get on the consumers’ (and critics’) map. They’re pushing wine quality relentlessly, especially in the vineyard, and the wines are beginning to show marked improvement. At the same time, it is a longer drive than Napa/Sonoma (and if you’re talking about the areas around Clear Lake, it’s another 45 minutes beyond Langry/Guenoc). That’s no longer a day trip but a weekender, which eliminates lots of potential tourists.

While I was typing this my friend Scott Carpenter called and during our chat reminded me that without a great sales, marketing and distributor force, it doesn’t matter if you’re making good wine. You won’t be able to sell it anyway. And lots of the wineries in these outlying areas are small family outfits, who find it hard to get distributed. When you think about all the obstacles a little winery from an outlying area has against it — especially in this economy — it’s a wonder they even try. At the same time, in a way they’re able to be more innovative, since they have little to lose by being bold and creative; in a place like Napa Valley, wineries grow more and more conservative over the years, the operative philosophy being: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

In the end, it takes a long time for a wine region to establish itself. Doesn’t happen overnight, which is why I hope the family wineries and Lake County and Suisun Valley are committed to the long haul. At the very least, they should understand that some of us writers are out here watching them and, if there are positive developments, we’ll be the first ones to holler about it. I include the bloggers, too, not just paper reporters like me. In fact, with bloggers and twitterers and all that, the outlying areas and wineries may be able to radically shorten the time it takes to get known.

Dept. of What were they thinking?

Lewis Perdue‘s Wine Industry Insight is reporting (and I don’t think he’s joking) that a British publisher, Kraken Opus, “is currently working on a wine book…that will retail for £640,000, (approximately US $1.12 million).” “The Wine Opus, an 850-page book, will feature the 100 best wineries in the world selected by a panel of as-yet-unnamed judges,” Perdue writes, adding, “Extravagantly thirsty purchasers will also get six bottles of wine from each winery in the book. Only 100 copies of the book will be released. The company says that 25 have already been pre-ordered. Kraken Opus is owned by former Goldman Sachs derivatives and tax expert Karl Fowler.”

I guess the Recession is over! Disclosure: I’ve ordered 3 copies of the book, myself. (I got a deal from Kraken, an unbelievable $3 million for all three.) And I’m announcing the first-ever contest: The winner of the most interesting comment to the following question will win one of those books and a dinner with me! Here’s the question: Why I want to have dinner with Steve.

(Could I get sued for lying? You know I am, don’t you?)

The Oyster Ridge Lesson: don’t send wine too early


It never fails to amaze me how winemakers routinely let others make the decision when to send tasting samples out — even when it’s against their better judgment. But the fact is, too many good red wines are released too soon.

Who better than the winemaker knows when a wine is showing well? Not the marketing people. Not the sales people. Not the P.R. people. And not some CFO whose realm is more in the world of numbers than the palate.

The problems with young wines are manifold. Not being a chemist I can’t explain them that way. But a wine that’s too young can be an unintegrated, rude little thing. (I love that word, “rude.” Another one is “impertinent.”) All its parts haven’t knit, so it can taste too oaky or too smoky, or too sweet in primary fruit, which gives it a jammy simplicity, or too acidic. It can even smell sulfury. Sweetness and structure, you might say, haven’t come together. The result can be most unpleasant.

Sometimes, a critic can fathom that a young wine that’s not showing well has a future. Certainly, if the wine has a history of ageability, that can point you in the right direction. But what if you’re tasting blind? Then all you know is that you’re tasting something that’s rude and unpleasant, and your review/score must reflect that disappointing reality.

I suppose a case can be made for a palate so exquisitely discriminating, so educated and refined, that it would never confuse a wine that was rude and unpleasant and not going anywhere, with one that was rude and unpleasant because it was immature. Perhaps such folks exist among the exalted ranks of M.W.s. But I doubt if anyone has a 100% perfect batting average at this. 

Several examples bring up these thoughts in my mind. One concerned a Williams Selyem Pinot Noir, submitted to Wine Enthusiast years ago in response to a tasting feature deadline. It did not do well in the blind tasting. Months later, when the results were known to all, the winemaker, Bob Cabral, confessed to me that he had not wanted to send the wine out at that time. He’d wanted to hold onto it for (as i recall) another 6 months, but had been overruled by his marketing people, who told him, “We must make the Enthusiast’s deadline if we are to appear in their Pinot Noir issue!” Well, the wine did appear, but with a middling score. “I learned something from that,” Bob told me. “From now on, I make the decisions about when wines go out!”

More recent is the case of the Ancient Peaks 2006 Oyster Ridge red wine, a Cabernet, Petite Sirah, Syrah and Zinfandel blend from Paso Robles. When the winery sent it to me, last January, I disliked it intensely. It was all sour acidity and sweet jammy fruit, and tasted unbalanced, and my score reflected that impression.

Fast forward to June of this year, when I went to Paso Robles for my 106-wine blind tasting. Among the wines in a paper bag was this very one. I gave it a high score, and was, of course, surprised and upset to find out, later on back home, that it was the same wine I’d despised six months previously.

I called the winery. They sent me two new bottles, which I tasted over the course of the next several days. I liked the wine better and better each time. I called the winemaker, Mike Sinor. Had he experienced bottle variation with this wine? No, he said; he’d heard of none from his accounts. It puzzled me. How could my January tasting have been so different from my June and July experiences?

Well, Mike said, after all, the wine had just been bottled in December — a month before it was sent to me. He hadn’t wanted to send it out at that time, but had been overruled, again by others whose motives were different from Mike’s.

Even for a dim bulb like me, I saw the light. In the bottle less than a month! Then undergoing a long, bumpy delivery by truck. I shared with Mike my philosophy: never let the business and finance people make these sending decisions. They should be made by the winemaker! Mike listened deeply, then said that I’d given him the “ammunition” — his word — to insist on making sending decisions himself.

So, memo to winemakers: Don’t let them tell you when to send wines to critics. If you think a few more months will improve the wine, insist on it. Consider it the Oyster Ridge Lesson: send no wine before its time.



* * *

Dept. of What were they thinking?


Alabama is among the leaders of all U.S. states in obesity.

It’s the 5th dumbest state.

Like other southern states, a huge percentage of Alabama’s adult population has less than 9 years of education.

Alabama ranks #4 among states for greatest percentage of its population living in poverty.

Alabama has one of the U.S.’s highest crime rates.

Last year, Republicans introduced legislation in the state Legislature to allow the teaching of creationism and intelligent design “as though they represent accepted scientific principles.” (The bill did not pass.)

Few American states have less to be proud of when it comes to, well, anything, but Alabama lawmakers now have earned extra bragging rights for stupidity. Last week,  the state’s Liquor Control Board banned the label on a bottle of Hahn’s Cycles Gladiator wine as being too racy.


She is a hot little strumpet, isn’t she?

* * *

My cousin, Loretta Weinberg, was just tapped by N.J. Gov. Corzine to run for Lieutenant-Governor in the next election. Way to go, Loretta! We’re proud of you!


The Guv and the Cuz



If you’re a winery — well, a winery owner — how do you know (a) whether or not to send free samples to critics and (b) who gets them if you decide to do it? The question isn’t academic, because this is a real-world issue every winery has to face, especially these days. Why these days? Because every critic I know is being sent more wine than ever before, which I infer, with some justifiable degree of evidence, is because the Recession has convinced winery owners they have to reach out and touch a critic, in order to get those favorable reviews that drive sales.

O.K., fine. So we’ve answered (a). If you’re a winery owner you know you should be sending out review bottles. Which brings us to (b). Who gets them?

Again, the question isn’t just academic. It costs money to send those boxes out. UPS and FedEx aren’t in the shipping business for charity. (And I’m not even counting the cost of the wines themselves.) The P.R. head of a large wine company told me when s/he got the job, s/he discovered the company had been sending freebies to well over 60 so-called “wine writers” across the country. S/he scanned the names and couldn’t even recognize most of them. That number has since been drastically reduced.

What brought up these musings for me was something that happened yesterday. I got a phone call from a guy who used to be the head wine buyer for a big chain store outfit. Turns out he’d left the job a few years back to realize his dream of owning a winery. He called to “connect,” he said. We had a long chat about this and that, and he told me all about his winery project. I’d never heard of the brand. He said he’d send me samples for review, and to keep my eye open for them. I said I would.

Later, he emailed me with the link to his website. I went there. There was a tab called “Press.” I opened it. Lo and behold, what did I see but reviews — some of them 18 months old — from Wine Spectator, Food & Wine and Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine.

Put yourself in my shoes (or walk a few yards in my flip-flops). How does this make me feel?

1. The guy’s been sending samples to the competition for the last 1-1/2 years, but not to Wine Enthusiast.
2. Now here he is, reaching out to me, probably because his sales suck and he needs more reviews so he can cherry-pick the better ones for his advertising and P.R.
3. And he didn’t have the cojones to tell me that he’d been sending to the competition and not to me. Why not?

So I email the guy back, explaining how sad it was for me to discover he’d been sending to the competition, and not to my magazine. I assured him that my disappointment would in no way affect my reviews of his wines (particularly in a blind tasting), only that it made me feel real bad.

He emails me back: “Honestly Steve, I hired a sales and marketing company that handled all of my press submissions…I was told that the Wine Enthusiast was among the publications that would receive my wine for review, but am not surprised to hear that you have not seen the wines before…I have also heard from a few other publications that they had never seen [brand name] before, even though I was under the impression that they had.”

O.K. I take the guy at his word. If that “marketing company” told the guy they would send to Wine Enthusiast and other publications, and then didn’t, they did him a grave disservice. In fact, they lied. And if they didn’t send samples to me because they don’t believe Wine Enthusiast is an “A” list magazine, they don’t know reality.

So, winery owners, if you think you should be sending samples, figure out who’s on the “A” list — it’s pretty obvious — and send to them. (That list, by the way, includes bloggers.) There’s a national “A” list, like Wine Enthusiast, and a regional “A” list, which will vary from market to market. And, owners, if you can afford to send samples beyond the “A” list, there are some very talented, up-and-coming “B” list critics out there, too. A good P.R. person can clue you in to all of this.

Dept. of “What were they thinking?”


I know, I have curmudgeonly tendencies. Hell, not even I take all my complaints seriously. But when it comes to those hard, plastic closures that are meant to look like fancy wax — and baby, I’m namin’ names — I see red, hit the roof, spit bullets — name your metaphor for frustrated anger.

These monstrosities started showing up a couple years ago. I couldn’t tell you the name of the technology, or if all the examples in this post are from the same manufacturer; but I lump them all together as “marketing ideas from hell.” As Sarah Palin might have put it, “Hey, let’s put something fancy-pants on the bottle, so’s we can charge another fifteen bucks, you betcha!” What that person needed — and apparently didn’t get — was the reality check of somebody else asking, “But can they really be opened without risking losing a finger or gouging the center of your palm with the corkscrew.”

Here are the latest 3 culprits. (There was also a Caymus a while back that got me so angry, I told the winery not to send me any more. But we’ve since kissed and made up.)

Westbrook Wine Farm “Fait Accompli”

This is the Fait Accompli 2005 red wine from Westbrook. See that little piece sticking out from the middle of the capsule? That’s where I stuck the corkscrew in. After much twisting and pushing, it finally bit into the cork and went down, but it took a lot of tsouris, if you know what I mean. Then, there was no way to find the bottle’s lip, meaning no place to lever the hook to pull the cork. Eventually, I gave up.


Here’s Audelssa’s 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Note the gouges and tears. When I encountered the same hassle as with the Fait Accompli, I tried to cut through the side of the capsule with a knife. That lasted for about 5 seconds until I realized my fingers were at risk of getting cut. Nor is the capsule capable of being manually peeled off. It just splinters into nasty little pieces that get all over the counter.

V. Sattui

This was V. Sattui’s 2006 Reserve Stock Chardonnay. In some ways, it was the worst of all. See all those deformations on top? That wasn’t caused by me — it came that way. The capsule was as hard as rock. I couldn’t even penetrate it with a corkscrew. At one point I was knocking it against the side of the sink, hoping to loosen it, like the cap on a jar, but not even that worked. After a while, I thought, Wait a minute. Nobody should have to work this hard to open a bottle — not even a critic.

I complained to all the wineries in question. This response, from Westbrook, was typical: “A little warm water renders it as butter. Holding a short blade (side, not tip) horizontally and turning the bottle works best. If this still doesn’t work, let us know.”

Well, Westbrook and everybody else, I’m letting you know. What were you thinking? With all the challenges wine has in overcoming consumer fear and intimidation, now you’re telling people it’s easy as shucking clams? Give me a break.

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